"Can anybody tell me," I asked in my best second-grade teacher voice, "why the Pharaoh made us slaves in Egypt?"
A seven-year-old hand shot up and a child said confidently, "Because the Pharaoh was Catholic, and the Catholics really hate the Jews."
I felt the wheels of my lesson plan quickly grind to a halt.
For weeks in my Hebrew school class at this small Conservative congregation in suburban Boston we had been studying the Exodus, the story of how Moses liberated the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. In the course of our lessons, I had been struck by the children's intelligence many times. On one occasion, a student asked me why it was wrong for the Egyptians to kill Jewish children, but right for God to kill all of the first-born Egyptians.
Staring at the alleged seven-year-old (I was sure he was really a divinity school student in disguise), I realized that the only answer I had was an academic one, developed over years of too much theology education: "The Jews don't take an Aristotelian view of God, in which God is an immutable, perfect being. Instead, we believe that God feels, makes decisions, gets angry, and takes revenge. God's reasoning may not make sense to us, but that's because we do not have access to God's mind."
But when my student gave me bigotry instead of a theological toughie, I was in a far more serious situation. An academic account of how Jesus was born centuries after the Pharaoh lived, not to mention how early Christian sects were divided about how they should view the Jews, would not do. What I was facing here was a dangerous instinct in my student, rather than incorrect knowledge or abstract second-grade philosophy, and I was paralyzed.
Somewhere that child had heard that Catholics hate Jews, and he had not forgotten it. A parent, a friend, or, heaven forbid, a teacher had impressed this idea on him so strongly that he had raised his hand in Hebrew school and given it as an answer.
I wish that the Pharaoh discussion were an isolated incident, but just this week, almost a year later, a student volunteered, "All Christians think Jews killed Jesus, so that's why they hate us" when the subject of Christmas came up.
In both of these cases, how could I tell the kids that they were wrong? The cultural memory of the Jewish people is inescapably one of persecution and historically-justified anger over wrongdoings committed against us for so many reasons-financial jealousy, nationalistic fervor, notions of theological religious superiority-so how could I tell the kids that their generalizations were totally off base?
For me to say that no Catholics have ever done anything wrong to the Jews, or to say that no Christians think that Jews killed Jesus, would be as extreme and simplistic as the children's outlandish statements. Pluralism and multi-faith cooperation may be nearly ubiquitous today, but there are unarguably factions in the Christian world that have directed their theological ire at the Jewish community--and a few that continue to do so.
One of the things that struck me about the "Pharaoh was Catholic" statement was its specificity. The child did not say that the Pharaoh was not Jewish, nor did he say that the Pharaoh was Christian, Protestant, or even Egyptian. He chose Catholic, which complicates the conversation considerably.
The Catholic Church, in recent years, has made several significant overtures to the Jewish community. Pope John Paul II was the first pope to ever enter a Jewish synagogue; he established diplomatic relations with the State of Israel in 1993; two years ago he acknowledged "errors and failures" of the Church to defend Jews during the Holocaust. The Vatican also recently removed a wooden cross that stood at the gates of the Auschwitz death camp and a group of Carmelite nuns relinquished ownership of a convent at that same site. The language of forgiveness permeates the Pope's declaration of 2000 as a "Holy Year," and many have said that Jewish-Catholic relations have been an unprecedented cornerstone of his papacy. The Jewish community has had mixed reception to this outreach from Catholicism. Some feel that the Church is not going far enough in repenting for Pope Pius XII's inaction during the Holocaust. Others feel that gestures such as the canonization of the martyred nun Edith Stein, who converted from Judaism and was killed by the Nazis, belittles Jewish loss during that dark period in history. But some are eager to move forward from the tense and divided past, embracing interfaith dialogue as a very positive development.
To my second-graders, though, these adult debates are remote and abstract. They're getting their theology and Jewish history from films such as "The Ten Commandments" and "The Prince of Egypt," not to mention the dramatic pictures in their Hebrew school Bible storybooks. And if the message they're getting from the Exodus story is that Pharaoh was evil and cruel to the Jews, and the message they're getting from schoolmates or family members is that Catholics have never liked the Jews, then they're going to do their own math.
How could I break into that equation with a message that would make more sense to their seven- year-old minds than the easy -but- prejudiced idea that Catholics hate Jews?
The only way that I've found of addressing the anti-Christian instinct in many Jewish children is to repeat their statement as if it were fact, saying out loud that Catholics hate Jews or that ALL Christians fill-in-the-blank. In doing so, some students seem to agree tacitly, while others look uncomfortable, as if they can't quite put their finger on what's wrong with the statement. I then ask them to notice how they reacted to what I said.
I ask them to look at the world around them. Look at the students sitting next to you in public school, the fact that our synagogue worships in a church building, the wonderful things that Christians and Jews are doing together all over today's world. Now re-evaluate the statements.
As you get older, I tell them, you will learn that our people did not always have a good relationship with the Christian world. But today, we are lucky enough to understand that it is wrong to decide that an entire group is cruel or bad because of things some members of that group did in the past. Jews especially must be wary of such generalizations precisely because we have seen them used as a rationale for terrible actions taken against us.
The history lesson here was simple: The Pharaoh was not Catholic. But historical fact was not the central issue. I hope that the lesson was one more thread in a web of voices, coming at them from all sides, teaching them not to depend on generalizations, to remember the power of their own words, and to realize that the future lies in their hands.