Science and Religion: Fighting for Physics in the Holy Land

Last week, university students in Israel once again took to the streets in protest; setting tires ablaze near the Hebrew University campus, snarling traffic by releasing live chickens outside Prime Minister Netanyahu's home and blocking streets at a Tel Aviv rally that left a dozen briefly behind bars. Fueling the protests were standard-issue complaints about politics and money, alongside more exotic complaints about, for instance, whether Israeli kids should be forced to learn math and science. And it was because of this last thing -- the grade school and high school curriculum -- that student leaders described their protests as a struggle for no less than the survival of the country itself.

The objects of the students' rage were Haredim, ultra-orthodox Jews, who in the last six months have achieved two major political victories that have cast them as antagonists of the country's undergrads. The first came during the summer, when the Knesset voted to continue funding ultra-orthodox schools that refuse to teach the country's mandatory core curriculum of math, science, civics and gym. The second came earlier this month, when the government agreed to continue funding monthly stipends for the 11,000 ultra-orthodox men who choose to study Torah instead of working. Taken together, the two decisions convinced university students, most of whom are secular, that the country was slinking away from the enlightened rationality of science towards the dark folds of fundamentalist religion. Which is how a dispute of money -- who should get limited government fellowships, those studying Talmud or those studying physics -- became enmeshed with a dispute about teaching science in grade school and high school.

Scuffles between "science" and "religion", and especially about the place of science and religion in the schools, are familiar in the U.S., having sparked a decade of headlines in Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida, California, Louisiana and Virginia. It would be easy to see what's going on now in Jerusalem as a local production of the show we saw a few years back in Dover. But that would be a mistake. The chickens clogging Netanyahu's street represent a different sort of conflict between science and religion than what one sees in the States.

For one thing, the battles over school curricula in America concern ideas: Should evolution be taught as fact or supposition?, Should alternative accounts of the origin of species be taught?, Should the notion of a Creator be entertained in public schools? What counts and does not count as science? In contrast, the battles over school curricula in Israel concern practice. No ultra-orthodox leader has attacked scientific ideas, nor have any even suggested that science is not valuable. None have said that science courses teach heresies. Their point is not that they refuse to teach sciences because they are not true; their point is that they should not be forced to teach sciences, even though they are true.

This is a distinction that makes a difference. Some time ago, I asked an ultra-orthodox Rabbi and politician named Avraham Ravitz -- he headed an ultra-orthodox party and was a powerful member of the Knesset -- why he had boycotted a dairy company that had introduced a line of kid's yogurts and puddings with dinosaur mascots. He chuckled when I asked if he doubted that dinosaurs had once existed. Of course not, he assured me, and it didn't concern him a whit that they didn't appear in Genesis, as it was crazy to read Genesis literally in any case. "It's just, who wants to explain the subtleties of biblical hermeneutics to your kids over breakfast, before you've even had your coffee?" For Ravitz, the problem with science isn't what it makes you believe, it's what is makes you do, sometimes even before your morning coffee.

For many secular Israelis as well, the issue is practical. The argument most often put forward by the students and many others is that math and science education are necessary to make the Ultra-orthodox into workers in a high-tech economy. Without it, they are damned to be welfare cases, forever leeching off the productive secular population. In reply, ultra-orthodox Rabbis and politicians point to numerous polls that show that after only a year of remedial training, Ultra-orthodox youth are as scientifically literate and talented as secular Israelis who've sweated in school for 12 years. The Rabbis and politicians attribute this success to the logical skills awakened through intensive Torah study. It probably says at least as much about the inferior quality of science education in secular schools. Either way, it suggests that the argument over teaching science is about more than job prospects.

What's at stake is something more basic; it has to do with values. Ron Huldai, the Mayor of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, called for a secular "rebellion" against ultra-orthodox "ignoramuses," demanding that they teach in their schools "those subjects that every modern country wants all its citizens to possess, so that they can understand the meaning of democracy." Huldai, who is rumored to be planning a run for Prime Minister in the next election, captured the sentiment of the students and many others by stating clearly that teaching the science curriculum is a matter of values. Importantly, this is the deep insight shared by secular and ultra-orthodox Israelis. Both groups agree that science education isn't only, or even mostly, about how species evolved or sugar is metabolized. Science education is about democracy and citizenship and public debate. Science education makes people more pliable, more pluralist, more alive to democracy. Science education is, in the end, moral education. (Sam Harris, in his recent book The Moral Landscape: Why Science Should Shape Morality makes a similar point).

So the battle in Israel between advocates of science and advocates of Torah, surprisingly ends up to be not about an angry disagreement, but a profound agreement. Both sides agree that science education offers a road from being a Talmud scholar living on the dole who's never heard of Madam Curie to being an SUV-driving systems analyst who can't get enough of Lady Gaga.

All they disagree about is whether this is a road worth traveling.

Noah Efron is member of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa City Council, fellow of Shaharit, a think tank for new Israeli Politics, and teaches history and sociology of science at Bar Ilan University.