International Council of Christians and Jews

Dialogika Resources

Guidelines on the Teaching of History and Particularly on the Place of Jewish History in the Teaching of General History


This document is a publication of the International Council of Christians and Jews. It derives from a consultation of thirty scholars and specialists held in May, 1985, who, however, are not directly its authors; it is an edited extract drawn from a summary of three days’ discussions.

It is intended for the guidance and stimulation of teachers and of educational authorities. It is not a manual, but rather a reflection on tendencies in the teaching and writing of a particular component of world history, that of Judaism and of the Jewish people.

Jewish history must be taught within the framework of world history on the grounds of accuracy and completeness, authenticity and objectivity. To ignore it is to offer an incomplete and defective picture.

To ignore it is to minimize and denigrate an important contribution. To ignore it is to reinforce the unjustified impression that Jewish history stops or ceases to have significance with the crucifixion of Jesus, or with the Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., or with the arrival of Christianity.

The teaching of history is the search for understanding. Its foundation must be the search for truth.

The document is divided, as was the consultation itself, into three areas: Ancient History, Mediaeval and Early Modern History, and Recent History (i.e. the history of approximately the last two hundred years).

Each area is divided into two sections, the first setting out themes which should be developed, questions which should be addressed and points which should be emphasized, and the second identifying prevalent distortions, omissions and stereotypical presentations. Guidelines derived from these analyses form the conclusion.

Although some of the observations and recommendations contained herein may have wider application with respect to the teaching of history in general, the primary focus of consideration is the special situation of Jewish history within general history and the special challenge of teaching it accurately and objectively.


Themes, Questions, Points


  • The impact of monotheistic Judaism upon the monotheistic world, e.g. upon Greek and Roman polytheism and upon Persian, Egyptian and Babylonian religions, etc.

  • The special attraction offered by monotheism, and by Judaism specifically, and the attraction which Judaism continued to exert notwithstanding the subsequent impact of Christianity.

  • The biblical concept of the unity of humankind, and the beginnings of the notions of the equal worth of each human being.

  • The tolerance of Jewish (and subsequent Christian) monotheism for other beliefs, and often vice versa.


  • The special ethical challenges of monotheism, of the Hebrew prophets and of later Judaism.


  • The contribution of Judaism to the development of law.

  • The comparison of Mosaic law with the Hammurabic Code, with Greek law, with Roman law, etc.

  • The coexistence of different legal systems within a shared environment, e.g. within the Roman Empire.

Religious practice

  • Number of adherents (Judaism probably constituted the largest religious minority within the Roman Empire in the year 100 C.E., e.g.).\

  • The varying degrees of respect in which Jews and Judaism were held within the Greek and Roman world, e.g. by the various Roman Emperors, and at different levels of Greek and Roman society.

  • The Jews’ sense of peoplehood, and their commitment to the Holy Land.

  • The wholeness, integrity and continuity – right through to the present day – of Jewish religious life and observances, of the Hebrew calendar, of Jewish ethical principles, etc.


  • The situations of Jews in ancient societies, and their inter-relations with other minority groups.

  • The political, military, economic and cultural roles of Jews in ancient societies, and the comparison of those roles with those of other minority groups.

  • The trans-boundary functions of Jews in commerce, culture, information and religions, etc.

  • The Jewish experience of accommodation, of self-preservation and of exile.


  • The comparative interpretation of ancient myths (Tiamat, Creation, Eden, the Flood, etc.).

  • Studies in comparative literature (e.g. biblical and Homeric stories, etc.).

  • The contributions of Jews to the world literature of the period (Philo, Josephus, et al.).

Judaism and Christianity

  • The life of Jesus, his family and his followers in the context of the Judaism of the 1st century C.E.

  • The evolution of Christianity in the context of the pluralistic Judaism (Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, etc.) of the 1st century; the subsequent crystallisation of two pathways: Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.

  • The mission of Paul, and of others, to the Gentiles, as fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham to be father of many nations.

