Friday, August 24, 2007

Culture Controversy

Faithful readers, I know you have been disappointed by the lack of content recently, but I've been unusually busy for a professor in August, and besides, August is silly season, so the news hasn't been attracting my blogger attention. Regular blogging to resume after Labor Day, I hope.

I was, though, struck by this item in today's Times: a public charter school in Florida is attracting controversy by -- gasp! -- teaching Hebrew. Some people are claiming this to be a violation of the separation of church and state.

As always, it's tough to get a full sense of the legal issues involved by reading a newspaper account, although this article does a pretty good job of bringing out important points. But let's note some basics. First, there can't possibly be a constitutional objection to a public school's teaching Hebrew. Schools teach French, Spanish, German, Latin, and all manner of languages. Hebrew can't be forbidden just because it's associated with Judaism.

The article observes that the Hebrew classes would also discuss some aspects of Jewish culture. Again, I would have to say, this is unobjectionable. When I took French classes, the books and classes always had some discussion of French culture. That's just a standard part of language class.

Now, things could go overboard. One of the potential textbooks had students translating the phrases “Our Holy Torah is dear to us” and “Man is redeemed from his sins through repentance.” That does seem to be pushing the envelope. But it sounds from the article as though the school's officials are taking considerable care to keep the instruction secular -- for example, they decided not to post a sign saying "weclome" in Hebrew, because the literal translation is "blessed are those who come." And they don't ask those applying to attend whether they are Jewish -- some of the students are Baptists.

So I would say, let's not get too excited. If there's a demand for bilingual Hebrew / English instruction, it can't be unconstitutional per se to fill it, any more than for Spanish / English instruction. Care will be needed to see that the classes are secular. Outside scrutiny is appropriate, but just as the school shouldn't be allowed to use public money to teach religion, neither should it be punished for offering secular instruction that would appeal specially to members of a particular religious group.

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