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Incidents of spitting on Christians causes uproar in Israel

Jerusalem police arrest ultra-Orthodox men for spitting at Christian pilgrims after videos surface on social media
Israeli police detain a demonstrator along a highway during a protest against the Israeli government's judicial overhaul plan in Tel Aviv on July 8

Israeli police detain a demonstrator along a highway during a protest against the Israeli government's judicial overhaul plan in Tel Aviv on July 8. (Photo: AFP)

Published: October 07, 2023 06:29 AM GMT

While recent incidents of spitting on Christians outraged the community in the Holy Land, Israeli officials openly condemned the attacks this time, with the foreign minister of the country personally calling the Vatican's top diplomat.

Jerusalem district undercover police have been arresting ultra-Orthodox men who spit at groups of Christian pilgrims following an uproar caused by videos of the incidents posted on social media earlier in the week.

Five men were arrested on Oct. 4, according to police, and several others on Oct. 5.

Saying there would be zero tolerance for spitting "either towards or past Christians," Jerusalem district police superintendent Doron Turgeman in a press statement called for the establishment of a special investigative team to deal with the issue, using surveillance cameras for real-time monitoring of the incidents.

"For those who do this, there is a serious problem first of all in education, worldview and respect for others," he said. "We condemn this ugly phenomenon that harms the unique fabric of life that has existed in this area for many years, which includes visitors, worshipers and travelers of all religions -- Jews, Muslims and Christians, side by side."

The recent spitting attacks took place mainly at the second station of the Via Dolorosa at the Church of the Flagellation, during the weeklong Jewish holiday of Sukkot, or Feast of Tabernacles, which saw thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews congregate at the Western Wall for prayers and processions, bringing them into direct contact with Christian pilgrim groups walking in their own religious processions on the Via Dolorosa.

On Oct. 5, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen called Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Vatican foreign minister, to express his "strong condemnation of the shameful attacks against Christians," saying it is "perpetrated by a minority of the Israeli population." In a statement released by the Israeli Embassy at the Vatican, he also assured that "Israel will maintain freedom of religion and freedom of worship for members of all religions."

Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, who received his red hat Sept. 30, told OSV News in Rome Sept. 29 that in the past it was said these spitting attacks were "not a real phenomenon," but now, the problem comes to light. "The denial doesn't bring the solution. But once you acknowledge that there is a problem, this is the right beginning. There is still a lot of work to do because this is a problem that affects education … and religious formation," Cardinal Pizzaballa said.

He also stressed that the phenomenon is "continuing less than before because now the police are addressing this more than before."

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other parliament members condemned the videotaped attacks, independent Israeli researcher, lecturer and interfaith activist Yisca Harani noted that three months ago a conference she organized June 16 to highlight the spitting phenomenon, was deemed "antisemitic" by many politicians.

"We had to send the (video) about what is going on to half the world," she said, stressing the importance of spreading the news about the incidents. "All of a sudden they see they cannot stop our battle for making a reasonable, respectful Jewish Jerusalem, one that is welcoming and which does not despise or humiliate others. I see this battle we have fought for at least three and a half months as a victory of civil society."

Harani helped initiate the Religious Freedom Data Center hotline for anti-Christian attacks. The hotline's volunteers, who are mainly Jewish, have been central in documenting and helping victims of attacks file police reports.

She noted that Cardinal Pizzaballa was the first church leader to instruct Catholic clergy members and lawyers working with the patriarchate to cooperate with the hotline, where victims of attacks can report incidents and then volunteers accompany them to file police reports and assist in following through with legal procedures.

Meanwhile, the Israeli foreign minister acknowledged the importance of the recent appointment of the patriarch of Jerusalem as cardinal, "which indicates the centrality of Jerusalem for believers of the three Abrahamic religions," an Oct. 6 press release said.

Brother Alberto Pari, general secretary of the Custody of the Holy Land who also is in charge of the custody's interreligious and ecumenical dialogue, said the police had begun a weekly sting operation to catch culprits following a TV news report that documented spitting attacks on a TV reporter who had donned a Franciscan habit and walked through the Old City accompanied by Brother Pari. Every week a different police officer now goes undercover dressed as clergy from different orders. So far, he said, police told him 21 people had been arrested and fined.

"We were thinking the situation was more or less under control and not ignored, then two days ago this happened to a group of Korean pilgrims … ultra-Orthodox Jews (in Jerusalem) for the feast of Sukkot, adults and kids, with almost everybody spitting on the ground," he said. "Before there were occasional episodes against religious men or women (clergy), but now this was a group of believers. … This was a prayer for this group which makes it worse," he told OSV News.

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, Yair Furstenberg, professor of the Department of Talmud and Halacha (Jewish religious law) of The Hebrew University said at the June conference on why some Jews spit at Christians and Christian symbols.

Brother Pari credited the volunteers at the hotline for helping religious who have been spit on file reports against the attacks.

"This was done just with the help of the hotline, Yisca and all the volunteers helped a lot," he told OSV News. "(The police) have pictures recognizing the people but they can't do anything if there is no clear accusation at the police. The volunteers help walk people through the process, and to be honest, we would not go through the process (without them.)"

There is concern, however, that pilgrims will be afraid to come to Jerusalem after seeing the video images, he said.

"We want to assure them that this is something that is embarrassing but not dangerous and we want them to come. We don't want this situation to ruin the expectations of the pilgrims or to scare someone who is already here," Brother Pari said.

He noted that it was the first time the prime minister and government ministers have condemned the attacks. Still, he said, despite the attention given them by the media recently, the message against spitting was not reaching the core group of ultra-Orthodox perpetrators who tend to listen more to their rabbis than to mainstream media.

Both of Israel's chief rabbis also have condemned the spitting.

"We are happy everybody knows about this now and about their reaction, but we have to do more with education and targeting the source of the problem involving reaching leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community and asking them to speak louder against this or to be more efficient in explaining that this is not a good thing and not something that should be done," Brother Pari said.

For Cardinal Pizzaballa, interreligious dialogue is "essential" at the moment, and not only among religious leaders.

"It's also a dialogue among communities, (as it) becomes political, affects history," he said. The cardinal stressed that identities in the Holy Land "are much more complicated than in any other parts of the world."

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