JERUSALEM OSV News – On June 15, a stained-glass window of the Cenacle, the traditional location of the Last Supper, was shattered by a rock thrown by unknown vandals.
It is one of many incidents of violence on Christian holy sites in Jerusalem that have increased in frequency and have practically become a daily occurrence, said the organizer of a June 16 conference, aimed at investigating these attacks from a religious, historical, legal and current events perspective.
Spitting on Christian clergy has become a common issue in the Holy Land and inspired the title of the conference, "Why Do (Some) Jews Spit on Gentiles," which sparked controversy among Jews.
"According to statistics we have received since the Religious Freedom Data Center hotline was established a month ago, we can say there is a spitting attack every day," said Yisca Harani, an independent researcher, lecturer and interfaith activist who initiated the conference.
Held at the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem's Old City, the conference was sponsored by The Open University of Israel and its Center for the Study of Relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Since last November, surveillance cameras have filmed 19 attacks, including spitting, swearing, physical violence against clergy, and vandalism perpetrated by ultra-nationalist and ultra-orthodox Jews. Other incidents of harassment include vandalism, arson and acoustic disturbance of processions or religious ceremonies, said Harani.
These more extreme cases get attention, and sometimes suspects are apprehended, such as in the recent incidents of spitting on the Armenian bishop during a religious procession in November 2022, the vandalism of a statue of Jesus at the Church of Flagellation in February 2023, an attack on Greek Orthodox priests at the Tomb of the Virgin Mary in March 2023 and the vandalism of graves at the Anglican cemetery in January 2023.
But the majority of incidents of harassment go unreported because it is impossible to know who the perpetrators are, she said, and many international Christians fear losing their visas if they report an incident.
An online form in several languages is available on the Data Center website where Christians can report any incidents of religious harassment. Another group, Window to Mount Zion, consists of Israeli volunteers who accompany the Armenians during their religious procession, documenting and photographing any kind of incident of harassment, so the information can be passed on to the police, she said.
"There is a lack of confidence in the police," Harani said. "Every month, we pass on the reports we have received to the police."
Jerusalem's Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar has condemned the attacks on Christians, writing in a rare English-language letter May 16, saying that they are "strictly forbidden. We are not permitted to disparage any man who was created in the image of God."
However, as the conference began to create controversy – largely based on its title – he later also condemned the conference. Invited members of Israel's Foreign Ministry, which is charged with the responsibility of dealing with the external and internal relations with Christians, also decided to boycott the conference.
Armenian clergy and the Armenian Cathedral of St. James have seen the brunt of the spitting attacks because of the location of the cathedral and the Armenian seminary on the route Orthodox Jews take through the Armenian Quarter to the Western Wall, a Jewish holy site, Harani noted, but attacks also occur on the Via Dolorosa (Way of the Cross), and elsewhere.
On May 28, ultra-orthodox and ultra-nationalists, led by Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Aryeh King, attacked evangelical pilgrims holding an outdoor prayer service in the Old City, traditionally staunch supporters of Israel.
Christian leaders, including Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, and Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, custos of the Holy Land, have spoken out about the increasing incidents and lack of response from the current government. Elected last November, it is Israel's most extreme right-wing and religious government in history.
"This is not a new phenomenon. It has been going on for many years – 30 years," Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute, told OSV News. "The political climate is giving a greater sense of freedom to unleash these behaviors … with a government which has no brakes."
Though the custom of spitting at symbols of Christianity is rooted in a European history of violent attacks, torture and attempts of forcible conversion of Jews by Christians, there is no law in Judaism that calls for such actions or defends it, noted Yair Furstenberg, professor of the Department of Talmud and Halacha (Jewish religious law) of The Hebrew University.
"The gap between this behavior and Jewish law is unbelievable. Jewish literature completely rejects this kind of behavior. … The principle is a way of peace including approaching (non-Jews) in greeting for the purpose of peace," he said.
Indeed, noted Iris Shagrir, professor of the department of history, philosophy and Judaic studies of The Open University, in the Middle Ages, including during the Crusades, this act of spitting was often the last act of Jews who were tortured in attempts to forcibly convert them.
"Spitting (at symbols of Christianity) was the last act of defiance before they were killed," she said. The problem arises when such a bold act borne from violent traumas that several centuries ago were imposed by Christians onto the weak Jewish minority is used in modern-day Israel where "it is done in a position of power against innocent Christians," she noted.
Representing the Latin Patriarchate, Msgr. William Shomali told the gathering that proper education and an end to incitement and hate speech is the only way to put an end to anti-Christian harassment and racism in general.
"We need to go to the source," he said.
At the conclusion of the conference, as participants made their way out of the patriarchate, Msgr. Shomali crossed the narrow street to greet a Latin Patriarchate priest sitting in the small courtyard at the entrance of St. James Cathedral. Just as the two men shook hands, an ultra-orthodox boy, not older than 12, walked past them and spat on the ground behind them seemingly as a reflex, and continued to walk toward the Jewish Quarter, lugging a rolling suitcase which bounced behind him on the cobblestones.
Judith Sudilovsky writes for OSV News from Jerusalem.