In Israel, the study of evolution was once confined to high school students who had to opt into courses such as Advanced Biology in order to learn it. However, the Ministry of Education has announced a shift in their curriculum. Those in middle school, ages 13-15, will now be taught evolution as part of their standard education.
It wasn’t that the theory of evolution was banned before, but it depended on a teacher’s choice. If they felt they could explain the subject properly, they were welcome to introduce it into science class. That said, very few felt they had the capacity to manage discussions on evolution and religion well, and so very few teenagers studied the basics.
This new curriculum has been hailed by scientists, calling it a step forward for Israel, despite a few caveats in this new program. The infamous diagram showing man descending from apes will not be included. It has yet to be announced whether these curriculum changes will also apply to private schools that focus on religious education.
So far, the reaction from the religious right has been mixed. While some within the ultra-Orthodoxy have called it a “mistake,” plenty have shown support of this measure, claiming that a full and complete education shouldn’t be something to fear. Classic rabbinical teachings state the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, and Adam and Eve were made out of clay. Yet, a large majority of Israelis see evolution as part of a continuum, and not at all incompatible with their faith.
For some liberal Israelis this move comes as a relief, as religious tensions have been at an all time high. In the past few years, the influence of ultra-Orthodox groups have grown, and they’ve wasted no time imposing their specific set of beliefs on Israeli society. In 2013, under ever increasing pressure, the Education Ministry asked that all reference to female anatomy, sexual reproduction and STIs be pulled from science books or covered up with stickers.
Other moves have infuriated Israeli women, who were long used to serving in the army, and serving in the country’s government. So when the ultra-Orthodoxy asked that women be pulled from advertisements, tried to institute segregated seating on public buses, and even tried to impose separate pedestrian walkways for women, women’s rights advocates held demonstrations and protests.
Although the ultra-Orthodoxy only makes up 10% of the total population of Israel, many of them are militant activists who are ready to use terms like ‘religious freedom’ to impose their views on the rest of the country. Stories of women in Jerusalem being assailed with rocks and spit for dressing immodestly have become a common form of harassment. In the town of Beit Shemesh, an 8-year-old girl was spit on by an adult man for showing too much skin as she walked to school.
To appease the religious right, certain towns have dedicated enclaves to the ultra-Orthodoxy where they often impose their own version of the Torah on residents. Private schools have also been created so that families who ascribe to these beliefs can ensure their child’s education falls in line with their religion.
So if this mandate to teach evolution is extended to the private schools as well (which the Ministry of Education can, technically speaking, do), what will the reaction be? Some within the ministry are bracing themselves in case of an especially virulent push back.
Within the next school year, the evolution curriculum will come into effect. Professor Nava Ben-Zvi of the Israeli Science Advisory Committee, seems ready for any backlash, stating that there was no need for “resistance” and religiously they wouldn’t be “fighting the links…but science is science and the time has come to incorporate the study into the curriculum.”