How Israeli Jews’ Fear of Christianity Turned Into Hatred by Father David Neuhaus

The life of Jesus and the religion he spawned are taught in Israeli schools in a way that’s inconsistent with their influence on European culture and Western civilization, scholars lament in a new book

During the reception ceremony for the new Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, this past December, we heard the news: a religious Jew had tried to set fire to the church at Gethsemane, at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Once again a religious-Zionist Israeli Jew had acted with violence against Christians in the Holy Land. This time, guards at the church caught the offender while he was in the act. Those attending the ceremony could guess the future course of events: He would be diagnosed as mentally disturbed. Indeed, in the vast majority of cases of violence against Christians in Israel, the offenders are absolved of responsibility by way of a psychiatric diagnosis.

Hasn’t the time come to examine the way enmity toward Christians is inculcated and nurtured among the Jewish population in Israel?

“‘Jesus Was a Jew,’” by Orit Ramon, Inés Gabel and Varda Wasserman, analyzes the way that Christians and Christianity are depicted in the Israeli education system, in both the regular and the religious streams. The authors, faculty members of the Open University of Israel, offer a fine description of the tragic historical situation of the Jews in Christian Europe over the past centuries, and of the State of Israel’s sensitive geopolitical situation. But alongside this, they describe how Christians living in the Jewish state as a small, marginal community experience relentlessly the consequences of a majority that has received an education that emphasizes time and again negative stereotypes of Christianity.

Through the authors’ examination of official curricula and textbooks, and by surveying attitudes of teachers other educators, they present the different ways in which Christianity is mediated to students. The first illuminating fact arising from their study is the meager occupation with Christianity, in a manner wholly inconsistent with its influence on the development of European culture and Western civilization. The authors see Christianity as a kind of “a present absentee,” because of the covert use that is made of it for its role in “the creation of Jewish identity.” The bulk of the study focuses on how this is done, notably in history classes, which are of course taught from a Jewish perspective and which aspire to reinforce both pupils’ national-Jewish and religious identities.

The basic assumption in all state schools’ curricula is that Christianity is “a powerful political, social and religious force that threatened – both physically and culturally – Jewish existence.” That is indeed part of the story, but how valid is it in contemporary Israel, where the Jews are the majority and the sovereign, who rule over a small Christian community that lacks any real power? The fear of Christianity became genuine repulsion in contemporary Israel, the authors write, because “the Holocaust was perceived – and still is – as the inevitable peak in the bitter relationship between Jews and Christians.”

As for me, in my own reading of secular state-education textbooks published in the 1990s, I noticed a certain change for the better. The books were factual, objective and more respectful of Christianity. An example is the sixth-grade textbook “Greece, Rome and Jerusalem.” The 239-page book, which has spectacular illustrations, contains a full chapter, titled “A New Religion in the Land of Israel: Christianity,” with citations from the New Testament and from Church documents. Special emphasis is placed on the fact that Jesus’ first disciples were religiously observant Jews. It’s true that here too it is blatantly declared that “according to the Christian faith, the Jewish people is guilty of crucifying the messiah Jesus” – but the same paragraph notes the nullification of the guilty claim by decision of “the Christian Church.”

This refers of course to the Catholic Church, but as the authors of “‘Jesus Was a Jew’” point out, the way Christianity is presented in Israeli schools is focused disproportionately on the Catholic Church. They maintain that this does not reflect sheer ignorance concerning the various Christian denominations, but is rather an implicit defense of the monopoly held by Orthodox Judaism in Israel itself. That is: “The nearly exclusive addressing of Catholicism in the Israeli classroom also enables the defining of Orthodox Judaism as the sole, legitimate basis for Israeli Jewish identity.”

But the textbook mentioned above also leaves teachers a lot of latitude to present Christianity in a negative light, if only by their use of the term “Yeshu,” as the man from Nazareth is called in rabbinic tradition, instead of Yeshua (or even Yehoshua) – the correct Hebrew translation of the Greek name used in the New Testament, the name the man of Nazareth shared with Moses’s successor Joshua. The religious public in Israel is in many cases aware of the traditional interpretation of the term “Yeshu”: an acronym in Hebrew for “may his name and memory be blotted out.”

