When Rabbi Ron Kronish, Director of ICCI, invited me to an event entitled, “Why do some Jews spit on Christians in the Old City,” I was surprised. I had no idea that some “religious” Jews literally spit on Christians when they walk past them in the Old City. I also had no idea how widespread this practice is: literally hundreds of such incidents of assault are reported every year, and most remain unprosecuted. Although these statistics are discouraging, Monday night’s event gave me some hope that the people in charge in Israel can put a stop to these incidents, and that members of all faiths can live together in peace in Jerusalem.
The event, co-sponsored by ICCI, the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations (JCJCR), and Kehillat Yedidya, a modern orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood, was the first of its kind. Daniel Rossing, director of the JCJCR, opened the event with some sobering statistics about the attitude of Jewish Jerusalem residents towards Christians: according to a public opinion survey conducted last year by the JCJCR and the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies , 43% of Jews living in Jerusalem, and 78% of those who identify as “religious,” believe that Christianity is an idolatrous religion. Increasingly, there are fewer members of government with a basic knowledge or understanding of Christianity, and many Christians feel that they have no advocate in the government—at the local or national level with whom to share their concerns, as had been the case in the past.
Part of the problem, according to Yiska Harani, Lecturer in Religions at the Avshalom Institute in Tel Aviv, is that Jews and Christians in Jerusalem seldom interact with each other: Jews and Christians do not tend to work together, and they tend to remain in their own sections of the city. In fact, the Israel Ministry of Education prohibits Jewish-Israeli school groups from visiting the non-Jewish Quarters of the Old City due to security concerns, and Christian schoolchildren never enter the Jewish Quarter. As a result, the Jewish and non-Jewish communities know almost never encounter each other.
This is why the event Monday night was so significant. Archbishop Aris Shirvanian and Friar Athanasius Makora, representing, respectively, the Armenian and Roman Catholic communities, engaged with a group of Jewish residents of Jerusalem, many of whom knew practically nothing about their Christian neighbors.
Archbishop Shirvanian explained that this was the first time that he had ever addressed a group of Jews about the harassment that he experiences, practically daily, in the Old City. In fact, earlier that day, he was spat upon twice, while walking near the Armenian seminary in the Old City, which is on the grounds of the Armenian Patriarchate. Despite the humiliation of such incidents, Archbishop Shirvanian has never retaliated: “I cannot resort to the same means as younger and hot-blooded people,” he explained. Instead, he concluded with a message of peace: “We [the Armenian community] would like to live in peace, and we would like to see love and understanding exist among all the peoples of this holy land…We have to follow the commandment of our Lord: love your neighbor as yourself.”
Debbie Weissman, who serves both as president of the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ), and as a co-chair of ICCI, and is a veteran member of Kehillat Yedidya, gave a Jewish response. Earlier, Yiska Harani had described the Jewish community of Jerusalem by dividing it into “secular, liberal, moderate religious and fanatic” groups, but Debbie disagreed: “I wouldn’t describe people like us as moderately religious. We are passionately religious.” She continued, “The Zionist ‘revolution’ doesn’t mean that when Jews have power, we behave towards others the way that unfortunately much of our history they behaved towards us. It is now our responsibility to set a new standard of behavior.”
Andrea Katz, another member of Kehillat Yedidya and one of the organizers of the event, invited the mostly Jewish audience to take action to deal the problem. In April, a group of Jews will visit with representatives of Christian communities in the Old City because, “In order to empathize, we have to know.” Then, in May, there will be a “human corridor” of Jews standing silently along the path from the St. James Armenian Convent to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It is important, she said, to prove that not all Jews support the degradation of others.
Recently, there have been positive developments on the municipal level: Yaacov Avrahami, an advisor to the mayor on the Christian communities in Jerusalem, who was in attendance, worked with the Jerusalem Intercultural Center to get a ruling from the Beit Din of the Edah Haharedit (the Ultra Orthodox Religious Court in Jerusalem)condemning the practice of spitting on Christians, calling it a “desecration of the divine name.”
The phenomenon of spitting on Christians in the Old City may seem minor when compared to all of the problems in this part of the world, and in this city in particular. Still, it goes to the heart of the inter-religious tension within Jerusalem. Because of people like those at Kehillat Yedidya on Monday, I am confident that we can use religion, not to fuel conflict, but rather, to pursue peace and foster coexistence.