It has been Jerusalem’s dirty little secret for decades: Orthodox yeshiva students and other Jewish residents vandalizing churches and spitting on Christian clergyman as they walk along the narrow, ancient stone streets of the Old City.
Now, however, following a highly publicized fracas last week between a yeshiva student and the archbishop of Jerusalem’s Armenian Church, the issue is generating unprecedented media attention in Israel. The fight started after a yeshiva student at the respected Har Hamor yeshiva spat on Archbishop Nourhan Manougian during a Christian holy procession in the Old City.
In the wake of the incident, a top Armenian Church official told the Forward that his church is calling on the Israeli government and on rabbis around the world to help put a stop to the offensive, decades-long abuse.
“These ultra-Orthodox Jews are the ones causing this scandal, those that live here in our neighborhood and the ones that come visit the Western Wall,” said the church official, Aris Shirvanian, in a phone interview Monday. He spoke from the patriarchate’s world headquarters in the Armenian Quarter, one of the famed four quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem.
“We would like to see the authorities… become more strict with the offenders,” said Shirvanian, director of ecumenical and foreign relations of the Armenian Patriarchate. “We would also ask rabbis to get involved in educating this one sector of the Jewish society.”
Har Hamor is one of the leading institutions of religious Zionism, Israel’s equivalent of Modern Orthodoxy. Most sources interviewed for this article suggested that the abusive practices were more common in the ultra-Orthodox or Haredi community, which is characterized by greater insularity.
The controversy comes as the Israeli government and Diaspora Jewish organizations have been viewed for this article suggested that the abusive practices were more common in the ultra-Orthodox or Haredi community, which is characterized by greater insularity. But sources told the Forward that the pratice has recently been picked up by other segments of the Orthodox world, including visiting American yeshiva students.
The controversy comes as the Israeli government and Diaspora Jewish organizations have been attempting to focus international attention on what they describe as a surge in antisemitism across the globe. Beyond potentially undermining these efforts, the reports of anti-Christian harassment could weaken Israel’s claim to be an effective guardian of Christian and Muslim rights in Jerusalem.
“Protection of everything sacred to other religions is one of the justifications for Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem, whose legitimacy will be undermined if this spitting becomes prevalent,” said a former Israeli chief rabbi, Israel Meir Lau. Lau condemned the harassment, and warned that such incidents could fuel antisemitism outside of Israel.
Besides the Armenian rite, clergy of other Christian churches have been targeted, Shirvanian said. “This is not happening only to Armenian clergy, but also to the Catholics, Syrians, Romanians and Greek Orthodox.”
Following the incident involving Manougian, numerous Israeli government officials and Jewish religious and organizational leaders have stepped forward to condemn the acts.
Interior Minister Avraham Poraz called the yeshiva students’ behavior “intolerable,” and asked Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra to “take all the necessary steps to prevent these incidents in the future.”
The chairman of the Knesset’s Interior and Environment Committee, Yuri Stern, said the incidents resulted from ignorance and stupidity. He called for changes in how Christianity is taught in Israeli schools.
Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupoliansky, the city’s first ultra-Orthodox chief executive, announced that he would appoint an adviser to deal with the problem of Jewish harassment of religious minorities in Jerusalem and to provide recommendations to improve interfaith relations in the city.
According to Shirvanian, church officials are frequently subjected to spitting, from yeshiva students as well as from ultra-Orthodox women and young children. He said ultra-Orthodox Jews also throw garbage on church doorsteps and break windows at churches and at Christian homes.
Daniel Rossing, a former adviser on Christian affairs at Israel’s Religious Affairs Ministry, said there has been an increase in the number of such incidents recently, “as part of a general atmosphere of lack of tolerance in the country.”
“I know Christians who lock themselves indoors during the entire Purim holiday” for fear of being attacked by Jews, said Rossing, now the director of a Jerusalem center for Christian-Jewish dialogue.
A spate of recent incidents has been reported in the press:
• A few weeks ago, an elderly man wearing a yarmulke spat on a senior Greek Orthodox cleric who was entering a government office in Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul section.
• Stars of David were spray-painted on the entrance to the Monastery of the Cross, not far from the Knesset. The Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Cathedral, near Jerusalem police headquarters in the so-called Russian Compound in downtown Jerusalem, suffered similar vandalism.
