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."
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.
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 heavenâ€¦[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.
Seated in his study in the Armenian Quarter, Manougian, 61, said that while he personally has not been assaulted since that time, the spitting attacks on other Armenian clergy have escalated.
"The latest thing is for them to spit when they pass [St. James's] monastery. I've seen it myself a couple of times," he said. "Then there's the boy from the Jewish Quarter who spits at the Armenian women when he sees them wearing their crosses, then he runs away. And during one of our processions from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre this year, a fellow in a yarmulke and fringes began deliberately cutting through our lines, over and over. The police caught him and he started yelling, 'I'm free to walk wherever I want!' That's what these settler types are always saying: 'This is our country and we can do whatever we want!'"
Where are the police in all this? If they happen to be on the scene, such as at the recent procession Manougian described, they will chase the hooligans - but even if they catch them, they only tell them off and let them go, according to several Christian clergymen.
"The police tell us to catch them and bring them in, but then they tell us not to use violence, so how are we supposed to catch them?" asked Aghoyan, a very fit-looking 68-year-old. "Once a boy came up to me and spat in my face, and I punched him and knocked him down, and an Armenian seminarian and I brought him to the police station [next to the Armenian Quarter]. They released him in a couple of hours. I've made many, complaints to the police, I'm tired of it. Nothing ever gets done."
Said Rosen, "The police say, 'Show us the evidence.' They want the Christians to photograph the people spitting at them so they can make arrests, but this is very unrealistic - by the time you get the camera out, the attack is over and there's nothing to photograph."
Victims of these attacks say that in the great majority of cases the assailants do not spit in their faces or on their clothes, but on the ground at their feet. "When we complain about this, the police tell us, 'But they're not spitting on you, just near you,'" said Manougian.
Sitting inside the Church of the Flagellation on the Via Dolorosa, Pazzini recalled: "Early this year there were about 100 Orthodox Jewish boys who came past the church singing and dancing. The police were with them - I don't know what the occasion was, maybe it was a holiday, maybe it had to do with the elections. There was a group of Franciscan monks standing in front of the church, and a few of the Jewish boys went up to the monks, spat on them, then went back into the crowd. I went up to a policeman and he told me, 'Sorry about that, but look, they're just kids.'"
Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby refused to provide an official comment on the situation on behalf of the Old City police station. "We don't give interviews on relations between Jews and Christians in the Old City," he said. "We're not sociologists, we're policemen."
The Jerusalem municipality likewise refused to be interviewed. "We have not received any complaints about this matter and we do not deal with things of this nature," said assistant city spokesman Yossi Gottesman.
EVERY CHRISTIAN cleric interviewed for this article stressed that they weren't blaming Israeli Jewry as a whole for the spitting attacks; on the contrary, they said their general reception by Israeli Jews, both secular and religious, was one of welcome.
"I keep in mind that for every person here who's spat at me, there are many more who've come up and said hello," said Father Athanasius.
"I studied at Hebrew University for seven years and the atmosphere was wonderful. I made a lot of friends there," said Pazzini.
"My class members at ulpan visited our convent, they couldn't have been more warm and friendly," said the nun in east Jerusalem. She recalled that a group of boys in a schoolyard near the ulpan once threw stones at her and another nun, and two ulpan teachers saw it, became outraged and went straight into the school principal's office. "The kids never threw stones at us again," the nun said.
"I don't want to cause troubles for Israel - I love Am Yisrael," said Manougian, adding that he felt completely unthreatened and at ease when visiting Tel Aviv, Haifa and other parts of the country. The problem of belligerent Orthodox Jews spitting at Christian clergy, added Rossing, is evidently confined to Jerusalem.
There was a time when priests and nuns in the capital went virtually unmolested. In the first 20 years or so after Israel conquered the Old City in the 1967 Six Day War, spitting incidents did occur, but only once in a very long while. Old City police would lock the offender up for the night, which proved an effective deterrent, said Hintlian. "Whatever problem we had, we could call [mayor] Teddy Kollek's office, we could call people in the Foreign Ministry, the Interior Ministry, we could call Israeli ambassadors. In those days, Christians in Jerusalem were 'overprivileged,'" he said.
That era of good feelings came about as a result of two circumstances, continued Hintlian, the leading chronicler of Jerusalem's Armenian history. For one, he says, Israel in general and Jerusalem in particular were much more liberal in those days, and secondly, Israeli authorities were out to convince the Christian world that they could be trusted with their newly acquired stewardship over the Old City's holy places.
"Now Israel doesn't need the world's approval anymore for its sovereignty over Jerusalem, so our role is finished," said Hintlian. "Now we don't have anyone in authority to turn to."
Yisca Harani, a veteran Jewish interfaith activist who lectures on Christianity to Israeli tour guides at Touro College, likewise says the change for the worse came about 20 years ago. She blames the spitting attacks on the view of Christianity that's propagated at haredi and national Orthodox yeshivot.
