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There can be no room for religious intolerance in Israel

Ultra-Orthodox youth harassing a Christian clergyman in Jerusalem's Old City (Photo: Screenshot)

Israel, predominantly known as the Jewish homeland, has two other prominent religions which claim strong ties to it – Christianity and Islam. Consequently, there has had to be a special accommodation for tourists, as well as the non-Jewish locals, whose faith claims a sacred connection to the land which they believe is inextricably attached to this particular place.

Having received recognition, more than 75 years ago, that historically, ethnically and biblically this was, indeed, the land which rightly belonged to the Jewish people, one would think that such a measure would have provided enough confidence and affirmation to not feel intimidated by the presence of other religions within the land. 

While most Israelis don’t feel threatened or uncomfortable with the sight of Christian clergy, most of whom are seen either in the Old City of Jerusalem or in certain northern cities, there remains one sector of the Israeli population that continues to be intolerant, antagonistic and even militant at times. They are found within the ultra-Orthodox movement of Judaism.

This, of course, is clearly not across the board, but, within that stream, there are, some young men, who attend yeshivot or Kollel (an institute for full-time, advanced study of rabbinic literature), many of whom are also affiliated with anti-missionary groups. If they are made aware of seminars, meetings or planned events intended for Christian locals and/or tourists, they often show up in an attempt to prevent attendees from entering or participating in these activities.

Over the last couple of years, this has been more pronounced with one particular incident happening last May, when a large contingent of Christian tourists arrived with the specific intention of praying for the peace of the country, at a time when much political unrest was tearing apart the unity of Israelis. 

Despite the good intentions of those prayer warriors, who gathered publicly on the southern steps not far from the Western Wall, a large group of ultra-Orthodox activists protested, accompanied by Jerusalem’s deputy mayor, all of whom shouted and cursed at them, demanding that they go home. One native Israeli, who also came to pray, was pushed to the ground and injured.

Had such a shameful demonstration of hatred and intolerance, of Christians, been roundly condemned by all ultra-Orthodox spiritual leaders, as well as political leaders, another disgraceful show of disdain for them might not have taken place a few days ago, in Jerusalem.

It was reported that “two ultra-Orthodox youths were placed under house arrest Saturday evening, accused of spitting at and cursing a Catholic priest on Mount Zion.” The incident, captured on video, showed the youths spitting at Father Nikodemus Schnabel as well as using derogatory language to denigrate the priest’s faith. A separate video also caught the youths cursing a local man and threatening him as he attempted to come to the priest’s defense. Once the suspects had been identified by police, they were placed under house arrest, pending a full investigation.

What is troubling about this terrible incident, in addition to its obvious flagrant intolerance of the religious rights of others, is the timing of such despicable behavior by those who are supposedly being guided and taught in the ways of godliness and moral righteousness. To be filmed, just a little more than three months, after a brutal massacre was perpetrated upon innocents, at the hands of those who are committed to the genocide of all Jews, does nothing to endear outsiders to the cause of supporting Israel. If anything, it provides a convincing argument that some, within the Israeli culture, evidence their own propensity of bigotry and extreme prejudice toward others whose beliefs differ from theirs.

This event should become a central teaching opportunity for every Jewish institution that claims to be dedicated to raising up godly men who fulfill their destiny of being a light to the nations. Because if this incident goes unaccountable and ends up being just another unfortunate anomaly, added to the previous ones, then the spiritual leadership of today’s ultra-Orthodox youth is just as corrupted in their viewpoint as these young men who felt emboldened enough to terrorize and bully a priest who did nothing to initiate that kind of revolting response.

True religion must demonstrate regard and respect for others, first and foremost. It must look upon each individual as having value and worth, despite many differences of opinions and convictions. Genuine faith is evidenced by the kindness, gentleness and honor it bestows upon our fellow humans, seeking to emulate the character of the same God who, through His own attributes, reached down to us and showed us love and compassion in spite of our many failings.

None of this is displayed when someone believes that spitting is an acceptable form of dissent against another person. To the contrary, there is hardly any action that is meant to denigrate, humiliate and besmirch a person’s character more than spitting, which is a sign of total invalidation and vilification.

How can any young man who touches the holiest of books, justify treating another human being in such a degrading manner, much the same as has been done to the Jewish people throughout centuries of inexcusable hatred toward them? And where are their overseers who are charged with the task of making sure they turn out pure souls? 

Neither the priest nor Christians who come to Israel for the purpose of prayer deserve that kind of disdain that occurred repeatedly, but it happens largely because no one is being made an example of the harsh punishment that should result from this type of offense. 

Let’s start with the fact that people are free to believe whatever they deem to be truth, as it relates to matters of faith, so long as they do not pose a threat to others. Having said that, sharing one’s faith convictions, especially when asked, does not qualify as posing a threat to anyone, because no one is shackled and forced to listen. Many of us, having encountered members of the Hare Krishna sect, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other such recruiting religions, had no problem walking away or choosing not to listen. 

In fact, right here in Israel, hardly a day goes by that Orthodox individuals can be seen, standing at street corners, handing out their literature to cars that are stopped at traffic lights. For those who don’t want to accept what they’re pushing, their windows stay rolled up. Just because someone is selling something, does not mean that another is obligated to buy. 

This is part of the “live and let live” ideology which is shared by the vast majority of today’s Israelis but which has been missed by the ultra-Orthodox who still resort to the same intolerance and bigotry that was done to them while they were vulnerable residents in host countries.

As a sovereign, strong and independent nation, Israel cannot be guilty of the same hateful actions that necessitated the refuge of our own homeland – a place which must be better than the nations from which we escaped as a people! 

A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.

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