Cecilia Lakin

Cecilia Lakin

Today I’ve invited my friend Cecilia Lakin to write a guest post here at Seasons of Grace.

I’ve come to depend on Cecilia’s fresh insights as a Catholic and a world traveler, as well as her proficiency as a writer and news analyst. She understands the Catholic communities in the countries she visits, and she has friends there upon whom she can call for on-the-scene information.

We’re all concerned about the vandalism at holy sites in the Middle East–most recently, at Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion. Cia, as I’ve come to expect, offers an important perspective.

Recent Vandalism Against Christian Holy Sites in Israel

by Cecilia Lakin

Earlier this week, anti-Christian graffiti was scrawled on a well-known monastery in Jerusalem, Dormition Abbey. Located on Mount Zion, this site is revered as the traditional place where the Blessed Virgin Mary concluded her earthly life before she was assumed bodily into Heaven. “Dormition” refers to “falling asleep.” Whether or not this actually was the place is open to debate, but there is no question about the importance the bodily assumption of the Mother of God holds in both Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions. What it commemorates helps to make the site and its connection to Christians significant. Benedictine monks have resided on the site for nearly a century.

This is not the first anti-Christian incident to mar a Christian holy site in Israel, and it will not be the last. This is not even the first vandalism at Dormition Abbey. Sadly, these events are not rare. I have been in Israel during some of these desecrations, and if the opportunity presented I’ve traveled to the sites and spoken with the monks or priests about the incidents. Some of the sites have been part of the Immanuel Tours itinerary and are worth going to see before they are desecrated further. The best way to get around these areas is by car, especially as they are not particularly safe to walk around at the moment, so make sure you book in with a company like car rental Tel Aviv before you get there. Shortly after the Trappist Latrun Monastery was vandalized in the spring of 2014, during a spate of such acts, I went to visit and spoke with one of the priests there. He pointed to the walls where graffiti had been spray painted and to a door which had been set afire. The damage had been quickly repaired; there was nothing to be seen. His expressive shrug when I asked about the matter conveyed a well-practiced equanimity. It happened. We cleaned it. Life goes on.

Dozens of similar incidents have occurred over the past few years, many involving graffiti and some involving arsons. The targets are both Christian and Arab properties. That alone should dissuade those who claim that the vandalism demonstrates Jewish majority or Israeli state hostility against Christians. The vandals are equal-opportunity desecrators. In fact, what it represents has become a commonplace in today’s world. Children taught to hate will in fact hate, and they will act out of that hate. The currently popular term for this is “to become radicalized.” Rogers and Hammerstein got it right in their 1949 musical “South Pacific,” where a main character sang, “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, Before you are six or seven or eight, To hate all the people your relatives hate, You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

Two years ago in Jerusalem I was told that the “Price Tag” vandals were youths with major “failures in their educations.” Instead of learning to respect other religious traditions these Haredi (or ultra-Orthodox Jews) were taught to reject all modern, secular society, including the secular state of Israel. Serving up the notion that any betrayal of extreme traditional Jewish practices carries a “price tag,” these youths have been encouraged by their teacher-rabbis to set about extracting that price. In their minds, the fact that the modern State of Israel allows Christians and Arabs live in and become citizens of the country is a calamitous betrayal of Judaism, one which must be addressed. They extract the “price,” punishing the non-Jewish parties and embarrassing the State. A Catholic priest who is a citizen of Israel told me,

“The children in that

[ultra-religious] sector are overwhelmingly formed with a discourse that is chauvinist, refuses to recognize the multi-cultural and [diverse] ethnic and religious character of this land.”

Following this latest incident at Dormition Abbey, I contacted both Jewish and Christian friends in Israel to see what could be learned. Several shared themes emerged. Both sides believed that the vandals were youths. Each side was quick to caution that the attack should not be seen as evidence of hostility against Christians on the part of the general population of Israel or the Israeli State. Both Christians and Jews condemned strongly the acts, as did officials of the Israeli state – including the Prime Minister, whose statements were published shortly afterwards.

In fact, the January 17 incident was followed on January 19 and January 20 with the arrest of two suspects, boys said to be 16- and 15-years-old. They are believed to come from the ultra-religious sector.

