In Jerusalem, Christians have been facing increasing harassment by Jews in recent years, and in particular since the swearing in of the current Israeli government. What were once isolated events have become a trend that is forcing members of local Christian communities to reconsider their attitude toward the state and its institutions. The Israeli government’s response to the attacks and harassment against Christians ranges from weak to non-existent, despite the profound consequences not only for local Christians’ stance toward Israel, but also for the ties between Israel and Christian communities around the world.
On the morning of June 5, the Greek Orthodox Church held a ceremony on Mount Zion, just south of Jerusalem’s Old City, under heavy security on the occasion of Pentecost. Three hours before it began, police and security guards had already closed the David’s Tomb complex and the adjacent Greek Garden to visitors, and Jewish volunteers dressed in hi-vis vests arrived to protect the worshippers.
There was tension in the air because a week earlier, during the Catholic Pentecost ceremony in the same place, about 20 ultra-Orthodox Jews blew trumpets and cursed loudly to sabotage the ceremony. “We are very concerned about the religious freedom of Christians in Jerusalem,” said a representative of the U.S. State Department who was present to closely monitor the security of the ceremony.
Toward 10:30 a.m., the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, his entourage, and worshippers left the Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity and marched through the Greek Garden to the David’s Tomb complex. There, they went up to the Upper Room in which the Last Supper was said to have taken place, where they held the celebratory mass. Outside the compound, a handful of ultra-Orthodox Jews made noise with the help of an entertainment system. Despite this, the ceremony went ahead almost without interruption. But less than two weeks later, on the evening of June 15, a Jewish man smashed the window of the Upper Room, joining a growing list of attacks on Christians and their symbols in the city.
Since the beginning of 2023, a large number of cases of vandalism have been recorded in Jerusalem’s Old City. On the first day of the year, for example, about 30 graves in the Mount Zion Protestant Cemetery were toppled over and vandalized and have not yet been repaired. A list of anti-Christian incidents, compiled by Tami Lavie Nissim at the Jerusalem Intercultural Center, includes 20 hate crimes against Christians since the beginning of the year, from graffiti that reads “death to Christians” and “Jesus son of Mary the whore” to physical assaults.
In some cases, police rush to act. Following the desecration of the graves, for example, the police used CCTV footage from the site and arrested two young kippah-wearing men from the center of the country who were identified as the vandals. In cases of particularly violent attacks, such as when an Israeli from the south of the country came armed with an iron sledgehammer to the Church of the Sepulchre of Saint Mary on the Mount of Olives and tried to attack priests, the attacker was arrested on the spot. Most of the attacks on Christians in Jerusalem, however, go unreported.
Lack of trust
In the middle of June, a conference under the title “Why are Jews spitting on non-Jews?” was held in the Old City — a collaboration between the Open University of Israel, the University of Haifa, and the OU’s Center for the Study of Relations Between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The conference was boycotted by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the body entrusted with relations with the country’s Christian communities, and it did not take place as planned at the Tower of David due to pressure from the Jerusalem Municipality. Nonetheless, the conference — which was eventually held in the seminary of the Armenian Patriarchate — was a huge success, attended by many representatives from Jerusalem’s churches.
It began with Yisca Harani, a researcher of Christianity, screening clips from dozens of security camera videos in which Jews are recorded spitting either at the feet of Christians, near them, or at religious buildings. According to Harani, backed up by testimonies of community members, spitting is a daily affair — and the Armenian Quarter, through which many Jews cross on their way to the Jewish sites in the Old City, bears the brunt of it.
Hagop Djernazian, who has lived in the Armenian Quarter his whole life, told +972: “One evening in January, two members of the community were driving down the street when two settlers who were passing by banged their hands on the car. [The Armenians] got out, an argument ensued, and the settlers sprayed the Armenians with pepper spray.
“An hour later, more settlers arrived and tried to take down the flag of the church,” Djernazian went on. “Our young men saw that they were trying to climb up and an argument ensued which escalated. The settlers ran to the nearby police station and shouted ‘Attack! Attack!’ Border Police and regular police officers came and started assaulting the Armenians, and it ended with one of them being arrested.”
