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Israelis Are "Unsettled" By Christian Visitors; Courses Are Sought On Jesus To Combat Ignorance

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
January-February 2000

Many Israelis were "unsettled' by the influx of Christian visitors for the millennium, writes Washington Post (Dec. 24, 1999) correspondent Lee Hockstader from Jerusalem.  

According to a Gallup Poll conducted early in December on behalf of an interfaith organization, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, it was found that three-quarters of Israelis cannot identify Christmas Day as a date of "special significance." Nearly two-thirds do not have a single Christian friend, and three in five have not met any Christians in Israel.  

Crucifixes and Christmas trees were banned from hotel lobbies during the millennium holidays because they are "offensive" to Jews, said Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisroel Lau. (Jerusalem Post, Dec. 3, 1999). The chief rabbis of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv permitted Christmas and New Year's Eve celebrations in the hotels, but only in closed rooms.  

The rabbinate's ban on Christmas trees in hotel lobbies angered some Christian clergymen. "If we obliged Jewish people in the United States to hide their menorahs behind closed doors, I think there'd be an uproar," said the Rev. Robert Fortin, an American priest who is overseeing millennium festivities for the Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference in the Holy Land. "Here you have a religion that was born here, which is indigenous to this land, started by a Jew who was living here, and you have the people living here who don't know the first thing about it."  

The Washington Post reports: "Secular and moderate Jews are furious with the hard-line rabbis for the cold shoulder they have shown Christian pilgrims, whom they consider backward-looking. Outside Jerusalem, with its heavy concentration of ultra-Orthodox Jews and its swelling crowds of tourists, there is less anxiety about Christians than about the attitudes of Jewish religious authorities."  

A growing number of Israeli academics say that the time has come for Israeli students to learn about Jesus as an historical figure. Prof. Michael Harsegor notes that Jesus was the most famous Jew in history, and as the Christian era enters its third millennium, students must be taught who he was.  

Prof. Aviad Kelinberg of Tel Aviv University's History Department says that students arriving at the University are "totally ignorant" about Jesus. Learning about the founding of Christianity would not only provide them with knowledge about one of the most important events in history, he said, but would give them a better understanding of their own Jewish identity.  

The Washington Times (Dec. 27, 1999) reports that, "In the entire Israeli school curriculum, Jesus is mentioned only briefly in the sixth-grade course on Christianity. In school tours around the country, students are regularly taken past some of the holiest sites in Christendom but they are told virtually nothing about them...A number of academics, however, believe the country is now sufficiently mature for dispassionate inclusion of Jesus into the school curriculum."  

Guy Stroumza, chairman of the Center for the Study of Christianity at Hebrew University, states: "Students have a huge gap in their education. Jesus was a unique figure in Western culture and in the land of Israel during the political ferment of the first century. There is no doubt that it is necessary to study the New Testament."  

Eyal Naveh, who wrote a recent textbook on 20th century history used in Israeli schools, agrees that even Judaism is not taught very deeply in nonreligious schools. It is nonetheless important, he says, to expand Christianity's place in the curriculum: "The connection between Judaism and Christianity is one of the issues that shapes our world. It's important for our understanding of the 20th century, which was rife with conflicts between religious and humanist traditions. Ignoring Jesus is part of a tendency to concentrate only on ourselves, as if we had sprung up outside a universal context."

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