A well-placed Catholic friend responded to my request for comments with the following observation:

These acts of vandalism that continue with shocking regularity are indeed not committed by the majority nor by the government. In fact, I would say they are committed in order to embarrass the government by elements hostile to any attempt to make peace, to dialogue, to negotiate…

While the Western press rapidly publishes articles about the vandalism, often creating friction and ill will, an American-born Israeli friend pointed out that “the press in English is quick to report the incident and then ignores the arrests.”

Additional comments by my Catholic priest source suggested a reason why we might read more about the attacks and less about the arrests. He criticized two recurring aspects of the governmental response to similar cases: the very slow process of identifying the perpetrators, and the failure to scrutinize carefully the schools where the vandals study and the rabbis who teach them.

“All the while that radical rabbis express their terrible racism with impunity and can be celebrated as legitimate figures, the message to the youth is that these acts are permissible.”

I was linked to an article in the Hebrew press by my Jewish American friend, who commented that “Israelis are aware [of the vandalism]…and the police and government are being pressured to act.” Asked about the criticism that the police fail to pursue cases aggressively, he responded that the article

“…is a pretty damning picture of police inaction, but Israelis are disgusted with the actions of these thugs and pressure is building to take more action.”

Alert for the possibility that police inaction might be hostility in masquerade, I sought perspective from both the Christian and Jewish viewpoints. Both sides suggested that the police have heavy caseloads. One Christian source used the term “overburdened.” A Jewish friend suggested that another reason crimes like vandalism “don’t get a lot of attention is [because] the focus is elsewhere,” such as on the January 17th murder of Dafna Meir, a mother of six, who was stabbed to death in her home in front of three of her children, and the January 19th capture of her alleged killer, a Palestinian Arab teenager whose father professed, “I am proud of him.” Murder trumps a can of spray paint.

Rapid arrest of the two suspected Dormition Abbey suspects may be a sign that the Israeli government has decided to step up its game. Last year’s arson at the Church of the Loaves and Fishes in Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee, was followed a month later by the arrest of five suspects after the Israeli Internal Security Agency (Shin Bet) conducted an extensive undercover investigation. Two men, ages 19 and 20, were subsequently indicted. A photo taken at their arraignment shows them in brown jail uniforms and the long side curls worn by the ultra-Orthodox.

Two other incidents, one at Dormition Abbey in May 2014 and the Tabgha arson in June 2015 resulted in charges brought only this month – twenty months after the earlier event – against a 20-year-old Israeli and an Israeli minor. (The age of majority in Israel is 18.) These two men are believed to belong to the same group as two other young men who firebombed a Palestinian town in the West Bank in July of 2015, killing an 18-month-old and his parents, and severely burning a 4-year-old. “Price Tag” graffiti was identified at the site.

In fact, it is reported in the Israeli press that Gilad Erdan, the Israeli Minister for Public Security, ordered that the current Dormition case be given highest priority, a welcome sign after previous cases seemed to have languished for months.

Many Jews and Christians who live in Israel have reminded me that despite its domestic problems, it is the safest country in the Middle East where Christians can live in harmony with their fellow citizens. One Israeli, a Jewish man who lives outside of Jerusalem, became exasperated when I asked about the recent graffiti episode. Pleading for some balanced perspective on the vandalism at Dormition Abbey, he pointed out that there are anti-Semitic incidents the world over, including in the US. As we exchanged thoughts, he became angry – not because I was asking about the vandalism, but because generations of hostility have made many Jewish people acutely sensitive to certain issues. “By the way,” he countered,

“the handful of vandalisms against Christian sites by a few stupid Jews pales in comparison to the Muslim genocide of Christians going on right now in the Mideast and the Christian genocide of Jews all over the world before the Holocaust…”

Give us a break, he seemed to be implying. We are trying. Murder trumps a can of spray paint.

If the Israeli Security Agency is stepping up its game and taking suspects into custody more rapidly, it remains to be seen whether it will now begin cracking down on the schools where these youth are taught and on those who teach them. In a country which is populated with survivors of one of the most horrific hate crimes in history, it is unthinkable that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren should now be committing home-grown hate crimes of their own.

Image of Dormition Abbey by Anton 17 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons