Caspari Center Media Review………….January 1, 2007
During the week covered by this review, we received 36 articles on the subjects of Christians in Israel, Israeli attitudes towards Jesus and Christianity, the Pope and the Vatican, and anti-missionary activity. Out of the total:
- 8 dealt with Christians in Israel
- 3 dealt with Israeli attitudes towards Jesus and Christianity
- 2 dealt with anti-missionary activity
- 7 dealt with the Vatican and the Pope
- 1 dealt with Christianity
- 1 dealt with Judaism
- 1 dealt with anti-Semitism
- 2 were book reviews
The remaining 11 articles dealt with matters of Jewish and Christian interest.
This week’s Review continues coverage of themes related to Christmas and New Year, together with reports dealing with Christians in Israel. While the number of references to the Pope and the Vatican was still high, they were more general and less immediately relevant to Israel.
Christians in Israel
Jerusalem Post, December 26; Yediot Mekomi, December 22; Haaretz, December 27, 29; Globes, December 28, 29; Yediot Ahronot, December 27; Zman Haifa, December 22; HaModia, December 27, 2006
While not strictly a piece on Christians in Israel but thoughts about Israeli-Palestinian relations in connection to the “Glad tidings of [the] peace process,” the Post’s Caroline Glick reminded her readers of the events which Hamas leader Mahmoud Abbas’ appearance at the Church of the Nativity for midnight mass on Christmas Eve recalled for the local residents (December 26). “On April 2, 2002, as IDF forces swept into Bethlehem to root out the terrorists who had taken control of the city, between 150 and 180 Fatah terrorists under Yasser Arafat’s command shot their way into the Church of the Nativity,” holding some 150 clergymen hostage for the following 39 days. While the terrorists’ behavior in the church itself was excruciating – including the stealing of prayer books and “anything that looked like gold” – the Christian population was relieved at their final expulsion for more long-term reasons. “They spoke of a ‘reign of terror,’ of rape, murder and extortion that the men had waged against them over the previous two years. Helen, a Christian woman, told The Washington Times, ‘Finally the Christians can breathe freely. We are so delighted that these criminals who have intimidated us for such a long time are going away.’”
In a very different look at the contemporary scene over the Christmas season, Haaretz (December 29) carried an article investigating the tradition of kissing on December 31, New Year’s Day. In the course of examining the various kinds of kissing – animals, sacred objects, chess pieces, lottery tickets – the author included a section on “Gregori, 32.” An Orthodox Christian originally from the North Caucasus, Gregori was found kissing the stone of anointing in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the Friday after Christmas. Gregori became a believer in 1991 when someone gave his father a Bible, and he described the experience in the following way. “It’s a different feeling, Yeshua gives everyone great peace which is difficult to express in words, it’s like gold to the heart. I feel God within me.” According to Gregori, his kissing of the stone is an expression of love: “‘There are different kinds of love – to one’s mother and father, to one’s people, to God. But Christians must love God first and foremost with a holy love. Without love for the world we won’t get to Paradise, and if so, what reason is there to living? We were only born to die.’”
In keeping with the interest some Israelis are demonstrating in Christmas (see previous Review), Globes (December 29) suggested that a good way to “taste a little of ‘being abroad’ in Israel” was to experience the baptismal rites of the Armenian and Romanian churches on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6). “This is a festival of baptism, which is celebrated among other ways by immersion in the waters of the Jordan and symbolizes his [Jesus’] baptism by John the Baptist, which according to tradition took place on this date. There are several baptismal sites, corresponding to the beliefs of the various communities as to the supposed place of Yeshu’s baptism.”
References to the Armenian Church also surfaced in regard to the rejection of a proposal to build a “colonial hotel” on the site of an Armenian church and early Templar school and complex in Jerusalem (Globes, December 28). According to the plans, the church was to be incorporated into the hotel’s lobby, since it is an historic building that, by law, must be preserved.