Robby Berman, a tour guide, told +972 that he was present for two incidents of spitting, and that he is disturbed by the lack of enforcement in cases of harassment against Christians. After witnessing two boys spitting at Greek Orthodox priests at Jaffa Gate one Saturday morning, he flagged two Israeli police officers standing by them and told them to arrest the culprits. After they told him that the spitters missed and therefore the incident did not count as an attack, Berman replied: “If they were Arabs spitting at an ultra-Orthodox rabbi you would take them to Kishleh [a police station beside Jaffa Gate] even if they missed.” Eventually, the police detained the two boys and took down their details.
More recently, Berman was himself the victim of a spitting attack while chatting with a Palestinian security guard on the Via Dolorosa. As they were speaking, Berman said, “a modern ultra-Orthodox family walked passed — a father, a mother, a young couple, and many children. The young man spat at my legs. I ran after him and said: ‘Are you crazy?’ When he realized that I’m Jewish, he replied: ‘Do you know what they did to us in the Inquisition? And the Crusades?’”
Part of the problem, Berman says, is that most victims of hate crimes don’t go to the police. “Palestinians don’t contact the police because of a lack of trust, and sometimes even a fear that it could do more harm. I approached [Jerusalem] Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum to help promote legislation against spitting in the street — [to] outlaw it, like in Singapore.”
In fact, spitting is already illegal. Ori Narov, director of the legal department of Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), explained to +972 that it is possible to file a civil suit against someone who spits at you. “Spitting is a crime of assault which is derived from the penal code,” Narov said. “There is a long line of rulings on this matter. The problem is that people don’t turn to us. If more people got in touch we could do more about it.”
At the conference on the treatment of Christians, a police officer was also present and expressed his frustration with the accusations against the police, since according to him the police do make great efforts to prevent harassment against Christians. The officer also claimed that the discussion ignored the attitude of Muslims to Christians in the city — a topic that, itself, has been the subject of recent tension.
Deteriorating Christian-Muslim relations
In 2019, a report on the lives of young Christians in Jerusalem, initiated by German Catholic organizations, had to be moderated due to its controversial findings, particularly on Christian-Muslim relations. Nonetheless, it showed a sad reality regarding how young people perceive their future in the city. Around 13,000 Christians live in Jerusalem today, roughly 9,800 of whom are Palestinian, according to the report. Many of them, like most Palestinian residents of the city, live below the poverty line.
There are around 13 different Christian communities in Jerusalem. The vast majority, comprising 87 percent, belong to three denominations: Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Greek Catholic. Among Palestinian Christians, around 4,300 are between the ages of 8 and 25.
The authors of the report surveyed 700 young people and interviewed around 40 young people and church members, and concluded that around 60 percent of them want to emigrate. Fifty-eight percent said a family member of theirs had left Israel over the past few years, while more than 80 percent said they’d experienced racism or discrimination due to their religious background. Forty-two percent said they’d felt the need to hide their religion in certain situations. Furthermore, many feel alienated from church institutions, which they say do not function well.
One of the study’s most dramatic conclusions was that young Christians sense a sharp deterioration vis-à-vis their relations with Muslim society, even more so than with their relations with the Jewish population. George Akroush, one of the authors of the report, noted that 80 percent of Christians in the West Bank and Jerusalem surveyed in a 1999 report said the main reason for leaving the country was the Israeli occupation. Today, by comparison, respondents answered that the biggest challenge faced by Christians in Jerusalem is Islamic fundamentalism (28 percent), and then the occupation (25 percent).
In this context, it is important to note that Christian institutions make a significant contribution to the entire population of East Jerusalem, including two Christian hospitals, St. Joseph and Augusta Victoria. The vast majority of students in the city’s Christian schools are Muslim.
Furthermore, the 2019 study claims that “the Palestinian curriculum constitutes a credible threat to the Christian teens’ sense of belonging,” because young Muslims have “adopted extremist Islamic Wahabist interpretations.” For example, the study shows that history lessons begin in the Canaanite period, skip over 600 years in which Jesus was born and lived in Jerusalem, and go straight to the “liberation” of the land by the Muslim caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab.
Moreover, the study describes a “classified report” by Sabeel, a movement of Palestinian Christians that centers liberation theology, according to which “the Palestinian educational curriculum describes Christians and Jews negatively and labels them heretics who are not supposed to rule over Muslims.” The report also claims that the “Islamic studies textbook, intended for eighth graders, calls for the establishment of a Islamic caliphate, even though this contradicts the Palestinian constitution which states that a Palestinian state should be independent, democratic, and based on the rule of law.”
