Knesset speaker signs first check to fix torched church
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Knesset speaker signs first check to fix torched church

Rabbi who is crowdfunding rehabilitation of Church of the Multiplication says Israeli Orthodoxy has lost its Jewish sensitivity to other faiths

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein meets with a group of Orthodox rabbis at his office following the torching of the Tabgha church, June 25, 2015. (Yuli Edelstein Facebook page)
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein meets with a group of Orthodox rabbis at his office following the torching of the Tabgha church, June 25, 2015. (Yuli Edelstein Facebook page)

Backed by the speaker of Israel’s parliament, a group of rabbis has launched a crowdsourcing campaign to refurbish a landmark church torched 10 days ago, likely by Jewish extremists.

The Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fish at Tabgha, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, was set on fire June 18. Anti-Christian graffiti in Hebrew was scrawled on the church wall in an attack that drew condemnation from across Israel’s political spectrum, including from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A group of 16 youths was questioned by police in connection to the attack, but soon afterward released.

Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute which fosters dialogue between Judaism and world religions, said he decided on a fundraising campaign when he realized that the arson at Tabgha “was exclusively religious.”

“Had they [the arsonists] not written ‘false idols will be eliminated’ [an excerpt from the Jewish prayer of Aleinu] I might have not acted,” Goshen-Gottstein told The Times of Israel. “This is the first time that they did something based on a quote from the sources. That’s a qualitative change; something completely different, and therefore people have to speak in the voice of religion and say ‘no’.”

A priest walks past graffiti reading in Hebrew, "false idols will be eliminated," as he inspects the damage at the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, June 18, 2015. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)
A priest walks past graffiti reading in Hebrew, “false idols will be eliminated,” as he inspects the damage at the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, June 18, 2015. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)

Goshen-Gottestein quickly recruited Tag Meir, an Israeli group that fights Jewish hate crimes, and Mosaica, an interfaith group headed by former Meimad leader Rabbi Michael Melchior. Together, the three groups got 16 leading Orthodox rabbis to endorse the crowdsourcing campaign on the Israeli website Mimoona. Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein donated the first check to the campaign, Goshen-Goldstein noted.

“This is not a time for condemnations, but for actions,” Edelstein wrote on his Facebook page Thursday. “As a Jew, I felt humiliated by the arson and I hope this will contribute not only to the church but, especially, to tolerance between all faiths.”

According to Goshen-Gottstein, in addition to his altruistic motives, the Knesset speaker also came under significant pressure from German diplomats, considering the church is run by the German Catholic church.

“A day earlier he had hosted the president of the Bundestag. This issue was crucial to him (Edelstein), because he saw the damage this was causing Israel-German relations. He was queried by the German ambassador about why we’re not able to get the National Religious sector under control,” he said.

Knesset Chairman Yuli Edelstein shakes hands with President of the German Parliament (the Bundestag), Professor Norbert Lammert (L), at the Knesset Plenary,  June 24, 2015 (Isaac Harari/Flash90)
Knesset Chairman Yuli Edelstein shakes hands with President of the German Parliament (the Bundestag), Professor Norbert Lammert (L), at the Knesset Plenary, June 24, 2015 (Isaac Harari/Flash90)

It is indeed Israel’s Orthodox community that Goshen-Gottstein decided to focus on in his campaign. Prominent rabbis such as Nahum Rabinovitch of Ma’ale Adumim, Shlomo Riskin of Efrat and former Jewish Home party leader Daniel Hershkowitz all signed their names to his campaign, surprising members of their communities who view Christianity with hostility, he noted.

“We know that the problem stems from the Dati Leumi (National Religious) community,” said Goshen-Gottstein, himself an Orthodox rabbi educated in Israel’s Hesder Yeshiva system.

For him, the campaign isn’t about money — its goal is NIS 50,000 ($13,3200), a far cry from the real cost of reconstruction — but rather about sending a message that rabbis will no longer tolerate religiously motivated violence.

Graffiti sprayed on the wall of a monastery in Latrun mentioning the evacuated Ramat Migron and Maoz Ester, . September 4, 2012. (photo credit: Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/Flash90)
Graffiti srayed on the wall of a monastery in Latrun mentioning the evacuated Ramat Migron and Maoz Ester, . September 4, 2012. (photo credit: Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/Flash90)

“This is a way to convey a more sincere public expression of support… when rabbis issue condemnations, people don’t believe them; they feel that they (the rabbis) have to say it… if rabbis give money, or stand behind such initiatives, you know they’re not lying.”

Although the campaign has raised just NIS 1,900 ($500) so far, Goshen-Gottstein was heartened to see the message already trickling down in the form of open debates on Israeli religious websites.

“[People are asking:] ‘what, Rabinovitch signed? What, rabbis do this?’ It’s like I’m putting a virus in their system; making them think.”

For Goshen-Gottstein, however, the campaign is intended not only to reeducate his followers to oppose religious violence, but also to make it reconsider its basic attitude to Christianity.

Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein (Alon Goshen-Gottstein Facebook page)
Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein (Alon Goshen-Gottstein Facebook page)

“Here in Israel we’ve lost something. There’s a ghettoized mentality. We only look at ourselves and we have unconsciously reverted to a position that Christianity is idolatry. Since Christianity is idolatry then if someone burns a church it’s not that bad. That’s basically how you can sum up our reality.”

Jewish scholarly rulings deeming Christianity a purely monotheistic religion and not idolatry have been abrogated in Israeli religious thought, Goshen-Gottstein said. It is therefore not surprising, he maintained, that many of the most prominent rabbis to join his campaign are American-born.

“There really is a difference in mentality between the Israeli and the non-Israeli rabbinate,” he said.

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