OpinionIsrael News

Spitting in God’s eye

Increasing tensions between Christians and Jews in Israel are complicated and disturbing.

Thousands of Israelis and Evangelical Christians in Jerusalem mark the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of the Tabernacles, on Oct. 10, 2017. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Thousands of Israelis and Evangelical Christians in Jerusalem mark the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of the Tabernacles, on Oct. 10, 2017. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Melanie Phillips
Melanie Phillips
Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for The Times of London, her personal and political memoir, Guardian Angel, has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel, The Legacy, in 2018. To access her work, go to: melaniephillips.substack.com.

Earlier this week, ultra-Orthodox Jews parading through Jerusalem’s Old City passed a group of Christians bearing a large wooden cross. Some of the Jews spat on the ground in the Christians’ direction.

Two days later, Jerusalem police arrested five Jews involved in a similar spitting incident. 

The spitters provoked widespread outrage and disgust. They were denounced by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the chief rabbis of Israel and the United Kingdom, and a number of ultra-Orthodox politicians as well.

The rabbis and other Orthodox folk were particularly incensed by the claim that spitting at Christians was an “ancient Jewish practice.” On the contrary, they said, it had no place whatsoever in Jewish religious law and was a desecration of God’s name.

Some have maintained that it’s a custom among certain religious Jews to spit on the ground in the presence of “idol worshippers” to ward off the “evil eye.” The fact that this may be an established superstitious practice, however, doesn’t make it any less reprehensible.

In recent months, Christian clergy in Jerusalem have been complaining of an upsurge in spitting incidents against Christians, both on their robes as well as on the ground.

At long last, the Jerusalem police have begun to take this seriously. By August, 16 investigations had been opened into such incidents and 21 arrests and detentions had been carried out, with officers dressing as priests and monks to catch those harassing Christians in the Old City. Now a special investigative team is to be formed to tackle the problem further.

Christian leaders and others have attributed the increase in these attacks to the presence in the Israeli government of extremist ministers, whom they accuse of encouraging anti-Christian delinquent behavior.

While some of these politicians’ rhetoric is indeed inflammatory, the situation is rather more complicated and disturbing.

For centuries, hundreds of thousands of Jews in Europe were subject to forced conversions by the Catholic Church under the threat of expulsion or death. Countless numbers of Jews were tortured or massacred for refusing to abandon their faith.

This inherited collective trauma is reflected in Talmudic and other rabbinic sources and remains an all-too-live issue in the minds of many religious Jews. 

“I support spitting at every cross, every Christian, to degrade them forcefully. They used to slaughter and massacre us,” one such man told Israeli Army Radio.

Attempts to convert the Jews constitute an aggressive, predatory, and ultimately, exterminatory attack on Judaism. Given this history, missionary activities remain a matter of the most acute sensitivity for Jews. Alarmingly, in recent years there has been an upsurge in such activities in Israel.

There may be several reasons for this, including the rise of the messianic “Jews for Jesus” movement and the resurgence of “supersessionist” anti-Israel and anti-Jewish preaching in progressive Protestant denominations.

More pertinent still, the world’s civilizational disorders have provoked an increasing belief among a number of evangelical Christians that the messianic age is now imminent—an apocalyptic fervor that, for such believers, makes the conversion of the Jews increasingly urgent.

In May, a consortium of messianic and evangelical organizations held a provocative outdoor event in which they preached the “salvation” of the Jews—which means conversion—on the southern steps of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

As described by the website Israel365, this event was the culmination of a three-week Christian revivalist fast for the salvation of Israel.

One participant told the website, “The prayer for the salvation of Israel is deeply related to the second coming of Yeshua and the revival of the whole earth.”

A spokesman for one of the groups said, “We believe God is raising up 100 million intercessors for Israel to be restored and saved.”

The Fellowship of Israel Related Ministries—one of dozens of organizations affiliated with the event—released a video seeking donations to “see people in Israel come to know Jesus as their Messiah until all Israel believes.”

Earlier this month, Alan Schneider, director of the B’nai Brith World Center in Jerusalem, wrote about this on the B’nai Brith International website: “Unfortunately, many Israeli leaders got the narrative wrong and referred to the 200-300 participants who took part in the southern steps event as innocent ‘pilgrims,’ ‘tourists’ or ‘worshippers,’ saving their criticism for a group of mainly rabbis, yeshiva and seminary students who issued a call only days earlier to protest the call for conversion of the Jews.”

The Southern Steps event, he wrote, was the launching pad of a decade of world evangelization announced last February. That month, 110 Christian leaders, representing 79 Catholic and evangelical organizations in 22 countries, met in Rome and established the Global 2033 Initiative.

The initiative is to promote missionary activity around the world from Pentecost this year until Pentecost 2033, described as the 2,000th anniversary of the death and resurrection of Jesus. A plethora of organizations and umbrella groups, wrote Schneider, are engaged in a multimillion-dollar campaign to convert Jews in Israel and around the world.

Much of this is taking place under the radar. Organizations such as One for Israel train “messianic” Jews to evangelize other Jews they will encounter in the IDF. The group Altar of Prayer promotes a pro-life agenda from a Christian perspective to Israeli women.

Others erect messianic monuments in the public space or establish projects to benefit the poor, aged, lone soldiers, new immigrants, sex workers and other vulnerable populations, as well as “planting” messianic congregations, especially among Ethiopian immigrants.

On Tuesday, several dozen Jewish protesters demonstrated outside the Pais Arena stadium in Jerusalem, where the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem was holding its Israeli Night as part of its annual Feast of the Tabernacles.

For decades, the ICEJ has been deeply involved in humanitarian projects in Israel and building faith-based support groups around the world. The protesters claimed, however, that the ICEJ is a missionary organization.

“The ICEJ has never engaged in missionary activity in Israel,” said the group’s Spokesman David Parsons in response.

However, wrote Schneider, in a recent online interview, the ICEJ’s president Dr. Juergen Buehler spoke approvingly of a report on the spread of messianism in Israel: “That is an exciting report. There is a new openness even in Israel.”

Schneider stated, “It cannot be ruled out that these well-publicized events and the massive appropriation by evangelical Christians of Jewish traditions have contributed to the recent uptick in incidents of Jews targeting Christian clergy in Jerusalem and demands by fringe Jewish elements to pray at the Stella Maris Monastery—where the tomb of Prophet Elisha is believed to be located—which have engendered general outrage and the intervention of President Isaac Herzog and Chief of Police Yaakov ‘Kobi’ Shabtai.”

In other words, while the Israeli authorities have been ignoring the increase in Christian missionary aggression—whether through naivete, sloppiness or fear of provoking a diplomatic rupture with the Christian world—religious Jews protesting it have been getting it in the neck.   

Yet on Wednesday, thousands of Jews of all stripes came out to welcome the annual march through Jerusalem of Christians from around 80 nations—the pinnacle of the ICEJ’s week-long Feast of Tabernacles.

Ultra-Orthodox spectators, among others, expressed their delight that so many from around the world had come to Israel. 

Schneider would say these cheering crowds failed to perceive the darker agenda behind the march. Yet it is also undeniable that Christian Zionists are among the most passionate supporters of Israel in the world, and are largely responsible for U.S. support for the Jewish state.

Anti-Christian hooliganism by Jews should be condemned and dealt with. But if the delicate balance between faiths in Israel is to be maintained, Christian missionaries must be pulled back, too.

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