"I move around the Old City a lot," she said, "I come in contact with these people, and what they learn in these fundamentalist yeshivot is that the goy is the enemy, a hater of Israel. All they learn about Christianity is the Holocaust, pogroms, anti-Semitism."
Rosen recalls that in 1994, after Israel and the Vatican opened diplomatic relations, he organized an international Jewish-Christian conference in Jerusalem, "and the city's chief rabbi called me in and said, 'How can you do this? Don't you know it's forbidden for us? How can you encourage these people to meet with us?'
"He told me that when he sees a Christian clergyman, he crosses the street and recites, 'You shall totally abhor and totally disdainâ€¦' This is a biblical verse that refers to idolatry." Rosen noted that the Jerusalem chief rabbi of the time, like the more insular Orthodox Jews in general, considered Christians to be idolators.
The people doing the spitting, according to all the Christian victims and Jewish interfaith activists interviewed, are invariably national Orthodox or haredi Jews; in every attack described by Christian clerics, the assailant was wearing a kippa.
The great majority of the attackers were teenage boys and men in their 20s. However, the supposition was that they came not only from the Old City yeshivot but also from outside. Hintlian and Aghoyan noted that the spitting attacks tended to spike on Fridays and Saturdays, when masses of Orthodox Jews stream to the Western Wall.
The hot spots in the Old City are the places where resident Orthodox Jews and Christians brush up against one another - inside Jaffa Gate, on the roads leading through the Armenian Quarter to the Jewish Quarter and around Mount Zion, which lies just outside the Old City and is the site of a several yeshivot.
Of all Old City Christians, the Armenians get spat on most frequently because their quarter stands closest to those hot spots.
Near Mount Zion, four teenage boys on their way to the Diaspora Yeshiva affirmed with a nod that they knew about the spitting attacks on Christian clergy. "But it's nobody from our yeshiva," said one boy, 16, who noted that he'd seen it happen twice right around there - once by a boy wearing a crocheted kippa and once by a boy without a kippa. (This was the only mention I heard of a secular Jew spitting on a Christian.)
"We're against it because it's a desecration - it gives religious Jews a bad name," said the boy. He added, however, "Inside, I also feel like spitting on the Christians because everybody knows how they preach against the Jews. But I'd never do it."
ONLY A TINY proportion of the spitting incidents are reported to police. "When somebody spits at our feet, or at the door to the monastery, we don't even pay attention to it anymore, we take it for granted," said Aghoyan. We have no suspect or evidence to give the police, nor any reason to think the police care, he said.
Pazzini, the vice dean of the seminary at the Church of the Flagellation, said the dean of the seminary had his face spat upon, but he rejected Pazzini's urgings to file a police complaint. "He told me, 'There's no point, this is the way things are around here,'" Pazzini said.
Even outrageous incidents, one after another, go unreported to the police and unknown to the public. About a month ago, when a senior Greek Orthodox bishop was driving into the Jaffa Gate, a young Jewish man motioned him to roll down his window, and when he did, the young man spat in the bishop's face, said Hintlian.
Father Athanasius says that about a year ago, he witnessed the archbishop of Milan, which is one of the world's largest Roman Catholic dioceses, get spat at in the Old City. "The archbishop was with another Italian bishop and a group of pilgrims, and a class of about a dozen adolescent boys in crocheted kippot and sidecurls came by with their teacher. They stopped in front of the archbishop and his guests, the boys began spitting at the ground next to their feet, and then they just kept walking like this was normal," said Father Athanasius. "I saw this with my own eyes."
Rosen, Rossing and Hintlian say the most frustrating thing is that there's no longer anyone in authority who's ready to try to solve this problem, and the reason is that the Christian community in Israel is too small and powerless to rate high-level attention anymore.
"In the old days there were ministers and a mayor in Jerusalem who took the Christian minority seriously, but now virtually everyone dealing with them is a third-tier official, and while these individuals may have wonderful intentions, they have no authority," said Rosen. As far as the current cabinet ministers go, he said the phenomenon of Orthodox Jews spitting on Christian clergy "is at most distressing to some of them, while there are other ministers whose attitude toward non-Jews in general is downright deplorable."
Among Christian victims and Jewish interfaith activists alike, the consensus is that two steps are needed to stop the spitting attacks. One, of course, would be much stronger law enforcement by police. The other would be an educational effort against this "campaign," this "phenomenon," this "tradition" - although it may be that there's nothing to teach - that a person, even an adolescent, either knows it's wrong to spit on priests and nuns or he doesn't.
"We can't tell the Jews in this country what to do - they have to see this as an offense," said Father Athanasius. "There's only a small part of the population that's doing it, but the Jewish establishment has to bring them under control."