Akroush concludes this part of the report by saying that young Christians feel they have no place in either society — whether Muslim or Jewish.
Wounds that are slow to heal
The findings of the report aside, there is no doubt that Jewish attacks on Christians in Jerusalem are increasing. David Neuhaus, a Jesuit priest who has lived in Jerusalem since 1977, said that he has been attacked around five times over the past few years — spat at, shoved, and cursed. “It doesn’t just happen in the Old City — it happens on Jaffa Street as well,” he explained, referring to a main Jerusalem thoroughfare. “One time, for example, a man in Haredi clothing muttered at me: ‘Amalek, go away.'”
Neuhaus, who speaks excellent Hebrew and Arabic, has served in many roles in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem over the years, among local Palestinian communities in Jerusalem and Bethlehem as well as migrant workers and asylum seekers. “Most of the attacks are against traditionally-dressed clerics,” Neuhaus said, adding that, nonetheless, “what is much more important is equal rights and the possibility of surviving as Christians. When I’m spat at I go and wash my face, which is what I also say to the nun who comes to me shocked after such an event. And then it’s over. The discrimination members of our community face in different aspects of life disturbs me much more.”
At the same time, Neuhaus does not disregard the long, fraught history between the Church and Jews. “As church heads we must not forget that these phenomena — which we fully reject — take place against the backdrop of vile Christian teachings against Jews, and even worse things than that. I don’t expect the average person to remember that, [but] the heads of the church [should].”
Harani explained that in Europe, Jews spat — mostly in secret — as an act of contempt for those who degraded them. “What’s hard to find an explanation for is — why in the State of Israel?” Harani said. “We are not under Christian rule here, nor among a Christian majority. They are a small minority in the country. They’re also not the same Christians. They weren’t in the Inquisition or in Poland and they’re also not the descendants of those Christians. Israeli Jews weren’t persecuted, most of those who spit [at Christians] rarely see Christians. Perhaps they saw an Eritrean asylum seeker cleaning the street, or a Filippina assisting grandad. If so, why is Christianity still defined as an archenemy?”
Dr. Karma Ben Johanan, a researcher of 20th-century Christian-Jewish relations at Hebrew University, told +972 that the Jewish abhorrence of Christianity is due to ancient wounds that heal slowly. “Jewish religious law has been influenced over the generations by the [community’s] inherent weakness as compared to Christianity, which demanded restraint,” she said. “Today there’s actually no reason to hold back.”
At the conference on the treatment of Christians, Ben Johanan opened her remarks with a question: “Who said, ‘More than Christianity hates Judaism, Judaism hates Christianity’? If it was a Christian, it would be easy to interpret the claim as antisemitic, or at least anti-Jewish.” But the quote actually comes from the writings of Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, a Holocaust survivor. “Rabbi Weinberg was far from naive about the nature of antisemitism,” Ben Johanan explained, “and yet he believed Jews must cleanse their tradition from expressions of hatred toward Christianity.”
After the Holocaust, relations between Christians and Jews began to change. The Catholic Church led a process of internal inquiry and theological changes regarding Christian-Jewish relations. According to Ben Johanan, we are, for the first time, living in an era in which major streams of Christianity are seeking to reconcile with Judaism. But Jews eye this shift with suspicion, in case it proves another way to convert Jews to Christianity.
Outside David’s Tomb on June 5, a small group protested against the ceremony. One of them, Shmuel Yitzhak, a teacher at a yeshiva in Givat Shaul and a resident of the Jewish Quarter, said that he belongs to a new organization called Demand of Jerusalem, one of whose goals is to monitor missionary efforts in Jerusalem.
“They launched a 10-year plan to convert Jews,” Yitzhak said. “The entire establishment of the State of Israel is a slap in the face of their faith, a cancellation of their faith. So they’re finding new methods. They’re reaching Jews via welfare organizations, which is very dangerous — people are tempted by this. We are commanded to destroy the Church, but we are also commanded not to destroy. Did you know that there are [non-Jewish] places of worship in the center of the city? There is also a spiritual emptiness, people are searching for something. Jews can fall into this vacuum. At one time they would have fallen because of poverty. Now, it’s something different.”
