Israel is rightly seen as a place in which Christians enjoy a safer life than in all other countries in the region. When the Pope visited Jerusalem recently, however, two major Israeli newspapers published op-ed articles by guests who questioned that view. Both articles are available in English. Both contained some errors of fact, but their greater fault lies in mistakes of broader perspective. Nevertheless, there is a need for improvement in Israel's dealings with Christians.
Clergy from various churches at a Christmas reception in Jerusalem. (Image source: Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem)
Israel and the Region
Writing in the mass circulation newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth (May 26), and quickly translated for its English website Ynetnews.com (May 30), Farid Jubran headlined his article: "Christians' life in Israel not so wonderful." For sure, he admitted at the outset: "The Christians' situation in the Middle East is difficult. In Iraq, Syria and Egypt, churches are torched and Christians are slaughtered over their religion as a matter of routine. In some parts of Syria the Islamic Sharia laws have been applied, Christians are forbidden to conduct ritual ceremonies in public and special taxes have been imposed on them."
Yet all that, he claimed, is irrelevant to the situation of Christians in Israel. Indeed, "Comparing between the situation of Christians in Israel and the situation of their brothers in the Middle East is populist and shameful." Why? Because Israel prides itself on "shared values with the countries of the West," not the Middle East. So Israel "should compare the situation of its minorities to the situation of minorities in the countries it has shared values with, rather than to the situation of minorities in Middle Eastern countries."
He then goes on to list various sufferings of Christians in Israel. His list is partly correct, though systematically exaggerated, as we shall see. But first let us take up his desired comparison: Christians in Israel versus Jews in Western countries.
Jubran failed to notice that Jews in the West do suffer from exactly the problems on his complaint list, indeed – more acutely. All over Europe, synagogues and other Jewish institutions are under strict security protection. So they are in Israel, of course, whereas churches and church institutions can mostly dispense with intense precautions. To give a personal example, some years ago this writer used to visit a Christian in an old-age home in Berlin. In the same street was a Jewish old-age home; the difference was that the latter had a policeman stationed outside it twenty-four hours a day.
Another example, reported by the BBC on June 24: "Anti-Semitic graffiti and swastikas have been daubed over gravestones in a Jewish cemetery in Manchester... In addition to the slogans and graffiti about 40 headstones were toppled by the vandals." The report makes it plain that this was by no means a unique event, although "North Manchester Jewish Cemeteries Trust said incidents in the area had decreased over the past three years."
There is no need to multiply examples; Jubran need only have consulted the regular surveys published by the Anti-Defamation League. So let us look at some of his own examples.
"Jews in Israel," he wrote, "fire gunshots inside churches and set fire to monasteries, spray-paint malicious graffiti and slash the tires of Christians' cars. In the Old City of Jerusalem, religious Jews spit on monks, and in Christian cemeteries gravestones are shattered. Death threats are sent to bishops and heads of Christian communities."
As comments on his article noted, here he has multiplied incidents by using the plural instead of the singular, while in some cases it is unclear what he is talking about. "Fire gunshots in churches"? Maybe he is referring to Haim Habibi, who together with his Christian wife Violet set off firecrackers in a Nazareth church in 2006.
"Set fire to monasteries"? In 2012, the door of a monastery near Latrun was set on fire. As reported in Ha'aretz: "One of the monks that resides at the monastery claimed that the acts of vandalism and arson are the first such acts of their kind in the monastery's 122 year history" – thus also in the whole history of modern Zionism and the State of Israel. Jubran's complaint is correct, however, in regard of two churches in Jerusalem: one was targeted in 1982 and 2007, the other in 2010. The crimes were not solved, but since both cater to Christian Jews the suspicion is that Jewish anti-missionary groups were involved.
"In Christian cemeteries gravestones are shattered"? Such an incident happened on Mount Zion in October 2013 and this writer remembers an incident of graffiti in another Christian cemetery a decade ago. Disgusting and deplorable in both cases, but neither was as severe as the case in Manchester. Jubran also surely knows of the many attacks upon the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, which were reduced only after nearly 150 security cameras were installed. Now the Muslim neighbors attack visiting Jews instead. Remarkably, when perpetrators are caught they often turn out to be minors, whether in Manchester or among Jerusalem Jews and Muslims.
