students armenians old city 248 no 88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
In decades past, when official Israel was concerned for local Christian sensitivities, a case of two Armenian seminarians beating up a young haredi man whom they accused of spitting on them would have been handled quietly through the church, said veteran Jewish interfaith activist Daniel Rossing. But the incident didn't take place 20 years ago, it took place in the Old City on Saturday, September 5, and the two seminarians were jailed and very nearly deported.
Only appeals to the President's Office, the Prime Minister's Office, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger prevented a possible international scandal for Israel, Armenian sources said.
Another interfaith veteran, Rabbi David Rosen, whom the Armenians turned to for behind-the-scenes help, said, "Immediately after it happened, there should have been a massive police presence around the Armenian and Jewish Quarters to send a clear message to those in the Jewish Quarter that police take [the spitting attacks] seriously. But if no one [who spits on Christian clergy] sees such a presence, they assume they can get away with it and the police will just arrest the Christians anyway."
What happened was that early that Saturday evening, a group of Armenian seminarians were returning from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre when a young haredi man spat on them, and, after they protested, spat on them again, said George Hintlian, the unofficial spokesman for the local Armenian community.
This was by no means the first time these seminarians had been spat on in the Old City by hostile Orthodox Jews, said Hintlian, and a couple of them responded by beating the haredi man up, leaving his face badly bruised.
The seminarians told police the haredi man had spit on them, but police said they saw no evidence of spitting on closed-circuit cameras, only of the beating. Cmdr. Avi Roif of the Old City's Kishleh police station contacted the Immigration Police, and the two fighting seminarians, ages 16 and 17, were jailed in Ramle and readied for deportation.
Two days after the attack, Hintlian took a letter of protest from aged Armenian Patriarch Torkom Manougian to the Prime Minister's Office and the President's Office. Archbishop Nourhan Manougian met with Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, the latter issuing a letter that called for rabbis of the Old City to "root out the evil affliction" of spitting on Christian clergy.
The two seminarians were released from jail, but while the deportation orders against them were dropped, it is unclear whether their Israeli visas will be renewed.
Rosen says that Roif, who has been in his commander's post only a couple of months, "went overboard. He should have shown more compassion to the seminarians and realized that even if he didn't see it on the camera, there is enough evidence [of young Orthodox Jews spitting on Christian clergy in the Old City] to lead one to conclude that they were responding to an assault just as they said they were."
Since then, Archbishop Manougian has met with Roif several times in an attempt to draft a protocol whereby the Armenians would pledge not to respond to spitting attacks with physical violence, while the police would pledge to crack down on the Jewish perpetrators.
But the Armenians say they will not sign the protocol as currently written. "It puts us on the same level with the people spitting at us, without recognizing that they are the aggressors and we are defending ourselves," said Hintlian.
"The police say they will try their best to stop the spitting, but how? Will they attach a policeman to every priest when he leaves the monastery?" asked Manougian.
The police did not answer phone calls or e-mails requesting a response.
Father Samuel Aghoyan, who has slapped or punched a few assailants over the years after they spat in his face, said that if he agrees "not to take the law into his own hands" as the police insist, the hooligans will just go on spitting at him because nobody will stop them. "Spitting is an act of aggression," he said. "I have the right to defend myself."
Roman Catholic Father Massimo Pazzini of the Church of the Flagellation said he once described to an Italian rabbi what was going on in the Old City. "I asked him to imagine how Jews would react today if Christians were spitting on rabbis in Italy," Pazzini recalled. "The rabbi didn't say anything. He didn't need to."