It’s no secret that we have developed something of a “Christian problem” in the Jewish state, and it’s a problem that only seems to be growing. Recent decades show a persistent and even rising pattern of anti-Christian activity in Israel, including harassment, spitting, vandalism and arson perpetrated by Jewish Israelis. Every Christian living in Israel, and particularly those who live in Israel openly wearing a clerical collar or religious habit, knows the drill: sooner or later you too will be spat on or cursed in the street. The problem has become so acute that a hotline has finally been opened to assist Christians in Israel to report hate crimes against their community. In the first week of its functioning, the hotline received four reports of threats and harassment in Jerusalem alone.
When I speak out about our “Christian problem” I encounter a dizzying array of reactions. First, there are the people who absolutely insist that this cannot be true (which is where I pull out my stash of videos, newspaper articles and police reports). Then there are the people who refuse to believe – even when caught on video or arrested by the police – that the perpetrators are Jews. And finally, I encounter a number of people who try to tell me that even if things aren’t perfect, just how fortunate Christians are to be living in Israel and not in Palestine/Iran/Syria. I have very little patience for these kinds of responses that seek to sweep facts under the rug in order to make everything look nice.
Recently an event took place that galvanized a whole new population to speak out against anti-Christian harassment, but it’s a response that should give us pause. Briefly, a group of Orthodox Jews, led by Rabbi Tzvi Tau, came out to forcefully protest a Christian event in Jerusalem called Pentecost 2023: Global Day of Prayer for Jerusalem and the Nations. Their particular ire was focused on the issue of mission and Christian evangelism of Jews, undoubtedly not the kind of practice that can help Jews and Christians grow in respectful engagement.
Overnight, people who had once quietly sought to ignore the challenges facing local Christians (because they made Jews and Israel look bad) found themselves in a bit of a bind. Because suddenly the Christians being harassed were not Arabs or foreigners, but Americans. And not only Americans, but American Christian supporters of Israel. To their credit, many Jews did speak out against the aggressive protestors.
But we need to look for a moment at why, and particularly “why now.” Why were some Jewish politicians and activists suddenly ready to condemn harassment? Their justifications, their reasons why they condemn this Jewish protest against Christians are both telling and troubling. Because they’re “our friends.” Because they “support Israel and the Jews.” Because they are our “staunch supporters.”
Or in other words, we touch on a delicate point: Why shouldn’t Jews spit on, harass, curse, frighten, and vandalize Christians and their holy sites? We must be wary of an answer that instrumentalizes Christians, dividing them into “good” and “bad” based on political views. Because let’s face it: if we can manage to live with strident disagreement about fundamental religious beliefs, we should be able to live also with disagreement about the state of Israel. The argument that “good” Christians are our friends and deserve protection and basic rights is a dangerous one. Christians deserve equal protections and basic rights because they are people, made in the image of God. They are a vibrant part of the fabric of life in Israel, our neighbors, fellow citizens and children of God.
Two rabbis, thank G-d, not only see this but have clearly and openly condemned these all-too-common attacks by Jews against Christians. Recently, both the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav David Lau, and the former Sepharadi Chief Rabbi of Israel and presently Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Rav Shlomo Amar both wrote strong and courageous letters in this precise vein. They offer a truly Jewish response, one that speaks from our spiritual sources, not our political strivings. They present clear religious condemnation without a hint of equivocation. They remind us that the peace we all pray for will be made with people who are different, people with whom we disagree.
Jews have suffered greatly under Christian power over the last 2000 years. We Jews who are justifiably and necessarily sensitive to the antisemitism that makes us remove our kippot or hide our star of David necklaces in Europe must not remain silent when Christians need to do the same in Israel out of fear. Fear from us.
With the state of Israel, we finally have security, sovereignty and a chance to create a society of justice, respect and safety for others. To act as if we are still a persecuted minority signals a lack of faith in the significance of this moment in history. At the same time, with this opportunity comes a real moral, cultural and political responsibility. The rabbis have found the tongues to speak, powerfully, eloquently, clearly about what is required when it comes to Christians. The challenge now is to find those ready to hear.
The Religious Freedom hotline number for the reporting of religious hate crimes is 052-555-4008. Reports can also be filed on their website.