Two articles (Yediot Ahronot, December 27, p. 5; HaModia, December 27) reported on what the former paper described as a near-perfect example of “narrowmindedness and closed-mindedness” in the National Housing Company (Amidar)’s demand from its tenants that they not set up Christmas trees in the company’s complexes. The public reason proffered by the company was based on the fact that “more than 80% of the immigrants in the housing project, run conjointly with the Ministry of Absorption, are Jewish, and from complaints received it was clear that the fatherly figure of Santa Claus, wrapped in a red coat and carrying a sack of toys on his back, offended their religious sensitivities.”
The two articles relate to the event from quite different perspective. According to Yediot Ahronot, (December 27,p.5) not only does the practice contradict Judaism’s appeal for tolerance against the historical background of persecution of Jews but the ban was also absurd in its fear that “the religious faith of some of the tenants was so fragile that one glance at a decorated Christmas tree could bring them to the verge of considering conversion.” In very different vein – and with a variant version of the facts – the religious HaModia’s author claimed that most of Amidar’s tenants are in fact not Jewish and that the company was “forced” into the decision, given that the State recognizes these immigrants as Jewish and thus very generously provides them with housing – next to their authentically Jewish neighbors. Having escaped the persecution of Christians related to Christian festivals in the diaspora, these Jews are now being hounded in the Jewish State, on their own doorsteps, by the same festivals. They raised their voices in protest and Amidar issued the ordinance in compliance with their sensitivities.
In line with Haifa’s multicultural and multi-faith population – which has traditionally been a model of co-existence – Christian students at the University of Haifa petitioned the administration to set up a Christmas tree alongside the Hanukkia (Zman Haifa, December 22). “This is the place in which students from different backgrounds, faiths, communities meet together for a learning experience which continues for some years. In such a situation, the University’s role is clear: to behave with respect and goodwill towards all the religions and cultures – including most particularly the festivals and different feasts.” As the petition went on to state, “The University can take an example from the ‘Festival of Feasts’ celebrated in the city for several years, and those who bear the standard of the city’s multicultural nature.” (For the “Festival of Feasts” in Haifa, see previous Reviews.)
Another aspect of “Christians in Israel” was exposed in an article by Yossi Klein in Haaretz (December 27, p. 4), looking at the celebrations held by foreign workers in Israel. Klein exposed the miserable conditions under which many of these people live in Israel by comparing their celebrations with other celebrations that he experienced several years ago on Yom Kippur [the Day of Atonement] in London. On a thronged side street, he observed the passage of a group of Jews proudly dressed for the occasion – in distinct contrast to the commercial aspect of the street. “They were different but gave off the glow of security of someone walking in the midst of their own.” Just as Jews in the diaspora historically frequently had to conceal their festivities, so now foreign Christian workers are being compelled to do the same in Israel.
Attitudes towards Jesus and Christianity
Haaretz, December 29, 2006; HaIr – Tel Aviv, December 22, pp. 3, 4, 2006
In an article extolling the virtues of Yaffo (Joppa), Matan Oran in HaIr – Tel Aviv (December 22) preceded his review of the city’s churches and their celebrations with a brief sketch of the origins of Christmas: “On Sunday at midnight the Christian world will celebrate Christmas. We too, here in Yaffo, will celebrate the (presumed) date of Yeshu’s birth, in a manger in Bethlehem because there was no room in the inn for his virgin mother and his carpenter father 2007 years ago. Why December 25? It’s not really clear. The population registry doesn’t possess accurate records, neither do we have a birth certificate [for him]. It’s assumed that the date was fixed because its proximity to the shortest day of the year (December 21) … The church fathers adopted this date apparently in order not to confuse Christians too much.” Regarding the celebrations themselves, Oran evidently considered the Catholics the masters of ceremony, while the Protestants came in a good second; while both have music and prayers, the Catholics also have “refreshments” – “the holy bread”! (At the same time, he also noted that the clergy were urging visitors to respect the sanctity of the celebrations and to dress modestly, switch off all mobile phones, and not to eat in the churches.)