That "religious Jews spit on monks" in the Old City of Jerusalem continues to be true although even the Chief Rabbis of Israel have condemned this revolting habit, mainly of yeshivah students whose own rabbis fail to educate and discipline them. But not only Jews participate in this Old City culture. A Christian acquaintance in the Old City recently ordered some office goods. As he accompanied the delivery man, an Orthodox Jew identifiable by his kippah, they were spat at by Muslim traders both coming and going. Subsequently, one of the traders – who had previously been friendly – told him that they were just waiting for the opportunity to kill the Jews in a third intifada.
Jubran complained, incorrectly, that "the authorities stand idly by, apart from a few words of condemnation to do the minimum." In fact, the Israeli Army takes young recruits on visits to churches in order to familiarize them with Christians. The Israeli police have now – for sure belatedly – set up special units to pursue xenophobic crimes. But already Haim Habibi and Violet the Christian were sentenced to three years in prison (her sentence was suspended). This curious couple had previously sought "political asylum" with Yasser Arafat in Ramallah in 1999, so they are hardly typical Israelis.
Jubran is correct in his complaint that Israel "restricts the churches' activity immensely by imposing a strict and discriminating regime of visas for Christian clerics" (albeit "considerably" rather than "immensely"). We shall defer this issue, however, to a section on what Israel needs to do. His closing remark – that if the Pope's visit "serves as a catalyst for a discussion on the acute issues related to the Christians in Israel and on the way to handle them, it will be a blessing for everyone" – is both valid and praiseworthy. This Christian Israeli lawyer has overstated his case, but it would be unwise to refuse his challenge.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA)
Nicolas Pelham's guest op-ed in Ha'aretz (May 11), "Where is it really better to be a Christian - Israel or Palestine?", appeared under the provocative tagline: "In the run-up to the Pope's visit, Israel lobbyists glorify how Israel treats its Christian minority versus Palestinians 'persecution' of theirs – but where are Christians truly safe and part of public life?" The article goes on to make various comparisons between the PA and Israel, according to which – it seems – the answer to that question is: "under the PA."
This is an article in which most of the individual facts are correct, but the superiority ascribed to the PA is incorrect because a fundamental perspective is ignored. So first let us note some errors of detail before explaining how the argument goes wrong.
He begins by stating that the percentage of Christians in Israel and under the Palestinian Authority (PA) is about the same: two percent. In fact, according to the PA's population figures, the percentage of Christians is close to two percent in the West Bank (c. 40,000 plus some thousands in Jerusalem) and almost nil in Gaza (c. 1,500 or 0.1%). According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, Christians are two percent or more of the total population, but the Arabic-speaking ones (c. 130,000) form some ten percent of the Arabic-speaking sector, so their presence in this sector is much greater than under the PA. Moreover, although the percentage of Arabic-speaking Christians in Israel has dropped since 1948, their absolute number has almost tripled. Another article has given the details.
Pelham claims that "The country's most prominent Christian politician, Azmi Bishara, was hounded out of Israel amid cries of treachery after he dared to suggest that Israel should be a state for all its citizens." The link that Pelham gives, however, does not say that at all, but that Bishara was facing serious charges and fled the country to avoid trial. Indeed, not a few Israelis, Jewish as well as Arab, have advocated "a state for all its citizens" (a code word for eliminating the Jewish character of the state) without suffering more than verbal refutation.
He also claims that Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu "in his first term in the late 1990s aroused Christian ire by backing construction of a mosque next to Nazareth's Basilica of Annunciation." This statement is completely false, but Pelham has been misled by the story spread unanimously by the world media.
According to that story, in 1999 Muslims in Nazareth seized an area next to the Basilica with the intention of building a gigantic mosque that would tower over it. Netanyahu approved the project in order to gain Islamist support for his Likud party (!). The building was begun but was stopped by Netanyahu's successor, Ehud Barak. So the mosque was never built.
What truly happened was completely different (most of the details can be read here). The Muslims seized a small area at the bottom of the hill on which the Basilica lies, separated from it by houses, a side street and more houses. The Basilica complex is maybe twenty times as large, so it towers over the site of the mosque. There is also a long-existing mosque, the White Mosque, which is both much larger and closer to the Basilica.