Ramon, Gabel and Wasserman note that the failure of the 1990s attempts at reform in this realm are testimony to the victory of “more closed and ethnocentric tendencies in shaping the identity of Israeli state school graduates.” In state-religious schools, which add religion-driven polemics to the typical Israeli historical revulsion vis-a-vis Christianity, the hostility toward that religion is perhaps even greater. In another sixth-grade history textbook, one intended for the religious schools (“From Generation to Generation,” Vol. 1), focusing on the Roman era and up to that empire’s destruction of Jerusalem, Jesus is mentioned only in passing. The miracles performed by Jesus, who is again referred to as “Yeshu,” are attributed to his expertise in medicinal herbs.

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In any event, according to that textbook, only the simple folk believed in him, he preached against the tradition of the sages and was convicted for being an inciter and sorcerer. The description borrows heavily from rabbinic polemics. Not only is Christianity presented as a polytheistic faith, but one ostensibly lacking all logic. In that context, this past year, Karma Ben-Johanan, a historian of religion, published “Reconciliation and Its Discontents: Unresolved Tensions in Jewish-Christian Relations” (Tel Aviv University; in Hebrew) – a comprehensive study of the disturbing attitudes of Orthodox Judaism in Israel toward Christianity.

“Jesus Was a Jew” illuminates the need to alter the discourse and message that the Israeli education system is imparting to future generations. The material being taught is not preparing the pupil to become acquainted with a religious tradition that is venerated by a considerable part of the world’s population and also constitutes an important community in Israeli society. Although a negative attitude toward Christianity may be understandable in light of Jewish history, the fact is that in the State of Israel where Jews are a majority and are sovereign, it is the state’s responsibility to treat all of its citizens, including those who are Christian, with equality and with dignity.

At a time when many Christians are working sincerely and diligently to uproot every vestige of the historic doctrine of contempt vis-a-vis the Jews or Judaism, the time is ripe for those responsible for education in Israel to be on their guard against disdain and enmity on the part of Jews toward the Christians and Christianity. The important book under review here attests to the challenge facing us.

Father David Neuhaus is the superior of Holy Land Jesuits and director of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem Churches Protest ‘Systematic Attempt to Drive Christians Out of the Holy Land’ by Nir Hasson

The heads of Christian denominations in Jerusalem have launched a campaign protesting violence by radical groups and attempts by Israeli settler organizations to acquire properties in the Old City, decrying a “systematic attempt to drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land.”

The campaign launched last week, ahead of Christmas, joins other joint operations by Jerusalem churches against Israel’s policy in the Old City.

The campaign includes a new dedicated website, petitions and articles in international media. The church leaders highlight “incidents of physical and verbal assaults against priests and other clergy,” and the inability of the police to provide adequate protection.

They also decry attempts by “radical groups [to] continue to acquire strategic property in the Christian Quarter,” which is interpreted as being aimed at the Ateret Cohanim nonprofit’s attempts to enter two large buildings it bought from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in the Christian Quarter.

In a response to the campaign by the Council of Patriarchs and the heads several churches, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said their accusations were “baseless and distort the reality of the Christian community in Israel.”

“Religious leaders have a critical role to play in education for tolerance and coexistence, and church leaders should be expected to understand their responsibility and the consequences of what they have published, which could lead to violence and bring harm to innocent people,” the Foreign Ministry said.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, who was behind the campaign, said that “at no time in human history has the future of our Christian communities been shakier,” adding that “radical groups are intent on uprooting us from our homes, businesses and ritual sites. Instead of being divided, we must unite on behalf of a peaceful and tolerant Holy Land for all religions.”

The joint statement was signed by the heads of all the large churches in the city, including the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Custody of the Holy Land representing the Vatican, and the head of the Anglican Church.

