A new blog post by John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, routinely described as the most authoritative English-language journalist covering the Vatican, reports on a seldom-discussed irritant in Catholic-Jewish relations: Haredi youth spitting on robed Catholic clerics on the streets of Jerusalem. Here’s an excerpt:
Jews move to halt spitting at Christians in Jerusalem Globally speaking, the most serious new tension dividing Jews and Catholics is Pope Benedict XVI’s decision just before Christmas to advance the sainthood cause of Pius XII, the wartime pontiff whose alleged “silence” on the Holocaust has long been a subject of polarizing historical debate. On the ground in Jerusalem, however, Jewish/Christian animus has a much more prosaic cause: spitting. Recently, the Jerusalem Post carried a piece quoting Rabbi David Rosen, a veteran of Catholic/Jewish dialogue, acknowledging that incidents of ultra-Orthodox Jews spitting at priests, nuns and other Christian clergy is “a part of life” in Jerusalem. Such incidents have been occurring for the last twenty years and are now on the rise, according to the story, although they appear to be limited to Jerusalem. The piece quoted a Texas-born Franciscan, Fr. Athanasius Macora, who heads the Christian Information Center inside the Jaffa Gate, who said that he’s been spat upon by ultra-Orthodox Jews as much as fifteen times in the last six months — not only in the Old City, but also outside his Franciscan friary.
Aside from being disgusting, how serious a problem is this? On one hand, the victims quoted in the post say it’s an annoyance and they’re used to it. On the other hand, Allen mentions it in the same breath as the Pius XII sainthood feud; coming from someone like Allen, that’s a pretty strong hint that the Vatican is peeved. Indeed, the fact that Allen is reporting this means it’s on the minds of Vatican players.
All of which brings up two troubling thoughts:
First, Allen reports approvingly on — and reprints in full — an open letter from the Bet Din Tzedek (known to the locals as Badatz), the highest authority in the Haredi community, urging steps to end the practice. The operative words: “We hereby call upon anyone who has the power to end these shameful incidents through persuasion, to take action as soon as possible to remove these hazards, so that our community may live in peace.” What Allen (and, in all likelihood, the Vatican officials who steered him to this story) don’t seem to realize is that when Badatz wants to stop something, they don’t go around appealing to “anyone who has the power” or urging “persuasion.” If they want something stopped, they forbid it in a halachic ruling, and that generally stops it dead. If they don’t rule against it, it’s a signal that they aren’t very serious.
Second: Read through the reader responses on the blog. They are as instructive as the report itself, if not more so. They range from “This is the latest in the age-old persecution of Christians” to “This is the least of their sins [emphasis added]. The biggest is when they kicked the Palestinians out of their own homeland” to “All the so called Palestinians are from other arab countries” to “bringing up minor infractions like spitting serves to obfuscate the serious tension between the Church and the Jewish Communities … over the proposed sainthood of Pius XII” to “Yes, spitting is despicable, but not quite as despicable as 2000 years of Catholic inspired abuse on Jewish Communities” to “a pope who is about to be ‘sainted’ should have put his life on the line in fighting nazism … had he done so, he would have been killed” to “Fine, go ahead and spit on us and just see who will be there to defend you; not me. In fact your hateful and shameful behavior toward us reminds me of the Chief Rabbi’s who condemned Jesus to death.”
It’s just full of historical goodies like that! Check it out …
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).