HOLY LAND – “A toxic mix of religious extremism and nationalism”


Many Christians in Israel are scared. They feel threatened by Jewish extremists in word and deed. The arson attack carried out by Jewish extremists in June of last year on the Benedictine monastery of Tabgha made international news. “What comes next?” Auxiliary Bishop Shomali from the Latin Patriarchate asked anxiously in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) following the incident.

More attacks followed this year. For example, anti-Christian scribbling on the Abbey of the Dormition in Jerusalem. “Death to Christians,” it said. The extremist rabbi Bentzion Gopstein is regularly making headlines. He is head of the Lehava group, which strictly opposes mixing Jews and non-Jews in Israel. Thus, supporters demonstrated vociferously in 2014 against a wedding with a Jewish bride and a Muslim groom.

The extremists have also set their sights on the Christians of Israel. In August of last year, Gopstein publicly called upon Israeli authorities to burn down all the churches in Israel, saying that this was the duty of a Jewish state. Before Christmas, Gopstein’s supporters demonstrated against a Christian Christmas celebration in Jerusalem that was also attended by Jews. In an appeal published on the Internet, Gopstein called upon the authorities to ban all Christian Christmas celebrations in Israel. He believes that, as in history, Christians continue to work towards the goal of converting Jews and must therefore be deported. “Let’s throw the vampires out of our land before they drink our blood again,” Gopstein said, and continued by saying that the Christian church is the greatest enemy of Judaism today as in history. “If Jews cannot be killed, they can still be converted,” Gopstein said about Christians.

The Catholic church in the Holy Land filed criminal charges against Gopstein on grounds of incitement following his appeal to destroy the churches. In a statement, the Catholic bishops said that the Catholic community in the Holy Land was scared and feels vulnerable. When Gopstein called the Christians bloodsuckers at Christmas, the bishops felt that public peace in Israel was at risk. “The recurring intimidation and provocations are a real threat to peaceful coexistence in the country,” they declared. “It is necessary to condemn this firmly and employ all necessary means against it in the interest of all citizens.”

The rabbi was just recently interrogated by police. Proceedings may be initiated against him. Gopstein has been arrested and interrogated on numerous occasions in the past. However, up until this point charges have never been brought or a sentence pronounced.

Father David Neuhaus, however, does not believe that remarks such as those of Gopstein are the main problem of the Christians in Israel. By order of the Latin Patriarchate, the Jesuit oversees the pastoral care of Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel. Born as the son of Jewish parents in South Africa, he emigrated to Israel and converted there to Catholicism. He is convinced, “The rhetoric of Gopstein is not where the most serious damage is done to Christian Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel.”

“I think that most Christian and Muslim Palestinians are perfectly aware that they are not treated equally and that discrimination is alive and well in a state defined as Jewish,” Neuhaus says. “This discrimination is structural, its most felt impact is in the budgeting for development in the Arab sector – it becomes palpable in education, health, employment, welfare, etc.”

Even though Gopstein and other extremists are only few in number, Gopstein does have his supporters, Neuhaus estimates. “There are surely many Israelis who share his views. But only few would express themselves with such complete contempt for the religious other.” Father Neuhaus believes that the Jewish establishment does not do enough to counter Rabbi Gopstein’s views. “Although I think many might be disgusted at his vulgarity, what is needed is an educational campaign among the Orthodox that teaches respect for the religious and national other.”

As a biblical scholar, Neuhaus is now convinced that religious extremism and contempt for the religious other does indeed have a basis in the three religious traditions of the Middle East. “Sacred Scriptures seem to promote an idea of a chosen people that is the instrument of God’s rule and error that must be combated even violently. I am not sure that there is anything particularly Jewish in this. What is clear is that when this religious extremism is combined with nationalist ideology the mix is extremely toxic.” Neuhaus is sure that those who are offended and threatened by this toxic mix must come together to jointly combat these ideas by providing alternative interpretations of the same Scriptures. “They must help each other develop strategies by means of which religious extremism can be rooted out.”

According to Neuhaus, many Jews remember and perhaps even dwell on the wounds accumulated in history by a small, marginal minority. “And these wounds were deeper and more deadly in lands where Christians were the majority than in lands where Muslims were the majority.”However, Neuhaus regrets that too few Jews are willing to take seriously the fact that in Israel the Jews are now the dominant majority. “The contempt they might espouse for the ones defined as ‘non-Jews’ might have similarly disastrous effects.”

 Oliver Maksan