“Throughout the Holy Land, Christians have become the target of frequent and sustained attacks by fringe radical groups,” says their statement. “Since 2012 there have been countless incidents of physical and verbal assaults against priests and other clergy, attacks on Christian churches, with holy sites regularly vandalized and desecrated, and ongoing intimidation of local Christians who simply seek to worship freely and go about their daily lives.”

The number of violent incidents toward Christian clergy, mostly on the part of young Jews, has increased recently. One of the churches that suffers the most from this problem in the Armenian Church, because it is located near the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. For example, in May two priests were attacked by four Jewish teens and a month ago a young man was documented spitting on the door of the church. An Armenian Church official said that at almost every religious procession of theirs they experience spitting and cursing.

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“I’ve been in Israel since 1995 and never before have there been so many incidents like this,” said Father Koryoun Baghdasaryan, the chancellor of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. “Every day that I leave my home for the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or to visit family, I’m afraid something will happen to me. There were always curses and spitting, in recent years physical violence also started.”

In addition, church leaders say that the government’s decision to “close the skies” to tourists because of the spread of the omicron variant has hurt Christian pilgrimage to the city for Christmas. The coronavirus restrictions also affect the passage of Palestinian believers from the West Bank to Jerusalem. The decision by Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked last week to allow the entry of Birthright groups into Israel in spite of the closing of the skies has also led to great anger among the church leadership, who claim it is discriminatory.

The fact that Christian pilgrims will not visit Jerusalem this year to celebrate Christmas significantly harms the churches financially, said sources involved in the matter. One of the considerations for launching the campaign was the desire to raise donations from the Christian world.

This distress comes in addition to the threat to evacuate two large buildings in the Christian Quarter, the Imperial Hotel and Petra Hotel. Recently, after a long legal battle, the hotels were transferred to the ownership of a Jewish organization that had bought the buildings, and which is now trying to evict the Palestinians who are running the hotels – and bring in Jewish families to live there. The heads of the Christian communities now fear that the change in ownership of the hotels – which were bought in a controversial deal by Ateret Cohanim 15 years ago using shell companies – could change the character of the Christian Quarter.

The release of the statement last week drew attention from a number of newspapers around the world, including the British Telegraph, Sunday Times and Times. The headline of an article written jointly in The Times by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Hosam Naoum, the archbishop of the Episcopal Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East – the Anglican Church – read: “Let us pray for the Christians being driven from the Holy Land.“

In a different article published in The Telegraph and written by Francesco Patton, the Custody of the Holy Land on behalf of the Vatican, he wrote: “In recent years, the lives of many Christians have been made unbearable by radical local groups with extremist ideologies. It seems that their aim is to free the Old City of Jerusalem from its Christian presence, even the Christian quarter.”

The statement was unusual not just for its content, but also because of the cooperation between the different Christian denominations in Jerusalem. Throughout history, the relations between the different churches has mostly been one of hostility and disputes, sometimes even violent ones.

This cooperation seems similar to that of 2018 when most of the Christian leadership in Jerusalem joined together to protest the law concerning church-owned lands and the dispute with Jerusalem city hall over the collection of local property taxes from certain church-owned institutions. In what was an unusual step in protest at the time, the church leaders closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

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The US, Israel and the Kingdom of Bahrain announced a deal to normalize diplomatic relations between Bahrain and Israel. Bahrain will join the UAE on the 15th of September to sign a peace treaty with Israel at the White House. Unfortunately, the normalization between the two countries disregards the root of the conflict in the Middle East, the suffering of the Palestinian people and their cry for a just peace.

  • Oh Lord Most High, we turn to you to find refuge in the face of worldly deception. We continue to live in your shelter and abide in your shadow. We trust in you Lord to be our refuge and fortress in the face of terror, pestilence and destruction. (Taken from Psalm 91:1-7) Lord in your mercy…hear our prayer.