Neither Netanyahu nor Barak personally decided in the matter, but set up commissions of inquiry. Both commissions concluded that the Muslims could build a mini-mosque on the site. Moreover, in the meantime between the two commissions, a Nazareth court found that part of the site belonged to the Muslim Waqf, so the right to build a mosque could hardly be denied; only the Muslims would have to go through the rigorous Israeli process of obtaining planning permission. When the Muslims began to build, however, they soon encroached beyond the area allocated to them, so another court order forced them to stop. In the end, the Muslims built the mini-mosque in the dimensions permitted.
Go to Nazareth (what hardly any journalist did) and you can easily find the mini-mosque. It lies just round the corner from the municipal tourist office and displays a large poster of Koran quotations denigrating Christianity and urging Christians to convert to Islam. In short, what you can read in literally thousands of media stories about the mosque is a total fabrication. Some journalist made the original mistake, which was eagerly copied by others without onsite inspection. Warning: hesitate to believe the unanimous opinion of the media about Israel if you have not checked it out yourself.
The main problem in Pelham's article, however, lies not in a few pardonable errors but precisely where his facts are correct. He is indeed right in saying that almost no Christians hold prominent positions in Israeli government circles, but that there is a small number of Christians whom the PA has appointed to high positions and that a few others are prominent in commerce. Overlooked in this argument is a fundamental difference between the two regimes. Israel is, like Western countries, a state governed by the rule of law. The PA, like almost all other states in the region, is a personal dictatorship. So a few Christians, whose role is useful in the public face of the dictatorship, enjoy the protection of the dictator. The great majority of Christians, who lack that personal protection, suffer from the lack of the rule of law under the PA, like their Muslim fellow citizens only more so.
Soon after the First Intifada started in 1987, the Palestinian factions ordered the Jordanian police (who had been left in place by Israel since 1967) to leave their posts. When Arafat arrived with his 40,000 "militants" (aka terrorists) after the Oslo Accords, they were given rifles and renamed policemen. Their main task, however, was to protect Arafat himself, so criminal gangs continued to flourish in the absence of any genuine police. Christians suffered most, since almost none were in Arafat's police, while thefts and depredations by Muslims could be coupled with a religious motive.
During the last few years, the Palestinian police have been given training in genuine police tasks by Americans and British. Crime has dropped, but Palestine has been turned into a state where the police is a law unto itself and can disregard court rulings. In March 2013, an extensive investigation by Britain's Daily Mail explained how this worked. Besides detailed descriptions of methods of torture with diagrams, the report mentions that, according to "the Palestinians' own official monitor, the Independent Commission on Human Rights (ICHR)," there were 87 instances in the previous three years in which a judge had ordered a detainee's release, but the police had simply ignored the order. One such judge agreed to talk to the investigator "away from the Mukhabarat [secret police] agents in the privacy of his chambers." Said the judge: "We decided to release him and then his father came back and said he hadn't been freed. But my job is to make the decision, not to implement it. It's not an acceptable situation, but I don't have an army to force them to comply.'"
Such a situation is as unimaginable in Western countries as in Israel, where everyone from the simplest policeman to the Prime Minister has to obey court orders. (The one who established this in Israel once and for all, incidentally, was Menahem Begin.) In Palestine, if you do not have higher protection, you do not know whether a court will grant you justice or whether it will be enforced. Readers of the Palestinian newspaper Al Quds will sometimes find personal advertisements from people begging President Abbas to intervene personally in their case. Such advertisements, too, are unimaginable in Western countries and in Israel.
Consider also the following – basically correct – statements in Pelham's article: "Despite their falling numbers, nine municipalities, including Ramallah and Bethlehem, stipulate their council should have a Christian majority and a Christian mayor... Where Palestine has eight Christians in its parliament [because certain seats are limited to Christian candidates only – ML], Israel has two." Pelham has overlooked that such stipulations would be unconstitutional in Western countries. Yes, many Western countries have dabbled with affirmative action on behalf of minorities. But it is unacceptable that such offices as mayor or member of parliament are not open to all, regardless of religion.
