Saint spray

Christians and Jews unite against 'Price Tag' vandals.

Price tag 390 (photo credit: Courtesy Judea and Samaria Police)
Price tag 390
(photo credit: Courtesy Judea and Samaria Police)
In ongoing efforts to embarrass the Israeli government and deter further settlement outpost evacuations, a suspected fringe group of ultra-right Jewish settlers carried out several more “price tag” vandalism attacks in recent weeks on Christian sites across Israel, including the landmark Latrun monastery and a Franciscan convent near the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion.
Israeli officials have joined church leaders in Jerusalem in condemning the extremely offensive anti-Christian graffiti, and a number of prominent Jewish figures have paid solidarity visits to the Christian communities affected, but many clerics here are anxiously urging swifter police action to round up the culprits.
In September and October, three separate but seemingly related vandalisms hit Christian-owned properties in Israel.
On September 4, the monks at the pastoral Trappist monastery in Latrun, located along the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway some 15 miles west of the capital, awoke at 3:30 a.m. to a burning door and graffiti sprayed on the walls. The insults left at the site, formally known as The Monastery of Notre-Dame de Sept-Douleurs, included graffiti with the words “Jesus is a monkey,” “Upper Migron,” and “Maoz Esther.” [The latter two are names of unauthorized settlement outposts in Judea and Samaria targeted for evacuation.] Then on October 2, the doors of the Franciscan convent near the Dormition Abbey Church located on Mount Zion, the site where church tradition holds that the Virgin Mary died, was spray-painted with the words “price tag” and “Jesus is a son of a bitch.”
In the most recent incident, on October 8 the door of the St. George Romanian Orthodox Church, located near Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She’arim, was damaged with stones, trash and bottles, but no graffiti was left.
These are only the latest vandalisms at Christian-owned properties in Israel this year. In February, the Valley of the Cross monastery and the Narkiss Street Baptist House, both in western Jerusalem, were both defaced late one night. In addition to slashing car tires, the vandals wrote “Jesus drop dead,” “Death to Christians,” “The Maccabees of Migron,” “Jesus, son of Mary the whore,” and “Jesus is dead.”
The signature phrase “price tag” was left at both locations.
Attacks on Muslim sites in Palestinian areas have also occurred over recent years. Vandals have set fires at mosques, slashed car tires and spray-painted racist and religious insults against Arabs and Muslims, while also naming outposts demolished by the IDF along with the phrase “price tag.”
Occasionally, they have destroyed olive trees and damaged other properties.
Even Jewish sites have not been immune to the outrageous assaults.
In 2011 alone, there were approximately 228 incidents of vandalism by right-wing activists on Israeli security forces, according to Haim Rahamim, head of the investigations and intelligence wing of the Judea and Samaria district police.
Perhaps the most outrageous act of vandalism occurred in early June at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Museum – for many the most revered institution in Israel. The staff arrived one morning to find that someone had spray-painted disgusting phrases like “Hitler, thank you for the Holocaust” and “If Hitler didn’t exist the Zionists would have had to invent him.” The graffiti was signed by “the global Zionist mafia” and “the global haredi Jewry.”
The Yad Vashem attack was a particular shock to most Israelis.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu remarked, “I saw the outrageous graffiti... at Yad Vashem. It is hard to believe that a human being could be capable of writing such things.”
“We have to find these perpetrators as soon as possible. This was a heinous crime against one of the State of Israel’s most prominent symbols. I’m appalled and outraged,” Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch told Y-Net News at the time.
Indeed, the perpetrators of the vandalism at Yad Vashem were quickly uncovered and were found to be responsible for a series of similar attacks at other important Israeli national symbols, including three IDF memorials in the Jordan Valley and Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem.
Police quickly suspected the nature of these incidents and the very differing messages left were more the work of anti-Zionist elements in the ultra-Orthodox community, as the ultra-nationalist settlers would be reluctant to deface such sites or use these phrases. The hunch paid off, as the culprits turned out to be a gang of extremist haredi youths who were trying to “copy cat” the price-tag attacks.
Within three weeks of the Yad Vashem incident, the gang had been caught and confessed to several of the crimes. During questioning the suspected leader of the cell, 31-year-old Elhanan Ostrowitz, even declared that he would bomb the Knesset, the High Court and IDF bases if given the chance.
Yet this swift police work to nab the Yad Vashem vandals stands in sharp contrast to the lack of progress in identifying and catching the extremist settlers believed responsible for the wave of price-tag attacks on church properties this year, and some Christian clergy are starting to wonder why.
To be fair, the Israeli government has been consistent in condemning all of the acts of vandalism of recent years, whether against Jewish, Muslim or Christian targets. But Israeli officials have themselves grown frustrated in dealing with the “price tag” phenomenon, which has been escalating ever since some in the settler movement vowed to exact a “price” for any more forced evacuations of settlements in the wake of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza.
Early on, the “price” was exacted by vandalizing nearby Arab villages, then mosques and then on to Israeli military bases and personnel. Now, the latest targeting of Christian sites is proving to be an added headache for Israeli leaders. Prime Minister Netanyahu was especially outspoken after the Latrun attack.
“This is a criminal act and those responsible must be severely punished. Religious freedom and worship are two of the most basic institutions in Israel,” he responded.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak also condemned the Latrun attack and called on the Shin Bet security agency “to tackle Jewish terrorism.”
“It is forbidden that we should have price tag activities among us; we are a people of belief and good deeds. Price tag activities are in opposition to the Jewish religion and strike a great blow to Israel,” added President Shimon Peres.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman also voiced condemnation and “sorrow” after the October 8 vandalism at the St. George Romanian Orthodox Church.
Yet one of the encouraging outcomes of the wave of price-tag attacks on church properties in Israel has been the solidarity initiatives spawned among various segments of the Jewish community. A coalition of 30 Israeli Jewish organizations, ranging from Orthodox to Progressive to secular elements, have banded together to form Tag Meir, meaning “bright tag.”
The coalition has a common aim of offering a peaceful and respectful response to every “price tag” attack.
“The group represents the majority of Jews in Israel and that the price tag phenomenon is conducted by an outlandish extremist minority,” Ron Kronish, director of the Interreligious Coordination Council in Israel and a founding member of Tag Meir, explained to The Jerusalem Post.
Tag Meir members have made it a point to meet personally with, among others, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, head Custodian of the Franciscan order, which is responsible for maintaining Catholic sites in the Holy Land, to express their regret for the vandalism. The group also has organized a 500-person vigil which visited Latrun.
Gadi Gvaryahu, chairman of Tag Meir and director of the Yud B’Heshvan anti-extremism organization, handed the Custos a letter expressing the anger and opposition of Israelis to the incident at Latrun.
“Since December 2009, seventeen places of worship, mosques and churches, have been desecrated or set on fire in Israel and Judea and Samaria,” the letter stated. “It is a great embarrassment and we need to stop this.”
Father Pizzaballa welcomed Tag Meir for showing “religion and tolerance are not contradictory values.” He assured that the “solidarity” expressed for the monastery and the monks from around the country “strengthens the idea that these incidents do not represent Israel or Jews... and that we can continue to live together in this city.”
Rabbi David Rosen, the Jerusalembased interfaith representative of the American Jewish Committee, has also firmly condemned the wave of church vandalisms, insisting this “is not only an attack against Christians, but also an assault against the noble values of Judaism – a desecration of the Divine Name... [and] an attack on Israel’s long-standing and steadfast commitment to freedom of religion,” reported the Vatican Insider.
Im Tirtzu, a Jewish right-wing organization, expressed outrage as well over the Latrun attack. The group even sent a delegation to the monastery to clean off the graffiti and bring flowers to the monks.
So even though these “price tag” attacks seek to undermine Jewish- Christian relations, it seems the reality has been the opposite. Instead of division, there have been repeated and consistent expressions of sympathy and solidarity from various segments of Israeli society, including government officials, Jewish rabbis and Israeli citizens.
The most recent solidarity meeting was hosted in late October at Baptist House on Narkiss Street in central Jerusalem, the site of not only the graffiti attack last February but several other acts of arson and vandalism over the years.
Rev. Charles Kopp, a long-serving pastor for an Evangelical congregation that meets at Baptist House, told The Christian Edition that he convened the reception “to show solidarity with the government leaders that have spoken out for protection for us and to do something about the situation that we find ourselves in, where every few weeks another attack on a Christian institution occurs. We also want to show solidarity with those other Christian communities who have suffered.”
Addressing the gathering, he said it was meant “to make a statement, to stand up for law and order. We have no revenge in our hearts, but our hearts are clear that for civic and good order, things need to be handled carefully,” Kopp stated.
Kopp noted the dilemma local Christians face of wanting to give a good witness of their faith by forgiving the perpetrators, but also of being a minority feeling increasingly open to attack.
Other local church leaders on hand also privately told The Christian Edition that their parishioners are trying to fit in as good citizens and residents of Israel, but they are feeling ever more vulnerable due to the growing anti- Christian incitement by Jewish extremists. Some pointed to not just the recent graffiti attacks, but also repeated incidents of priests being spat upon in the Old City and the ripping up of a New Testament in the Knesset by a militant right-wing lawmaker who went unpunished.
While acknowledging that the situation in Israel is not on the same level as the persecution and abuse that Christian minorities in neighboring Arab lands are currently facing, they did express concern that things could get worse here if the incitement is not held in check.
Pepe Alalu, a member of the Jerusalem city council, responded by calling on all state authorities to enforce the law in order that the attacks come to an end. “Jerusalem has to be a model of tolerance and peaceful coexistence,” he said.
The senior Israeli official present was Dr. Moti Zaken, special advisor on minority affairs to the Minister of Internal Security, who has become the point-man in recent years for handling a succession of criminal incidents against the Christian communities in the Holy Land.
“We are here to express solidarity. We are here to express sympathy,” Zaken assured. “But let me be very clear. Solidarity and sympathy is not enough. We have to act. We have to act through education. We have to act through pressure.”
Illustrating the type of action needed, Zaken related the story of a poster he found hanging in the ultra- Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She’arim, on which a leading rabbi warned against spitting on Christian clerics. When Kevork Nalbandian, an Armenian Christian lawyer and minority rights activist, learned of the poster, he found the print house, asked them to print more of the posters, and stuck them up all over the Old City of Jerusalem.
The call by Zaken for more “pressure” on Israeli authorities seemed odd coming from a government official, but he knows that a few extremists are giving all Israelis a bad image. He also knows the culprits are still at large and could strike again any night now.
To counter this threat, Mickey Rosenfeld, Israel’s national police spokesman, recently revealed that a special unit of eight officers has been assigned to investigate the series of hate crimes against Christian sites.
Meanwhile, acting Jerusalem police chief Meni “Manny” Yitzhaki said he believes “there are various individuals involved. We are sparing no effort in the investigation, on both the district and national levels, to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice. We are taking it very seriously and view it as extremely severe. We’ll catch the vandals and handle the situation with other security elements. We are very sorry about this incident,” he told Y-Net News.