For decades I’ve felt uncomfortable when going to synagogue abroad. It’s a combination of sadness and relief. Some synagogues have a police presence or just a police car parked in front. In other cases it’s a military vehicle. In some cities one needs to register with the Jewish community to be allowed into the synagogue by the guards. We know why this is the case. Jewish institutions – and sometimes Jews themselves – are targets for violence. It happens in Europe, North America and beyond. It’s terrible that they are attacked; it’s good that they are protected. Terrorists murdered 22 worshippers in the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul two weeks after I had prayed there in 1986.
Each time I hear about vandalism of Christian (and sometimes Muslim) holy sites and about attacks on Christians I compare the sense of Jewish vulnerability abroad with the vulnerable reality of Christians in Israel. Jews are rightly concerned with the dignity and protection of Jewish cemeteries in Europe. We are understandably hurt when synagogues and cemeteries are attacked or vandalized. How can the shrines and cemeteries of other faith communities be vulnerable in the Jewish state? This should not be happening on our watch. But this desecration is taking place.
These attacks, which occur with horrifying frequency, have been going on for a long time, and have intensified of late. They involve violation of Christian religious symbols, vandalism of mosques, arson attacks against churches, desecration of Christian cemeteries (and the crosses on the tombs) and – most frequently – spitting at robed clergy in the Old City of Jerusalem. Writing this week in Haaretz, Nir Hasson listed eight events, already in 2023.
Recently, Christian tourists/pilgrims have been attacked. A Jew who toppled a statue of Jesus at the Church of the Flagellation on Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa can be seen on twitter “explaining” that “you cannot worship stones or false gods in Jerusalem.” Recently, visitors to the (Christian-) Orthodox Tomb of Mary by Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives were attacked by an assailant with a metal bar. (Fortunately, he was contained.) While this attacker was reported to be of non-Jewish background, most of those perpetrating the violence are visibly Jews. In January two young Jews smashed more than two dozen tombstones in the Protestant Cemetery on Mt. Zion.
Two months ago, the graffiti “Death to the Arabs and the Goyim (Gentiles)” was scrawled on the walls of the Armenian convent in the Old city of Jerusalem. Here is not the place for a discussion of the pejorative Jewish (mis-) use of the term “goy” but as we approach Passover and millions of Jews will “sell” their hametz to avoid Jewish ownership, let’s be mindful that we’re selling it to non-Jews who help some of us observe a commandment and not to a despicable “goy.”
Christians have demanded international protection. They are entitled to protection by the State of Israel! Fortunately, sometimes they receive that protection – or at least the perpetrators of violence are dealt with properly. In November, a group of Givati soldiers cursed and spit at members of an Armenian procession. Fortunately, policemen accompanying the procession arrested two of them, one of whom was sentenced to 28 days on base. In October 2011 Judge Dov Pollock dismissed the charges against an Armenian seminarian who hit back at Jews who had spit at him. (Little did the attackers suspect that the seminarian had been a football player back in Canada.) In his verdict Judge Pollock wrote that the Jewish state was not established for the purpose of taking revenge for the suffering Jews had endured at the hands of Christians.
Failure to protect the Christians and their holy sites is to violate a solemn promise in Israel’s own Declaration of Independence which reads: “The State of Israel … will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and Holy Places of all religions.” Both Hillel the Elder, as well as Jesus, taught that we must treat the religious other as we would want to be treated. This is a sacred obligation.
Sad as it makes me to see security around synagogues, in the current circumstances I would feel much better to see adequate security arrangements protecting Christian clergy and sacred sites.