Likewise, if in Israel the Knesset passed a law of this kind, the Supreme Court, which also functions as the constitutional court, would strike it down. So also the Palestinian President's personal appointment of some Christians to important posts cannot be imitated in Israel, where, as in Western countries, appointments are subject to the issuing of tenders or evaluation by professional committees or whatever.
Arafat started the fashion of simply disregarding the laws passed by the Palestinian Legislative Council [PLC], and the body has not met for seven years. So two Christian members of the Knesset are worth something, but eight Christian members of the PLC are worth nothing.
In comparison with his precise list of offenses committed against Christians in Israel, Pelham seems to know little of the attacks upon Christians in the West Bank and Gaza perpetrated over the last twenty years. He names just one attack on a church, but omits, for instance, the multiple attacks on churches that followed Pope Benedict's address in Regensburg (2006). He mentions graffiti on Christian institutions in Israel, but not those in Palestine. He mentions how Mahmoud Abbas and even Ismail Haniyeh occasionally attend church services, but not the denunciations of Christianity in sermons that are transmitted by the loudspeakers of mosques.
Maybe the explanation is that in Israel such offenses are pursued by the police and the prosecution service, so public records exist and the media publicize them, whereas in Palestine it is private individuals and NGOs who compile dossiers and journalists suffer intimidation. Again, according to a recent documentation by Al Jazeera, the problem is not that the Palestinians lack a Press and Publications Law (since 1995), but that the law is simply ignored by the security services ("at least 500 documented press violations since 2007, including arrests, detention, torture, physical violence and censorship"). Is Pelham unaware of that?
What Israel Can Do
First of all, there are things that Christians can do. Statistics show that Christians in Israel even exceed Jews in respect of certain social indicators, such as levels of education and income. (Note, however, that all undifferentiated comparisons of Jews versus Arabs in Israel are worthless because of the great economic disparities between Muslims and Christians in the Arab sector and between the ultra-Orthodox and others in the Jewish sector.) So Christians are certainly capable of performing as senior state officials.
The main obstacle is that almost the entire Arabic-speaking sector neither does military service nor chooses the alternative of equivalent civilian service in their own communities. Opinion polls show that the majority, Muslims as well as Christians, would be willing to do civilian service, but the well-organized and well-funded Arab politicians, who denounce any recognition of the state as treachery to the Palestinian cause, have succeeded in intimidating them into abstention. This makes them ineligible or dubious candidates for senior posts in the public sector.
Within the last two years, this has begun to change, since a number of Arabic-speaking Christians set up an Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum to encourage voluntary service, whether military or civilian. Their leaders have also initiated meetings in various ministries with government officials, who have promised to find ways of recruiting Christians who have completed either form of public service, subject to the required professional qualifications.
All this, however, is so far piecemeal. The great deficit on the side of the Israeli state is that Israel has never even considered the need for a national policy in respect of Christians, whether its own citizens or the two billion Christians elsewhere in the world. Instead, individual ministries and some municipalities may appoint from time to time an individual who has a brief to deal with Christian matters. Sometimes that post is left empty or discontinued; sometimes – as in the Foreign Ministry – it is a post occupied by someone who has finished one major assignment and is waiting for another.
What is needed is a central policy unit with the brief of developing long-term policies both to integrate Israeli Christians and to engage with the great variety of Christians in foreign countries. The obvious location of such a unit would be the Prime Minister's Office, but it would have to have inter-ministerial affiliations. It would also need to have an expert staff, which is not easy in Israel. Many of the "experts" on Christianity in Israel are people who have made a hobby of knowing about Christianity, but may be unaware of quite elementary matters. For example, most Israelis – even ones who are appointed to deal with Christians – mistakenly call Evangelical Christians "Evangelists": such a basic distinction is ignored.
Even in the absence of such a policy unit, a start can be made by dealing with certain problems irking the Israeli Christian community which have never been solved, despite existing for many years. We shall give three prime examples.