• Officials at a church located near several yeshivas complained that the students were watching them through binoculars and making offensive gestures when they passed by. Churches located in several Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem complained that neighbors had thrown garbage into their yards.
The Armenian call for action comes several days after Manougian was spat upon while leading a procession marking the Exaltation of the Holy Cross near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City.
In response, Manougian slapped the yeshiva student, Natan Zvi Rosenthal, 21, a resident of Beersheva. During the ensuing brawl Manougian’s cross medallion, worn by Armenian archbishops since the 17th century, was damaged.
Police questioned both men. The Jerusalem District Court barred Rosenthal from entering the Old City for 75 days.
Israel’s failure to impose a harsher penalty drew sharp criticism from Manougian. “When there is an attack against Jews anywhere in the world, the Israeli government is incensed,” the patriarch was quoted as saying. “So why, when our religion and pride are hurt, don’t they take harsher measures?”
Rosenthal later apologized to Manougian during a special meeting at Jerusalem police headquarters late last week. In apologizing, he said he had been raised to view Christianity as idol worship, which is forbidden by the Torah.
Shirvanian later said the church had accepted Rosenthal’s apology, as required by its religious tenets. “We had to forgive him in the Christian spirit,” Shirvanian said, adding that the church now favors canceling Rosenthal’s punishment.
On Sunday, Israel’s Knesset held an emergency meeting and launched an investigation into the apparently rising level of assaults against Christian clergy and churches.
But by then, the incident was reverberating throughout the world, with more stories in the Israeli press of harassment and vandalism directed by Orthodox Jews against several denominations.
Even as the Knesset’s Interior and Environment Committee was interviewing Christian leaders and Jerusalem officials, a 6-year-old Haredi boy spat on a young Armenian priest, Shirvanian told the Forward.
In keeping with a long-standing approach, the church did not report the second spitting incident to the police. “When a little boy and little girl do this, they are being taught by their parents,” Shirvanian said. “Shall we punish them? It’s more a matter of educating them and educating the adults.”
The spitting on priests has been occurring “since the unification of Jerusalem in 1967,” Shirvanian said.
Scholars contacted by the Forward cited several ancient rabbinic sources as potential sources of anti-Christian attitudes.
At least one talmudic passage advises Jews to say pejorative things when passing the homes or graves of idolators, and while most rabbinic authorities have denied Christianity was intended, some medieval commentators seem to suggest that some Jews viewed it that way, presumably reflecting Jewish resentment of Christian persecution.
Shirvanian said the Armenian church has generally “tried to ignore” the spitting incidents. He said most Christians do not report the incidents to the police because the authorities ignore them. “They just take the reports and of course, they release the offenders.”
A Jerusalem police spokesman, Gil Kleiman, said that before the recent altercation involving the Armenian patriarch, it had been two years since the police handled a spitting incident.
Kleiman confirmed that Christian clergy complain the harassment is frequent. But it took the attack on the Armenian leader to transform the matter into a public issue and national embarrassment.
Shmuel Evyatar, a former adviser on Christian affairs to the mayor of Jerusalem, called the situation “a huge disgrace,” adding that most of the instigators are yeshiva students studying in the Old City who view the Christian religion with disdain. “I’m sure the phenomenon would end as soon as rabbis and well-known educator denounce it. In practice, rabbis of yeshivas ignore or even encourage it,” he said.
Rabbis from the Har Hamor yeshiva said that Rosenthal was the first student at their institution to be charged with such an offense. They said that they educate their students to be courteous to others and expressed regret over the spitting incident.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, the leading advocacy organization of ultra-Orthodox Judaism here, said he was unfamiliar with assaults on Christians and his organization has no role to play in stopping the harassment.
“Were something of the sort to occur in the United States, our rabbinic leadership would likely address the issue,” Shafran said. “Since, though, the incident and the accusation of more widespread abuse have taken place in Israel, our rabbis would leave any response to the incident and to the demands of Armenian clergymen to the rabbinic leaders in the Holy Land.”
Another American organization, the Anti-Defamation League, is speaking out on the issue. The ADL sent a letter to Israel’s two chief rabbis, urging them to take quick and forceful action.
Rabbi David Rosen, the Jerusalem-based international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said his Christian counterparts are “extremely upset” over the recent incidents. At the same time, he added that “they are also content, in a way, that the matter is now being taken seriously by the Israeli authorities.”
With reporting from Ha’aretz in Israel.