Shocked by growing reports about Ultra-Orthodox Jews spitting at Christians in Jerusalem's Old City, a group of Anglo residents is now mobilizing against this ugly practice. Although such incidents reportedly have decreased since a council of Haredi rabbis issued an official condemnation in January in response to the public outcry, Christian and Jewish activists agree the problem is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
"I felt I had to protest," said Andrea Katz, 57, who is planning several events within Jerusalem's liberal Orthodox Yedidya congregation to show solidarity with the Christian community and educate the English-speaking Jewish public about their Christian neighbors. "I don't think that all of a sudden the Haredi world is going to say: Oh my Gosh, we did so wrong, let's stop this. But somehow I had to do something; I just couldn't sit around and do nothing."
For years, there have been incidents of Haredi youths spitting at Christian clergymen in the Old City and near the Mea She'arim neighborhood, according to several Jewish and Christian residents of Jerusalem. One cleric said told a European news site that the spitting was "almost a daily experience."
In late 2009 such incidents started to mount, provoking a growing number of complaints and increasing press coverage. The Haredi Community Tribunal of Justice subsequently published a statement condemning such acts, calling them a "desecration of God's name." Christian leaders met in January with Foreign Ministry staff and representatives of the Jerusalem municipality and the Haredi community to tackle the problem.
Over the last two months the number of spitting incidents declined somewhat, according to Archbishop Aris Shirvanian, of Jerusalem's Armenian Patriarchate, who says that in the 12 years he has lived in Jerusalem has been spat on about 50 times. "It's good to see the reduction of this phenomenon, but to eradicate it completely may take time. I don't think it will be stopped in a fortnight or so," he told Anglo File. He praised the Baka-based Yedidya community for its efforts to raise awareness but added the events planned failed to reach the perpetrators within the Haredi community. "It's a good step forward, but more has to be done."
Yedidya, which was founded in 1980 by a group of British and American immigrants, currently plans three events. The first, a lecture, is scheduled for March 15 and will take place in the synagogue. Besides Katz and Shirvanian, the panelists include the director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, Daniel Rossing; the head of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, Rabbi Dr. Ron Kronish; religion professor Yiska Harani; Fr. Athanasius Makora, of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land; and Dr. Debbie Weissman, who heads the International Council of Christians and Jews.
The shul also plans to organize visits to Jerusalem's Christian communities. "The majority of congregants - even if we're from abroad - is certainly ignorant of the Eastern and Orthodox churches that are here," Katz said. "In order for people to sympathize they have to know whom they are sympathizing with."
Around Easter, Katz is hoping to create what she calls a "human corridor." Marching with the Armenian community while they carry a Cross would be inappropriate for an Orthodox congregation, the Buffalo, New York, native explained. Rather, she'd like her community to "simply stand, to make a corridor - no words, no speeches - so that they [the Armenian clerics] can walk from [the Church of] St. James to [the Church of] the Holy Sepulchre. Nothing big, just to show there are people who care and don't find this kind of behavior acceptable."
Katz said she felt the need to become active when she hosted a group of officials from the U.S.-based Jewish Council for Public Affairs. They wanted to learn more about the phenomenon of Jews spitting at Christians - something she had never heard of. "They were from an organization abroad, and they knew about something that was going on that I found horrifying and I didn't know about. I live in this city since 1974, and I had no idea."
Wondering what could bring religious people to commit such ugly acts, Katz surmised that some Jews might not have learned yet what it means to be the majority in a country.
"It's still very new for us," she said. "We're taking our experiences from the Diaspora and acting and reacting in way that would befit a powerless minority. Now that we do have power simply because Jews are 'in control,' we are not protecting the minorities and allowing the Christian or the Muslim minority to practice freely what they want to practice.... We haven't got our heads around the fact that our job is now to protect them."
Kronish, of the Interreligious Coordinating Council, said the spitting is rooted in "penned-up anger" about the long history of Christian anti-Semitism. "The Haredim give their children a distorted education, which is conducive to such behavior," he said. Despite the recent decline in spitting incidents, he asserts the "underlying fear and ignorance is still there" and can only be combated if people learn about the other.
"People fear the unknown," he explains. "The unknown is the Christians and the reasons we're doing this educational event with Yedidya is because people felt: Gee, we really don't know who these Christians are over there in the Old City. We don't know anything about them - we live here in Baka, they live over there behind those walls. It's time for us to know more about them."
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