Letter From Jerusalem

The Civil Uprising in Israel

Despite by any purely material measure being one of the most phenomenally successful societies of the post-war world, Israel’s recent street protests and sympathy strikes are two of many signs of an increasingly divided and uncertain society. The ostensible provocation for this civil uprising is a comprehensive package of proposed judicial reforms put forward by Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government. Though the Israeli Centre-Left’s opposition to the reforms is genuine, it also seems a fig leaf for a deeper resistance to the Right’s increasing dominance.

Most of the reforms, suggesting significant changes for Israel’s judicial system, are relatively moderate for a modern democratic state. Executive and parliamentary influence over judicial appointments—as exists in the United States—would be extended. Judicial review of ordinary Knesset legislation would be restricted to when a full bench of the Supreme Court is hearing the case, and would require 80 per cent of the justices to rule against for the law in question to be invalidated. Courts would be restricted from using the grounds of “unreasonableness” to hear appeals against political decision-making on an administrative or governmental level.

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Legal advisers to government ministries, currently independent appointments subject to professional oversight by the Ministry of Justice, would be changed into politically selected (and therefore also politically accountable) counsels whose advice to ministers would be strictly non-binding, unlike at present. These ministers would also be given the ability to select or dismiss their own legal advisers.

The most objected-to reform is the proposal to allow the Knesset to negate any Supreme Court judicial review against the validity of its legislation by overruling it with a simple majority—sixty-one out of 120 parliamentarians, which presumably any majority coalition government would be able to summon. (Although, given the complicated nature of Israeli coalition politics, this assumption might not always be reasonable.)

Pushed by Netanyahu’s deputy prime minister, justice minister, and Likud colleague Yariv Lehin, as well as the Knesset constitutional affairs committee chairman Simcha Rotman of the far-right Religious Zionist, the reforms are believed to have been designed by Centre-Right think-tank the Kohelet Policy Forum, a policy institute devoted to national sovereignty and individual liberty.

The ostensible thrust of the reforms is to increase democratic oversight and accountability at the expense of judges and the legal caste, but leftist opponents are sceptical of this rationale. They took to the streets in protest, blocking major motorways, bringing the geographically compact centre of the country to a halt on several occasions. At the end of March, Israel’s largest trade union confederation decided to join the protests with strikes in transport, universities, restaurants and retailers—even shutting down take-offs from Ben Gurion Airport for several hours.

The hyperbole with which protesters expressed their opposition to the judicial reforms would be familiar to anyone with experience of universities in the English-speaking world. One government employee told BBC News that Netanyahu had “crossed every line we have as a democratic country” and she felt she was “defending the last bit of democracy we have”.

Kohelet’s legal scholars argue—with some persuasiveness—that the reforms would bring Israel more into line with the justice systems of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France and the Netherlands. But there is a suspicion even among many on the Centre-Right that the reason the reforms are going ahead is to provide Netanyahu with legal cover preventing him from being removed from office on corruption charges. A Jewish doctoral student I spoke to thought the judicial reforms were perfectly reasonable but also warned that “we underestimate the lasting damage to the res publica when we assume that we can use an un-virtuous leader as a means to push through good policy”.

A better way to interpret leftist opposition to the reforms is as opposition to persistent electoral results and the governments they produce: the Centre and Centre-Left parties have found it incredibly difficult to patch together workable coalitions. But then the Centre-Right Likud likewise finds it impossible to forge a coalition without the support from Israel’s far-right or ultra-orthodox religious parties.

A far more useful reform than of the judicial system would be one of the electoral system. Proportional representation has proved disastrous and ineffective for Israel, chaining its governments to be forever dependent upon smaller, ill-disciplined and ever radicalising fringe parties. Using closed party lists only further enhances party power at the expense of the voter, who isn’t trusted to decide on individuals but merely which party should represent him or her.

If Israel had a parliament elected by the first-past-the-post system, it would encourage the formation of larger political parties chasing the votes of the centre ground, instead of the current climate of mid-sized parties forced to make continual concessions to small radical parties—and, at that, always after the election when a coalition is formed rather than presenting a plausible program of government to the voter beforehand.

Division, however, is nothing new to Israeli society. Founded as a Jewish homeland, the State of Israel has since its foundation incorporated a wide spectrum of Jews—Ashkenazi, Sephardim, Yemeni, Russian, Maghrebi, Zionist, secularist, ultra-orthodox and others. It also incorporates a fascinating array of minorities, including Druze, Baha’i, Circassians and the dwindling community of Samaritans.

