The arson attack on the Church of Multiplication on the shores of the Sea of Galilee by Jewish extremists in June sparked outrage in Israel and condemnation abroad, highlighting the potential for religiously motivated hate crimes to harm Israel diplomatically and tarnish its image as a staunch protector of religious freedom.
The attack came as no surprise to a small team of researchers at the Jerusalem offices of Search for Common Ground, an international non-profit organization dedicated to conflict resolution, mainly through interfaith projects. But the attack, while widely publicized, is not truly representative of the facts on the ground.
Since 2013, the NGO’s Jerusalem office has been monitoring and categorizing attacks on religious sites in the Holy Land (a term they use to describe both Israel and the West Bank), collecting open source information dating back to 2011.
Analysis of the data available on the registry of attacks on religious sites in the Holy Land reveals that over the past four years, Jewish holy sites have been attacked more than Muslim and Christian sites combined. Out of a total of 136 documented attacks since September 2011, 52 percent of the sites attacked were Jewish, 26% were Muslim and 22% were Christian.
Violence on the Temple Mount was intentionally omitted from the statistics, which do not differentiate between severe and less damaging assaults.
In many cases, the researchers noted, the perpetrators of the attacks against Jewish sites, including synagogues, gravestones and cemeteries, are believed to be Jews — based on circumstantial evidence found at the scene.
“We, the Jewish community, often see ourselves as victims of attacks perpetrated by other ethnic groups,” Sharon Rosen, co-director of Search for Common Ground’s Jerusalem office, told The Times of Israel. “The registry reflects violence within our own society, as well as the external violence we all know of.”
The idea for the registry was inspired by the Universal Code of Conduct on Holy Sites penned by Search for Common Ground and three other organizations in January 2011, and endorsed by Israel’s main religious umbrella organizations. The code aims to improve the protection of holy sites and promote inter-religious reconciliation.
Searching through the database, which emulates a pilot project launched in Bosnia in 2011, one can find the exact date and location of an attack, the nature of the crime, links to online media reports on it and information on the police investigation. In addition, the location of all attacks is available on a Google map included in the registry.
Attacks against religious sites do not occur consistently or systematically, either in time or place. For the researchers, one surprising find was the dramatic drop in attacks starting in June 2014, coinciding with the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers south of Jerusalem. That event sparked a massive Israeli campaign of arrests against terror group Hamas in the West Bank, followed by a 50-day military operation against terror groups in Gaza.
“We can’t tell for sure, but we assume that people were too caught up with the other things going on,” Rosen said.
Eran Tzidkiyahu, a program coordinator at Search for Common Ground and manager of the registry, said he is still awaiting official police corroboration for the information gleaned from the media and from other monitoring groups, such as Tag Meir.
“I was surprised to discover the number of esoteric attacks against Jewish sites across the country, which people hardly hear of,” Tzidkiyahu said. “Many synagogues are broken into for reasons which are assumed to be criminal, and there’s lots of violence against Conservative and Reform [synagogues], which we presume are carried out by Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox elements. In some cases synagogues are vandalized for nationalistic reasons, especially in border areas.”
According to Tzidkiyahu, Mount Zion in Jerusalem — home to many important holy sites and religious institutions for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike — is a notorious hotbed for religious attacks.
“There are seven Christian cemeteries on Mount Zion,” Tzidkiyahu said. “In recent months, we’ve witnessed the shattering of tombstones, spray-paint attacks on the Dormition Abbey and the burning of a Greek Orthodox priests’ seminary on the western slopes of the mountain.”
The numerous attacks on Mount Zion have spurred Israeli authorities to action, placing a permanent police station at the site.
“This isn’t just a question of local Christian sites being attacked,” Tzidkiyahu said, citing alleged personal connections between individuals involved in religious attacks on Mount Zion and Yishai Schlissel, who murdered Jerusalem teenager Shira Banki at the capital’s gay pride parade last month.
“It’s like an infected wound which can spread across the body and contaminate our vital organs if not treated,” he added.