The oldest of these is the issue of two Christian villages near the Lebanese border, Bir'im and Iqrit. During Israel's War of Independence they remained peaceful, but were asked to leave their homes by the Israeli army with the promise that they could return within weeks. Because the promise was not kept, they appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court in 1953, which ordered the state to show reason why they should not return. There were further such appeals. Eventually, the government responded by destroying all the houses. When Menahem Begin was campaigning for election in 1977, he promised to allow the villagers to return, but was overruled by his cabinet after he became Prime Minister. Also the Netanyahu government of 1996-1999 set up a commission which proposed a compromise allowing a partial return, but soon afterwards Netanyahu lost office.
There were also other initiatives that proposed reasonable solutions, but none was ever implemented. To solve this problem after so many decades would not merely have immense symbolic significance for Christians in Israel. It would remove a favorite theme of criticism of Israel in the broader Christian world. For instance, if you watch Archbishop Elias Chacour (now retired) describing his childhood as a native of Bir'im, you can just imagine the indignation that it arouses against Israel.
Another such issue, mentioned by both Jubran and Pelham, is the spitting at Christians in Jerusalem. It is especially acute in the area on both sides of the Zion gate, which includes the Armenian quarter, the Dormition Abbey and Franciscan institutions. The perpetrators are associated with various Jewish institutions in the area and their acts have included throwing rubbish and even firecrackers. All this is known and deplored and deplored again by responsible Israelis, but it persists. Like football hooligans, mostly young people are involved. Football clubs are penalized for the misbehavior of their fans. It should be possible, similarly, to legislate the suspension of public funding for educational institutions whose students engage in such behavior. (The law would be formulated, of course, to apply to all institutions regardless of religious affiliation.)
As mentioned, the Israel Police does now have units that investigate anti-Christian and anti-Arab crimes. But at least two more steps are needed. First, there needs to be a national data base of all xenophobic crimes, including ones against Jews, and an obligation upon local police forces to report all such complaints to the national data base. Then, at last, the true dimensions of the problem could be estimated. Second, the Interior Security Ministry should be required to make an annual report to the Knesset about the matter, so that progress can be monitored. (This writer already made that double proposal two years ago in a meeting between a senior official of the ministry and Christian representatives.)
Finally, the issue of visas for foreign Christians working in Israel has never been put on a sound basis, despite endless discussions. This issue has several dimensions. First, the senior clergy of many churches, including ones whose members are predominantly Arabic speaking, are often appointed from abroad, since these are churches that span many countries and their best qualified personnel are usually not Israeli citizens. Second, there are long-established Christian educational institutions that need visas for both teachers and students. (The need for Christians worldwide to study in the Holy Land should be self-evident.) Third, there are pro-Israeli Christians whose institutions work from Jerusalem in order to mobilize support for the State of Israel, yet they often encounter great difficulties in obtaining visas for essential staff.
This is eminently an issue for the non-existent but much needed national policy unit on relations with Christians. As it is, the officials of the Interior Ministry find it difficult to imagine why any foreign Christian who does not wear long robes and a funny hat should have any right to stay in the country, an attitude that makes the second and third categories mentioned especially problematic. So officials in other ministries, who have some inkling of the issues, are mobilized to plead on behalf of individual Christians with varied success. During three decades of discussions, only Haim Ramon, who was Interior Minister in 1995-1996, is remembered by Christians as a senior official who grasped the issue and tried to initiate a sensible policy. But he held that office for too short a time.
In any state governed by the rule of law, for sure, the law takes time to reach its conclusions. A case in the UK that has preoccupied British Christians since 2007 concerns a Christian husband and wife that declined to give a room in their guesthouse to a pair of homosexuals, while offering to help them find accommodation elsewhere. The anti-discrimination case brought against them wound its way through the courts until it reached the Supreme Court. Most recently, says a report in the Daily Mail: "Supreme Court deputy president Baroness Hale called for a rethink on religious and gay rights six months after she rejected the B&B owners' arguments in a key test case." It adds: "But in March she acknowledged that the laws which ignore Christian consciences might not be 'sustainable.' Last week, in a highly unusual move, Lady Hale and her fellow judges ordered that the Bulls will not be liable for legal costs – a decision which spares them a huge bill which would pay for the lawyers who represented Mr Preddy and Mr Hall." (In such cases, of course, it is the lawyers who commonly end up with far more money than the plaintiffs and who devastate the finances of the defendants.)
So the law operates slowly everywhere. In Israel, however, in some cases it has been too slow by any reckoning.