  • The geographic and cultural paths of early Christianity as it spread outside the Holy Land; the relationship of early Christianity to Diaspora Judaism; the dependence of early Christian communities on Diaspora Judaism for structures, liturgy, ritual , ethics, biblical interpretation, art, literature and music, etc.

  • The continuing participation of Christians, well into succeeding centuries, in the synagogue as well as in the Church.

  • The reasons for the non-acceptance of Christianity by the majority of Jews: differing concepts of monotheism and of the Messiah, divergent practices, etc.

  • The continuing rivalry between Judaism and Christianity, therefore emphasizing differences rather than similarities, and their concurrent creativity for many centuries: theological and political aspects, art and literature (e.g. rabbinic and patristic writings).

  • Geopolitical factors determining historical developments (e.g. the struggle between the Roman and the Parthian Empire as a factor in the decision of Constantine the Great to adopt Christianity).

Distortions, Omissions, Stereotypes

Judaism is often portrayed as having disappeared, stagnated or become fossilized when Christianity arose, rather than as a living, continuing religion of vitality and human significance, guiding the lives of large numbers of people up to and including the present day. Rather than coexisting in parallel and even in organic relationship with each other, the Church is portrayed as replacing the Synagogue, and Christians as replacing Jews as people of God.

Judaism is often portrayed as monolithic, legalistic and inflexible, and even as hypocritical and lifeless. ("Law" is a mistranslation and misinterpretation of "Torah").

The image of God in the Tanach (Hebrew Scriptures) is often presented as judgmental and vindictive, in contrast to a gentler Christian image.

The Tanach cannot be interpreted so as to portray the virtuous Hebrews as pre-figured Christians, heirs to God’s promises and messianic hopes, etc., while the portion of the wicked Jew is God’s wrath, punishment, exile, etc.

The Gospels are often interpreted as if containing a single, negative attitude towards Jews and Judaism. They are often presented or perceived as diaries or documentaries, rather than as accounts written in the last third of the 1st century C.E., years after the events with which they deal. Conflicts between Jesus and Jewish groups, such as the Pharisees, depicted in the Gospels often reflect conflicts between Christian and Jewish communities at the end of the 1st century C.E.

Even today, Jews are often held to be collectively responsible for the death of Jesus, notwithstanding extensive scholarship and ecclesiastical pronouncements which have demonstrated that the decision and the form of execution were Roman, and that many Jews were sympathetic towards Jesus and grief-stricken at his death.

In many writings, Jesus, his family and his followers are not recognizably Jewish; their faithful and pious observance of the religion into which they were born is ignored or even denied.

The presentation of Jewish history in the Holy Land as having ceased after 70 C.E. or after Bar Kochba gives the false impression that Jewish settlement thenceforth ceased to exist. In fact, the Roman ban was enforced only in the area surrounding Jerusalem, and Jews continued to live in Galilee and elsewhere. Later, in Muslim times, Jews came back to Jerusalem.

There is a tendency to project back into antiquity certain later, medieval forms of anti-Jewish feeling. Such anti-Judaism as existed in the ancient world was not related to the social or economic roles of Jews; general xenophobia was a commonplace phenomenon.

A general consequence of these distortions and omissions is that stereotypes, and indeed polemics, have arisen out of uncritical and inaccurate historiography. As a result, a thread of anti-Judaism has run throughout Christian history.


Themes, Questions, Points

Variety of Experience

  • Jewish life covered a broad spectrum of experience, from cultural productivity, economic prosperity, political responsibility and social involvement to persecution, impoverishment, exile and massacre.

Culture and Scholarship

  • There was a high level of general culture and literacy among Jews who were pioneers in many fields of human endeavour.

  • The study of religious texts was widespread among Jews, with abundant resulting commentary, in contrast to the pre-Reformation Christian tradition which limited such study and commentary primarily to the clergy and the religious orders. Rabbinic literature flourished, under the leadership of such scholars as Rashi, et al.

  • Jewish scholars played an important role in the transmission to western Europe of a vast corpus of classical, philosophical and scientific (including medical) knowledge, e.g. Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Moses Maimonides, Baruch Spinoza, et al, as well as in translating many of the great Muslim works and making them available in Europe.

