Israeli Students Visit “Christian” Jerusalem

JERUSALEM (CNS) — University student Liraz Meir looked in slight amazement at the familiar stone walls of the Armenian Quarter.

“I come to the Old City so often. I have passed these walls so many times in my life and I never went inside,” mused Meir, 27, who with some 20 other Israelis was on a study tour that included a visit to the Armenian Quarter and a Christian monastery.

Like most Israelis, she said, she had lumped together all the “others” who live behind the walls as one political entity of Palestinians and had not considered their diversity.

She said that while most Israeli Jews — even people like her, who believe dialogue is important — hurry past the walls of the Armenian Quarter on their way to the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall, they never stop to consider the people who live there.

Following a spate of spitting incidents against Christians in the Old City — mostly Armenians because of their proximity to the Jewish Quarter — three groups active in interreligious dialogue organized special study tours in late April and early May to familiarize Israelis not only with the physical presence of the Christians in the city but also with the issues and challenges they face as a minority within the Jewish state.

“Since we are here at Mt. Zion in close proximity to the Jewish Quarter we have often become targets of some indignities by extremist right-wing Orthodox Jews, who spit on us quite often,” said Armenian Orthodox Archbishop Aris Shirvanian, who has himself been spit at about 50 times this year.

Debbie Weisman — a founding member of Jerusalem’s largely English-speaking Yedidya congregation, one of the organizers of the study tour — said she had been appalled to hear about the spitting incidents.

“The phenomenon of spitting is disgusting and points to a deeper issue of how Jews (in Israel) relate to ‘the other,’” she said. “We have a responsibility in terms of how everybody is treated (in Israel) and this is unacceptable. I came to learn and hear about the problems. We need to reach out to the other.”

Andrea Katz said the Yedidya congregation hoped to organize a concrete show of solidarity for the Christian community. She said members were considering having a Jewish presence in the quarter during Armenian processions so the Jews could express opposition to the spitting.

“It is important to be in dialogue; we all live together and there is no other solution,” said Yossi Gal, a retiree who with his wife, Bella, had come the night before from the city of Ra’anana for the tour. The Jewish couple, who described themselves as “traditional” in terms of their religious involvement, are also members of the Catholic Focolare group.

He said their friends knew about their involvement in interreligious dialogue and do not oppose it but do not show any interest in it.

Though there is an increased interest in Christian sites and traditions among secular Israelis, they are interested in it only as a cultural phenomenon and are not part of any interreligious dialogue, said Rabbi Ron Kronish, director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, one of the sponsors of the study tour.

Although the tour was advertised in both Hebrew and English, the large majority who showed up in late April spoke English.

“Most Jews in this country do not interact with ‘the other’ in the street in their daily lives,” he noted, and it is normally the Western immigrants who come with a background of openness who spearhead such initiatives of dialogue and understanding.

The study tour, which was led by Daniel Rossing, director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, also included a meeting with Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, head of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. Father Pizzaballa briefed the group on visa problems for Christian clergy in Israel and other issues.

Rossing said his center offers such study tours to hundreds of Jewish groups every year but they are mostly groups from abroad. He said the study tour aimed to provide a “minimal familiarization” with some of the challenges facing the local Christian community.

“We have an unprecedented role as a Jewish majority with a Christian minority,” he said. “We want to make the Jews in Israel aware of the reality and the challenges it represents to the Jewish state.”

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