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ISRAEL: Atittudes toward Christians

May 14, 2009 |  8:37 am

Jewish Israelis are very diverse. In a nation whose immigrants come from countries and cultures far and wide, pluralism often refers to tolerance among different cultural groups of Jews.

But diversity discourse in Israel differs considerably when it comes to interaction with non-Jewish groups. Rival historic, religious and national narratives make real diversity a tough principle to practice.  

Most Christians in Israel are Arabs, a minority within a minority squeezed between different layers of conflict. Christians account for 2.1% of the population. Israel's non-Arab Christians are mainly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, foreign workers, resident clergy and even Catholic Jews. And Jewish Israelis don't quite know how to perceive any of them -- for cultural, national and religious reasons.

Fifty-two percent of Jewish Israelis have no Christian friends or acquaintances, but almost 100% of them have opinions about them. A recent poll surveyed attitudes among the adult Jewish population toward Christians, Christianity and the Christian presence in Israel. The results of the survey, carried out by the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations (JCJCR) and the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (JIIS), shed light on how Jewish Israelis perceive Christians and what they know about them, or think they do know.

Generally, most answers showed that the higher the level of religious observance, the more negative the attitude toward Christians. Such attitudes also were seen the lower the level of age, income and education. The following numbers mostly refer to the overall sample, but keep in mind the observance breakdown of the respondents: 23% Orthodox, 24% traditional and 53% secular.

  • 54% of the Jewish population think it is necessary to teach about Christianity in schools, including 25% of Orthodox Jews. But only 37%  believe it's necessary to teach about the New Testament.
  • 42% believe Christianity is closer to Judaism than Islam. A total of 32% believe Islam is closer.  The breakdown of religious observance is interesting here, with 49% of Orthodox Jews believing   Islam is closer and only 17% believing that Christianity is. But 54% of secular Jews believe Christianity is closer and 22% that Islam is.
  • 41% agreed very much or largely with the claim that "Christianity is an idolatrous religion," including 24% of secular and 78% of Orthodox Jews.
  • 37% believe it is forbidden for a Jew to enter a church, with the predictable observance differential. Still, the percentage of people who say they do not enter churches in practice is lower (29%) than those who believe it's forbidden.
  • 23% are greatly or significantly bothered when meeting in the street a Christian wearing a cross, including 8% of secular respondents and 60% of Orthodox Jews. This was an issue during the papal visit: Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall, had asked that the pope remove or at least cover his cross when visiting the site. He didn't. Rabinowitz said he felt the same way about a Jew entering a church with a prayer shawl and phylacteries. Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar responded by wearing a chain with a pendant depicting the tablets of the Ten Commandments when he met the pope Tuesday.
  • And here's one that says a lot: 46% do not agree that Jerusalem is a central city for the Christian world, including 31% of secular and 67% of Orthodox Jews.
  • 21% agree with the claim that all or most Christians want to convert Jews to Christianity, including 14% of secular and 43% of Orthodox Jews.
  • 39% believe the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church to Judaism and Jews is positive. 58% believe there has been a change for the better in the church's attitude toward Jews in the last 50 years. Nearly 20% had no opinion on this one.
  • 55% say it is acceptable for Jewish organizations to receive financial assistance from Christian religious bodies, including 70% of secular and 20% of Orthodox Jews. 41% of the population said it was unacceptable.
  • So, should Israel allow churches to operate in Israel? 39% say yes -- but that they shouldn't be helped in any way. 34% say they should be assured freedom of religion and helped like any other religious institution, while 20% believe their activities should be restricted as much as possible.
  • And here's one thing most agree on: 71% say Israel should not permit Christian bodies to purchase property in Jerusalem for building new churches.
  • 45% believe the Arab Christians have a positive attitude toward the state; 45% believe their attitude is negative. 39% consider them loyal to the state.
  • 56% don't think Israel needs to take any action on Christian emigration from the country; 9% thought Israel should do something to stop it and 31% say that the state should encourage it.

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Briefing reporters before the pope's visit, JCJCR director Daniel Rossing stressed the importance of inter-religious dialogue for society but also for the peace process. One of the flaws of the process, he said, was that the mainly secular actors assumed that to succeed, religion needed to be removed from the picture. Rossing believes this creates a vacuum that invites extremists to fill it.

On Christian emigration, Rossing said it was important that Christians continue to be a vibrant community and that "this not become a Disneyland of holy places without a living community. They can serve as a bridge and everyone stands to lose if they disappear from here."

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

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