Economic activity

  • Jews played a wide variety of economic roles in many countries; the value to the state of their literacy was considerable.

  • The involvement of Jews in importation and exportation was facilitated and made natural by the existence of a network of Jewish communities, particularly throughout the Mediterranean basin and in the Middle East.

  • In addition to their better-known urban activities, Jews were considerably involved in agriculture and in crafts, e.g. in Spain, in Russia and in Poland.

  • The managerial skills of Jews were much in demand in many countries; Jews played a financial role in the development of medieval Europe.

Community life

  • Jewish communities were significantly, integrated into many societies. There was, however, a swinging pendulum between welcome and expulsion, freedom and restriction, equality and discrimination.

  • The religious life of Jewish communities was a binding and sustaining force, and a lifeline of continuity.

  • Education was a dominant preoccupation in Jewish communities, and a concomitant lifeline of continuity.

  • Jewish communities had significant structures of internal self-government and of social welfare; care for the ill and the poor was a well-developed tradition.

Judaism and Christianity

  • Anti-Jewish attitudes were inherent in certain ecclesiastical doctrines. There were anti-Jewish manifestations, and indeed massacres, during the Crusades, and harassments and pogroms in other countries. In some places Jews were held responsible for the Black Death and subjected to persecutions and even forced migrations. As the Reformation progressed, Martin Luther became more and more virulently anti-Jewish. Throughout the era ghettoization became a widespread phenomenon.

  • There were, however, contrasting positive situations in the cultural, economic, professional and social life of various countries. Pro-Jewish positions were taken by a number of papal decrees and by church councils. Calvinism and Puritanism contain strains favourable to Jews and Judaism. Some civil authorities accorded Jews favourable treatment because of their contributions to society.

Judaism and Islam

  • Jews and Muslims, as well as Christians, coexisted peaceably in various countries. The relationships of Sephardic Jews to their surrounding societies were not necessarily the same as those of Ashkenazic Jews.

  • Some Jewish scholars and leaders were significantly influential on the Muslim communities to which they related, and indeed on Christian communities as well; Moses Maimonides is the outstanding example.

Distortions, Omissions, Stereotypes

There is a tendency to ignore Jewish intellectual and spiritual contributions – philosophical, medical and scientific, literary – to western European life.

There is a tendency to portray Jews as having been tolerated at best, rejected and persecuted at worst, whereas various political rulers vied in encouraging their immigration and their involvement in society.

There is a tendency to portray Jews uni-dimensionally, particularly as money-lenders, rather than in favourable socio-economic circumstances, management, literature, medicine, science, etc. There is related tendency to caricature Jews as Shylocks, whereas their financial role was often constructive and indeed vital to economic development; others (Fugger, Medicis, et al.) have not been so negatively regarded.

There is a tendency to explain Jewish success in business and finance as stemming from Judaism’s supposed worldliness, materialism and rationalism, rather than as an expression of their dispersion extending from Christian Europe to the Muslim Levant and beyond, their education and their exclusion from other sources of livelihood, etc. The assertion that Jews were prominent or dominant in the slave trade, then or later, is a myth.

There is a tendency to portray Jews as illiterate and narrow, ghettoized and isolated, whereas literacy and study were widespread, rabbinic literature flowered, and wherever possible relationships were sustained with other Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora and in the Holy Land.\

There is an impression that Judaism was systematically rejected by the Church, whereas the Codex Theodosianus, for example, acknowledged Judaism as the only non-Christian religion to be permitted within Christendom, albeit at an inferior level.

There is an impression that Jews were systematically and uniformly persecuted, hated and rejected by the Christians and Muslims with whom they came in contact; whereas in various areas Jews and Christians or Jews and Muslims lived together for centuries in mutual harmony and productive interaction.


Themes, Question, Points

Modernisation and secularism

  • The Jewish world of the last 200 years has undergone profound changes, as has the larger world around it. Jewish communities were not necessarily static, isolated, inward-looking and religiously conservative; many were significant participants, often pioneers, in the intellectual and social transformations of their era, particularly in the world of ideas.