The elephant in the room has always been the Arabs—whether those in Israel proper, or those in the occupied West Bank and the formerly occupied Gaza. In Jerusalem, the capital claimed in common by both Israelis and Palestinians, the increasingly precarious position faced by the native Christian population has become a worrying bellwether.

Christians in and around the Old City of Jerusalem are faced with almost daily harassment and intimidation by a small but assertive minority of radical Jewish settlers, totally unrepresentative of wider Israeli society. Young thugs routinely spit at or verbally assault Greek, Armenian and other clergy in the Old City, while statues have been smashed, buildings vandalised with anti-Christian graffiti, cemeteries desecrated, funerals disrupted, and even worse crimes like arson and violent assault committed. The well-funded radical group Ateret Cohanim has orchestrated a campaign attempting to purchase or otherwise occupy Christian properties and fill them with their own sympathetic supporters. Their ultimate aim is to “redeem” Jerusalem by removing any non-Jews from the metropolis, whose walled Old City is divided into Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian quarters.

Jerusalem’s Christian population is varied, with Greeks, Armenians, Catholics of various rites (Latin, Armenian, Melkite, Maronite), Ethiopians, Copts, and Syriacs in addition to Anglicans and Lutherans. Radical settlers, however, attack members of all the Christian communities equally, whose smaller numbers in total compared to their Muslim neighbours make them an easier target.

If Jerusalem’s Christians can be said to have a grandfather or an unspoken primus inter pares, it is the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III. His Arab adherents are the most numerous and the patriarchate professes an unbroken continuity with St James, the first bishop of Jerusalem—the oldest see in the world—from the earliest days of the church. Despite Christian Jerusalem’s long continuity, its people are under threat.

“Our presence here is a daily miracle,” Patriarch Theophilos contends. The past two years have seen an increase in attacks on Christians, but problems have come not just from below but also from above. The patriarch insists “we have good relations with the [Israeli] Army”, but Army commanders issue permits for Palestinians in the West Bank and even Gaza to access the Old City for visiting the Christian Holy Places which are not honoured by the police.

The desire to be physically present at the Holy Sepulchre—the site of Christ’s crucifixion, death, entombment and resurrection—is greatest on Holy Saturday for the ceremony of the Holy Fire. The fire is lit—pious tradition holds miraculously—on the eve of Easter from within the empty tomb of Jesus and is then brought by the Patriarch and spread to the candles of thousands of pilgrims in the church and the surrounding streets. It is even taken by special flight to Greece, Russia, Ukraine and other countries of the Orthodox world.

“It is the feast of Jerusalem,” the Patriarch explains, called the Sabbath of Light in both Arabic and Greek. Not everyone can fit into the church but proximity to the Holy Sepulchre is treasured by pilgrims, while Muslim and Jewish neighbours also come by to witness the event. “No one knows who is who,” Theophilos says, “Christian, Muslim, Jewish!”

Following a scaffolding collapse at an ultra-Orthodox Jewish event in Israel, authorities clamped down on access to the Holy Sepulchre, citing concern about entrances and exits despite no scaffolding being erected for the Holy Fire ceremony. Theophilos says the police have legitimate concerns but the Church of the Holy Sepulchre can hold many times the arbitrary limit of 1800 worshippers introduced last year. Rather than communicating with the churches directly about these restrictions, Israeli authorities issued a public statement in English.

As for the recent violence, the Patriarch blames a “messianic syndrome” amongst a minority in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The thugs who attack Christians are young: “They don’t understand—but they are never punished. The police arrest, investigate and release.”

Like the other churches, Theophilos’s Greek Orthodox community enjoys cordial relations with Jewish and Muslim clerics in Jerusalem. “We send congratulations to the rabbis for Passover and greetings to the imams for Ramadan.” But “the radicals don’t listen” and the Patriarch thinks the new government coalition, with its far-Right participation, has given subtle encouragement to those leading the attacks on Christians.

As for Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Patriarch says, “He is not the one who we knew. Before he was the master [in the government] who controlled everyone. Now it is the other way round.”

Yet the Patriarch says Jerusalem’s Christians “are not just an abandoned remnant”. Theophilos is convinced that the insecurity of Christians in the Holy Land can only be solved on an international level, but raising awareness can be difficult.

