Spitting Incident Digs up Deep Rooted Old City Tensions

JERUSALEM (Combined Sources)–The recent altercation between an Armenian Orthodox bishop and an ultra-Orthodox Jewish youth has spotlighted the issue of such religious confrontations–which according to some observers–is on the rise.

The incident occurred October 10 when a Jewish student spat at a cross carried by Archbishop Nourhan Manougian during a procession marking the exaltation of the holy cross in Jerusalem’s Old City. The archbishop’s ceremonial medallion–which has been in use since the 17th century–was broken during the ensuing brawl–during which he slapped the student.

The archbishop and the student were questioned by the police–and the student was arrested.

The Ha’aretz newspaper said religious Jews often spit on the ground when they see the cross. The newspaper quoted the archbishop as saying he had grown accustomed to people turning around and spitting when he walked past–but to have a cross spit at during a religious procession was a "humiliation we are not prepared to accept."

Manougian denounced the "shocking silence" of the Israeli religious establishment toward "these unacceptable acts."

"You meet a fanatic segment of Jews who have their own ideas; sometimes when they see Christian clergy walking on the Via Dolorosa with the cross–some fanatics [may say something or spit] but we can’t generalize. It is not the sort of thing you see in general," said Father Shawki Baterian–chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. "It may happen to individual priests sometimes–but they don’t [lodge] complaints or pay attention to it."

He said Archbishop Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem has never been insulted or abused in such a manner.

Daniel Rossing–former adviser on Christian affairs for the Religious Affairs Ministry and director of the Jerusalem Center for Christian-Jewish Dialogue–said–however–that the Armenian and Syrian Orthodox churches are generally the ones facing the brunt of such antagonism because their communities are located closer to areas where Orthodox Jews go and so have more chances of contact.

"You don’t hear of a lot of incidents near the Latin Patriarchate area or near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher–because those are not areas where in general Jews are passing–[but] the Armenian Quarter is along a major thoroughfare–with a human traffic flow of Jews going to the Jewish Quarter and to the Western Wall," Rossing said.

In general–Rossing said such attacks are perpetrated by younger male members of the Orthodox Jewish community.

He said his center is planning to ask Christian churches to report all such incidents so it can build a solid statistical base with which to approach leading rabbinical figures to ask for their assistance in curbing the abuse.

Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said police have had only two complaints from Christians in the past year. In both cases–the culprits were caught and punished–he said–adding that police deploy a large number of patrols and employ special technology in the Old City to try to maintain order.

Rabbi Ron Kronish–director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel–said there have been increasing reports of such incidents.

"There is a lack of education in a very certain quarter of Jewish life–but it is not sweeping Israeli society. It tends to be in the areas of Jerusalem where [Christian clergy] come in contact with ultra-Orthodox [Jews]," he said. "It is not an epidemic–but it is increasing."

The problem is most intense in the Old City–he said–recalling an incident when he accompanied a visiting Catholic cardinal to the Western Wall–and an Orthodox Jewish youth shouted disparaging remarks at the religious leader. The cardinal ignored the shouting–and his visit continued as planned.

"There needs to be more education and statemen’s by some leading figures in the Orthodox [Jewish] world in Israel," Rabbi Kronish said. "But it is hard to educate people who are not open to dialogue. More awareness that this is a city of three faiths would be helpful."

In its lead editorial–Ha’aretz called the incidents "Jerusalem’s disgrace" and charged the police and Interior Ministry with not doing enough to prevent such attacks.

"It turns out that for some time the Christians in Jerusalem have been suffering from… provocations by wild young people. The provocations. . . have become an ugly routine in recent years–fitting right in with the increasingly extremist political atmosphere," the newspaper said.

It called on the city to "take firm action" against the offending youth.

"It is intolerable that Christian citizens of Jerusalem suffer from the shameful spitting at or near a crucifix," the paper said.

Many Orthodox Jews see the cross as a symbol of the violence perpetrated on Jewish communities by Christians over the centuries.

According to Albert Aghazaryan–one of the prominent leaders of the Palestinian Armenian community–the act of spitting on Christian symbols is "deep rooted in the Jewish religious doctrine."

"Hostility to Christianity is intrinsic in religious Jewish thinking," Aghazaryan said.

A few weeks ago–a similar incident took place when another religious Jew–reportedly an old man wearing a skullcap–spat at a Christian Orthodox leader as he opened the window of his car.

A few years ago–Jewish religious students burned down a Jerusalem flat in which two Christian college students were living. The two students fled unharmed.

According to the famous Jewish author and philosopher Yisrael Shahak–much of the Jewish Orthodox hostility to Christianity originate in theology.

In his book "Jewish History–Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years," Shahak pointed out that "it became customary to spit [usually three times] upon seeing a church or a crucifix."

On page 98–Shahak points out that Christianity as a religion is classed by Rabbinic teaching as idolatry.

"All the Christian emblems and pictorial representations are regarded as idols. . . even by those Jews who literally worship scrolls–stones or personal belongings of ‘Holy Men.’ "

According to Shahak–some Orthodox Jews are enjoined to recite the following curse on hearing the name Jesus: "May his name be damned and his memory be erased."

Interior Minister Avraham Poraz issued a strongly worded statement Tuesday against incidents of Jews spitting at Christian clergy in Jerusalem–saying he was "repulsed" by the repeated attacks."

Poraz called such behavior by ultra-Orthodox Jewish students "intolerable," and asked Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra to "take all the necessary steps to prevent these incidents in the future." Poraz also expressed his dismay to the heads of the churches in Israel and noted "Israel’s commitment to freedom of religion."

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