  • There was great diversity of Jewish expression, with a spectrum ranging from traditional piety and observance to relaxation and even abandonment of religious practice and commitment; this must be analyzed in comparison with tendencies in other religions.

  • The social and economic evolution of living, functioning Jewish communities was significant. Sometimes it was conditioned and constrained by discrimination, harassment, hostility and persecution; but in many times and places it flourished with considerable vitality and variety.

Emancipation and assimilation

  • The French Revolution and the Napoleonic legislation which followed it constituted a watershed from which Jewish emancipation began to flow. Jewish life, and Jewish participation in the larger society, evolved (to different degrees) in various European countries. Emancipatory phenomena also touched other minority groups.

  • The tolerance which was launched by the emancipatory enactments tended, however, to have an inherent expectation: that Jews would abandon their specific Jewish social and religious identity and merge into the larger society. Some did, some did partially, and some did not.

Socialism and radicalism

  • Some Jews were politically radical, and there was a considerable Jewish socialist movement. Many Jews, however, were in the centre or on the right of the political spectrum. The plurality of Jewish political life related to the political plurality of the larger society.

Demographics and adaptation

  • During the two centuries preceding the Holocaust, there had been a substantial population increase among Eastern European Jews; there had also been a considerable migration of Jews in Europe from East to West.

  • In most countries Jews, tending to adapt quickly, became widely dispersed within the social and occupational structures of the larger society.

Modern antisemitism

  • The force and persistence of modern antisemitism are undeniable, but the degree has varied. Antisemitism has been significant in some places and times, yet not in others.

  • There are evident links between modern antagonism towards Jews and the centuries-old tradition of Jew-hatred in Christian thought. There are, however, important distinctions to be made between Christian anti-Judaism and the racial antisemitism which became significant in many countries towards the end of the 19th century.

  • Antisemitism has been found all across the political spectrum, and has not been particular to the right or to the left.

The Holocaust

  • The Holocaust is an incontrovertible fact of history.

  • Jews were not passive under the sentence of annihilation for there were many ghetto and concentration camp revolts, partisan actions and other forms of resistance. Jews were victimized simply because they were Jews. Millions of other people were also casualties, but with very few exceptions such as the Gypsies they were not massacred because of their religious and/or ethnic identity.

  • Nazi ideology set as its objective the eradication of an entire people. There were in Germany pre-existing anti-Jewish attitudes, with a definite moral and ideological basis in Christian anti-Judaism. When the Holocaust began, there was wide-spread indifference to the fate of the Jews, and widespread complicity in, or acceptance of, anti-Jewish policies and actions.

  • The Holocaust was not exclusively a German phenomenon; in most of Nazi-dominated Europe, there were collaborators willing to assist in, and even to initiate, anti-Jewish persecution.

  • Throughout Europe and throughout the world, there were bystanders whose passivity and inaction contributed to the magnitude of the human tragedy.

  • There were, however many "righteous Gentiles" who assisted Jews during this period often at the risk of their own lives. There were also leaders of the churches in various countries who rigorously campaigned on behalf of Jewish refugees and protested against the mass murders of the Holocaust. Horror at these atrocities was a significant factor in stimulating resistance against Nazism.

Jewish nationalism

  • The Jewish nationalism which emerged in the late 19th century, finding major (but not exclusive) expression in the Zionist movement, must be placed in the context of other currents of nationalism in this period of history.

  • The Zionist movement in its early manifestations had a secular and a revolutionary character; subsequently, more traditional elements of Jewish expressions came to play a significant part in it, as the movement spread within the Jewish community.

  • Adverse economic and social conditions in much of Europe were important contributing factors to the emergence of the Zionist movement.

  • Zionism is an example of modern nationalism and embodies the idea of national self-determination, but equally important are its religious contents as an expression of the biblical link between land and people and of the centuries of messianic hope and expectation.

The State of Israel

  • The history of the State of Israel must be treated with the same objectivity and fairness as that of any other state.