“There is always anxiety about [proselytization] after the Holocaust,” Ben Johanan said. “And churches understood that. In many communities, primarily in Europe, they gave up entirely on missionary activity among Jews, out of the understanding of the difficulty it poses for Jews. In 2015, the Catholic Church unequivocally renounced missionary activity against Jews. This is complicated for them too, because missionary activity is central to their theology — particularly in the Western denominations — and of course there’s a link to colonialism. I do not know of any Eastern church that proselytizes. I’ve never heard of an Armenian mission, or a Greek Orthodox mission, aimed at Jews.”
The anxiety surrounding Christian missionary activity is ever-present in Jewish memory, but it is also based on the fact there are proselytization efforts in Israel. As Ben Johanan notes, however, the missionaries are not Palestinian Christians. For the most part, they are Christian Zionists who support the settlement movement. “Part of the problem is that Jews don’t distinguish between fundamentalist Christians who support Israel and who come from abroad, and local Christians who want to live with good neighborliness and respect, and who do not deal with these issues at all,” Ben Johanan explained.
Aaron Eime, an Australian deacon who has been living in Israel with his wife for more than 25 years, speaks fluent Hebrew and has been studying with two rabbis twice a week for a number of years. He belongs to the Anglican Christ Church, which is situated opposite the Tower of David in the Old City, and he loves the State of Israel — but has recently encountered difficulties.
Although Eime’s son was able to obtain permanent residency when he turned 18 — having lived in Israel his entire life — he was quickly drafted into a combat unit in the army. Eime’s daughter, however, was recently refused the same status, even though she, too, was born in Israel and has lived in the country her entire life — and, according to Israeli authorities, has until July 15 to leave the country. According to Eime, his family is not alone in this situation; he estimates that between 20 and 30 families in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are dealing with this issue. “They’re trying to destroy our families by expelling our children,” he said.
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Christians fears of deportation sound exaggerated to Israeli ears, but it bears remembering that, in 1948, 25,000 Christians formed 36 percent of the population of Jerusalem, most of them Palestinian. Today, the 13,000 Christians who live in Jerusalem make up just 1 percent of the population of the city. Will a Christian community that survived 400 years under Muslim Ottoman rule disappear in the Jewish state?
“It very much saddens me that after so much time, they still treat us as threatening foreigners, despite the fact that the Torah I study says that you need to care for the resident and the foreigner in your land,” Eime said. “It makes me wonder: Don’t you read your Tanakh? You’re not supposed to treat me this way. I’m not allowed to vote, fine. I need to send my income overseas, I can accept that. But hating me? When my son is serving on the frontlines?”
Eime’s troubles are not limited to the realm of bureaucracy. “We feel a step up. In the past we were occasionally attacked by Haredim. Now more and more people are harassing us, and are daring to undertake more offensive actions. We talk among ourselves about the escalation, it’s frightening.”
John Munayer, a Jerusalemite Palestinian who belongs to the small Palestinian Evangelical Church, said that the harassment of Christians, which has increased especially over the past six months, has international ramifications. “In the international Christian world there are those who passionately support Israel, those who identify with the Palestinian struggle against the occupation, and a great many who are somewhere in between,” Munayer said. “I go around international conferences and communities. The violent events move the needle and make many people question what the right attitude is toward Israel, and toward Jews.”
At the end of 2022, the U.S. State Department published a report highlighting the situation of Christians between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, and listed a significant number of incidents of harassment and assault. According to Hagop Djernazian, community members contacted foreign diplomats in Israel in order to alert them to their level of vulnerability, and to get them to use their influence in order to try and pressure Israel to change its approach.
After the pressure from community members on diplomats, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs convinced the office of the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel and current Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Shlomo Amar, to publish a condemnation of the harassment of Christians; in May, he issued an opinion stating that attacks on Christians are “a grave injustice and a desecration.” In the past, these issues would have been addressed by the Jerusalem Municipality, which used to have an entire department dedicated to relations with Christian communities. The size of that department gradually dwindled to a single person, and today there is no one in the role.
To date, despite several appeals to do so, the Jerusalem Municipality has yet to issue a statement condemning the violence directed at Christians in the city.
A version of this article first appeared in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.