Get tough on monastery vandals and ‘price tags’

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post, April 2, 2014

The insanity of the cowardly acts known as “price tag” vandalism knows no bounds. On March 31 graffiti was discovered at Deir Rafat monastery west of Beit Shemesh. The perpetrators left behind slashed tires, and statements such as “America is Nazi Germany,” “Jesus is a monkey” and “Mary is a cow” were sprayed on the stone walls of the site.
The Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal provided an insightful rejoinder: “What schooling did these people have where they received such an education?” He noted that the nuns at the place “pray day and night for peace.”
He said that his flock would continue to pray for the attackers “so that the Lord takes away their ignorance and their narrowness of mind.”
The patriarch is right. The perpetrators of these acts display an incredible lack of intelligence, on numerous levels. It should offend us all. Had they lived in Nazi Germany and seen what it really was, they would not dare defame the name of the victims of the Holocaust for the sake of their petty, savage agenda. Is the Holocaust so cheap in their minds that as their hand reaches out to write such a comparison it does not “forget its skill,” as it says in Psalms? In recent years many Christian institutions in Israel have suffered this unprecedented form of harassment. In past decades some Christian symbols and churches did come under attack in Israel from time to time. For instance in 2007 the Narkis Church in Jerusalem was burned, and in 1982 the same place was firebombed. In 1973 three masked men tried to destroy a statue in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Newspaper clipping from 1970 about Narkis church bombing

Newspaper clipping from 1970 about Narkis church bombing

Many times signs pointing to Christian sites in Israel have the crosses scratched off. In the past leaders have been vocal in condemning this activity. For instance in 1982 Menachem Begin declared the attack on Narkis street “a malicious crime,” and then-interior secretary Yosef Burg ordered a special police investigation.
Some have pointed to the upcoming pope’s visit as a background for the harm done to Deir Rafat. This, too, has some historical precedence.
In 2000, just prior to Pope John Paul II’s visit, newspapers reported the “suspected Jewish extremists” spray-painted swastikas on a helipad he was thought to be arriving at and wrote “pope out” and “where were you during the Holocaust?” In the past, however, these hate crimes were self-described as being motivated by anti-Christian sentiment; anger over the Catholic Church’s perceived role in the Holocaust, or due to accusations of missionary activity. The current wave of attacks is very different.

THE LOGIC of the “price tag” is that in retaliation for some action the authorities take, the government is made to pay a “price” via the harming of an innocent and vulnerable third party. For instance, the evacuation of a few shacks in the West Bank might result in graffiti being spray-painted on a mosque in a nearby Palestinian village. The notion was that this somehow constituted “revenge” for the harm done to a Jew’s property. A price tag attack, as far as is known, has almost never been perpetrated against either the army, police or judges associated with such an evacuation.
In February 2012 these attacks altered their target when the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Cross in Jerusalem was defaced with “death to Arabs,” “death to Christians” and “price tag” graffiti. Someone explained the warped reasoning to me as follows: “They do it to embarrass the government. The idea is, if the government removes settlers, then it will be embarrassed internationally.”

So apparently somehow the vandals decided that attacks on Arab villages were not sending the right message; Israel wasn’t embarrassed by them. But harming Christians, on the other hand, fit the bill – it would damage Israel’s support abroad.Many monasteries and Christian sites in the Jerusalem area have been victimized. The beautiful Trappist monastery near Latrun in September 2012, the Church of the Dormition on Mount Zion in October 2012, Beit Jamal near Beit Shemesh in August 2013. The attacks, although political in nature, betray the anti-Christian view of the vandals, with messages against Jesus being common. References are also usually made to Jewish communities evacuated in the West Bank, such as Migron.The perpetrators are often described as “radical settlers,” but those arrested for the crimes have often lived inside the Green Line; such as a 21-year old from Mevaseret, a 22-year-old from Bnei Barak and 22- and 23-year-old Jerusalem residents. It would likely be a mistake to assume those who vandalize Christian institutions are necessarily “settlers,” and it is probably a mistake to assume they are part of a well-organized cell of “radicals.”

THERE IS a sickening logic behind these acts. The idea is to attack a weak and small community to “punish” a strong government for its actions in the West Bank, or currently, over peace negotiations. The police note that the number of cases is approaching 1,000 and that as of last year, almost 150 indictments had been made. That is good. How many have been convicted is unclear; a query to the police went unanswered as of press time. But it appears the number is small.
But all the arrests doesn’t change the mentality behind the crime. They don’t change the obvious and nonsensical anti-Christian messages behind these particular assaults. The Christian monasteries are an integral and important part of the landscape of the holy land. They are staffed by welcoming men and women, many of whom have a breadth of knowledge and experience in the region and abroad that Israelis should welcome as a contribution to our intellectual mosaic. They deserve support from the public and the cowards that deface them deserve to be chased down.

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