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Monday, September 6, 2010

Church/state separation under attack? Not news. By Jews? Bad news.

I believe in the separation of church and state.

I spent most of my life thinking that wasn’t a terribly controversial stance. Later in life I learned that, in some parts of the country, it was, or at least my interpretation of it was. When the news started filling up with stories about people in the Heartland who wanted to see prayer and “intelligent design” in public schools, spend tax dollars on “faith-based” social programs, ban abortion (but not capital punishment) for religious reasons, and of course burn homosexuals at the stake - um, I mean, ban gay marriage - I consoled myself with the notion that those ideas were restricted to fringe right-wing Christians between the coasts.

Then I heard about Hebrew charter schools, and my comfortable world view crumbled.

Message to my tribe: bad idea.

And then I heard that there’s a proposal - strongly supported here in New Jersey by certain Orthodox Jewish communities - to spend tax money on vouchers for private religious schools.

Another message to my tribe: ARE YOU INSANE?

At the risk of stating the obvious: The separation of church and state is why America has been very, very good to us, for the most part. In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re a minority here, along with all the Muslims and Sikhs and Hindus and Buddhists and, yes, even the Mormons. Using tax dollars to fund schools that, face it, are seen as cheap alternatives to private religious schools, or worse still, to fund private religious schools directly, is a huge step toward breaking down the wall.

Yes, I know that Hebrew charter schools  (the latest, Hatikvah International Academy, opening Tuesday in East Brunswick) admit kids of all backgrounds and purport not to teach religion - they say they teach Hebrew language and culture.

C’mon. Many articles on the topic quote members of the Jewish community who view the Hebrew charter schools as alternatives to costly religious schools. Hebrew charters even offer after-school, optional religious education.  These are clearly quasi-religious institutions. As to teaching Hebrew culture, how is that not synonymous with Jewish culture? Do you know any other Hebrew-speaking people?

Yes, all culture everywhere is to some extent religious. But when Sara Berman, chairwoman of the board at Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy, says “that learning about Hebrew and Israeli culture was no different from learning about Bastille Day and baguettes in French class,” I’d argue that she’s either seriously delusional, doesn’t read newspapers, or is willfully misleading the public. Hebrew existed only as a language of religious prayer and texts for a millennium or two, and it only emerged as a living, spoken language as a result of the twentieth-century establishment of the state of Israel, itself a direct result of the persecution and genocide of Jews. French? Not so much.

I know most of my old Yeshiva friends are going to hate me for saying this, but there are two ways modern Israel is generally discussed: with a Jewish bias, or in a manner that tends to piss off Jews. (I like to believe there could be a third way, but that’s a subject for another post.) Good luck treading that line on a daily basis in a way that would be truly acceptable in a secular public school.

And then there are the vouchers. Here in New Jersey, the legislation under consideration, called the Opportunity Scholarship Act, is strongly supported by, among others, the Lakewood Haredim (aka ultra-Orthodox). This bill doesn’t only provide tax money to move kids from failing schools into private schools - it also provides money for kids already in private schools, including religious schools. It’s not surprising that the Haredi Yeshiva crowd is all for that, but I find truly disturbing the cynical lack of compunction about diverting funds away from poor urban school districts, where education so desperately needs improvement, in order to gain some bucks for a private religious school system long supported by a strong network of community-based philanthropy.

(This isn’t the first time the Lakewood Jewish community has tried to game the system, either. Some years ago, the New York Times reported that state education officials discovered that the Lakewood Jews managed to send all their special-ed kids to an all-Jewish private school (at public expense), while other kids (mostly black and Hispanic) were sent to public schools.)

All this blurring of the church/state line in public education? Slippery slope. NOT GOOD FOR THE JEWS.

News flash: We Jews are not the largest, most powerful religious force interested in gaming the system. Anyone follow the Texas School Board social studies curriculum controversy? You know, the right-wing Christian extremists who hijacked a state school board and worked really hard to make sure Texas public school students are taught all about our Christian constitution and our Christian founding fathers and our Christian values? Once the church/state wall is broken, THOSE are the people who will be lining up to create new charter schools and vouchers and whatnot to fund THEIR kind of education.

When huge chunks of tax money that used to support truly secular public education are diverted to charter schools that teach intelligent design and feature after-school Christian fundamentalist education - or even directly to Christian schools that teach creationism and American exceptionalism - it will fundamentally change our society.

This nation that made Jews feel safer than we’d felt anywhere else in a very long while, where our religious-minority status seemed at worst a surmountable obstacle and at best a constitutionally protected freedom, will suddenly feel a whole lot less welcoming and comfortable. Society as a whole will acquire a far less tolerant character. The societal presumption of Christianity - the idea that Christianity is the preferred, normal state of American-ness, and that everything else is vaguely suspect (or explicitly, as Muslims have been experiencing of late) - will return full-force. And the irony will be that we Jews will have helped put the nation on the path toward the Christianization of public institutions by compromising a core American value - the separation of church and state.

And we’re supposed to be the smart ones?

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