An Unorthodox Aliyah

When David Neuhaus' parents sent the Jewish teen to Israel, they didn't imagine he'd return determined to become a Christian. More than three decades later, he is the Church's emissary to Israel's Hebrew-speaking Catholics.

Lily Galili
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Lily Galili

The conversation with Father David Neuhaus, S.J., takes place on the three different levels that constitute his identity. In part, it is an exchange of ideas with a "standard Israeli leftist," a member of a disappearing species. It is also a conversation with a Jesuit monk, spiced with a pinch of theology, and a discussion with a veteran Jewish immigrant from South Africa, who can draw, or dispense with, similarities and differences between his native land and the country in which he chose to spend his life.

About a year ago, the Catholic patriarch in the Holy Land appointed Neuhaus to lead Israel's Hebrew-speaking Catholic community, which consists of some 450 to 500 non-Arab Israeli Catholics. Through the prism of this role, and of his other functions, among them as lecturer at Bethlehem University and at the Latin Patriarchate Seminary in neighboring Beit Jala, Neuhaus examines the Israeli experience with sobriety and sensitivity, summarizing it in the following manner: "A sovereign people cannot play the role of a victim, and I am definitely part of this people." As the deputy Latin patriarch, he notices a change in the extent of openness to Christianity in Israel, although this improvement is not evident in the Arab population.

David Neuhaus was born 48 years ago in South Africa to a German Jewish couple that escaped during the Holocaust. As a young boy he attended an exclusive Jewish school that sent him at age 15, in 1977, to Jerusalem for four months to deepen his ties to Israel and Judaism. The outcome was quite different. During those years the young David showed a special interest in European aristocracy. He was spellbound by Jerusalem from the moment of his arrival, and spent much of his time searching for the Romanov Dynasty's princess, a relative of the last czar. He found her in a Russian convent but by then she was no longer able to communicate.

That encounter, however, led to another meeting - with Mother Barbara, an 89-year-old Orthodox nun, who despite being paralyzed, radiated what he describes as a special light. That light immediately captivated the young Neuhaus, and marked the beginning of a long journey to Christianity. When he returned to South Africa at the end of that period, he told his parents he intended to convert. They were stunned. They had not sent their son to the Jewish state in order to become a Christian.

In the end, they asked him to hold off for 10 years before converting. If he would do so, they promised, they would then support whatever decision he made. Neuhaus agreed and kept his word.

"You cannot say that my visit to Israel, sent by the school, was a failure," he jokes 30 years later, sitting in the courtyard of St. Peter's Monastery in Old Jaffa. "Ultimately, I did make aliyah."

When he was 17, after having completed his high-school matriculation exams, Neuhaus arrived in Israel and settled in Jerusalem. At the Hebrew University he collected, one after the other, degrees in psychology, political science and political philosophy. He wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the role religion has played in the political life of Israeli Arabs.

His desire to convert (a term he does not particularly like) was not a mere youthful folly. He continued attending church, until in 1988 he was finally baptized and chose the life of a Jesuit monk. In 2000, Neuhaus was ordained as a priest. Michel Sabbah, who at that time was the Latin patriarch in the Holy Land, officiated at the ceremony, and his parents came for the important event, fulfilling their promise.

Neuhaus offers two reasons for his shift away from the Orthodox Church, where he started his journey to Catholicism: "The more personal reason is that, in my eyes, the Orthodox did not engage in the type of soul-searching that the Catholic Church did about their attitude toward the Jews. The universal reason is that I found it difficult to accept the Orthodox dichotomy between the church's life and what happens in the world outside it."

First demonstration

The first Lebanon War broke out in 1982, two and a half years after his arrival in Israel. The huge demonstration in Tel Aviv following the massacre in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Beirut - an event that became known as "the demonstration of the 400,000" - was life-altering for him. It was the first demonstration he attended here, and through it he was drawn into the local political experience.

In 1988, after he received his call-up notice from the Israel Defense Forces, Neuhaus wrote a long letter to Yitzhak Rabin, then the defense minister. He stated his refusal to serve in the military, but expressed readiness to serve the state in any other way, be it as a teacher, a street cleaner or a hospital orderly. The army tried him and sent him to prison for two weeks, before discharging him completely. Neuhaus opted for a personal national service of two and a half years at the French hospital for terminally ill patients in Jerusalem.

