A few days ago it was both my unpleasant duty and my honor to accompany a select group of our students studying Jewish-Christian relations on a visit to the Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Israel, Bishop Marcuzzo, in Nazareth.
Our goal was simply solidarity; to express our concern and friendship in light of recent anti-Christian violence and vandalism. In the past few weeks, vandalism of churches and church property, harassment and death threats against Christians in the Galilee and Jerusalem have been in the news. The so-called “price tag” attacks are a blight on our country. The appearance of such extremism in the Galilee is especially disturbing for those of us who live in the north.
On the one hand, this visit was extremely uncomfortable. As a religious, Jewish Israeli I was myself embarrassed for whatever role religious education and community values play in these reprehensible actions. As an immigrant, I remembered times in Canada when our Jewish community institutions were defaced with graffiti. I remembered being spat on and called a kike at school. When we are used to being a minority, suddenly having to take some responsibility for actions from the side of the majority is naturally challenging.
But it was also an honor to take part in this visit. An honor because we were a mixed group of Jewish and Arab Israelis, religious and secular, Jews and Christians, drinking coffee and speaking together about everything from hatred to solidarity, ignorance to tolerance, from Pope John XXIII and Good Friday prayers to the new stoplight outside a local moshav that affects daily local life. An honor because after this optional Friday trip, I couldn’t get my students to leave and go home. We stood in the street, warmed after the meeting, energized and eager to build better relationships between Jews and Christians.
The bishop suggested three levels that are needed to properly address this ugly streak of anti-Christian activity: police, education and politicians. Bishop Marcuzzo was happy with the efforts of law enforcement and impressed with the seriousness with which these crimes were treated by the police. He was also happy to point to our Center at Yezreel Valley College as fulfilling an essential part of building a tolerant and pluralistic Israel.
But my students were surprised and embarrassed to learn that no politician or political representative of the state had visited or spoken out specifically against anti-Christian threats. How could that possibly be, they wondered? Arab Christians in Israel are doubly “othered”: for Jews they are Arabs, for Muslims they are Christians. Their numbers are very small, comprising about the same percentage of the population that Jews do in America. Many Jews in Israel have never knowingly met an Israeli-Arab Christian. They are too easily overlooked and rendered invisible, except when politically expedient.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu himself went to Fureidis to condemn price tag attacks on the local mosque as incompatible with our values. Rightly so. His visit and his strong words should be commended. However, how is it that a church at Tabgha was vandalized and no politician came to visit? Against a backdrop of efforts to ostensibly better integrate Christian Arabs into Israeli society through army and other national service, and to underscore the unique nature of their community, this silence speaks loudly.
Simply put, where are the likes of Yariv Levin now? There is no doubt that of the choices in the region, Israel is by far the best place to be a Christian these days. The neighbors are busy oppressing and/or murdering Christians in places like Syria, Egypt and Iraq. Israel can be proud of the religious freedoms and safety it affords its minority religions. Our Christian population is growing, while elsewhere in the Middle East, the Christian presence is diminishing.
But the argument that the situation of Christians in Israel is not as bad as it is in Syria is hardly adequate. We must ask ourselves time and time again, what kind of country do we envision for our children? When politicians fall over each other for the opportunity to meet the pope yet cannot manage a visit in support and concern for our Christian citizens and residents, something is indeed awry.
The writer is the director for the Galilee Center for Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations (www.csjcr.com) at The Max Stern Yezreel Valley College. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.