A second article on the following page relates to a relatively “little known and strange” Jewish festival called the “Nitl,” celebrated on the same day as Christmas Eve. Observed exclusively amongst the Hasidim, its origins are obscure and while the explanations offered differ, they are all in one way or another linked to Christmas and Jesus. According to one view, the tradition derives from a period in which Jews shut themselves in their houses in order to avoid pogroms. This practical circumstance was turned into an “ideological” concept, according to which it was forbidden to study Torah and, most importantly, to refrain from sexual activity (phrased in the typical Jewish fashion of “not practicing the commandment of ‘be fruitful and multiply’”). “According to many legends, apostates and other evil persons were in fact born after intercourse engaged in precisely on the day of Yeshu’s birth … Another explanation claims that the prohibition against Torah study was instituted in order to prevent Yeshu’s soul from influencing brilliant Torah scholars souls – Yeshu being known in the Talmud as the student of Yehoshua ben Perahia.” [Editor’s note: The talmudic story is unhistorical, since Yehoshua b. Perahia lived in the previous century.] The original name, Nitl, is equally murky. Some ascribe to it a “hint at Yeshu’s crucifixion on the tree [the word can be derived from the Hebrew term for hanging or crucifixion].”
Benni Tzifer in Haaretz (December 29) provided another explanation for some Israelis’ increased interest in Christmas: “Up until not many years ago, Christmas was a Christian festival in which not many Israelis displayed much interest and it even aroused a certain repulsion.” The factor which has changed this circumstances is – TV: “What is happening is that television is controlling so much of the common Israeli’s imagination that he is convinced that the fact that he has 50 foreign channels on his TV has made him a member of the enlightened world and eligible to participate in the rejoicings of that world – i.e., the feast of the Santa Clauses and Christmas trees.” Tzifer is not enthusiastic about this turn of events, due to the stupidity he considers it to reflect: “What is so silly about all the simulated Israeli joy is the complete lack of awareness that Israel and its misleading policy is the primary cause responsible for the dilution, expiration, and ossification of the Christian Arab population in Israel and the territories. And so the way in which the Christian world really sees us is trampling on Christian sacred places with a crude foot.”
HaModia, December 28, pp. 2, 8, 2006
While the anti-missionary disturbances in Arad have not been highlighted in the news recently, neither have they ceased (HaModia, December 28, p. 2). Their latest expression has taken the expression of “PR” at the local market, where a camel has been placed at the entrance, bearing the sign: “No such thing exists: Messianic camels – no such thing exists: Messianic Jews.” On its foot a second “poster” was hung: “The Jews of Arad say: no to the mission.” In the afternoon, the camel “turned in the direction [of its own accord?] of the local high school, where the students expressed their identification with the citizens’ protest. A missionary who lives close to the school, who began missionary activity [there?], was expelled in shame by the youths, who were captivated by the camel’s appearance.” The police response to this stunt was equally as discreditable: “The police who were at the location related to the missionary with derision when he complained about the youths who had driven him away.”
In Beersheva, a restraining order issued against Yehuda Deri, the chief Sephardic Rabbi of the city, has just been revoked (HaModia, December 28). It was originally served following an incident in which a “sofer stam” (writer of sacred texts, a scribe) in the city was exposed as a “missionary.” The matter having been brought to Deri’s attention, he met with the man and his wife and confirmed with them that they were in fact believers. He immediately banned the scribe’s work, adding that objects which had already been sold were to be burned or turned over to the Rabbinate. With this, Deri assumed that the incident was finished; not having heard more from the scribe, he presumed that the man had moved out of the city. Two weeks ago, however, Deri received a restraining order preventing him from approaching the sofer or coming into contact with him. The order was based on a complaint by the scribe that following his meeting with Deri, several young Orthodox men had given him a severe beating with Deri’s blessing. Deri immediately contacted the court with a request for the “one-sided” order to be removed. The trial was delayed until Hanukka due, according to HaModia’s report, to the scribe’s claim for the need of a Polish translator. When it began, “the court immediately grasped the inconsistencies in the plaintiff’s case and quickly realized that he was lying.” The judge dismissed the restraining order and ordered the scribe to pay the court costs.