“Here, religion determines everything. Foreign diplomats found it difficult to understand religion, until recently.” Still, the Greek church meets with anyone willing to come to Jerusalem. “We receive everyone: Russia, Ukraine, everyone.” A dialogue with evangelical Protestant pastors in the United States—often a hotbed of Christian Zionism—has been initiated to help explain the complexities of the situation.

As a photograph of the late King Hussein looks down from the walls of the Patriarchate, Theophilos explains, “With the Hashemites we have a very special relationship.” Jordan’s reigning king, Abdullah II, is both a friend of Israel and widely respected throughout the Middle East. He recently raised the issue of Jerusalem’s Christians at the United Nations. He also says, “King Charles is a good friend of ours,” and the Patriarch was central to the preparation of the chrism with which Australia’s new king will be anointed in Westminster Abbey soon.

Despite everything, Theophilos is not particularly downbeat. He says Christians have confidence and continue to run many church, social and cultural institutions in the Old City and around Jerusalem. He fears younger Christians have high expectations of church leadership that they might not be able to fulfil, but the leaders of all the Christian churches are united in their commitment to maintain the holy places and keep them accessible to everyone without distinction.

“We are not here for ourselves,” Theophilos says. “Jerusalem is Jerusalem. Some people want it just for themselves, but Jerusalem belongs to everyone.”

While the Greek patriarch says religion determines everything in Jerusalem, the Latin (Catholic) Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa says everything here is political. “But you cannot separate the religious from the political,” the Italian-born leader of many of the region’s Arab Catholics asserts. A fluent Hebrew speaker who has lived as a Franciscan friar in the Holy Land for decades, Pizzaballa contends that fissures in wider Israeli society are complicating matters.

“There is a general aggression, a trend in society where we have a lot of mistrust and prejudices,” he says. “We Christians are the easier target because we are small. I see an increase of sectarianism within Israeli society, and amongst Muslims. A factionalisation. The frequency of these attacks is quite new.”

The far-Right in the governing coalition and their settler supporters “consider Christians as guests” in the Holy Land. “We’re not guests: this is our home too.”

Aside from physical attacks, property concerns are undermining the Christian presence in Jerusalem. “The balance between communities is important. If you sell [Christian-owned] property in Jerusalem you shrink the living space of Christian communities. Jerusalemites should have the rights as citizens of the city to build homes for their children.”

Pizzaballa agrees with his Greek counterpart on the need for stronger international pressure on the Israeli authorities. “There are things that are difficult to understand if you don’t live here. Recently I felt there is more interest in matters here. I don’t know if the interest will become something more concrete. This situation cannot last. People are tired of violence. If you hate, then the others will win. It’s important to keep an attitude, a style of life, that is open to others.”

Pizzaballa cites the example of a church burned in an attack when afterwards someone wrote, “But still we love you”. “I have hope, but optimism is something different. I know we will have an escalation of violence. But I have seen in Israeli and Palestinian society a lot of support for us.”

Father Aghan Gogchian, the chancellor of Jerusalem’s Armenian patriarchate, agrees about the encouragement provided from within Israeli Jewish society. He warns that the settlers “are not representing Jewish people”. “Jewish families invite us to their homes for meals to show [that] the radicals are not normal. When the Armenian patriarchate was attacked, Jews came and asked what we can do. [They said:] ‘They don’t represent our people!’.”

Perhaps a hundred volunteers from Jerusalem’s Jewish community give their time to accompany Armenian and other Christian clergy on the streets to discourage verbal and physical abuse from the radicals. “They are always, always welcome,” Father Aghan says. But while Jews come in solidarity, incidents continue and increase while the perpetrators go unpunished. “When there is no punishment for crimes, criminals continue to commit crimes.”

He is pessimistic on international pressure bringing forth a solution. “Countries will do nothing but issue protests,” the priest says. “The Israeli government needs to do everything to stop these attacks.”

Young people from the Armenian Quarter are also suffering. “We feel unsafe, but we try to live our everyday lives the same way,” one tells me. “It has escalated in the last few months but it has always been an issue.”

Some Armenian families have lived in Jerusalem for well over a millennium. Others are part of the diaspora that spread following the genocide at the hands of the Turks a century ago. An Armenian student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem wonders if this offers an opportunity for what the psychologists now refer to as post-traumatic growth. “We do have one thing in common,” she says—Jews and Armenians both as victims of genocide.

