Alon Goshen-Gottstein

Spitting on Christians: Extracting the DNA of hatred

When Jews spit in contempt, it is likely a symptom of deeper ills, especially ignorance and a refusal to learn about the other
Orthodox Jews filmed spitting at Christian tourists in the Old City of Jerusalem on October 2, 2023. (Screen capture/Twitter/Times of Israel)

Spitting — A Diagnostic Tool

The last (and only) time I recall myself spitting was into a plastic tube, which was then sent to a lab in order to provide me with a DNA analysis, which would teach me some things about myself, in the hope of losing weight. Spitting is part of diagnosis. It can tell us something about ourselves.

The unexpected spate of condemnation, reaching up to the prime minister himself, of the latest incident of spitting comes as something of a surprise, given that the problem has been around for some time. Perhaps it was the vocal statement of Elisha Yered, a settler leader, currently charged with murder of a Palestinian youth, and formerly a spokesperson for a right wing MP, in support of spitting, that led to the widespread condemnation. This condemnation is welcome. But it is, ultimately, of limited benefit. The phenomenon of spitting must be studied for its DNA, and if we fail to go deeper into the issues it presents, then we will also fail to deal with the phenomenon.

Majority-Minority Relations

Jewish-Christian relations have had their ups and downs throughout the centuries. These have been often characterized by Jew-hatred, attacks on Jews, forced conversions, and more. Jews have been a minority among a Christian majority and have often had to endure abuses and violence. Spitting was part of it. Jews were described, beginning in the 11th century, as spitting upon the cross, and often such spitting was understood, even by Jews, as a heroic act, leading to martyrdom, in the context of the Crusades. The spitting Jew became, at some points in the Middle Ages, part of the negative stereotype of the Jew. Now it is the Jews who are doing the spitting. A new reality has emerged with the formation of the State of Israel, and with it a shift in majority-minority relations. This is the first time that here, in Israel, Jews are a majority, while Christians are the minority. Jews have lost interest in what happens in the Christian world, and a largely insular Jewish community of the faithful has arisen that has no relations with Christians, does not follow developments in the Christian world, and perpetuates negative attitudes to Christianity, as these were formed under earlier historical circumstances.

What that means is that religious Jews, on the whole, are unaware of developments within the Christian world. Catholic and other mainline churches have significantly revised their theology. A theology of substitution and replacement has given way to a theology that affirms Judaism’s legitimacy and clears Jews of some of the charges that had been hurled at them for millennia, like killing the Christian messiah. Churches have asked forgiveness, are fighting antisemitism, and, on the whole, are some of Israel’s best friends. Ironically, the churches that are being attacked are often the ones that have moved away from anti-Jewish views and that do not practice missionary activities. The spitters and attackers are, of course, clueless.

Rabbinic Response and the Limits of Condemnation

Rabbis, including prominent rabbis, are willing to criticize the phenomenon. Rabbi Shlomo Amar, chief rabbi of Jerusalem, issued an unambiguous condemnation, calling it desecration of the divine name. Today, he was followed by Chief Rabbi David Lau. Similarly, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner affirms that our struggle with Christianity is ideological, but not one of spitting. In the same way that Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai (first century CE) instructed that one must be the first to offer “shalom,” even to an idolatrous non-Jew, so we too must maintain a dignified and polite relationship with Christians. Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, who has a very popular weekly column, has expressed the same views. He also cites, as part of an opinion piece on the matter, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (20th cent) that love must be extended to all, regardless of differences in religion and faith. 

Is Civility Enough?

The position marshalled by Rabbis Aviner, Amar and others is basically one that upholds civility, despite differences. We will not be close spiritual friends, says Rabbi Aviner, but we ought to behave in a civil manner towards one another. Is such a perspective tenable? Perhaps it was, in the Diaspora, when Jews were a minority. I do not think it is adequate to the task today, precisely because Jews are in a majority position. If Christians have engaged in deep exploration of attitudinal roots and brought about change, Jews too must undertake similar religious investigations. Superficial treatment of symptoms, in the form of the messaging cited above, is not adequate to the task at hand. What is needed is treating the roots of Christian-hatred, and not only its symptoms.

That includes, in the first place, addressing ignorance on the Jewish side. Most Jews are ignorant of the diversity among Christian groups, and therefore make false blanket charges against all Christians based on the actions of some groups. The great majority of Christian groups living in Israel do not engage in missionary activity. Ignorance also extends to lack of knowledge of changes in Christian attitudes, to apologies issued by churches and to changes in Christian theology over the past 70 years. An analysis of today’s post by the Yered, gives a snapshot of the frame of mind of right wing, settler, Christian hatred — history has not moved, we recall all they did to us, and our small expression of revenge is spitting. No part of this logic withstands critical inquiry. But until a serious examination of internal assumptions and views is undertaken, the disease will fester. The disease is hatred; spitting is its symptom. 

An important point that cannot be avoided is the status of Christianity as idolatry. The very rabbis who condemn spitting also uphold the status of Christianity as idolatry, largely ignoring what was a majority tradition in Ashkenaz for hundreds of years, to the contrary. Settler anti-Christian sentiment is formed by ignorance of halachic tradition and its complexity and by its flattening to one view only, that considers Christianity to be idolatrous. The disease of ignorance extends from history to the knowledge of Jewish tradition itself. Something other than Jewish tradition, based as it is on learning, informs the views of these youth on Christianity. Identity, othering, need for self-affirmation, the carryover from views of Arabs and Palestinians — whatever it may be (and it is all of these and more), Jewish halachic tradition is hostage to a present-day social-political mentality whose exterior manifestation is spitting. This cannot be tackled by condemnation. It requires revisiting the entire makeup of identity and how a very particular construct of Judaism is replacing generations of nuanced discussion and responsible views of the other. 

What We Need Now

One must recognize that spitting is but a symptom of deeper ills. Estrangement, ignorance, hatred, contempt and the inability to recognize change in the other are the real issues. Until Jews are able to deal with the roots of their own teaching of contempt, all attempts to deal with symptoms that emerge from these deeper ills will remain just that — symptomatic treatments that ignore the spiritual ills brewing within. The vision of universal love remains. More is needed to realize it than calls for civility. This is a moment for the rabbis to rise to. Politicians may condemn. They may also reinforce existing laws. But rabbis must engage in sustained education and critical self-examination. If they are incapable of doing so, then that too is, sadly, part of the DNA of present-day Judaism. 

About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.
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