By MARCIE LENK
In the last week we have seen yet another set of "Tag Mehir" (price tag) vandalism in Israel. Tires were punctured, and graffiti was painted on walls in villages of Zubaydat and Marj Naje, in the Jordan Valley, with similar incidents in Shuafat and Sheik Jarrah, near Jerusalem, and in Rantis, near Ramallah. In every case the graffiti called for revenge, and in some the term "price tag" appeared.
During this same time period, Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem was vandalized, with the words "Christian monkeys" spray painted on their walls. This follows similar incidents in the last few months at the Monastery of the Cross, at the Baptist church on Narkiss Street in Jerusalem, and at the Monastery in Latrun, as well as at a number of mosques around the country. Often the graffiti refers to a particular situation that they are avenging.
One wonders why so many churches and mosques have been included in the rampage. Prime Minister Netanyahu and other politicians rightly denounce these acts as illegal and racist, and the police repeat their mantra that they are looking for the culprits. Politicians speak of "extremist settlers" when seeking to identify the criminals of the "price tag" vandalism and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has been working with members of the Yesha Council and other settler leaders to take a firm stance against these acts. Racism certainly is at the core of these attacks, but racism and revenge do not explain the attacks on churches and mosques.
Given the ugly history of anti-Semitism around the world, one might expect Jews to be particularly sensitive to attacks on other religions. Yet despite the increasing number of price- tag attacks in the last year, we have not heard a public outcry against them, aside from a laudable group called "Tag Me’ir" (light tag), whose members have followed up after each attack to show support for the victims.
It would seem that Israeli Jews are not troubled enough by these attacks, and their complacency may derive from their appalling lack of education about other religions. The perpetrators of the "price-tag" attacks may be hoodlums, but our educational system helps to create the sentiments behind these attacks. Israeli Jews generally learn very little about Christianity or Islam, and religious schools offer their students even less. In my education in Orthodox Jewish schools in the United States, I was taught two basic ideas about Christianity: they either want to kill us or convert us, so beware. My sense is that most Israelis have a similar sense of Christianity. Should we be surprised that there is little outrage when Christians are perceived as being on the receiving end of even a small part of what we once suffered at their hands?
It is understandable that the yeshiva world has chosen to respond to the perceived and real threats of modernity by becoming more and more insular. As a teacher of Torah, I understand the need and desire to assure a significant knowledge of and confidence in Jewish texts. Why must this embrace of Torah be expressed as a triumphalist rejection of the worth of anything outside of Judaism? Most Orthodox Jews assume and teach that Christianity is to be considered idolatry. Yet the late thirteenth century scholar Rabbi Menahem HaMeiri maintained that Christians in his day should not be considered as the idolaters of old. He wrote this at a time that Jews suffered as a minority in Christendom. How much more so in Israel, where Jews are the majority culture, should we be more generous-minded towards our Christian neighbors?
For many Jews in Israel there is a sense that we are threatened in some way by the Christians in our midst. In 2013 we are strong, and we are the majority culture in Israel. Why is there fear of a church? If Jews understood more about Christianity, we would know that there is little to fear and much to respect. How many Jews know what is good and compelling in the stories of Jesus in the New Testament? There are more than 4 billion Christians in the world today. What compels so many people to this faith? Answering these questions rarely leads to conversion, but it may well lead to greater respect.
Yes, there is a history of persecution; yes there are missionaries. But how many Jews know about Nostra Aetate, the 1965 statement of the Catholic Church acknowledging the history of anti-Semitism in the Church and rejecting it? In the last 20-50 years almost every Christian denomination has confronted its history of anti-Semitism and has denounced it.
I have been involved in an initiative called New Paths: Christians Engaging Israel through collaboration between the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I have been working with a team of Christian academics and church leaders to produce course materials to teach North American Christians to develop deeper and more complex ideas about Judaism and Israel. In our first course, "Images of Israel," we call upon Christians to examine the history of Christian attitudes toward Jews in order to open up the possibility of respectful encounters.
As Jews and Israelis, we want to be understood by the world. Yet we are not working hard enough to educate our own children and adults about the others who live among us.