Jews spitting on the ground beside Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land sparks outrage

FILE - Christian orthodox nuns hold candles and flowers as they walk in a procession to bring an icon of the Virgin Mary to the tomb where it is believed she is buried, along the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, early Friday, Aug. 25, 2023. Since Israels most right-wing government in history came to power late last year, concerns have mounted among religious leaders over the increasing harassment of the regions 2,000-year-old Christian community. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg, File) (Ohad Zwigenberg, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

JERUSALEM – A video that shows ultra-Orthodox Jews spitting on the ground beside a procession of foreign Christian worshipers carrying a wooden cross in the holy city of Jerusalem has ignited intense outrage and a flurry of condemnation in the Holy Land.

The spitting incident, which the city's minority Christian community lamented as the latest in an alarming surge of religiously motivated attacks, drew rare outrage on Tuesday from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior officials.

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Since Israel's most conservative government in history came to power late last year, concerns have mounted among religious leaders — including the influential Vatican-appointed Latin Patriarch — over the increasing harassment of the region’s 2,000-year-old Christian community.

Many say the government, with its powerful ultranationalist officials, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, has emboldened Jewish extremists and created a sense of impunity.

“What happened with right-wing religious nationalism is that Jewish identity has been growing around anti-Christianity,” said Yisca Harani, a Christianity expert and founder of an Israeli hotline for anti-Christian assaults. “Even if the government doesn't encourage it, they hint that there will be no sanctions.”

Those worries over rising intolerance seem to violate Israel’s stated commitment to freedom of worship and sacred trust over holy places, enshrined in the declaration that marked its founding 75 years ago. Israel captured east Jerusalem in a 1967 war and later annexed it in a move not internationally recognized.

There are roughly 15,000 Christians in Jerusalem today, the majority of them Palestinians who consider themselves living under occupation.

Netanyahu's office insisted on Tuesday that Israel “is totally committed to safeguard the sacred right of worship and pilgrimage to the holy sites of all faiths.”

“I strongly condemn any attempt to intimidate worshippers, and I am committed to taking immediate and decisive action against it,” he said.

The spitting scene, captured on Monday by a reporter at Israel's left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, shows a group of foreign pilgrims beginning their procession through the limestone labyrinth of the Old City, home to holiest ground in Judaism, the third-holiest shrine in Islam and major Christian sites.

Raising a giant wooden cross, the men and women retraced the Old City route that they believe Jesus Christ took before his crucifixion. Along the way, ultra-Orthodox Jews in dark suits and broad-brimmed black hats squeezed past the pilgrims through narrow alleyways, their ritual palm fronds for the weeklong Jewish holiday of Sukkot in hand. As they streamed by, at least seven ultra-Orthodox Jews spit on the ground beside the Christian tour group.

Further fueling the outrage, Elisha Yered, an ultranationalist settler leader and former adviser to a lawmaker in Netanyahu's governing coalition, defended the spitters, arguing that spitting at Christian clergy and at churches was was an “ancient Jewish custom.”

“Perhaps under the influence of Western culture we have somewhat forgotten what Christianity is,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. "I think millions of Jews who suffered in exile from the Crusades ... will never forget.”

Yered, suspected of involvement in the killing of a 19-year-old Palestinian, remains under house arrest.

While the video, and Yered's comment, spread like wildfire on social media, the chorus of condemnation grew. Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said spitting at Christians “does not represent Jewish values.”

The country's minister of religious affairs, Michael Malkieli, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, argued such spitting was "not the way of the Torah." One of Israel's chief rabbis insisted spitting had nothing to do with Jewish law.

Activists who have been documenting daily attacks against Christians in the Holy Land were taken aback by the sudden wave of government attention.

“Attacks against Christians have 100% increased this year, and not just spitting, but throwing stones and vandalizing signs,” said Harani, the expert.

“Excuse me," she added, addressing Israeli authorities. "But where were you?”

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