Thursday, December 23, 1999
It's time for Israelis to learn Jesus was JewishIsraeli pupils hear about Jesus only once during 12 years of schooling, so they know nothing about Christianity, and don't have a key to understanding the history and culture of the western world. The education system prefers ignorance to being suspected of missionary activity.
By Orna Coussin, Ha'aretz
Ninth-graders at a high school in Bat Yam were asked last Friday, a week before Christmas, what they knew about Jesus. According to the high school history teacher who dared ask the question, most knew nothing - not even the most basic details: when he was born, where he lived and preached, when he died and how.
They did not know that he was a believing Jew, who was born, according to historians in the year 4 BCE (and not in the year 0), in Bethlehem, and that his mother's name was Miriam, that is, the Virgin Mary.
Some thought that Mary Magdalene, the prostitute, was the mother of Jesus. They did not know of the decision by the Sanhedrin to turn him in on the grounds that he pretended to be "the king of the Jews," or of his trial before the Roman governor, Pilate. As for the Sermon on the Mount, the values he preached, the dispute between him and the Pharisees and the Sadducees over the interpretation of the law and the concept of the Messiah, and the connection between Jesus and the Essene sect - the students knew nothing.
History lecturers believe that this ignorance is not a negligible matter. Israeli students who do not know anything at all about the figure of Jesus are unable to understand the faith of the approximately two billion Christians in the world and they have no key to the understanding of the history, music, painting, sculpture and architecture of the western world. Moreover, they lack basic knowledge of the history of Judaism and society in the land of Israel 2,000 years ago.
This ignorance comes as no surprise. According to the official curriculum, students in the government education system hear about Jesus at best only once during 12 years of schooling - and only in passing, at the beginning of their sixth grade history course, in a brief chapter on "Jesus and the First Christians" in the history text "During the Days of Greece and Rome."
According to Michael Yaron, the supervisor of history instruction at the Education Ministry, Jesus is not studied again in high school, because in high school the curriculum concentrates mainly on the 19th and 20th centuries, and not everyone is even required to study the chapter in the sixth grade, as elementary schools have the autonomy to pick and choose in the curriculum.
In the government-religious system, students learn even less: in the seventh grade textbook "From generation to generation" there is a brief and laconic treatment of Jesus in the chapter "Sects in Judaism." Sarah Weider, the supervisor of history instruction in the government-religious educational system, notes that religious teachers teach about Jesus with great reservations - for example, they do not mention his name explicitly. The reason: "Because it is impossible to ignore what Christianity did to the Jews, and attribute to the man what was done in his footsteps, even if he was not to blame."
According to history teachers, even on class outings from government schools to Jerusalem and the Galilee, Christian holy sites are totally ignored. Weider says about religious school trips, "They don't go into Catholic churches, because there is a halacha that prohibits this, but they do look at them from the outside."
Now and then, some teachers, like the history teacher in Bat Yam, find it important to deviate from the regular program of studies and teach their students something about the traditions and beliefs of others. But they, according to their own testimony, are an infinitesimal minority.
History lecturers at the universities in Israel say that high school graduates arrive at university "totally ignorant" about everything concerning Jesus and Christianity. "They know nothing at all," says Dr. Aviad Kleinberg of Tel Aviv University, the author of the book "Christianity from its Beginnings to the Reformation," a ministry of defense publication for the University of the Airwaves.
"I encounter a great deal of rejection, hostility and ignorance with respect to Jesus and Christianity in general. They live two meters away from places that many Christians in the world only dream of visiting, and they know nothing about them."
According to Kleinberg, this is the result of "neglect and conservatism in the educational system, which must be changed. The Israeli educational system must be less concentrated within itself and more open to the study of the other. It would not hurt children if if they read a chapter from the New Testament and the Koran. This is not only important morally, but also for their Jewish identity: they should know what is similar and what is different. It is important for Israeli students to know something about Jesus, and that they should read at least something about the Sermon on the Mount."
In his classic text, "The Jewish Sources of Christianity," Professor David Flusser wrote a great deal about the importance of the Sermon on the Mount to the understanding of the Jewish traditions of Jesus's time.
"In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus interprets the words of the Torah with moral strictness," he wrote. For example, Jesus preached (in Hebrew and Aramaic): "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth- Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God" (Matthew 5:3-5, 9).
In this, according to Flusser, Jesus represented a strain of thought in Jewish thinking at a time when it was necessary to pay more attention to morality and love of one's fellow men, and he placed less value on external rituals.
Jesus also expressed a view contrary to the Judaism and established Christianity of our day, that views success and wealth as evidence that an individual has observed the commandments, and failure or poverty as punishment for sins.
According to Jesus, it is precisely the rich who need to examine themselves: "For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven" (Luke 18:25). That is, in order to be saved, a person must give up his assets in this world, and thus, blessed are the poor.
Israeli students who study this could perhaps perceive the beliefs that prevail today and lie at the basis of western capitalism in a more critical light.
Professor Michael Harsegor, who has discussed Jesus in recent weeks on his program "History Hour" on army radio, says: "Jesus was the most famous Jew in the world, and students must know why he was famous and why he was a Jew."
Harsegor says that students should know that "the greatest invention of Paul, the man who spread Christianity, was to give up two things in the Jewish tradition that frightened the gentiles of the time: the dietary restrictions of kashrut, and circumcision.
Yet, adds Harsegor, "Jesus said several times that nothing in the Law (Torah) must be changed," and "Jesus was a double figure. On the one hand he was soft and very passive ) 'Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matthew 5:39 - and on the other, a dictator: believers were exhorted to love him more than members of their own family."
