(RNS) — The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is seen by many as largely a conflict between Israeli Jews and Arab Muslims. But the events of the last month in Jerusalem suggest a new element has emerged for those closely watching the situation. In the past few weeks, five anti-Christian violent incidents took place in Jerusalem at the hands of Jewish radicals, provoking the Franciscans who are custodians of the Christian holy sites in the city to issue a statement detailing some of these acts.
In one incident described by the Franciscans, a man entered a church along the Via Dolorosa, the route Jesus is believed to have been forced to walk to his crucifixion, “tore down the statue of Jesus and defaced the face of the statue.” Two weeks before, the Protestant Mount Zion cemetery in Jerusalem was vandalized, with headstones smashed. The two teens arrested “wore Jewish skullcaps and tzitzit, the knotted ritual fringes worn by observant Jews,” according to the Times of Israel. In addition, graffiti reading “Death to Christians” appeared on the walls of a monastery in the Armenian quarter.
On Jan. 26, a group of Israeli settlers set upon American Christian tourists at an Armenian restaurant, “transforming the Christian quarter into a battlefield,” the Franciscans said. Local Catholics, Orthodox and Episcopal leaders condemned the violence, urged greater protection for minority groups and warned of “radical aggression” by forces determined to impose an exclusively “Jewish character” on the city.
The Franciscans’ statement chronicled five attacks in all within a few weeks, concluding that “the legitimization of discrimination and violence in public opinion and in the current Israeli political environment also translates into acts of hatred and violence against the Christian community.”
Some of these incidents may be attributable to hoodish behavior on the part of adolescents, but it would be a mistake to blame them only on bad apples. Something deeper is going on that needs to be confronted. The efforts to separate Jewish citizens from the rest of those living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean are creating a toxic atmosphere of racism and discrimination that must be addressed firmly.
When the current Israeli government was formed, 27 Israeli human rights organizations issued a joint statement expressing concern about the direction of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new governing coalition. “The occupation and apartheid in the occupied Palestinian territories have made Jewish supremacy the de facto law of the land. This new government seeks to make it official policy,” their statement said.
The signers, which include such mainstream organizations as Peace Now, Rabbis for Human Rights, and Association for Civil Rights in Israel, unashamedly used the term “Jewish supremacy,” reflecting their deep worry about the turn taken in the goals of the recent attacks, which are not over land or security but the presence of different faiths in the Holy Land.
While these groups are concerned about the ruling party at the national level, the situation in Jerusalem, where religious nationalist leaders are in power, is perhaps more dangerous. These leaders are working hard to change the city’s demographics.
Jerusalem, the cradle of the Abrahamic faiths, should be a safe place where all three religions should feel at home. Its 330,000 Palestinian Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, have a strong political as well as spiritual bond to the city. While Christians’ numbers are small, the fact is that Christians have been present in the city where Christianity began for two millennia.
It is no longer acceptable for Israel to pay lip service to freedom of religion and worship when it fails to support its citizens who are not Jewish. The current government is allowing an atmosphere of hate to grow, leaving Christians in Jerusalem and elsewhere to live in fear of Jewish bullies to whom the government is largely turning a blind eye.
It may be a stretch to hope for a strict separation of religion and politics in a country where the two are so tightly intertwined. However, the Israeli government and its officials must ensure that the now-5-year-old legislation that encourages the supremacy of Judaism be rescinded. In addition, the Israeli government must rein in the radicals in its own ranks, whose words and actions amount to hate speech.
The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is a political one; it must stay as such. Introducing the highly emotional religious elements in a highly sensitive religious area is tantamount to turning the region into a ticking bomb. Level-headed people must work hard to ensure that such a scenario is rooted out.
(Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian Christian journalist from Jerusalem. Follow him on Twitter @daoudkuttab. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)