Netanyahu, chief rabbi, ministers denounce reprehensible act

Video showing fresh Haredi spitting attack on Christians draws wide condemnation

No comment from church or police on latest incident of harassment of non-Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem’s Old City; former Knesset aide claims spitting ‘an ancient Jewish custom’

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Orthodox Jews filmed spitting at Christian tourists in the Old City of Jerusalem on October 2, 2023. (Screen capture/Twitter)
Orthodox Jews filmed spitting at Christian tourists in the Old City of Jerusalem on October 2, 2023. (Screen capture/Twitter)

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, including children, were filmed on Monday spitting toward Christian worshippers in the Old City of Jerusalem, amid a rise in incidents targeting priests and pilgrims in the capital.

The attack was met with wide 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.

In a video posted online by a reporter for the Haaretz daily, a group of Christians exiting a church carrying a wooden cross are seen walking by a group of religious Jews heading the other direction. Several of the Jews then spit on the ground in the direction of the Christians as they pass.

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.

A border police officer walking behind the Jewish worshippers does not take any action in response to the spitting. It was unclear if he could have viewed the spitting from his vantage point.

The Latin Patriarchate did not respond to requests for comment.

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 that “Israel is totally committed to safeguard the sacred right of worship and pilgrimage to the holy sites of all faiths. I strongly condemn any attempt to intimidate worshippers, and I am committed to taking immediate and decisive action against it.”

He added: “Derogatory conduct towards worshipers is sacrilege and is simply unacceptable. Any form of hostility towards individuals engaged in worship will not be tolerated.”

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau spoke out against the incident, saying “such phenomena are unwarranted and certainly should not be attributed to Jewish law.”

Religion Minister Michael Malkieli from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party also condemned the incident, saying “this is not the way of the Torah, and there is no rabbi that supports or gives legitimacy to this reprehensible behavior.”

Housing Minister Yitzchak Goldknopf, head of the Ashkenazi Haredi United Torah Judaism alliance, said that “our Holy Torah commands us to act respectfully toward every person, no matter his belief, religion, or origin.”

Several officials expressed worries that the spitting attacks were harming Israel’s standing among pilgrims, a major source of incoming tourism.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said the spitting “does not represent Jewish values.”

Tourism Minister Haim Katz called the idea that spitting on Christians is a Jewish custom “pathetic.”

“Instead of being a light to the nations, the actions of a handful of extremists are bringing hatred on Judaism and on the Jewish people, and are harming Israel’s image and tourism. Zero tolerance must be shown toward any religious symbols,” he said in a statement.

(From Left) Abbot of Stella Maris Father Jean Joseph Bergara, President Isaac Herzog, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, and Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa at the Stella Maris Monastery in Haifa, August 9, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Elisha Yered, a former adviser to Otzma Yehudit MK Limor Son Har-Melech, drew pushback after he appeared to back the harassment, claiming that spitting at priests or churches was an “ancient Jewish custom.”

Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, who has led efforts in the city council to combat harassment of Christians, said 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 is taking action and arresting those responsible.”

According to police in August, 16 investigations were opened this year, and 21 arrests and detentions had been carried out in connection with attacks on Christians.

Spokespeople for the Jerusalem Police did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Catholic clergy told The Times of Israel last month that officers have been dressing as priests and monks in the Old City to catch those harassing Christians.

In August, President Isaac Herzog visited Haifa’s Stella Maris Monastery along with Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai to meet with Christian leaders, as part of his recent efforts to bring public awareness to the issue of the safety of Israel’s Christian community.

Seated next to Herzog at the discussion in the monastery with the heads of Christian communities in Israel, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said that the police “are undertaking creative operations to eradicate all these small phenomena, these phenomena that affect how everyone feels. We are here to give you a feeling of security.”

“In recent months, we have witnessed extremely serious phenomena in the treatment of members of Christian communities in the Holy Land, our brothers and sisters, Christian citizens, who feel attacked in their places of prayer and their cemeteries, on the street,” said Herzog in front of the 19th-century Carmelite monastery.

Jerusalem District Police Commander Doron Turgeman (L) meets with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III in Jerusalem on January 5, 2023. (Israel Police)

Israel’s official spokespeople and social media accounts go out of their way to emphasize Israel’s freedom of worship and to portray 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.

In an interview in April with The Associated Press, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, an Italian prelate who is the top Catholic churchman in the Holy Land, said that the region’s 2,000-year-old Christian community has come under increasing attack, with Israel’s right-wing government emboldening extremists who have harassed clergy and vandalized religious property at a quickening pace.

In November 2022, two soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces’ Givati Brigade were detained on suspicion of spitting at the Armenian archbishop and other pilgrims during a procession in the Old City. In early January, two Jewish teens were arrested for damaging graves at the Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion.

Hosam Naoum, a Palestinian Anglican bishop, touches a damaged grave where vandals desecrated dozens of graves at the historic Protestant Cemetery on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion in Jerusalem, January 4, 2023. (Mahmoud Illean/AP)

The next week, the Maronite community center in the northern city of Ma’alot-Tarshiha was vandalized by unknown assailants over the Christmas holiday.

Jerusalem’s Armenian community buildings were also targeted by vandals, with multiple discriminatory phrases graffitied on the exterior of structures in the Armenian Quarter. On a Thursday night in late January, a gang of religious Jewish teens threw chairs at an Armenian restaurant inside the city’s New Gate. Vandalism at the Church of the Flagellation occurred the very next week.

And in March, a resident of southern Israel was arrested after attacking priests with an iron bar at the Tomb of the Virgin Mary in Gethsemane.

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