Police on Wednesday arrested five Orthodox Jews on suspicion of spitting at Christian worshippers in the Old City of Jerusalem, amid a rise in incidents targeting priests and pilgrims in the capital.
At the same time, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said in an interview: “I still think spitting at Christians is not a criminal case. I think we need to act on it through instruction and education. Not everything justifies an arrest.”
Speaking to Army Radio, the minister in charge of police added: “It is deserving of every condemnation. It should be stopped. I asked Rabbi Dov Lior, he said it was immoral and wrong. We’re against it. But let’s stop slandering Israel. We’re all brothers, we’re all of the same people.”
Before entering politics, Ben Gvir in the past justified spitting toward Christians as “an ancient Jewish custom.”
In an incident that was widely condemned, several people, including children, were filmed on Monday spitting at Christian pilgrims.
Police said one of those arrested was among those filmed spitting on Monday.
The other four, including a minor, were seen and filmed spitting at Christian worshipers in fresh incidents during an Orthodox procession through the Old City on Wednesday and arrested at the scene.
Police said they intended to charge them with assault. Hebrew media noted that in the past there have been difficulties convicting those who spit because the act does not meet the criteria of violence for assault. However, Jerusalem police Chief Superintendent Assaf Harel told Army Radio that “spitting on somebody is certainly considered to be assault.” Harel said there had been a rise in attacks on Christians in the city of late, with 17 incidents reported in the past six months.
Channel 12 reported that some of those arrested were students of Rabbi Natan Rothman, the brother of Religious Zionism party MK Simcha Rothman. Both Rothmans took part in the procession through the Old City but were not involved in the spitting incident.
MK Rothman, who has spearheaded the government’s judicial overhaul legislation effort in the Knesset, condemned the spitting incidents but also said the incident was being “blown out of proportion.”
שוטרי מחוז ירושלים עצרו חמישה חשודים ביריקה לעבר נוצרים/כניסה לכנסייה בעיר העתיקה בירושלים (בתיעוד: זיהוי ומעצר שניים מהחשודים הבוקר) pic.twitter.com/2b5yeAriCo
— משטרת ישראל (@IL_police) October 4, 2023
“More than a thousand people marched… perfectly calmly… and it’s unfortunate that phenomena that are fully worthy of condemnation are blown out of proportion and echoed by police,” he told the Ynet news site.
“During the procession, I too was spat on from an apartment… I walked there for two hours and I saw men and women, Arabs, Christians, tourists, dressed modestly and immodestly passing through the crowd and no one touched them, no one bothered them.”
On Twitter, he added wryly in a message to police: “Well done. There were 18 cases of worship being disrupted on Yom Kippur. I await arrests.”
The arrests come after Jerusalem police chief Doron Turgeman set up a special investigative squad to “deal with incidents of spitting and acts of hate against Christians in the Old City.”
Turgeman ordered an increase in both open and undercover police activity in the area.
Monday’s filmed attack was met with widespread condemnation by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials, including politicians from the Haredi community, who rejected the idea that spitting was a Jewish tradition or religious imperative.
However, a report by Army Radio on Wednesday found that the belief that Jews were compelled to spit at Christians was widespread in the Old City, particularly among Jewish youths who spoke openly in favor of such action.
“I support spitting at every cross, every Christian, to degrade them forcefully. They used to slaughter and massacre us,” one man told the station. “It is written in the Torah that children pay for the sins of their fathers.”
“We are in favor of expelling them from our areas, to spit at them and humiliate them, anything we can do,” said another man.
“That’s what is written: When you see a cross or a Christian, spit,” said a boy.
In a video posted online by a reporter for the Haaretz daily on Monday, a group of Christians exiting a church carrying a wooden cross were seen walking by a group of religious Jews heading in the other direction. Several of the Jews then spit on the ground in the direction of the Christians as they pass.
קבוצה של צליינים יוצאת עם הצלב לרחוב שער האריות ונתקלת בקבוצה של מתפללים יהודים עם 4 המינים ואז מתחילות היריקות. ספרתי לפחות 7 בכמה שניות. pic.twitter.com/YjqaknATLw
— نير حسون Nir Hasson ניר חסון (@nirhasson) October 2, 2023
Some of the people in the clip appear to be ultra-Orthodox minors who spit at the Christians after seeing an adult man do so.
Jerusalem’s Old City is especially crowded this week during the Sukkot holiday. Tens of thousands of Jewish worshippers attended the priestly blessing at the Western Wall on Monday morning.
Netanyahu tweeted: “Israel is totally committed to safeguarding the sacred right of worship and pilgrimage to the holy sites of all faiths. I strongly condemn any attempt to intimidate worshipers, and I am committed to taking immediate and decisive action against it.”
He added: “Derogatory conduct toward worshipers is sacrilege and is simply unacceptable. Any form of hostility toward individuals engaged in worship will not be tolerated.”
Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau spoke out against the incidents, saying “such phenomena are unwarranted and certainly should not be attributed to Jewish law.”
Religious Affairs Minister Michael Malkieli from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party also said “this is not the way of the Torah, and there is no rabbi that supports or gives legitimacy to this reprehensible behavior.”
Several officials expressed worries that the spitting attacks were harming Israel’s standing among pilgrims, a major source of incoming tourism.
Highlighting the tensions, several dozen Jewish protesters demonstrated Tuesday outside the Pais Arena stadium in Jerusalem, where the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem was holding its Israeli Night as part of its annual Feast of the Tabernacles.
Demonstrators, mostly religious teens, called out to those walking into the stadium, alleging that the ICEJ is a missionary organization, and held up a banner reading, “We should stand strong as proud Jews. Faithfully for Generations!”
Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, who has led efforts in the city council to combat harassment of Christians, said Monday that police were beginning to take the issue seriously.
“We should have zero tolerance for these hooligans who are driven by miseducation and hatred, attacking peaceful worshipers anywhere in the city,” she told The Times of Israel. “After months of lobbying, we are pleased the police are taking action and arresting those responsible.”
Israel’s government routinely emphasizes Israel’s freedom of worship and portrays the Jewish state as the only safe home for Christians in a hostile Middle East.
The picture of safe coexistence usually painted by Israeli officials is starkly at odds with the experiences Jerusalem’s Christian leaders themselves describe. While they readily acknowledge that there is no organized or governmental effort against them, Christian clergy in the Old City tell of a deteriorating atmosphere of harassment, apathy from authorities, and a growing fear that incidents of spitting and vandalism could turn into violence against their persons.
Lazar Berman contributed to this report