Editorial

Israel's Public Security Minister Is Soft on Crimes Against Christian and Muslim Sites

Gilad Erdan - and his boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - need to push the Israel Police to forcefully investigate, and to prosecute, vandalism of churches and mosques

The Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, following the June, 2015 arson attack.
The Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, following the June, 2015 arson attack. Gil Eliahu

On Wednesday afternoon, while most Israelis were preparing their Rosh Hashanah holiday meals, unknown persons broke into St. Stephen’s Church near Beit Shemesh, breaking stained-glass windows and ritual objects including a statue of the Virgin Mary. “I don’t know who could do a thing like that,” said the head of the monastery associated with the church.

Judging by past experience, Father Antonio’s chances of ever finding out who vandalized this holy site are negligible. Data from the Public Security Ministry, which was reported in Sunday’s Haaretz, shows that since 2009, 53 investigations have been opened into suspected arson incidents and other types of vandalism against Christian and Muslim sites. Of these, 45 investigations were closed. Since 2009, there have been nine indictments and seven convictions for vandalizing religious sites, meaning that around 85 percent of investigations were closed without anyone being brought to justice.

The security services like to boast of their battle against nationalist crime. In 2013, when vandalism of religious sites peaked, according to the data, police even established a special unit for such crimes. But their pride over the unit’s establishment seems misplaced. Vandalism of religion sites actually increased since the unit’s establishment. There were 26 reported incidents from 2014 to 2017, compared to 17 from 2009 to 2012, before the unit was set up.

The data, disclosed in response to a parliamentary question from MK Itzik Shmuli to Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, was accompanied by a letter from Erdan. It included the curious comment that “according to the various investigative findings, the incidents were perpetrated from various motives, ranging from negligence through mental illness and, in extreme cases, incidents of arson that appear deliberate.”

This odd remark by Erdan was not based on fact. Neither right-wing extremists nor organizations and individuals that monitor such incidents can remember any cases in which a holy site was deliberately torched as a result of “mental illness.” Moreover, the Tag Meir organization’s records show that most of these arson attacks were accompanied by spray-painted slogans or smashed objects that leave no room for doubt: These were not cases of negligence. Erdan should be reminded that his job isn’t psychiatric diagnosis, but running the police. It’s high time for him to finally start doing this job, even when the crime victims are non-Jews.

It’s also high time for Erdan’s boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who boasts from every possible platform about the freedom of religion and the security that Israel provides to members of all faiths — to recognize this failure and push the police to do more to eradicate this shameful problem.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.