By DAVID J. MICHAELS
As a Jew, especially an Orthodox one, I am ashamed that so-called “religious” people would spit on clergy of other faiths.
The following letter has been sent to over a dozen of the most senior church leaders in Jerusalem, with copies to officials at major Christian bodies abroad.
I write with a request: for your forgiveness.
As a representative of the oldest Jewish communal organization – B’nai B’rith International, which includes members of many backgrounds in over 50 countries, including Israel, where we have been present in Jerusalem since 1888 – I feel obliged to express my revulsion over new reported incidents of spitting at Christian clergy in certain areas of the Holy City. I feel especially obliged to do so as an Orthodox Jew.
Though these acts are committed by a decided minority of young, ostensibly highly observant yeshiva students, the fact that many leaders and seminarians identifiable as Christian have experienced them compels me to ensure you know that Jews overwhelmingly find this behavior disgraceful and intolerable.
In various parts of the world, there clearly remain problems of acute anti-Semitism and anti- Israelism; demonstrations of hostility toward Christians by individual religious Jews make combating these problems even harder.
However, hateful actions toward a religious minority do not only risk harming the image and safety of Jews, in Israel and the Diaspora. These also violate essential Jewish and Israeli values, representing a desecration of God’s name.
JEWS AROUND the world rightly take pride in Israel’s diverse democracy, despite a very difficult environment, and its protection of religious freedom, not least in Jerusalem. We are taught to love peace and pursue it, to uphold the principle of free will, to treat others as we would want to be treated – and to strive to refine our character, recognizing all people as created in the Divine image.
Those relatively few religious youths who spit in the direction of Christian clergy are often responding to Christian symbols seen to conflict theologically with Judaism. They are also undoubtedly informed by a painful history of church persecution of Jews, and by a general fear of proselytism in Israel today.
But there is little consideration of the human impact of these actions. Even in a world where inter-religious acrimony can be manifested with rocks, knives and firebombs, spitting is plainly unacceptable, a gesture that impinges upon the targets’ personal dignity. And, though most haredim too are characterized by decency, by an eagerness to be hospitable and by core values shared by other traditions, there is limited awareness across various segments of Jewish Orthodoxy of the distinctions, and the evolved attitudes toward Jews, among contemporary Christians.
I, too, recall the members of my family who fell victim to violent Christian contempt in the not-distant past. But I am also mindful of my own grandfather’s rescue by an extraordinarily heroic Catholic family during the Holocaust. And I strongly believe that one need not, and must not, attack others in order to witness to the firmness of one’s faith convictions.
Thankfully, the broad spectrum of the Orthodox rabbinate – including staunchly conservative religious bodies in Jerusalem – is on record as rejecting the acts of hostility toward Christians.
OBVIOUSLY, MORE needs to be done. While there may be no way of imposing discipline on every young person, Orthodox rabbis and other leaders will work to urge counterparts to further impress upon all their students the need for conduct becoming their religious identity.
For now, we offer our modest outreach, and our acknowledgment of the routine forbearance of Christians in the face of deeply offensive treatment. We pledge to challenge intolerance in our own midst, just as we do elsewhere and just as we hope others would. And we reaffirm our commitment to the principles of peacefulness and goodneighborliness, in the spirit of the forefathers who preceded us in Zion.
I would be grateful indeed if you would share this letter with members of your communion.
The writer is director of intercommunal affairs for B’nai B’rith.