The paper presented the incident as unbefitting Deri’s position on very interesting – but surely not legal – grounds: “Would the court have dared to issue such an order, in such a one-sided fashion [i.e., without Deri’s knowledge], if it had been against the Judge of the District Court – to whom the Rabbi, as head of the religious law courts in the city, is equal in standing?” Deri himself interpreted the complaint which led to the restraining order as “a missionary attempt at framing [me] in a criminal blood libel plot, in the face of my activities against the mission in the city, [which are conducted] in the framework of all the legal and legitimate means at my disposal,.” [Editor’s note: the reference to a “blood libel” is very serious in a Jewish context, recalling Christian claims that Jews kill Christian children in order to use their blood in Jewish rituals.]
The Pope and the Vatican
HaZofeh, December 18; Yediot Ahronot, December 19; Ma’ariv, December 7; Jerusalem Post, December 19; Zman HaKrayot, December 15; Haaretz, December 20, 2006
An especially varied coverage of the Pope and the Vatican in this week’s Israel press included a notice that the Vatican had “denounced [Saddam’s] execution” (Yediot Ahronot, December 31). The Israeli commentator immediately added to this report that this was “despite the fact that Christianity as a whole was built upon one famous execution, that of Yeshu the Nazarene.”
A second article related once again to the Vatican’s alleged storing of the Temple treasures (Ma’ariv, December 28) (see previous Reviews). Following a visit to the Vatican by an Israeli delegation, “the results were disappointing: the few Jewish items to be found belonged to Italian Jewry.”
At the Christmas mass, the Pope announced his intention to visit Israel (Jerusalem Post, December 26). While Pope Benedict XVI addressed the whole Christian world during his speech, he also wrote a speech directed specifically to the Christians of the Middle East in which he expressed his “hope to visit the region, whenever the circumstances will allow this” (Haaretz, December 26). In his Christmas message, the Pope declared: “I place in the hands of the divine Child of Bethlehem the indications of a resumption of dialogue between the Israelis and Palestinians, which we have witnessed in recent days, and the hope of further encouraging developments.” The sermon included a “theme that has preoccupied him – the commercialization of Christmas. ‘May his birth not find us busy celebrating Christmas forgetting that he [Jesus; sic] is the very person at the center of the feast’” (Haaretz, December 25).
Jerusalem Post, December 26; HaIr – Tel Aviv, December 22; Zman Hadera, December 22, 2006
Under the headline “The tree of honey,” Elad Hoffer in Zman Hadera (December 22) noted that an Israeli honey producer, Emek Hefer, has come out with “25,000 jars of honey” which it is marketing in the States in honor of Christmas. While such kosher honey might be expected to be a favorite in the Jewish community (its taste is infused with the special flowers and spices which grow in Israel), it appears that the Christian community is also fast becoming a big consumer. In their eyes, kashrut seems to guarantee a “safer and healthier” product than others.
Mishpaha, December 21, 2006
While many in Israel and the Western world have raised their voices against the Holocaust deniers’ conference in Iran, Israelis have had the added burden of explaining how some Jews participated as honored guests. In an interview with the Admor (Rabbinic authority) from Kaliv – himself a Holocaust survivor – in Mishpaha (December 21), he gave his opinion on the attendance of members of the Neturei Karta, a radical Orthodox group that opposes the existence of the State of Israel, at the conference: “It’s awful. These are very similar words to those which the evil ones spoke then, during the war. I can’t understand how it’s possible to encourage those who seek to stand against us and to kill us. This is really a denial of the Holocaust. The Nazis, may their name be blotted out, occupied themselves 24 hours a day with the bringing of Jews to the gas chambers and killing them. The Arabs are plotting 24 hours a day today how to exterminate the residents of the holy land of Israel, which is home to Jews like me who survived the Holocaust. How can people who identify themselves as observant Jews come and say in the name of the Torah things which encourage and identify with the same despicable murderers?”