Pinning of yellow star on 3-year-old reignites Israeli education debate

On April 19, Keren Zachmi’s daughter returned from her kindergarten near Tel Aviv wearing a yellow patch emblazoned with the word “Jude.”

A teacher had put the yellow star on 17 kindergarteners so they would feel like Holocaust victims during Yom Hashoah, Israel’s national Holocaust commemoration day. Appalled, Zachmi took a picture of her 3-year-old with the patch and posted it to her municipality’s Facebook page with a complaint.

“I am utterly shocked and worried about where our kids’ education is heading,” Zachmi wrote.

To be sure, the teacher, who was promptly suspended after the case received national media coverage, was not following the curriculum that the Ministry of Education launched last year with the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum to guide teachers in talking to young children about the Holocaust. And Shai Piron, Israel’s previous education minister, told JTA that the curriculum was “aimed precisely at preventing such cases by giving teacher the right tools.”

But the incident has added fuel to a heated debate among educators, parents and opinion shapers about the appropriate role of the Holocaust in Israeli education.

To some, the expanded focus on the Holocaust builds Jewish identity and prompts students to wrestle with difficult moral questions. To others, a painful chapter in Jewish history is being instrumentalized by an educational system that uses fear to promote ethnocentrism and right-wing politics.

“The teaching of the Holocaust to toddlers is not only inappropriate pedagogically, but it’s part of a cynical policy by Benjamin Netanyahu’s governments that instills fear and entitlement through indoctrination, to raise a generation ready for endless war,” said Yossi Sarid, a former education minister and an ex-leader of the liberal Meretz party.

Strong disagreements about the Holocaust’s role in the national ethos are nothing new in a country whose parliament recently passed a bill that criminalizes calling anyone a Nazi. But in the current political context, the question of whether to teach the Holocaust to 4-year-olds has emerged as a major flashpoint in a larger debate about whether the Israeli educational system is being manipulated to promote religious and nationalist values.

Under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, education ministers have welcomed rabbis from the Religious Services Ministry into schools, taken students on school trips to West Bank holy sites and removed several left-wing teachers from positions of influence. All those actions prompted significant pushback from educators and political pundits, in some cases causing the initiatives to be significantly scaled back or shelved.

The antagonism felt by some critics toward Jewish themes in education “mostly comes with utter ignorance of Judaism,” said Arel Segal, a prominent religious Israeli journalist who last year published a defense of the new initiatives. “They despise something they do not know, they rebel against an identity they know nothing of, and in their ignorance, they turned Jewish themes into a monster threatening to gobble up their children and turn them into obedient subjects of a racist, militaristic state.”

Segal said the criticism was prompted by a fear for the future of secular Israeli culture. But to critics, Israeli education is moving in a dangerous new direction.

Sarid believes a shift took place in the Ministry of Education shortly after Netanyahu’s election as prime minister in 2009. In 2011, Education Minister Gideon Saar initiated a program that brought students on tours of Jewish sites in Hebron, a Palestinian-majority city in the West Bank that is home to the graves of the Jewish patriarchs. A petition by 260 teachers called the plan a “political manipulation.” In 2013, the program was significantly dialed back.

After Piron succeeded Saar that year, he signed off on an initiative that allowed rabbis from a department within the Religious Services Ministry to teach religious subjects in public schools. The effort was intended to “connect pupils to the Bible, flag and nation,” in the words of its director, Avichai Rontzki.

That, too, proved to be a controversial decision, prompting complaints by secular parents and a threat of legal action from the Israel Religious Action Center, an advocacy group affiliated with the Reform movement. In his campaign platform, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog vowed to cancel the department had he been elected prime minister last month.

In an interview, Piron, who led the Education Ministry until last year, rejected the notion that Israeli education was being manipulated for political ends. Piron denied that the ministry favored right-wing politics, noting joint programs with the left-leaning ADAM group and with the Israeli Institute for Democracy, among others. And he disputed claims that humanist values are being sidelined for nationalist ones.

“The Israeli education system is one of the most open in the world, offering pupils a free market of constructive worldviews and ideas — including love of country, people and their faiths,” said Piron, an Orthodox rabbi and member of the centrist Yesh Atid party. “This is called education, not indoctrination, despite what some politically motivated individuals are saying.”

When they headed the education system, left-wing ministers did not shy away from injecting politics into the curriculum. Sarid ordered schools to teach texts by Mahmoud Darwish, the national Palestinian poet, but backed down when parliamentary no-confidence votes over the issue threatened to topple the coalition. And Yuli Tamir, a Labor politician who was minister for three years until 2009, ordered that textbooks show the Green Line, which separates Israel proper from the West Bank, though this, too, wasnot implemented.

