In what’s almost certain to irritate separation of church and state advocates, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to start hosting a regular Bible study group at his official residence, where he plans to invite researchers and government officials.
In so doing, Netanyahu follows the lead of former prime ministers David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, and Menachem Begin who served in the 1970s and 1980’s who both hosted Bible study groups regularly.
The Jerusalem Post quotes Netanyahu as saying his goal is “to perpetuate love of the Bible:"
“Ben-Gurion understood that the Book of Books is our mandate for our country […]” Netanyahu said. “He viewed the Bible as the wondrous story of the Jewish people, the unique spiritual, cultural and historic heritage of our people, and also as one of the cornerstones of all of human culture.”
Israel defines itself as a Jewish and democratic state. Unlike in the U.S., the government funds many religious institutions including synagogues and seminaries. There is a religious services ministry headed by a cabinet-level minister which provides services related to certifying kosher restaurants, running rabbinical courts mostly dealing with domestic issues, and supervising holy places, most notably in Jerusalem.
Though the prime minister does not identify himself as an Orthodox Jew, his son Avner is considered to be a Bible whiz, having beat 12,000 contestants to win the National Bible Quiz last year, a competition that in Israel gets as much hype as the National Spelling Bee does in the U.S.
The smiling, elder Netanyahu commented after the competition: "I don't remember feeling this much tension since the [Likud] primaries.
Jackie Levy, the emcee, said the howls of encouragement from hundreds of youths gathered in a Kiryat Shmona gym, gave the event "an atmosphere of a good derby."
Indeed, the ballyhoo seemed more suited to a sporting competition than a battle of wits among 12 teenagers who displayed exceptional knowledge of the Bible.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s wife Sara herself competed in the National Bible Quiz and her three brothers were all champions of the competition in their youth. After his son’s win, Netanyahu said:
“The Bible is the very essence and foundation of the existence and spirit of the Jewish people,” he said. “It is also the single most important, remarkable and moving piece ever written.”
Bible is taught in all Israeli schools to Jews, Christians and Muslims beginning with Genesis in second grade. It is widely believed by Israeli educators that to learn good citizenship and to achieve a high level of language skill, children must have a solid grasp of the the ancient Scripture, written in Hebrew and forming the cornerstone of Judeo-Christian ethics. It is also the basis for the connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel - including Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) - which God promised to Abraham in the Book of Genesis.