Israelis need crash course in Christianity and Islam

There was an enormous difference between the way adult Israelis and their children related to the pope's visit.

The adults, or at least those of them who grew up in pluralistic Western countries, followed the pontiff's pilgrimage with great interest because they understand who he is and what he stands for.

Sabras, in contrast, were generally indifferent. They know practically nothing about Christianity and would certainly have been more exited had it been Elton John rather than John Paul II who touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport.

An Israeli youngster can go through 12 years of school without learning the basic facts about Christianity — or Islam for that matter. There are a few exceptions, to be sure. Dor, a 12th-grade history major at a local high school, has studied the foundations of Christianity and the development of the papacy. But among the 260 teenagers in his year, only eight are history majors. The other 252 can hardly differentiate between a pope and a pizza.

What little knowledge they have about Christianity is mainly acquired within the context of their studies of Jewish history. The Inquisition, the pogroms and the Holocaust tell them all they need to know — so the educational authorities here seem to believe — about Christians.

Ya'acov Stein, who was a principal and a history teacher for several decades, says, "I have always felt that we weren't giving the kids the kind of background they should have in this sphere. But so little time is allocated to the teaching of history that we can barely get through the basics, and successive ministers of education haven't regarded an introduction to Christianity and Islam as being among the basics. This may have something to do with the marked influence of those elements who are fearful that Jewish children might be influenced by foreign creeds."

Some have been, but not, in most cases by Christianity or Islam. Instead we have the phenomenon of Israeli backpackers who are drawn to Eastern mysticism during their sojourns in India and Nepal. For most of them, this ends on their return to the Jewish state, though there are still a number of Israelis who have remained in the ashrams of the Indian subcontinent.

This phenomenon, while interesting, is not significant, for Israelis — whether they like it or not — are living in a world dominated by the adherents of Christianity and Islam. And if they are to prosper, or even survive, they must be well acquainted with the history and beliefs of those two powerful religions.

As of now, such is not the case with our younger generation. The graduates of secular schools know precious little about the other monotheistic creeds and the graduates of religious schools, in most cases, know nothing at all. One can only hope that the visit of the pope will awaken an interest in the beliefs of the "goyim," and to subsequent changes in the curricula of Israeli schools.