A proposed ban on meetings between Jewish and Arab pupils in state religious schools to prevent intermarriage has touched off a controversy between Israel's religious and secular communities.
Education Minister Yitzhak Navon has asked the director of his religious education division, Yacov Hadani, not to distribute a directive forbidding Jewish-Arab contacts during the coming school year because the ministry is trying to encourage such meetings in public schools.
However, the Chief Rabbinical Council has come out in opposition to Jewish-Arab meetings in schools, and Interior Minister Yitzhak Peretz has joined the battle by declaring, "If we look at Jewish history, the greatest danger to the Jewish people in all generations has been assimilation."
The dispute has underscored the growing polarization between the religious and secular elements of Israeli society. In recent weeks similar feuds have erupted over such issues as requiring Falasha immigrants from Ethiopia to undergo ritual immersion to affirm their Jewishness and the sale of pork.
Navon said his ministry would continue a program in secular public schools to foster coexistence between Arabs and Jews and to combat racism, but he said he was aware of special requirements in religious schools to avoid violation of orthodox Jewish ritual.
The Education Ministry spokeswoman said that, additionally, Israeli law makes religious education independent of ministry directives, and that Hadani was appointed by the Cabinet, not by Navon.
Hadani, she said, "can determine by himself what is good for religious education. The minister can make recommendations, but he can't direct him."
She added that only a quarter of Israel's schoolchildren are in state religious schools and that "it is more important that 75 percent of the students will still have the meetings with Arab students."
Navon said last night that he had no intention of changing the law giving independence to the religious education division of his ministry. He said he had reached agreement with Hadani, however, and that the Arab-Jewish meetings would continue.
Under a compromise proposal made by the rabbinate, Jewish and Arab students would not be permitted to eat together, and boys and girls of the two faiths would not be allowed to meet. Instead, Jewish and Arab pupils of the same sex would work together on projects such as planting trees.
Hadani said that religious schools would encourage Arab-Jewish coexistence "by teaching our students to respect gentiles and grant them their full rights," but he also said that orthodox Jews and Moslem religious leaders shared his concern about intermarriage.
In a state radio interview, Hadani said that when Jewish students reach a less impressionable age, about 18, he had no objections to meetings with Arabs "on an intellectual level."
Disclosure of Hadani's directive prompted a storm of criticism by liberal members of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, some of whom charged in telegrams that the decision reflected the views of Knesset member Rabbi Meir Kahane, head of the extremist Kach Movement, who advocates the expulsion of all Arabs from Israel and the occupied territories.
The secretary of the Secondary Schoolteachers Association, Shoshana Bayer, called for Hadani's dismissal, and Prime Minister Shimon Peres' adviser on Israeli Arab affairs, Yosef Ginat, wrote to Navon condemning Hadani's planned directive.
The Institute for Education for Coexistence Between Jews and Arabs, in a letter to Navon, said that Jewish-Arab intermarriage is a "very marginal phenomenon in Israeli society and among religious Jews approaches zero."
The government Central Bureau of Statistics said that it had no figures on intermarriage, but Alouph Hareven of the Van Leer Jerusalem Foundation, which has organized a program to improve Jewish-Arab relations through education, estimated that since the founding of Israel in 1948 there have been only about 300 such marriages, or slightly more than 10 a year.