When it comes to the wrongs Israel does or to its own suffering, Father Neuhaus deliberately uses the term "we" today. Sometimes he does so proudly, but in other instances, regarding the occupation, for instance, he feels he shares the blame. This is a veteran Israeli's civilian partnership with his country, a person who even today says of himself, "I am not non-Jewish."

Neuhaus is aware of the anger many Jews felt toward the late French cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, who converted from Judaism and used to say that he was "both this and that." Neuhaus respects the anger and defines himself as a son of Jewish people and a son of Jewish culture. He still enjoys paying occasional visits to a Reform synagogue and praying with people "who share common goals, striving for more equality and more democracy in Israel."

The Hebrew he speaks so superbly, the natural way in which he uses it while moving from one world to the other and his prolonged involvement with the Israeli left - all have helped him win many friends here. He has, of course, many enemies in all religions who fail to grasp his many identities. But it seems that hostility has not deterred Neuhaus, not even when he felt it strongly during left-wing demonstrations.

In 2000 he began joining the weekly demonstrations of the Women in Black in Jerusalem's Paris Square. At first, before men joined the women's demonstrations, he would stand aside; later he mingled with the group and got to know everybody. He loved the consistency of the women's protest, the stubborn message calling for an end to the occupation, the quiet way in which they stood there week after week, while passersby would curse them. Sometimes he stood there and prayed silently.

The message of the South African truth and reconciliation committees also reverberates when he talks of his desire to be "a silent witness to a simple message."

"It is no doubt so," he asserts. "Just like in South Africa, the testimony we collect in Israel will serve as a background for a future settlement." An awareness of the importance of documentation is what led him to accept an invitation to join the board of the human rights group B'Tselem, in 2005.

Neuhaus: "My 'internal' source of legitimacy for such activity is my Israeli citizenship, my religion, which provides a spiritual ingredient for a political position, and my Jewishness, too. We do not have the luxury of playing games like other nations. Not because of a religious mission, but because of our history."

He ceased the political activity last year, when he was put in charge of the Hebrew-speaking Christians, a varied group that includes Israeli citizens who may have voted for Avigdor Leiberman's nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu.

In any event, the Israel of today seems different to Neuhaus from the country he immigrated to three decades ago. Precisely because he came from South Africa, Neuhaus is careful about using the term "apartheid" to describe the situation in Israel, and takes exception to attempts to apply direct comparisons between the two countries.

"There is a similarity in the sense that, here and there, there are problems between two ethnic groups; but borrowing terms is just being a bit lazy. As I see it, there is a problem of equality in a state that defines itself as Jewish. There is also the problem of the occupation, in which the state has assumed responsibility over territories that do not belong to it," says Neuhaus, who is also wary about using the term "racist state."

"Many people tend to be racist," he continues. "In the Jewish people's history, racism was a survival mechanism, and I too was raised in a house where a gentile was considered inferior. There is work to do here with the historical baggage that we carry. I do share the feeling that the Jewish people are especially bound to do more."

Through his small community, Neuhaus can examine processes that have taken place in Israel in recent years. For example, the children of foreign workers may not be part of the "Hebrew-speaking community" per se, but they are too Israeli to take part in religious rituals in their mother tongues. So now he is preparing books that should help them preserve their religion within a local context.

This encompassing Israelinesss seems very important to him. The same thing applies when he talks about Christian immigrants from the former Soviet Union, some of whom were compelled to leave the country because they were frightened by the society here and the state did not provide suitable conditions for them to raise their children as Christians. Neuhaus maintains it is wrong to leave that task to the church, because he fears the children would then grow up within too insular a community and not as part of the Greater Israel. He is disgusted by the policy of "divide and rule" that the Israeli authorities use vis-a-vis the Muslims and the Christians both within the Green Line and in the territories.

His South African experience proves to Father Neuhaus that change is possible, and his Christian belief imbues him with the hope for an unanticipated divine intervention that would facilitate change. In the meantime, he has a great love for this place - not only for the Holy Land, but also for mundane life in a country whose fate makes him anxious.



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