Home of 3 Faiths, Rubbing One Another the Wrong Way

New York Times, NY
Oct 19 2004

Home of 3 Faiths, Rubbing One Another the Wrong Way

Published: October 19, 2004

ERUSALEM, Oct. 18 – To all the depredations and brutality meted out
in the name of religion in the holy city, add a little spit.

When a young yeshiva student spat at the cross-carrying Armenian
archbishop of Jerusalem, Nourhan Manougian, the archbishop struck
back, a fistfight broke out, the police were called and a new debate
started spinning about the nature of intolerance among the faithful.

Jerusalem may have the world’s highest diversity of religious belief
per square meter but here, it seems, diversity does not produce a lot
of tolerance.

In fact, it is almost the reverse, suggests Rabbi David Rosen, based
in Jerusalem as head of inter-religious affairs for the American
Jewish Committee. “It’s the paradox of Jerusalem,” Mr. Rosen said.
The competition among true believers of all faiths creates tension,
not ecumenicism.

“Here, the vast majority of Muslims, Christians and Jews live with a
pre-modern mentality, a linear truth,” he said. “And since I possess
it, they think, why should I come together with you? Diversity is not
seen here as positive, as in the Western world, or dialogue

The spitting incident occurred a week ago, during a procession for
the Feast of the Holy Cross, which commemorates the return of the
true cross to Jerusalem by the Romans after they defeated the
Persians, who had apparently stolen it. In the post-spittle struggle,
the archbishop’s medallion, dating from the 17th century, was
damaged, and so, too, some worried, was Israel’s reputation for
tolerance and fair administration of the disputed capital.

Though the target was important, this was hardly an isolated
incident. Spitting on Christian clergy by ultra-Orthodox Jews, while
not an everyday occurrence, happens often enough to have become a
sensitive topic among Christians in the Old City, said Wadie
Abunassar, an Israeli Arab Roman Catholic who worked as a spokesman
here for the Latin Patriarch, a leader of the Eastern Orthodox

“Jerusalem is supposed to be a city for ecumenicism – it’s supposed
to be,” Mr. Abunassar said. “But Jerusalem is a very nervous city.
You feel the denominational and sectarian tension there, not just
between Christians and Jews, or Jews and Muslims, but among
Christians, too.

“Everybody, every sect tries to claim that we are the cleanest, the
purest, the best,” he added.

Rabbi Rosen said the matter has to be understood in an ultra-Orthodox
context. “Ultra-Orthodox Jews don’t by definition live in the modern
world,” Rabbi Rosen said. Many, to varying degrees, see Christianity
as idol worship. “For them, the cross is a symbol of idolatry and of
hatred of Judaism,” he said.

For the ultra-Orthodox, Mr. Abunassar said, “Jesus is not just a bad
Jew, but almost Satan’s messenger.

“They avoid writing his name,” he said. “Some won’t wear neckties, to
avoid making a cross around their neck, or use shoelaces. In math,
instead of the plus sign, a cross, they use an upside-down T.”

Some ultra-Orthodox also spit at women in skirts deemed too short,
and there have been cases when a driver on the Sabbath is stopped, as
if for directions, and when he or she rolls down a window, is spat

In this case, the student who spat, Natan Zvi Rosenthal, was
arrested. He told the police he had been brought up to see
Christianity as idol worship, forbidden by the Torah, and spat at the
cross as its symbol. He was ordered to stay away from the Old City
for 75 days, and may yet be indicted. On Monday, he made a formal
apology in the company of his teachers, rabbis from the Har Hamor
Yeshiva in Jerusalem. They said they tried to educate their students
to be courteous.

Archbishop Manougian accepted the apology. But he said there had been
many such incidents since Israel took control of east Jerusalem in
1967. “Sometimes they spit, sometimes they cut through the
procession,” he said. “They have thrown garbage in front of the
churches and broken the crosses on tombstones.” The police, he said,
did little or nothing.

This time the government responded. The interior minister, Avraham
Poraz, condemned spitting at clergy, which he called repulsive, and
vowed to crack down. He ordered the police to prevent further such
occurrences, presumably by putting more officers in the Christian
quarter of the Old City. Because of the intifada, many Orthodox Jews
who want to visit the Western Wall skirt the Muslim quarter and pass
through the Armenian one, leading to more confrontations.

A former chief rabbi, Israel Meir Lau, condemned the incidents as
“spitting in the face of Judaism.” They are a “desecration of the
Divine Name” and could contribute to anti-Semitism, he said, while
violating Israel’s sacred trust over the holy places. “Protection of
everything sacred to other religions is one of the justifications for
Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem,” he said.

The Jerusalem office of the Anti-Defamation League called on Israel’s
two chief rabbis to come out “quickly and firmly against this clear
violation of Jewish ethical teaching.” The office director, Laura
Kam Issacharoff, said: “It’s all about intolerance and lack of
education – or miseducation. There is no respect for another
religion; there is no education for tolerance in the yeshiva. It has
to come from the top, to pound into the heads of these kids that this
sort of behavior is offensive and un-Jewish.”

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva in the Muslim
quarter and an ultra-Orthodox leader, said he had not known of the
controversy. But when it was described to him, he called Mr.
Rosenthal’s behavior impolite.

“You can disagree with another religion, but it’s not a reason to
spit,” he said. “I’m a spiritual enemy of Christianity, because the
hands of Christians are full of our blood, and it’s not so simple to
forget it. But it’s a spiritual fight, not a spitting fight.”