May 31, 2023 - World

Israel Foreign Ministry to boycott event focused on spitting attacks against Christians

Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Archbishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, led the feast held at the site. (Photo by Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Archbishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, leads a Palm Sunday march on April 2. Photo: Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Israeli Foreign Ministry will boycott a conference in Jerusalem next week that will focus on the growing wave of attacks by Jewish Israelis against Christians in Jerusalem, according to the organizers and Israeli Foreign Ministry officials.

Why it matters: It's a highly unusual decision. Israel's Foreign Ministry is the main government agency tasked with strengthening relations with the Christian world and Israel's ties with the different churches.

  • The current Israeli government — the most right-wing in the country's history — includes far-right and ultranationalist ministers who have expressed Jewish supremacist views. Some of the supporters of these far-right parties are also known for their anti-Christian activities.
  • The attacks — and the government's response — could also impact Israel's relationship with the Christian evangelical community, which Israeli governments, including the current one, have seen as a base of political support, particularly in the U.S.

Driving the news: In recent months, there has been a growing trend of attacks and harassment, including spitting and vandalism, by ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist religious Jews against Christian nuns, priests and pilgrims in Jerusalem.

  • Last Sunday, dozens of Israeli ultranationalist religious activists, including Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Aryeh King, demonstrated against a Christian prayer event for pilgrims near the Western Wall. Many of those who attended the event were evangelicals who prayed for Israel.
  • Ultranationalist activists spat at the pilgrims, cursed them and some pushed them. According to the Haaretz newspaper, King said at the demonstration that Christians should have freedom of worship only inside churches.

State of play: The Israeli government has largely remained silent on the attacks. The Foreign Ministry tweeted on Monday condemning “any violation of freedom of religion and worship in Jerusalem” without specifically referring to the violent demonstration the day before.

  • Emmanuel Nahshon, deputy director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry for Public Diplomacy, tweeted last month a condemnation of the spitting attacks against Christians. Several hours after posting the tweet, he deleted it.
  • Israeli officials told Axios the tweet was deleted on orders from the foreign minister’s office due to domestic political sensitivities with the ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist parties in the coalition.

In response to the attacks, Yisca Harani, one of Israel’s leading experts on Christianity who has advised the Foreign Ministry in the past, organized an academic conference in Jerusalem.

  • The conference, which is scheduled to take place in Jerusalem on June 16, is titled, “Why do (some) Jews spit on Gentiles."
  • Harani told Axios she invited the heads of churches, foreign diplomats and representatives of Israeli government ministries and the Jerusalem municipality.
  • “I got a call from a Foreign Ministry official who told Axios that the name of the conference is inappropriate and, therefore, they are not going to attend" the event, she said.
  • Harani said other government ministries also got cold feet and haven’t confirmed their participation. “It is clear to me that this is a policy that comes from the top," she stressed.

What they're saying: An official at the Israeli Foreign Ministry said domestic political sensitivities played a role in the decision not to attend the conference.

  • The Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement the decision not to attend was made due to the one-sided nature of the conference and its title. "This decision has nothing to do with politics," the statement said.

The big picture: High-level clergy in Jerusalem have blamed, at least in part, the far-right government, which includes ultranationalist ministers, for the growing wave of attacks.

  • Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, said in an interview with an Italian newspaper in March that unlike in the past, he doesn’t have access to Israeli government ministers and has to speak to low-level officials. He said the reason is that some ministers don’t want to upset their political base.
  • Nikodemus Schnabel, who presides over the Benedictine Abbey of the Dormition in Jerusalem, told the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung that attacks against Christians have increased because "those who hate Christians now sit in the government."
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