But Amnon Rubinstein, another former Meretz education minister, said the religious emphasis has been felt in funding as well, with religious public schools receiving 15 percent over the $3,930 that secular public schools receive annually per student from the ministry. Piron told JTA that he had instituted reforms to help close those gaps.

“There’s a concentrated political effort to introduce religion that started the year Netanyahu was elected and couldn’t have happened on my watch,” Rubinstein said.

Adar Cohen, an education lecturer at Hebrew University and a former Education Ministry official responsible for overseeing civic studies, said the political divide was also felt in debates over pedagogy. In general, right-wing ministers favor generating measurable scholastic results, while left-wing ministers have focused on critical thinking skills and promoting democratic values, he said.

Cohen became something of a symbol of this debate in 2012, when he was dismissed from his post in what some critics charged was a purge designed to remove educators who are perceived to be left wing. Last year, Adam Varta, a high school teacher in the Haifa area, was fired for allegedly suggesting that Israel’s army acted immorally in Gaza.

“Israeli society is becoming more closed, more ethnocentric,” Cohen said. “But then, educators often swim against the current. Many can’t help but teach pupils to always ask questions, even when it’s inconvenient.”

Letters to the Editor: Milk, languages, kindergarten, breakfast, philanthropy

More on Milk

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is restirring a tempest in a glass of milk (“How Kosher Is Your Milk,” June 22). This issue was addressed in great detail in the fall 2007 issue of the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society in the article “The Kashrut of Commercially Sold Milk” by Rabbi Michoel Zylberman. The conclusion of the article:

“In the contemporary situation, there appears to be no credible evidence that a majority of dairy cows harbor adhesions. It is, however, quite likely that a prevalent minority (mi’ut hamatzui) of cows have terefot, such that more than 1.6% of milk that gets mixed together comes from such cows. To date, while a few individuals have stopped drinking commercially sold milk, major kashrut organizations have endorsed the continued consumption of milk, following the implication in Shulchan Aruch that we may assume that every individual cow comes from the majority of cows that are kosher, even if such an assumption contradicts a statistical reality.”

Rabbi Israel Hirsch
Valley Village

A Lesson in Languages

In your June 22 issue’s Letter From Egypt by Al-Qotb (“Egypt’s Election: An Argument Without Resolution”), you identified Al-Qotb (“The Writer”) as a pseudonym for The Jewish Journal’s Egyptian correspondent. Al-Qotb (correctly Al-Kotb or Al-Kootb) means “The Books,” and the Arabic name for anyone who writes is Al-Kaatb or Al-Kaateb, depending on one’s dialect. The proper letter (binyan in Hebrew) to use in this instance is “K-T-B” not “Q-T-B”. There is no equivalence in the English language nor in modern Hebrew for the Arabic letter “Q.” The best illustration would be in pronouncing the Hebrew letter “kaf” gutturally as in the case of the letter “khaf.” Quick pronunciation illustration is in the name of the leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and ’60s, Sayyid Qutb — Qutb could mean pole or region, as in the North Pole or the South Pole, but Kutb signifies books.

Ed Elhaderi
Los Angeles

Kindergartens of Hate

Micah Halpern’s piece is profoundly disturbing (“Finishing School,” June 22). It states that Arab children in Gaza and the West Bank are taught to hate Jews and to aspire only to slaughter them as a duty of their Islamic faith. This despite 20 years of a “peace process” that earned Nobel Peace Prizes for its originators. I suppose the indoctrination of Jew-hatred, not to mention the suicide bombings, rockets and turning children into murderous robots described by Halpern only proves, as then-President Clinton said in late 2000, that “the peace process hasn’t gone far enough.”

Chaim Sisman
Los Angeles

Synagogue Breakfast

Last week’s calendar section mentioned a dog-walking tour for June 24. It did not mention the 20th anniversary breakfast of Congregation Bais Naftoli honoring Zvi Hollander and Dr. A. Richard Grossman. At this breakfast, not only will the Israeli and Hungarian consuls general attend, but also two members of Congress, Sheriff Lee Baca, Supervisor Mike Antonovich, the city attorney and controller, four members of the City Council and two members of the state Assembly.

Why does the canine event take precedence?

