Separation of Church and State in Israel

An article about a public school district in Oklahoma reminded me about an interesting fact I learned in Israel about separation of church and state. The Oklahoma school district has been forced by the American Humanist Association to stop allowing for the distribution of Bibles to students. It’s a familiar story. Students and teachers must sacrifice their individual freedoms in deference to a conceptual group principle enforced by lawyers representing special interest organizations. Aside from the loss of individual liberty, separation of church and state has harmed education by prohibiting schools from addressing spiritual knowledge of any kind, leaving students with the impression that spirituality and religious heritage have no place in the process of being educated. As a result, we are raising a generation of partially ignorant young adults.

Our tour guide gave us a very different view of church-state separation as it’s practiced in Israel. Because Israel is a Jewish state, it’s no surprise that Israeli public schools include Judaism in their curriculum. What is surprising is that public education also allows parents and students to replace the Jewish emphasis with either a Christian or even a Muslim curriculum. Yes, Israeli schools teach Islam. Rather than exclude religion, Israeli public schools allow the people to choose their preference.

So I asked our tour guide, do atheists do? After a moment of being perplexed, he told me that atheism is defined by what it doesn’t believe and that education can’t be about what one doesn’t believe. Because religion provides an important context for learning, everyone must be educated within one of the three contexts. He explained that nobody can be forced to believe the faith aspect, but everyone has a cultural heritage and ought to understand and appreciate it. It’s a refreshing and positive way to avoid indoctrination while still honoring citizens’ beliefs.

It is this kind of practicality of thinking and working that greatly impressed me about Israel. They are so much at risk in their daily existence, that they have little time for misplaced philosophy. They prefer to do what is reasonable. And often, what is reasonable is also what is right.