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ISRAEL-EDUCATION (CORRECTED) Apr-20-2009 (860 words) With photo posted April 16. xxxi

In Israeli Jewish schools, no teaching about Christianity

By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM (CNS) -- Daniel Rossing uses one word to sum up the extent of teaching about Christianity in Israeli public schools: none.

"The answer is very simply no. Israeli students do not learn about Christianity in school," said Rossing, director of the independent Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations.

"All indications are that there is a very widespread ignorance with regard to Catholicism in general and in particular in regard to the revolutionary changes which have taken place in the Catholic Church regarding Judaism and the Jewish people," said Rossing, who is an Orthodox Jew.

Rossing is considered an expert in education about Christianity. His center offers workshops and seminars about Christianity and interreligious studies for groups ranging from soldiers and teachers to the average Israeli who wants to learn more.

In May Pope Benedict XVI will be coming to a country where not only are Catholics less than 2 percent of the population, but where the vast majority of the general population has had almost no exposure to the Catholic Church. Rossing said a large part of the burden to explain the history and significance of the visit will be placed on the media.

When Pope John Paul II visited Israel in 2000, "the media was rather pessimistic up to the visit, but then, during the visit, there was a great turnaround and a lot of positive reporting," said Rossing. "There were news talk shows with important, intelligent people."

Because of the Jewish sensitivity toward the Catholic Church, one wrong word or gesture by Pope Benedict could garner all the attention and take away from the other aspects of the visit, said Rossing.

His center is planning a symposium to prepare the media just prior to the pope's visit, he said. He added that the Israeli government also senses the importance of the visit being seen in a positive light by the general public and the media.

"Everyone is working on it," he said. "How people react to the visit depends on how the media deals with it in terms of the quantity and quality of their attention."

Recently Rossing's center and the independent Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies released the results of a survey looking at Jewish Israeli attitudes toward Christianity. Given the lack of exposure young people have to Christians and Christianity, Rossing said, he was not surprised by the results that showed young Israeli Jews tend to be less tolerant of Christians than people over 30 are.

"People in the 18- to 20-year-old category are solely the product of the educational system and don't have contact with Christianity, while (older people) have had other influences and opportunities for encounters," said Rossing. "If we were to do a similar survey (in regard to Jews) in Germany or France in the general population, I suspect the findings wouldn't be much different."

As far as education about Christianity goes, 68 percent of non-Orthodox Jewish respondents said that Christianity should be taught in schools and 52 percent said the New Testament should be studied. However, 73 percent of Orthodox Jewish respondents and 90 percent of ultra-Orthodox Jewish respondents opposed the teaching of Christianity in schools in any form.

Only 3 percent of the respondents said they had no opinion, indicating that people feel strongly about this issue, Rossing said.

Currently, if anything is taught, "it is about the Crusades and the Inquisition," he said. "There is no teaching of comparative religion."

As a minimum, educators like himself are pushing for teaching about the local Christian communities in the schools so students can learn about "our neighbors in this land," he said.

In schools where there are some local educational initiatives there is more freedom in the curriculum and more exposure to the history of Christianity as a religion, but it is not a formal education ministry program.

"Jewish kids in Israel who finish high school will be totally ignorant about Vatican II. They will not have a clue," said Rabbi Ron Kronish, director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, which conducted a study of the issue 10 years ago. At the time there were a few attempts to approach the subject in cultural studies classes, he said, adding that not much has changed in the past decade.

He said most school-age children will not have heard of the previous pilgrimage to Israel by a pope.

"I have never heard about someone in Israel taking (it) upon himself to educate Jews about post-Vatican II Christians," said Rabbi Kronish.

Rossing said he felt that without a basic understanding of the history of Christianity and the influence of Christian culture, Israeli students are left with a big gap in their historical understanding of the world.

"It is hard to understand today's world without a good concept of Christianity and Israel, not to mention our neighbors," said Rossing.

He said that during workshops, representatives of his center have discovered that Muslims -- even those who live in mixed villages with Christians -- are almost equally as ignorant about Christianity as their Jewish counterparts.

"There is a tremendous need (for educating the public). There is something missing," he said.


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