Rabbi Ron Kronish says the "high level of ignorance on both sides leads to mutual suspicion and stereotyping."
By MATTHEW WAGNER
A coalition of non-governmental organizations and educators hope to improve Muslim-Jewish coexistence in Israel by teaching Islam to Jews and Judaism to Muslims in the nation's public schools.
"We believe that if there will be more knowledge about Islam among Jews and if Israeli Muslims know more about Judaism this would have a positive effect on social relations," said Rabbi Ron Kronish, head of the Interreligious Coordination Council (ICCI). "There is a high level of ignorance on both sides which leads to mutual suspicion and stereotyping."
Relations between Israeli Arabs and Jews have deteriorated over the past eight years, particularly after 13 Arabs were killed in what has become known as the October riots of 2000, in support of the second Palestinian intifada.
Acre, one of the few cities in which Jews and Arabs live together, was the most recent flashpoint of violence. Arabs and Jews clashed in the streets after an Arab inadvertently drove his car into a Jewish neighborhood on Yom Kippur.
On Monday in Jerusalem's Mishkanot Sha'ananim neighborhood, a special symposium entitled "Teaching Islam to Jews and Judaism to Muslims in Israel" will be hosted by ICCI together with the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung foundation in Israel, al-Qasemi College in Baka al-Gharbiya and the Nemia Levtzion Center for Islamic Studies at the Hebrew University.
The symposium marks the launching of an effort to encourage a deeper understanding of religious differences and similarities.
Dr. Ahmad Ghabin, who teaches Islamic civilization and art at al-Qasemi, said there had been discussion about introducing a course in Judaism at his college - one of the most liberal Arab colleges in Israel - but the move faced opposition.
"Students said: 'Why do I have to learn about Judaism, what is my connection to it?'" said Ghabin. "For the time being it does not look like we will be able to start a course here. It makes much more sense to start at the elementary and high school level. By the time these students reach the college level they will have a basic understanding of Judaism and might show an interest in it.
"I believe that if Arabs knew more about how holy Yom Kippur is for the Jews that violence in Acre might not have broken out in the first place."
Dr. Shlomo Alon, National Supervisor of Arabic Language and Middle Eastern Studies in the Jewish Education System, said that Israeli Arabs know much more about Jewish culture than Jews know about Arab culture.
"In theory, the learning of Arabic in Jewish schools is mandatory from 7th to 10th grade. About 40,000 students in each grade learn Arabic," he said.
"By 10th grade only about 15,000 learn Arabic, and that number falls to just 4,000 for those in 11th and 12th grades who decide to learn the language for matriculation," he went on.
According to Alon, the percentage of students in state religious schools who learn Arabic was lower than in secular schools because the enriched Jewish studies leaves less time for study of Arabic.
"Still, most of the leading Jewish scholars of Islam in Israel are religious," said Alon, who is himself a religious Zionist.
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