The liberal Israeli daily Ha’aretz is urging American Jews to reconsider one of the cornerstones of our community’s liberalism: opposition to government funding for religious schools. In an editorial on the importance of Jewish education for maintaining Jewish identity, citing in particular the effectiveness of day schools, Ha’aretz writes:
If Jewish community leaders in the United States are genuine in their desire to slow the processes weakening their community, they would do well to reexamine their entrenched opposition to state or federal support for religious education, including Jewish education. They fear that such support, even in the form of tax rebates, would violate the absolute separation of church and state, which could in the long term harm the Jews above all. But it would appear that the proven danger of assimilation must take precedence over fears of potential dangers, particularly after the experience of other Jewish communities that receive funding from the countries they live in without being hurt as a result.
This recommendation, in addition to being surprising, is problematic on two fronts.
First, as a matter of policy, America’s public schools have served — and should serve — as a means for cultivating civic identity, building a cohesive nation out of perhaps the most ethnically and religiously diverse society to have ever existed. Would we be better off if the government subsidized separate school systems for Hasidim, Reform Jews, Catholics, Sunnis, Shiites, Evangelicals, black Muslims, Buddhists etc.? I don’t think so. American society has always been a tug of war between groups trying to maintain their own distinct identities and the forces of assimilation, foremost among these the public schools. This has yielded a healthy tension, and we wouldn’t be better off as a country if one side quit tugging. Indeed, the gaping divide between religious (particularly ultra-Orthodox Jews) and secular in Israel, if anything, illustrates the pitfalls of state support for sectarian schools.
Second, as a matter of principle, it’s troubling that Ha’aretz would appeal solely to American Jews’ parochial interests on a matter of such national import. Let me be clear: I do believe that increasing Jewish day-school enrollments is crucial to maintaining Diaspora Jewish identity. And it stands to reason that public subsidies for religious schools would yield such increases. But liberalism isn’t simply a matter of tending to your own. Liberalism involves working to advance the common good. American Jews — to our credit — get this. That’s why, as Milton Himmelfarb famously quipped, Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with looking out for the interests of your specific ethnic or religious group, but there is also a duty to prioritize the well being of the country as a whole. That’s what it means to be an American, and it’s what it means to be an American Jew.