An interview gone off course
Last Thursday, while filling in for Yaron London on his late-afternoon talk show on Channel 10, the editor of the channel’s foreign desk, Nadav Eyal, interviewed Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
The interview started off well. Eyal asked Bennett about the difficult situation in the North, moved on to the opening of the Knesset winter session the previous day, then to the issue of the so-called “French Law” that MK Dudi Amsalem (Likud) had raised in the Knesset (a law that absolves the acting head of state in France from investigations as long as he remains in office), and then moved on to the High Court of Justice.
Bennett answered sincerely and to the point, even though Eyal posed increasingly challenging questions. It became quite obvious that the basic premises of the two men – interviewer and interviewee – were at great variance with each other.
The calm, businesslike course of the interview suddenly changed course when Eyal shifted the subject to the issue of hadata (religionization) in the non-religious national education system. Eyal had opened the interview by stating that he would not use the word hadata, and the term did not appear in the pictures screened on the background of the studio.
I do not know whether Bennett had conditioned his appearance on the issue not being raised, or whether Eyal was simply aware of Bennett’s sensitivity on the issue, and was trying, in a rather clumsy manner, to slip it in smoothly. Either way, both parties stepped on every mine and booby trap that crossed their way and the rest of the interview proceeded like a dialogue between the deaf.
Eyal showed Bennett three texts from current schoolbooks used in the non-religious national school system (the same books are used also in the religious national school system) that contain religious messages, even though their subject matter has nothing whatsoever to do with Jewish religion or culture. One of them was particularly scandalous – a text in a chemistry book for 11th graders that uses images of “kosher” versus “non-kosher” Jewish weddings (weddings between men and women versus single-gender weddings) – to show when a connection can be formed between molecules and when it cannot.
All Bennett should have done was to say that his ministry is going over the textbooks in which such problems have emerged (most of them, incidentally were published before he became education minister), and that several books have already been changed. He could have added that he is aware of the sensitivity of secular parents on this issue, and that he certainly does not support increasing the mistrust and tensions between the religious and secular sectors of the population (assuming – as I do – that this is what he really feels).
But Bennett reacted differently, ignoring the texts placed before him, while stating that some “Jewish baggage” would do the secular children no harm, and that there will be no “religious coercion.”
Eyal did no better. Instead of pointing out that the vast majority of the secular population has no problem with their children being exposed to Jewish content, including religious content, but that this should come in a pluralistic framework (i.e. that throughout the ages there have been groups that practiced Judaism in different forms and varying degrees of observance) and should not contain messages like single-gender marriages are unnatural or a sin, or that if one does not fast on Yom Kippur one is punished by God, Eyal stepped on another mine.
He raised the issue of religious girls doing national service instead of military service, teaching Judaism, from an Orthodox religious perspective, to children – boys and girls alike – who are raised to do full military service. Bennett’s answer was that the service these girls do is not inferior to military service. Again, the point was totally missed.
The problem is not that some religious girls do national service, which is certainly commendable in itself, and hopefully will be extended in future to large sections of the haredi society and the Arab society. Rather, the point is that courses in Judaism (beyond Bible studies) are not financed (or are only partially financed) by the Ministry of Education, that teachers are not trained to teach such studies in a manner that corresponds with what the non-religious parents believe or are willing to tolerate, and that the national service girls are the most inexpensive, almost exclusive option headmasters have to provide such courses, even though they do not have suitable pedagogic training.
I would have expected Bennett to admit that a problem does exist, and that it is high time that a serious effort be made to resolve it.
I can understand that Bennett does not view the rather radical “Secular Forum,” which includes secular parents, academics and representatives from the education system, as a partner to work out a solution. They blame him personally for the situation, even though the problem preceded him. However, the fact that Bennett isn’t even willing to meet with its representatives is unacceptable, given that his job involves responsibility for all parts of the national education system, not least of all those in which there is parental unrest due to the current situation.
I was disappointed that Nadav Eyal, who is one of my favorite reporters and presenters on Channel 10, did not even try to get the discussion on the issue of the alleged religionization back on track. But I hope that Bennett will nevertheless start dealing with the issue in a more serious manner than mocking it (as he did several months ago) as “hadata shmadata,” which is tantamount to calling it “bullshit.”
And a last comment on something Bennett said on the problem (in his opinion) with the Supreme Court.
Bennett stated that he accepts that democracy is about the balance between the wishes of the majority and the rights of the minority, and that the High Court of Justice has a right to intervene in cases where this balance is broken.
But he then continued by asking in what way the recent ruling of the HCJ regarding the biennial budget is connected with minority rights. Bennett mistakenly stated that the court had prohibited the government from presenting another biennial budget, when all the court said was that if the Government wants the biennial budget as a permanent arrangement it should do so by means of a permanent amendment to the relevant Basic-Law – not by means of a temporary ordinance (Hora’at Sha’a) as has already been done five(!) times, since Netanyahu returned to power in 2009.
Bennett should be advised that democracy is not just about the tension between majority and minority rights, but inter alia also about proper procedures, and a separation of powers(legislative, executive and judicial) that also involves each ensuring that the other two do not overstep the limits of their power. This, to the best of my knowledge, is still what is taught in our national education system in civic studies (Ezrahut), and if it isn’t – should be.