Andrew Friedman
Congregation Bais Naftoli

Editor’s note: The Jewish Journal calendar desk did not receive notice about the Congregation Bais Naftoli breakfast. Please send all event notifications at least three weeks in advance to

Philanthropic Teens

It came as no surprise to me that a cross-section of community schools participated in National Conference of Synagogue Youth’s (NCSY) philanthropy project (“Philanthropy Project Puts Teens in Charge,” June 8). NCSY has been breaking down barriers to Jewish involvement for quite some time with creative programs geared to young people from all spheres. 

My wife, Sara, and I [spent] a magical Shabbat with NCSYers at their regional Shabbaton in Woodland Hills recently. The diversity of the participants was amazing. There were kids from public schools, Jewish schools, Yachad for special needs, all singing, clapping, standing on chairs with a thunderous spirit that was inspirational and meaningful.

The philanthropy project was a good chance to bring to light the creativity NCSY displays in reaching out to all kids with the goal of bringing them closer to Judaism.

Ron Solomon
Executive Director
American Friends of Bar-Ilan University, Western Region

An article on a project exploring Los Angeles history (“UCLA Mapping Project Goes Back to the Future,” June 22) did not mention that the “Mapping Jewish L.A.” display of the digital project at the Autry National Center of the American West will be part of the larger exhibition “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic,” scheduled to open at the museum in May 2013.

Temple B’nai Hayim’s Rabbi Beryl Padorr is not retiring (“Ner Maarav to Merge With Ramat Zion,” June 15).

Palestinians committing to jihad as kindergarteners

A recent article posted online by the Al-Quds Brigades—the military wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group—details how children of Gaza set out on a mission of violent resistance against Zionism as early as kindergarten, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reported.

The children, according to the article, are raised “on the love of jihad, of resistance and of Palestine, and on the massacres and crimes of the Zionists—to the point that their lives, even in kindergarten, have become similar to those of the resistance fighters, in all domains, and it is hoped that they [too] will become jihad fighters.”

In the story, a kindergarten teacher is quoted as saying she aims to raise “commanders who will defend the soil of Palestine and Jerusalem,” and a little boy says he plans to carry out a martyrdom operation against Zionists on a bus.

Kindergarten Jihad

I remember my kindergarten graduation. We wore crowns on our heads and had big smiles on our faces. We sang songs, cute songs about the changing seasons and growing up. And then we received our diplomas, had an ice cream party and were hugged and kissed by our loved ones.

It was a traditional early childhood graduation, replayed over and over, year after year, in almost every school.

But then, I didn’t grow up in the Palestinian Authority or Gaza.

Traditions are different in the Palestinian Authority and Gaza. In Gaza this graduation season like in years past, three, four and five year old children marked their big day with ceremonies depicting Palestinians becoming martyrs and by dressing up as Israelis who torture Palestinian men, women and children. Certainly, an educational message was being presented, as it should be at every graduation, but not a positive message. Here it is a message of murder.

These young Palestinian graduates performed plays about slaughter, marched with weapons and wore traditional bandanas. They sang songs of love and they glorified murder. No Palestinian graduation from pre-school through high school is complete without stories, performances and songs about the killing of Israelis.

It is a part of the general Palestinian curriculum and it is a major theme at graduation time. In one school a teacher was quoted as saying: “At every kindergarten graduation ceremony we focus on the children to represent the role of struggling and resistance in the way of Allah so they will grow up to love the resistance and serve the cause of Palestine and Holy Jihad, as well as to make them leaders and fighters to defend the holy soil of Palestine.” That same school’s kindergarten director took it even further: “It is our obligation to educate the children to love the resistance, Palestine and Jerusalem, so they will recognize the importance of Palestine and who its enemy is.”

Even at a tender age, the message is not lost on the students. In their own, translated, words from Ynet ( articles/0,7340,L-4241588,00. html we hear children saying: “When I grow up I’ll join Islamic Jihad and the al-Quds Brigades. I’ll fight the Zionist enemy and fire missiles at it until I die as a shahid and join my father in heaven.’ And: “I love the resistance and the martyrs and Palestine, and I want to blow myself up on Zionists and kill them on a bus in a suicide bombing.”

That’s just one example. The internet and Youtube are full of other examples, some posted by media outlets like Ynet, others posted with pride by Hamas and by general Palestinian Authority sources.

Kindergartens in Gaza are sponsored by Islamic Jihad. But it would be wrong and narrow minded to believe that only Hamas and Islamic Jihad engage in this kind of war mongering cum education, wrong to think that only they transmit this hateful educational message. PA sponsored schools in the West Bank are on board with Muslim extremists when it comes to glorifying resistance and martyrdom – catch phrases for murderous attacks against Israelis and Jews. It is a part of their curriculum, too, it is enshrined in their school books.

