Informed Comment / October 5, 2023
Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Israeli journalist Nir Hasson at Haaretz put a spotlight on the disturbing practice of some Ultra-Orthodox Israelis of eastern European heritage of spitting on Christians in Jerusalem. The incident concerned what appeared to be Filipino pilgrims carrying a cross, but the people who suffer most from such forms of aggression are the 15,000 Palestinian Christians living in Palestinian East Jerusalem.
Haaretz reports that a former spokesman for Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, Wadie Abu Nassar, is saying that Pope Francis is “furious” over the attacks.
The Israeli newspaper Arab 48 notes that Israeli authorities subsequently arrested five Ultra-Orthodox caught spitting toward Christians or the doors of Christian churches in Jerusalem. Jerusalem police chief Kobi Shabtai vowed to crack down on any demonstration of bigotry. The Palestinian-Israeli journalists at Arab 48 called the spitting an act of “racism.” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who allowed extremists and racists into his cabinet, condemned the spitting, insisting that Israel welcomed pilgrims of all religions.
In another article, Arab 48 wrote, “Activists circulated statements issued by the Israeli Minister of National Security, the extremist Itamar Ben-Gvir, in which he said, ‘There is an ancient Jewish custom, to spit when you pass near a monastery or a priest. You can agree with that or not, but why would we turn spitting on Christians into a crime?’” He did however say that the practice deserved “every condemnation” and called on people to “stop slandering Israel” in this way.
The article also quoted Elisha Yered, a militant Israeli squatter who is under house arrest on suspicion of murdering a Palestinian last August, as saying, “A good time to point out that spitting near priests or churches is an ancient Jewish custom … Perhaps under the influence of Western culture we have forgotten to some extent what Christianity is, but I believe that the millions of Jews who, while in exile, suffered through the Crusades, the tortures of the Inquisition, blood libel and mass violence will never forget.” Yered is the former spokesman for a member of the Israeli parliament who belongs to Ben-Gvir’s fascist “Jewish Power” party.
Arab 48 reported that the World Council of Churches in Jerusalem condemned the “persecution” of Christians by extremist Israeli groups and the failure of the Israeli security forces to do anything about it.
Coordinator for the WCC Jerusalem Bureau, Youssef Daher, told the Anadolu Agency, it said, that both individual Christians and Christianity as a religion face persecution in Israel, and that some government ministers actively encourage it, while Israeli police ignore it.
He said, “the issue is related to the Israeli government and the police and authorities’ neglect of the issue, because if the police had done their role, church property would not have been attacked and Christians would not have been attacked by spitting.” He said that the video of the spitting attacks last Monday showed Israeli police and security personnel present at the scene, but that they failed to intervene. He added, “There is a Jewish Israeli persecution, encouraged either by police negligence or by statements made by Israeli cabinet ministers.”
He said that the churches “submitted many complaints to the Israeli police in recent months, supported by videotapes, but to no avail.” He said, “We recorded about 12-13 attacks on church property. As for spitting, it continues and increases as we watch it repeat. There are one or two incidents weekly.” Daher alleged that what is happening is “hatred of Christianity,” and added, “In the past months, churches issued about 12 statements, the last two of which called for international protection, but no one took action.”
Hasson went on to interview experts in Jewish history who explained that a small minority of Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe, who were a persecuted minority, would spit toward churches when passing them at night and there was no one around. Hasson’s interviewees point out that it is a very different thing demonstratively to spit in broad daylight at Christian minorities living under Israeli rule.
The contemporary Ultra-Orthodox or Haredim who engage in this practice base it on the ruling, endorsed by Maimonides, that Christianity is a form of idolatry and that Jewish believers should underline this abomination with expressions of contempt. Some hold that Jewish law decrees death for idolatry.
Juan Cole is the founder and chief editor of Informed Comment ; he is Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan and the author of, among others, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace amid the Clash of Empires and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam