Borderline Views: Ensuring religious freedom in Israel

It is high time the government also made it clear that those people who desecrate Muslim and Christian sites in Israel are the full equivalent of anti-Semitic hooligans, terrorists.

A rabbi and a sheikh at a prayer session for Muslims and Jews in Gush Etzion. (photo credit: ELIAZ COHEN)
A rabbi and a sheikh at a prayer session for Muslims and Jews in Gush Etzion.
(photo credit: ELIAZ COHEN)
A Friday morning tour of the Mount Zion area, just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, organized by the impressive government- funded ICORE research project on Study of Conversion and Inter-Religious Encounters. We are introduced to the multiple complexities of this tiny piece of territory, encompassing within it the Dormition Church, the reputed Tomb of King David and place of the Last Supper, the Franciscan monastery and the separate Armenian, Greek, Protestant and other cemeteries, bordering on each other in a complex mosaic.
Unlike most areas of religious tension and conflict in Israel, there is no significant Muslim presence here at the moment, although it is clear from their architecture that many of the buildings, especially the King David site, date back to Muslim periods – many hundreds of years after the death of King David or the events of the Last Supper. The small Muslim Dajani-Daoud cemetery is fenced in tightly and is no longer in use, while the neighboring buildings, which used to belong to the Dajani family, are now occupied by the Holocaust Cellar Museum and the Diaspora Yeshiva.
The conflicts and tensions among the various Christian denominations and the active renewal of the Jewish presence, most notably through the takeover in recent years of David’s Tomb, are clear for all to see. The room of the Last Supper is now off limits to Christian prayer because of the Jewish argument that such prayer is idolatrous and full of impurity, and that this impurity should not be allowed to descend downward into David’s Tomb. This bizarre argument has been upheld by the courts and enforced by the police.
The accounts of Jewish youth accosting priests on the street and spitting at them, of graffiti on the walls of monasteries and churches and the desecration of gravestones in the local cemeteries are hard to accept, but there are too many such documented accounts for it to be pushed aside as the work of a few deviant youth. The establishment of a new police station in the very heart of Mount Zion and the installation of CTV cameras at almost every corner and passageway are disturbing evidence of the renewed religio-political tensions. Strict rules have been introduced restricting prayer services and other religious practices and such events are limited to a few holy days in the year. Religious and sectarian tensions have developed in recent years as a new, young, radical group of extremist right-wing elements have sought to take control and bring about a “Judaization” of the mountain.
See the latest opinion pieces on our page
All this takes place against the backdrop of the desecration of the Tabta Church overlooking the Sea of Galilee last week, also by groups of Jewish youth acting in the name of religion. Can there be a greater desecration of God’s name in the Holy Land than Jews doing to other religions what was done to their fathers and ancestors by other governments and religions throughout centuries of exile? They may wear the kippot, tzitzit, etc., but the last thing that they, or their teachers (who call themselves rabbis) can be labeled is “religious.” It is the ultimate “chilul hashem” (desecration of God’s name) which they have performed and it is high time that we, and our government, stopped pretending that this is just a small group of deviant youth which doesn’t reflect the wider sub-strata of society within which they are growing up and being educated.
We should have been proud of the fact that the president and prime minister condemned the action, that Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein convened a group of rabbis and religious leaders to set up a fund to help repair the damage to the church. But we didn’t hear any major statements of denunciation from the Chief Rabbinate, the official state religious authority.
Most of the right-wing government ministers have remained silent, where they would have been the first to shout out loud were it a Jewish cemetery or synagogue under attack elsewhere in the world (in Europe or North America), demanding that the respective governments and police forces immediately take action to arrest the culprits, to make good the damage and to put in place security measures aimed at ensuring that such activities are not repeated in the future.
Instead, we have heard one of the country’s most extreme right-wing rabbis, Dov Lior, formerly of Kiryat Arba and recently relocated to Jerusalem, questioning the idea that Jews should donate money toward the restoration of the church, arguing instead that the same money should be used for restoring the desecrated graves on the Mount of Olives which have been damaged by loathsome people acting in the name of Palestinian nationalism and Islam.
As though there is some symmetry in acts of desecration. If they can do it to us, then we have the right to do it to them. Reducing this bitter and endless conflict to tit for tat child’s game – what you can do I can do better.
Lior conveniently ignores one of the most important tenets of his own religious Zionist ideology – namely, that the Jewish people are sovereign in their own land after 2,000 years of exile and, as such, are ultimately responsible for the safety and freedom of everyone living under their control. Sovereignty comes with obligations, not just rights. Given the history of the Jewish people in exile, there can be no greater obligation than showing to the world that Jewish sovereignty really does honor and protect the rights of religious minorities and freedom of religious practice, in a way that was not always accorded to the Jews throughout the long history of persecution and oppression.
Lior and like-minded rabbis also forget to acknowledge the fact that the religion in whose name they speak has very clear teachings concerning the rights of the “ger,” the stranger in our midst. If we are unable to live up to these standards, then we have failed to honor the independence and sovereignty for which we have fought so hard, and which still stands in the balance as our enemies (and we have plenty of these) would like nothing better than for the State of Israel to disappear back into the sea of the Diaspora.
They would like nothing better than to show that the Jewish state has no more regard for holy Muslim and Christian sites than that displayed, for centuries past, for Jewish institutions and places of worship throughout the world.
While Edelstein and prominent religious leaders such as former government minister Rabbi Michael Melchior, should be commended for the action that they have taken to partially reimburse the church for the damage, it should not have had to come to this.
The government should have immediately, within hours of the church desecration occurring, offered to pay the full cost of restoration. They should not have had to rely on private contributions to make good the damage and, for that matter, for only a small part of the actual cost.
It is high time the government also made it clear that those people who desecrate Muslim and Christian sites in Israel are the full equivalent of anti-Semitic hooligans, terrorists, not misguided youths, who should be arrested, charged and imprisoned for lengthy periods of time. The disgrace that they bring to Israel and the Jewish people is immeasurable and only helps to turn the few friends we still have in the world against us.
This not turning the other cheek. Israel should be proud that it is expected to behave according to different, higher, principles. Just as we do not want to be judged by the standards of the barbaric behavior and terrorism of some of the neighboring regimes, so too we do not want to be judged in comparison with the anti-Jewish behavior of groups around the world. If that opens us to greater criticism when we fail to behave according to these principles, then that should be seen as a badge of merit, not as a weakness.
Failing to do so means that we have betrayed the most important principle of being a sovereign nation in our own land, the responsibility of caring for all those who are subject to our control. Those who would spit on priests in the Old City of Jerusalem, write anti-Christian graffiti on the wall of a monastery or damage a church in the Galilee are directly responsible for weakening Israel’s own sovereignty and its justification for Jewish rule in the Land of Israel.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.