According to Harsegor, students should also know that all of his "evangelists and disciples came from the Galilee, and were considered in snobbish Jerusalem to be primitive, and therefore, when Jesus came to Jerusalem, they scorned him. Only Judah Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus, came from Judea, from the more intellectual sect."
He says that students in Israel should also learn the parable of the good Samaritan: a Cohen and a Levite pass by a man who lay dying by the side of the road after thieves attacked him, and they do not come to his aid.
"But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own breast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him" (Luke 10:33-34).
The lesson is clear, says Harsegor: "It is wrong to cling to the Torah, like Cohen and the Levite, and do nothing more. You have to be humane, like the Samaritan, who is not a religious Jew." Harsegor regrets that "Israeli students see the cathedrals of Europe and don't know anything. They are ignorant because the schools are still afraid that any study of Jesus is connected to missionary activity."
Professor Guy G. Stroumza, chairman of the Center for Study of Christianity at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says that "Jesus was a good Jew. There were a few things that the rabbinical establishment at the time didn't like, but he wasn't an especially great revolutionary either.
"However, he was a uniquely interesting and important figure in western culture, a key figure in the land of Israel in the 1st century, at a time of political ferment. Students in Israel have a huge gap in their education. Altogether, the interest in religions is a new thing in the Israeli academy, perhaps because Zionism arose as an anti-religious movement. There is no doubt that it is necessary to study the New testament.
Dr. Ninmrod Aloni, who teaches an advanced seminar on humanist education at Seminar Hakibbutzim, says that he tries to teach Jesus as an example of the way, "the figure of a wonderful individual, the main point of whose teaching was love and charity and pity and solidarity and all the beautiful things, was exploited by the religious establishment - the Christian church, the Crusades and the Inquisition, which up until the 17th century burned people in his name.
"I talk about the Jesus I know mainly from three sources - the New Testament, A.A. Kabak's 'In the Strait Path' and 'Gospel According to Jesus Christ' by Jose Saramago - in order to explain to people how religion can be opium for the masses, how it can make people forget its origins and encourage its exact opposite."
In this connection, Aloni relates that he has recently noticed an interesting phenomenon: "Many students at the teachers' college are interested in Buddhism, the Dalai Lama and Zen. If until now, they submitted seminar papers on the humanism they found in Plato, Rousseau, Janusz Korczak and other western sources, all of a sudden they are now bringing me the Tao of Pooh. Apparently, the students are looking for spirituality without religion. For me, as a humanist, the most important thing is to nurture in my students the critical skills to examine any belief. Not only the morality of Jesus has been forgotten.
"The moral message of the prophets has been marginalized by the Judaism that is dominant, and in its stead a cult of country, land and power has been adopted. As George Bernard Shaw said, the worst horrors in history happen in the name of the most exalted values."
Yaron, the inspector from the Education Ministry, says the educational system has no room to go deeply into issues concerning Jesus, because his history is studied only in sixth grade, which means that the study must be superficial. Sarah Weider says that high students cannot be expected to remember what they learned, if at all, in sixth or seventh grade. "The knowledge is not necessarily absorbed," she says, "because it is not relevant to them, and they do not yet have the knowledge of history and the tools to put their knowledge in the right context."
She says that it would be preferable to teach the subject later on and in a relevant context. "For example, in preparation for the year 2000, or when the Pope comes for a visit, because then the study would be more meaningful than in the regular curriculum."
Dr. Eyal Naveh, whose book on the history of the 20th century aroused debate recently, believes there "apparently was a decision in the educational system not to go deeply into the study of Christianity, but this does not mean that students know anything about Judaism, even though there is a decision to go deeply into the study of Judaism.
"For students to remember anything of what they have learned depends on the way they are taught. If they teach them something that is relevant to the contents of their own world, if the learning is an experience, they will remember.
"My children learned about Jesus at the Democratic School in Kfar Sava in the context of art, and now they know a fair amount about Christianity and Jesus as a prophet or false prophet. If it is decided that this is relevant to the children's world, and they teach them in an interesting way, there is no reason why they should not remember."
Naveh says that while it is important in senior high school to teach the recent history of the past 100 years, "The study of religion is also important for understanding the 20th century, which was rife with conflicts between religious and humanist traditions. It is worthwhile and important to teach this dialectic, but it isn't taught at all.
"Ignoring Jesus is part of the tendency to concentrate only on ourselves, as if we had sprung up outside a universal context. In the case of Jesus, this is especially absurd, because Jesus is linked to our development. I hope that things will change, and that the system will realize that history is not just a collection of facts, but is about substantial issues that shape our world. The connection between Judaism and Christianity is definitely one of the issues that shapes our world."
This year, says Weider, "out of sensitivity to the year 2000, we held a continuing education program this summer for teachers, and the relation between Judaism and Christianity was one of the subjects. We realized that this year educators have to be sensitive to this issue."
Dr. Nili Keren of Seminar Hakibbutzim says that
students from the college are going on field trips
this year to the Judean desert, around the Dead Sea,
in the footsteps of John the Baptist. But Michael
Yaron, the education ministry's chief supervisor for
the teaching of history says that nothing will
change: there is no possibility for expanding and
going more deeply into the study of Jesus in Israeli
schools, because in any case there are not enough
study hours," and, he adds, "considering the number
of hours we do have to teach our students, I would
not eliminate other subjects in order to add this
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