How long will Israel let its churches and mosques burn?

Drew Christiansen

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Ra'fat Al-Dajani

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"Till when will Israel let its churches and mosques be burnt?" asked the editors of Haaretz, the English-language Israeli daily, on June 21. Their hard-hitting editorial was responding to the torching of one of the most famous Catholic churches in the Holy Land, the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish at Tabgha, near Tiberias in northern Israel. The arson at Tabgha was the most recent in a series of arson attacks on churches and mosques in Israel and the Palestinian territories under its control.

The June 18 fire was not the first hate crime at this holy site where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus fed the crowds with a miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes. In April 2014, as-yet unidentified vandals damaged a cross and benches in the church courtyard.

The church is located on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It is one of the most popular stops for Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land.

The modern shrine is built on the remains of a fifth-century Byzantine church and features a famous mosaic floor duplicated in countless photographs, posters and ceramic articles carried home by pilgrims. The floor was not harmed, but the roof, inside and out, suffered extensive damage.

This latest desecration is the 18th arson attack on a church or mosque over the past four years. These attacks are part of a wider range of anti-Christian and anti-Islamic actions, including spray-painting of hate graffiti on mosques and churches; spitting at Christian priests, monks and friars in Jerusalem; and the issuing of edicts by assorted rabbis against "Gentiles."

These attacks have generally been attributed to extremist Jews from West Bank settlements and ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students in Jerusalem. In the Tabgha case, Israeli police initially arrested 16 young people, all religious Jewish seminary students from West Bank settlements, but released them shortly thereafter. 

Not a single case of the 18 arson attacks of the past four years has been solved, none of the attackers identified, and no one charged with any crime. If history is any guide, this pattern of impunity seems likely to hold true for this latest arson at Tabgha, as well.

While Israeli politicians across the mainstream political spectrum, including the president and prime minister, condemned the incident at Tabgha, and while there are laws in place against damaging holy sites in Israel, in reality, little more than lip service is paid to enforcing these laws and prosecuting the perpetrators.

In view of the discrepancy between political pronouncements and the lack of policing and prosecution, the Haaretz editorial voiced skepticism of the government's will to hold the perpetrators accountable.

"It's hard to take seriously the condemnations uttered by the prime minister, cabinet ministers and Knesset members," the editors wrote, "when, at the same time, they give a nod and wink to those who infringe on the state's sovereignty by embarking on private religious and cultural campaigns against Christians and Muslims."

The charge of tacit acquiescence to these religious hate crimes is based on the fact that perpetrators of such acts, referred to in Israel as "price tag" attacks, are at most designated by authorities as having engaged in "unlawful association." (The attacks are so named because the graffiti accompanying religious vandalism was initially carried out by extremist Jewish settlers to exact a price for any government action contrary to settler interests.)

The more serious and deterrent designation of the offenders as "members of a terrorist organization" was rejected by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2013 after then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, then-Minister of Internal Security Yitzhak Aharonovitch and the head of the Shin Bet security service, Yoram Cohen, all demanded that the terrorist designation be applied.

The three argued that these hate crimes had the serious potential to spin out of control, escalate and result in a regional conflagration, especially if something as sensitive as the Haram Sharif (known to Jews as the Temple Mount) was attacked.

Unfortunately, hate crimes continue to generate tensions in both Israel and the Palestinian territories. The U.S. State Department's 2013 report on global terrorism, issued in April 2014, determined that Jewish terrorism was growing, but Israel in most cases was not putting the perpetrators on trial.

The Israeli government has vociferously condemned the torching of synagogues, the destruction of tombstones in Jewish cemeteries, and assaults against Jews in other countries, and the governments in those countries have treated these cases with the seriousness they deserve, as the French did with the slayings at a kosher supermarket in Paris earlier this year.

In return, Israel must match action with words and uproot hate crimes from both Israel proper and the occupied territories by identifying perpetrators as terrorists. Though ultimately these acts endanger Israel's security, for Palestinian Muslims and Christians as well as their expatriate co-religionists visiting or staffing the holy sites, the crimes are immediately experienced as acts of terror intended to drive them from the land.

Carmi Gillon, who served as Shin Bet director at the time of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in 1995, has repeatedly warned against the dangers inherent in the lax handling of the "price tag" phenomenon. He argues that the Shin Bet could stop "price tag" activities in a short time if a decision were made to combat them like any other terrorist activity.

"Price tag" attacks are hate crimes, pure and simple. They should be prosecuted as such. Any state that calls itself a democracy must protect freedom of worship for all faiths, not just the dominant one. This is particularly true in the Holy Land, where the devotions and yearnings of the three Abrahamic faiths intersect and interact.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]

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