  • The Middle-East conflict must be analyzed with balance and comprehensiveness, and in a full regional context; its global implications must also be taken into appropriate account.

  • Israeli society itself must be portrayed with appropriate consideration of its achievement: the revival of the Hebrew language, the integration of waves of immigration, the coexistence of Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, the progress of interreligious relations, the partial internal coexistence of Jews and Arabs, the socio-economic and technical achievements, the cultural and scientific productivity.

The Diaspora

  • The continuing role of the Diaspora must be recognized and given appropriate attention. The study of the history of local Jewish communities deserves particular consideration.

Distortions, Omissions, Stereotypes

  • The portrayal of Jews as passive victims of history, rather than as actors in their own right.

  • The portrayal of Jews as static, inward-looking, religiously reactionary groups, confined to ghettos and to shtetls.

  • The portrayal of Jewish expression as morbid, narrow and uniform, rather than as diverse, imaginative and full of vitality, with a special sense of humour.

  • The simplification of the phenomenon of assimilation which followed emancipation, or of the religious and socio-cultural commitment which resisted it.

  • The stereotyping of Jews as radicals, subversive of the societies in which they lived.

  • The inaccurate demographic statistics which misrepresent the numbers and influence of Jews in various countries (e.g. pre-1933 Germany).

  • The simplification of the complex problem of antisemitism; the failure to assess objectively its roots in Christian thought, interpretation and doctrine, and its other sources; the failure to recognize its variation over the centuries and over the face of the world.

  • The denial of the Holocaust.

  • The inadequate assessment of the contribution of German and non-German collaborators, and of passive bystanders in Germany and in other countries, to the sweep and magnitude of the Holocaust.

  • The inadequate analysis of Jewish nationalism in its historico-social context.

  • The simplification of the Middle-East situation; the selective attribution of blame.

  • The failure to acknowledge the reality and legitimacy of the State of Israel; the failure to recognize its technical, social, scientific and cultural achievements, and its internal vitality and democracy.

Conclusions and guidelines

History is an amalgam of fact and interpretation, as the portrait of a person is both a likeness and an artist’s perception.

History is an interdisciplinary undertaking, involving notably the social sciences and the humanities.

Historical research and teaching are complementary.

The achievement of constructive present-day relations, and of effective dialogue, requires on both sides a thorough knowledge and understanding of the past.

The historiography of the western world, now predominantly liberal and secular, has been deeply influenced by Christian tendencies to ignore the history of the Jewish people. Jewish history thus constitutes a significant gap in knowledge and teaching, and suffers distortion, simplification and stereotyping.

Jewish history, particularly in the Common Era, has tended to be perceived – and taught, if at all – discontinuously, episodically and simplistically. Yet Jewish life has obviously been continuous and productive over these 2000 years and more.

Students must therefore be taught the history of their country, the history of their religion and the history of the world, in such a way as to ensure their understanding of the integrity and continuity of Jewish religious and secular existence before and after the emergence of Christianity.

Jewish history must therefore by rightfully perceived as one of the major and continuing factors which have shaped the history and civilization of the world, no less than such forces as Hellenism, Roman law, the Magna Carta, the rise of Islam, the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution.

The diversity of Jewish history, and of Jewish contributions to cultural and economic life, to scientific knowledge and to social progress, should receive no less attention than the persecutions, hardships, displacements and constraints which affected Jews and their communities in various times and places.

Out of a knowledge and an understanding of both Jewish and Christian history should come comprehension of Christian anti-Judaism and of Jewish dissent from the Christian world view. There should also come a recognition of the periods of Jewish-Christian coexistence.

Since understanding and mutual respect between people of different religious commitments are the natural fruits of education and of dialogue, the teaching of history in terms of reciprocally recognizable portraits is fundamental to the future of the world.

Historical objectivity requires that we seek together to identify significant distortions, omissions and stereotypings; to avoid and eliminate significant fallacies and pitfalls; and to implement necessary corrections in our books, our curriculum content and our attitudes.