Learning to love thy Christian neighbor

David Rap – 27/12/12

The beautiful lowland between the Israel Museum and the neighborhood of Rehavia in Jerusalem is called Emek Hamatzlevah, “The Valley of the Cross.” Within the valley is a Greek Orthodox monastery with the same name.

The name comes from Christian tradition, which holds that a tree from the valley provided the wood for Jesus’ cross.

In Jerusalem, where religious tolerance is scarce, it might be hoped that the name is a convert indication of acceptance of the other.

The name “Emek Hamatzlevah” places a decidedly Christian narrative within the language spoken by the Jewish majority living in West Jerusalem.But suspicion and ignorance still separate Jews from the Christian minority that lives and works in their midst. About a week and a half ago, graffiti mocking and condemning Jesus was spray-painted on the wall surrounding the monastery. The malicious words were similar to those spray-painted on the walls of the Trappist Monastery of the Silent Monks and Church of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows in Latrun, near Jerusalem, in September.

The acts of violence and harassment do not stop at graffiti. Occasionally they penetrate the walls, reaching deep inside the Christian world. They reach the streets of the Old City when members of the Christian clergy are spat at, shoved and cursed, and their ceremonies and marches disrupted. The lack of response by law-enforcement authorities has led to a worsening and intensification of these acts over the past several years.

As academics have noted, Israel’s Christian Arabs are a minority within a minority – a tiny community among Israel’s Arabs, who are themselves a minority within society. This unique, fragile status is common to the other communities that make up the Christian mosaic in Israel: Christian immigrants who came here seeking work, members of the clergy who were sent here and the largely invisible Hebrew-speaking Christians, most of whom came to Israel under the Law of Return and kept their adopted Christian faith.

Although these minorities combine to number between 250,000 and 300,000 people, Jewish society is blind to them. Severe condemnation of the acts of vandalism, like those issued by the prime minister, the mayor of Jerusalem and others, is appropriate and necessary. But while most of the public clucks their tongues at these acts, it would be better to back up the shock felt over them with action. The Israeli government or the Jerusalem City Council could hold a special meeting in one of the centuries-old Christian institutions in Jerusalem – a meeting that would focus on the need to stamp out hostility toward the other. Those who cluck their tongues would also do well to visit one of the hundreds of monasteries and churches throughout the country.

Those who pass through the tiny gate in the monastery wall in the Valley of the Cross will discover a small monastic community and a spectacular church with medieval mosaics on the walls and floor. In a special room that the church marks as the place where the sacred tree grew, a series of paintings on the walls serves as food for thought for Jews and Christians alike. The paintings depict a legend that connects the biblical figure of Lot to the story of the cross. According to the story, Lot tended three trees, each of a different type, which miraculously joined to form a single tree. It was from this tree that the cross was built centuries later.

Christianity and Judaism are sister religions that draw on common roots. Although they have never combined to form a single tree, the gardener should allow them to flourish undisturbed side by side.

David Rapp is the author of the book“Israel’s Beautiful Churches.”