Holy Spit: Why Do Ultra-Orthodox Jews Spit at Christians?

A very embarrassing and persistent problem has arisen in some of the sacred sites in Jerusalem where Christians and Jews cross each other’s paths. Teenagers from a small sector of the city’s many Ultra-Orthodox (“Haredi”) Ashkenazi Jewish communities have taken to spitting at clerics wearing prominent crosses and dressed in traditional garb.

Assaults have been recorded at the Jaffa and Damascus Gates of the walled Old City, an area with many historic churches and monasteries, including the Polish Church of St. Elizabeth. To address the problem a remarkable interfaith forum, appropriately titled “Why do do some Jews spit at Christians in the Old City,” was held under the auspices of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel and the Jerusalem Center for Christian-Jewish Relations. 

These spitting assaults have been going on for at least a decade, and like many expressions of tension in Jerusalem, the attacks represent scores that many observers thought were settled long ago. For spitting at crosses and clerics was not unknown in those parts of Christian Europe where Jews and Judaism were often persecuted and where this represented the only recourse for a powerless people to express contempt.

In the thinking of many less-acculturated European Jews—particularly in Eastern Europe—spitting or cursing was a way to express disdain for a religion which sprang from Judaism and then persecuted it. The official Israeli Rabbinate (to whom the members of the Ultra-Orthodox communities don’t profess any loyalty) has condemned the assaults. Last year the state-appointed Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Yonah Metzger, called the spitting attacks “an evil affliction,” though the Haredi rabbis refused to issue a similar condemnation.

Leaders from several Christian groups (among them were Catholic, Armenian, and Greek Orthodox clerics and seminarians) have been complaining to the Israeli police about the assaults for years. But the police, who are very skittish about entering interreligious disputes, have done little to stop the assaults. Last September, after two Armenian seminarians were spit upon by two Haredim, they fought back—with their fists—and were subsequently arrested for assault. It was only after the highest Christian authorites in the city intervened that the Israeli government rescinded its order that the Armenian seminarians be deported from the country.

While Jewish-Christian relations in the city surely are in need of some repair, these problems seem small in the face of deteriorating Jewish-Muslim relations. But while Jewish-Muslim tensions dominate the headlines, most Israeli liberals feel that there is little that they can do to improve that situation; a situation (hamatzav, or the situation in Hebrew) enmeshed in political and military consideration. The excacerbation of Jewish-Christian tensions, on the other hand, seems like a problem that ordinary citizens can address—and some Christians and Jews are doing just that.

The forum’s most impressive speaker, Armenian Bishop Shirvanian, is the designated leader of the procession from the Armenian monastery to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Perhaps the most shocking moment of the evening was the Archbishop’s statement that he had been assaulted by two Haredi teenagers on the very day of the forum while standing in front of the Armenian Cathedral of St. James. The Bishop told the audience that “I had hoped to come here this evening to tell you that the assaults on the clergy had stopped. But I’m afraid I can’t.”

What then, asked the forum’s organizers, was behind these assaults? Different opinions were offered. Some mentioned the reversal of the traditional Christian-Jewish power relationship. The centuries old-experience of European Jewry (in which Jews and Judaism were often denigrated) has in modern Israel been upended. In the historical past, Jews may have denigrated Christians and Christianity, but they had no way to publicly express their disdain for the dominant religion. And there was certainly no possibility of publicly expressing one of the prevalent Jewish ideas about Christianity: that it is a form of idolatry.

In Israel, Jews are in charge, and the Christian clergy, especially in East Jerusalem, are subject to the dictates of the Israeli administration. This new power relationship seems to have emboldened some Haredim to express their contempt for Christianity openly—and in a manner that is culturally familiar to them from other hostile encounters. When Ultra-Orthodox Jewish demonstrators objecting to government policies confront the Israeli police, for example, they often spit at them, as they did this past October when they took to the streets of Jerusalem to protest the opening of a local parking lot on the Sabbath.

Other speakers descried the growing xenophobia in Israeli Jewish society, especially among the young; one cited a recent Israeli public opinion poll that found that 56% of Israeli Jewish high school students polled did not think that Israeli Arabs are entitled to the full rights of citizenry.

But despite the pessimistic tone taken by many, the organizers—committed to peaceful conflict resolution—ended the forum by announcing a series of lectures, tours, and encounters that would introduce Israeli Jews to the lives and concerns of their non-Jewish neighbors. And, somewhat encouragingly, they informed the attendees that the Rabbinical Court of the Edah Haharedit (one of the more powerful of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical authorities) had issued an edict condemning the spitting assaults. Thus a year after the “government rabbis” tried to stem this obnoxious behavior, some Ultra-Orthodox rabbis followed suit. Whether this letter will have the desired effect on people’s behavior in this far-from-united city remains to be seen.