But the young in particular are not interested in victim status. “We want to defend ourselves but we don’t want to escalate the situation.” There is a strong awareness that how they react will reflect not on them as individuals but on their particular community and on Christians in Jerusalem as a whole.

The common thread among all Christians I spoke to in Jerusalem was a desire for the authorities to enforce and uphold justice as provided by Israel’s laws.

Father Francesco Patton is the Custos (head) of the Custody of the Holy Land, the Franciscan body entrusted with the care of the holy places in Catholic hands. “We simply ask that all the rules of justice are applied equally,” the Custos says. “Justice must be done. We don’t want vengeance or retaliation. We don’t want to answer violence with violence. We want to answer violence with forgiveness. Justice is for everybody: Jews, Christians and Muslims.”

Fr Patton also maintains that “the overwhelming majority of Jews are against these attacks” but a solution can only ultimately come from Israel. “At this moment, we believe our statements are useless. We’ve had to put cameras in all corners of the holy places. We have a Franciscan spirituality of welcome: I’d prefer to spend money on better toilets than on an iron gate.”

And, as with the Greek and Latin patriarchs, the Custos agrees that while optimism is in short supply, hope persists. “Hope is in the empty tomb,” Fr Patton says. “If Jesus won over death, then we can overcome all other problems. If we didn’t have this deep faith then we would give up. When we defend these places we are defending the history of this city. Jerusalem will be a place of worship for all the sons of Abraham.”

Andrew Cusack contributes a regular Letter from London.

15 thoughts on “The Civil Uprising in Israel

  • Paul W says:

    I condemn the attacks on Christian worshippers, but I can’t help but think there’s a few things missing here. The priests seem very friendly with the Palestinians: I wonder why? Could it be because Muslims have systematically been cleansing their areas of Christians? The Christian population in Israel is growing and it’s not in danger.

    • PT says:

      You need to remember that many Palestinians are Christians.

    • rosross says:

      If you read Israeli human rights groups like B’Tselem and Peace Now it is clear that Jews are targeting both Christians and Muslims. What Israel says is happening with Christians is not what Christian churches are saying is happening. Unfortunately hatred of non-Jews, once targeting mainly Muslims has grown so powerful it is targeting Christians. Sadly Israeli society is increasingly debased and while it was always racist toward Arabs, it is now racist toward non-Jews.

      Death to Christians’: Violence steps up under new Israeli gov’t
      Christian leaders in Jerusalem say never have Israeli attackers felt more emboldened than under the far-right ruling coalition. Source: Al Jazeera.

      Christians are in danger under Israeli government, says Holy Land patriarch
      Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing policies are emboldening attacks on 2,000-year-old community, says Catholic regional leader. Source: The Guardian.

      Israel failing to stop attacks on Christians, Jerusalem churches say. Source: The Christian Science Monitor.

  • mags of Queensland says:

    It seems that the youth crime wave sweeping across the world has found a home in Israel as well.

    While the arguments from the left concerning the changes to the law proposed by the far right has merit it seems that the stability of Israel is under threat. Where once it was a shining beacon of democracy in a hostile region, it is slipping more and more into the violence of its neighbours. What a pity.

  • Alistair says:

    What raised my eyebrows was the idea that Parliament might be able to overturn decisions of the judiciary. This doesn’t seem unreasonable to me – given my distrust of judicial activists. that elected officials should have that power? This idea might become useful in Australia when the “Voice,” in collusion with the judiciary, gain the opportunity to potentially usurp the powers of Parliament here. It strikes me that law-making should be the preserve of elected officials – not un-elected judges nor unelected representatives of a “voice”?

  • Peter Marriott says:

    As I see it, and my historical readings support, once again, as they have done through history, at least the last hundred years and as far back as the overthrow of the Visigoth Empire in Spain, they fail to see the wood for the trees. The main threat to the Jews comes from Islam….. not Christianity.

  • STD says:

    Interesting the Star of David on the Israeli flag indicates the polar nature of life and living-no matter how you look at it.
    “However it was not considered an exclusively Jewish symbol until after it began to be used on the gravestones of fallen Jewish soldiers in WW1”.

  • rosross says:

    Unfortunately the entire premise of an Israeli State, concocted in the 1890’s by atheist Zionists was always doomed. The Zionists exploited the support of real Jews and their money to push their colonial project into being. There is no doubt this was easier after the Second World War when so many Jews in Europe suffered.