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The US, Israel and the Kingdom of Bahrain announced a deal to normalize diplomatic relations between Bahrain and Israel. Bahrain will join the UAE on the 15th of September to sign a peace treaty with Israel at the White House. Unfortunately, the normalization between the two countries disregards the root of the conflict in the Middle East, the suffering of the Palestinian people and their cry for a just peace.

  • Oh Lord Most High, we turn to you to find refuge in the face of worldly deception. We continue to live in your shelter and abide in your shadow. We trust in you Lord to be our refuge and fortress in the face of terror, pestilence and destruction. (Taken from Psalm 91:1-7) Lord in your mercy…hear our prayer.

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On Wednesday, the 19th of August a video went viral in Palestine. The video showed how Israeli soldiers had abused and beaten young Palestinian workers while they were on their way to work in Israel. Montaser Al-Fakhoury, 21, from Hebron spoke to a reporter from the Palestine News Network about how the soldiers had beaten him and other workers and had stolen money and cigarettes from them.

  • Lord Jesus, we pray that the abuse suffered by these Palestinian workers and many others who have to endure the daily humiliation of passing through Israeli checkpoints will cease. We pray that the Israeli authorities will censure and stop the abuse from their soldiers. Lord, in your mercy…hear our prayer.

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On Wednesday the 12th of August, Sabeel organized the Virtual Jerusalem Ecumenical Prayer Service in partnership with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land and in co-operation with other churches in Jerusalem. The service was conducted in Arabic. English, French and Japanese are available online.

  • God our Father in heaven, we seek your kingdom and righteousness; yet we cannot find peace or justice. We put before You the injustice of our oppression, the confusion and division among our leaders, their righteousness and the absence of it. Lord, in your mercy…hear our prayer.

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This week’s Kumi Now initiative looks at the work of the Palestine Museum of Natural History, (PMNH) and the Palestine Institute of Biodiversity and Sustainability (PIBS). The mission of both these institutes, (see www.palestinenature.org) is to research, conserve and disseminate knowledge about the cultural heritage and the natural environment of Palestine. Their joint aim is to use their knowledge to interact responsibly with their environment.

  • Dear Lord, everything you created is good (1Tim 4:4). We are so thankful for those who work for the PMNH and PIBS as they look carefully at the natural environment around them and care for it in a respectful way. We pray that their hearts will be filled with awe at the wonders they discover. Lord, in your mercy…hear our prayer.

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Here is a reminder that the Kumi Now initiative will be holding weekly video conferences with different organisations working for Palestine. The conferences will start on Tuesday, the 2nd of June at 6pm Palestinian time, with Dr Mazin Qumsiyeh who will speak from the Palestinian Museum of Natural History about the environmental impact of the Israeli occupation. (www.kuminow.com/online)

  • Lord, we pray that many people around the world will watch the Kumi Now video conferences to find out how the Palestinian people survive under occupation in their own land. We thank you for their resilience and their resourcefulness. Lord in your mercy…hear our prayer.

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Here is a reminder that the Kumi Now initiative will be holding weekly video conferences with different organisations working for Palestine. The conferences will start on Tuesday, the 2nd of June at 6pm Palestinian time, with Dr Mazin Qumsiyeh who will speak from the Palestinian Museum of Natural History about the environmental impact of the Israeli occupation. (www.kuminow.com/online)

  • Lord, we pray that many people around the world will watch the Kumi Now video conferences to find out how the Palestinian people survive under occupation in their own land. We thank you for their resilience and their resourcefulness. Lord in your mercy…hear our prayer.

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Sabeel held a clergy meeting in Ramallah on Friday 21st February. The meeting was attended by 40 clergy or parish representatives and explored the challenges faced by health services in local parishes.

  • Lord, we pray for the clergy of Palestine as they come together with Sabeel and experts in the field of healthcare and health insurance to explore solutions to the challenges faced by health services. We pray that this meeting will be the first of many. Lord, in your mercy…hear our prayer.