Israelis teach about peace and coexistence as a formal part of their curriculum. But for the Palestinian educator, it is easier to teach hatred than to talk about peace. Idealizing mass murderers and calling them defenders packs much more emotional punch than does talk about co-existence. And when Palestinian children march with toy guns and accompany mock coffins, when during their ceremonies they play ‘Kidnap an Israeli Soldier’ they are cheered on by older children they admire and by adults they respect.

It is hardly education. It is indoctrination. And what happens when these educational goals and objectives are challenged? What happens to the

Palestinian family that does not think that the only good Israeli is a dead Israeli? They are labeled as collaborators, as people who have sold their heritage for money. They often have to seek refuge and sanctuary outside the Palestinian Authority, they are no longer welcome within.

Graduations, we are told, do not signify the end, they embrace a new beginning. We do not conclude, we commence. How frightening.

Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. His latest book is “Thugs: How History’s Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World through Terror, Tyranny, and Mass Murder” (Thomas Nelson)

Parents Don’t Kid About Day Schools

After extensive research, campus tours, a detailed application and an interview, Aidan Buckner was recently accepted into the school of his choice. While his parents may have done the legwork, it is Aidan who will enter kindergarten at the Ronald and Trana Labowe Family Day School at Adat Ari El in Valley Village this fall. The 5 1/2-year-old seems unfazed by the upcoming transition, but for his parents, the news marks the end of a long journey.

“We put Aidan on the wait list at Adat Ari El and Valley Beth Shalom when we moved [to Sherman Oaks] when he was 1 1¼2,” remembers Denise Buckner, Aidan’s mom. Since that time, Buckner has gone to numerous day school open houses over the years, sat in on classes and spent countless hours making school-related phone calls.

“I [visited the schools] every year because I felt every year I learned more about who my son was and what kind of person he was,” Buckner said.

Like many Jewish parents in the Southland, Buckner knew she wanted her child to attend Jewish day school, but the process of selecting a school and getting in proved nerve-wracking at times.

With the shaky reputation of local public schools around Los Angeles, many families look to day schools for a solid education. While Jewish schools are eager to accommodate young students, class size limits can make the process feel cutthroat.

Samara Fabrick, a licensed clinical social worker on the Westside, remembers the competitive vibe she felt last year when looking at schools for her 6-year-old son Zachary.

“I kept having to remind myself that we’re not talking about Columbia. We’re not talking about Tufts. This is kindergarten,” said Fabrick, whose son now attends the Geri and Richard Brawerman Elementary School of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

While her son was accepted to both schools where the family applied, Fabrick’s worries were not completely unfounded, as many schools cannot take every applicant.

“We have only 40 spaces [for kindergarten] and this year we had over 80 applications,” said Maxine Keith, the assistant head of school and director of admissions at Whilshire Boulevard’s Brawerman Elementary.

In addition, since siblings of current students and children from Wilshire’s preschool have priority, it is clear that not everyone is a shoo-in.

Psychologist Lisa Lainer recalls the stress of waiting to see if her daughter, Sophie, now 6, got accepted to Sinai Akiba Academy at Sinai Temple last year. Even through Sophie attended Sinai’s preschool, more preschoolers than there were available spots in the day school kindergarten program that year.

“In part, we felt confident that she’d get in, but then there’s there anxiety of ‘What if I’m wrong?'” Lainer said.

For the Reform and Conservative day schools in Los Angeles, applications are usually due in December and the admissions decision letters usually go out in March. For the Orthodox day schools, admissions are on a rolling basis and most students enter in preschool rather than kindergarten. At Maimonides Academy about 80 percent to 90 percent of the students come through the early childhood program. “We sometimes tell parents to make sure they get in on the preschool level because the classes are jampacked and may be closed by the time pre-one rolls around,” principal Rabbi Karmi Gross said.

Even though many day schools continue to fill up quickly, there is actually a decline in the number of Jewish children in the United States. According to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001, only 20 percent of the U.S. Jewish population is 18 and younger, a number that has decreased in the last 10 years. As a result, the number of kindergartners in Los Angeles Jewish day schools has decreased over the last few years, as well.

While getting in can be anxiety-provoking, parents seem to feel the stress is worth it in the end.

“I’m exceedingly happy,” Fabrick said. “We made a great choice and Zach is getting a great education.”

Buckner is excited for Aidan to start kindergarten in September.

“I’m hoping that going to a values-based school is going to change who my son is for the better,” she said.