    However, Israel was planted in Palestine in 1947/48 with support from a world largely ignorant of what the colonial enterprise entailed and reeling from the after-effects of a terrible war. If the concept of an Israel were mooted today, it would be summarily dismissed as racist, unjust and unnecessary on any count. Who would countenance a State, founded in someone else’s country where members of one religion would demand they retained all power and a majority as citizens which immediately disenfranchised and dispossessed the Christian and Muslim native population? No-one.

    But, in 1947 Zionist armies were ready to rampage through Palestine in a genocidal assault which saw nearly a million Palestinians dispossessed, with hundreds of thousands killed and 530 Palestinian towns and villages wiped from the face of the earth. However, despite being built or planted over they remain marked, if ignored by most, on British Mandate Maps.

    Most Jews do not, did not and never will live in UN Mandated Israel and they certainly have no place in Occupied Palestine, in which the Gaza concentration camp – the world’s largest open-air prison as called by many including a UK Prime Minister – sits. I am not sure how the writer can use past tense for Israel’s occupation of Gaza, since the IDF has built an electric fence around Gaza and shoots any man, woman, child or dog which goes near it. That sounds pretty occupied to most people.

    In addition Israel now occupies all of Palestine and continues to colonise it, keeping Palestinians, rejected as Christians and Muslims under what amounts to house arrest and where special roads have been built which only the illegal Jewish settlers can use to criss-cross Palestine.

    What is astonishing is not that Israelis are currently unhappy, for themselves, not for those they subjugate and colonise, but that Israel has gotten away with such a colonial military travesty for so long.

    There is no doubt, and I have been to Israel and Occupied Palestine, and worked with and for Israelis, that the Israeli state as an occupier and coloniser has debased, significantly, Israeli culture and society. How could it not? I have had friends who lived in fear for their lives because they spoke out in Israel. They may now well have lost their lives.

    So, perhaps in the chaos of Israel there will be justice for the Palestinians. Apology for the invasion, compensation and reparation for the theft of their land, homes, possessions, country and a one-state solution, as other nations founded through colonisation and calling themselves Western democracies have done, where the colonists share the land as equal citizens with the native people.

    If anything, it is Israelis who need to be free and to live in a Western democracy more than the Palestinians who with right on their side, time and numbers, have grown stronger through the more than 70 years of colonial oppression.

    It is also worth noting that Israel could not have done what it has done and become what it has without the support of those who would call themselves friends, but who have not acted in the best interests of Israel or its citizens, and who have been and remain enemies in disguise, or frenemies.

  • mynope3 says:

    Mr Cusack has got it wrong. Christians are entirely free to practice their religion in Israel and do so. On the other hand, their numbers have dwindled to a tiny minority in the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority due to constant harassment, and worse. eg in Bethlehem.
    As for the ludicrous comment to the article that Israel was planted in the land…the truth is that the Jewish people are indigenous to the land, have continuously either lived in it or maintained loyalty to it for millenia despite colonisation by the Ottomans and their various Islamic predecessors.

  • Michael Butler says:

    Oh that we could be rid of all religions! The millions who have died in centuries past, and still die today — and for what? Nine times out of ten, your religion is but an accident of where you were born. How silly it all is!

  • guilfoyle says:

    Interesting comment Michael Butler. Are you proposing to substitute completely atheist regimes – Nazism, for instance, or perhaps communism (100 million dead in USSR; 48 million dead in 4 years in Mao’s China; Pol Pot 8 million dead)?
    You might note too, that the Zionists are actually not religious but are aggressively atheist and persecute their own, Orthodox Jews. A sweeping comment that all the ills of the world are to be laid at the feet of religion is simply silly and fails to recognise that the totality of the moral compass with which you view the world is a direct consequence of the morality of Christianity which has created our civilisation.

    • Michael Butler says:

      Do you honestly believe that Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin et al had anything to do with religion or atheism? It had to do with unregulated power over their fellows! And please don’t talk to me about the MORALITY of Christianity! Too many tortured bodies spread across too many hundreds of years for that to be believable. The morality of Christianity eg the Golden Rule is just a regurgitated rendering of a philosophy espoused by many wise men a thousand years before Christ was ever heard of. Too many religions — too much nonsense!

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