"News stories about young Jewish bigots in the Old City spitting on Christian clergy - who make conspicuous targets in their long dark robes and crucifix symbols around their necks - surface in the media every few years or so. It's natural, then, to conclude that such incidents are rare, but in fact they are habitual. Anti-Christian Orthodox Jews, overwhelmingly boys and young men, have been spitting with regularity on priests and nuns in the Old City for about 20 years, and the problem is only getting worse."
Nov 26, 2009
Mouths filled with hatred
By LARRY DERFNER
Father Samuel Aghoyan, a senior Armenian Orthodox cleric in Jerusalem's Old City, says he's been spat at by young haredi and national Orthodox Jews "about 15 to 20 times" in the past decade. The last time it happened, he said, was earlier this month. "I was walking back from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and I saw this boy in a yarmulke and ritual fringes coming back from the Western Wall, and he spat at me two or three times."
Wearing a dark-blue robe, sitting in St. James's Church, the main Armenian church in the Old City, Aghoyan said, "Every single priest in this church has been spat on. It happens day and night."
"Every Christian cleric who's been here for a while, and who dresses in robes in public, has a story to tell about being spat at," says Father Athanasius.
Father Athanasius, a Texas-born Franciscan monk who heads the Christian Information Center inside the Jaffa Gate, said he's been spat at by haredi and national Orthodox Jews "about 15 times in the last six months" - not only in the Old City, but also on Rehov Agron near the Franciscan friary. "One time a bunch of kids spat at me, another time a little girl spat at me," said the brown-robed monk near the Jaffa Gate.
"All 15 monks at our friary have been spat at," he said. "Every [Christian cleric in the Old City] who's been here for awhile, who dresses in robes in public, has a story to tell about being spat at. The more you get around, the more it happens."
A nun in her 60s who's lived in an east Jerusalem convent for decades says she was spat at for the first time by a haredi man on Rehov Agron about 25 years ago. "As I was walking past, he spat on the ground right next to my shoes and he gave me a look of contempt," said the black-robed nun, sitting inside the convent. "It took me a moment, but then I understood."
Since then, the nun, who didn't want to be identified, recalls being spat at three different times by young national Orthodox Jews on Jaffa Road, three different times by haredi youth near Mea She'arim and once by a young Jewish woman from her second-story window in the Old City's Jewish Quarter.
Armenian Archbishop Manougian
But the spitting incidents weren't the worst, she said - the worst was the time she was walking down Jaffa Road and a group of middle-aged haredi men coming her way pointed wordlessly to the curb, motioning her to move off the sidewalk to let them pass, which she did.
"That made me terribly sad," said the nun, speaking in ulpan-trained Hebrew. Taking personal responsibility for the history of Christian anti-Semitism, she said that in her native European country, such behavior "was the kind of thing that they - no, that we used to do to Jews."
News stories about young Jewish bigots in the Old City spitting on Christian clergy - who make conspicuous targets in their long dark robes and crucifix symbols around their necks - surface in the media every few years or so. It's natural, then, to conclude that such incidents are rare, but in fact they are habitual. Anti-Christian Orthodox Jews, overwhelmingly boys and young men, have been spitting with regularity on priests and nuns in the Old City for about 20 years, and the problem is only getting worse.
"My impression is that Christian clergymen are being spat at in the Old City virtually every day. This has been constantly increasing over the last decade," said Daniel Rossing. An observant, kippa-wearing Jew, Rossing heads the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations and was liaison to Israel's Christian communities for the Ministry of Religious Affairs in the '70s and '80s.
For Christian clergy in the Old City, being spat at by Jewish fanatics "is a part of life," said the American Jewish Committee's Rabbi David Rosen, Israel's most prominent Jewish interfaith activist.
"I hate to say it, but we've grown accustomed to this. Jewish religious fanatics spitting at Christian priests and nuns has become a tradition," said Roman Catholic Father Massimo Pazzini, sitting inside the Church of the Flagellation on the Via Dolorosa.
These are the very opposite of isolated incidents. Father Athanasius of the Christian Information Center called them a "phenomenon." George Hintlian, the unofficial spokesman for the local Armenian community and former secretary of the Armenian Patriarchate, said it was "like a campaign."
Christians in Israel are a small, weak community known for "turning the other cheek," so these Jewish xenophobes feel free to spit on them; they don't spit on Muslims in the Old City because they're afraid to, the clerics noted.
THE ONLY Israeli authority who has shown any serious concern over this matter, the one high official whom Christian and Jewish interfaith activists credit for stepping into the fray, is Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger.
On November 11, Metzger addressed a letter to the "rabbis of the Jewish Quarter," writing that he had "heard a grave rumor about yeshiva students offending heaven…[by] spitting on Christian clergy who walk about the Old City of Jerusalem." Such attackers, he added, are almost tantamount to rodfim, or persecutors, which is one of the worst class of offenders in Jewish law. They violate the injunction to follow the "pathways of peace," Metzger wrote, and are liable to provoke anti-Semitism overseas.
"I thus issue the fervent call to root out this evil affliction from our midst, and the sooner the better," wrote the chief rabbi.
Metzger published the letter in response to an appeal from Armenian Archbishop Nourhan Manougian, an appeal that came in the wake of a September 5 incident in the Old City in which a haredi man spat on a group of Armenian seminarians who, in turn, beat him up. (See box.)
This is not the first time Metzger has spoken out against the spitting - he did so five years ago after the most infamous incident on record, when Manougian himself was spat on by an Old City yeshiva student during an Armenian Orthodox procession. In response, the archbishop slapped the student's face, and then the student tore the porcelain ceremonial crucifix off Manougian's neck and threw it to the ground, breaking it.
Then interior minister Avraham Poraz called the assault on the archbishop "repulsive" and called for a police crackdown on anti-Christian attacks in the Old City. Police reportedly punished the student by banning him from the Old City for 75 days.