Christians in Jerusalem:
Jewish leader reaches out with message of respectful coexistence

Published: 25 April 2012
Briefing Number 311

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Summary:This Briefing contains the text of an open letter written by a leading Jewish figure in interfaith relations, who lives in Israel, explaining his vision for coexistence and mutual respect between Jews and Christians in Jerusalem. 

The author is David Michaels, from Bnai Brith, and his letter was prompted by some reported incidents where Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem have spat at Christian clergy.  (We do not comment here on the accuracy of those reports, or the frequency of the incidents).  Michaels’ letter was published in the Jerusalem Post ( on 20 November 2011. 

It is important to highlight Michaels’ letter on Beyond Images because it lucidly and passionately expresses strong support from a Jewish religious perspective for coexistence and mutual respect among faiths in Jerusalem. This is an all-important issue for the future of the city.          

Background to the Michaels letter

Jews and Christians live and pray in very close proximity in Jerusalem, and in particular in the religious nerve centre of Jerusalem, the ‘Old City’.  And in that area, there have been reports from time to time of verbal harassment by Orthodox Jews of Christian clergy, and of spitting. 

David Michaels is the director of United Nations and intercommunal affairs for the major international Jewish organisation Bnai Brith.  In that capacity, Michaels recently wrote to over a dozen of the most senior church leaders in Jerusalem, apologising for the attacks on Christian clergy but also confirming some fundamental and values which should underpin coexistence in the city.  Michaels’ letter was published in the Jerusalem Post on 20 November 2011.

Here is the text of Michaels’ letter:

An Open Letter to Christian leaders in Jerusalem

“I write with a request: for your forgiveness.

As a representative of the oldest Jewish communal organisation – Bnei Brith International, which includes members of many backgrounds in over 50 countries, including Israel, where we have been present in Jerusalem since 1888 – I feel obliged to express my revulsion over new reported incidents of spitting at certain Christian clergy in certain areas of the Holy City.  I feel especially obliged to do so as an Orthodox Jew.

Though these acts are committed by a decided minority of young, ostensibly highly observant Yeshiva [ie religious college] students, the fact that many leaders and seminarians identifiable as Christian have experienced them compels me to ensure you know that Jews overwhelmingly find this behaviour disgraceful and intolerable. 

In various parts of the world, there clearly remain problems of acute anti-semitism and anti-Israelism. Demonstrations of hostility towards Christians by individual religious Jews make combating these problems even harder.

The fundamental Jewish value of respect
However, hateful actions towards a religious minority do not only risk harming the image and safety of Jews, in Israel and the diaspora.  These also violate essential Jewish and Israeli values, representing a desecration of God’s name.

Jews around the world rightly take pride in Israel’s diverse democracy, despite a very difficult environment, and its protection of religious freedom not least in Jerusalem.  We are taught to love peace and pursue it, to uphold the principle of free will, to treat others as we would want to be treated – and to strive to refine our character, recognising all people as created in the Divine image.

Those relatively few religious youths who spit in the direction of the Christian clergy are often responding to Christian symbols seen to conflict theologically with Judaism.  They are also undoubtedly informed by a painful history of church persecution of Jews, and by a general fear of proselytism in Israel today.

But there is little consideration of the human impact of these actions. Even in a world where interreligious acrimony can be manifested with rocks, knives and firebombs, spitting is plainly unacceptable, a gesture that impinges upon the target’s personal dignity.  And, though most haredim [ultra-religious Jews] too are characterised by decency, by an eagerness to be hospitable and by core values shared by other traditions, there is limited awareness across various segments of Jewish orthodoxy of the distinctions, and the evolving attitudes towards Jews, among contemporary Christians. 

Attacking other faiths is not an expression of a person’s own faith

I. too, recall the members of my family who feel victim to violent Christian contempt in the not-distant past.  But I am also mindful of my own grandfather’s rescue by an extraordinarily heroic Catholic family during the Holocaust.  And I strongly believe that one need not, and must not, attack others in order to witness to the firmness of one’s faith’s convictions.

Thankfully, the broad spectrum of the Orthodox Rabbinate – including staunchly conservative religious bodies in Jerusalem – is on record as rejecting the acts of hostility towards Christians.

The need to reaffirm principles of peacefulness in Jerusalem and Zion

Obviously, more needs to be done.  While there may be no way of imposing discipline on every young person, orthodox rabbis and other leaders will work to urge counterparts to further impress upon all their students the need for conduct becoming their religious identity.

For now, we offer our modest outreach, and our acknowledgement of the routine forbearance of Christians in the face of deeply offensive treatment.  We pledge to challenge intolerance in our own midst, just as we do elsewhere and just as we hope others would.   And we reaffirm our commitment to the principles of peacefulness and good-neighbourliness, in the spirit of the forefathers who preceded us in Zion.

I would be grateful indeed if you would share this letter with members of your communion.”


Some related Beyond Images Briefings

Briefing 310 – 18 April 2012
Christians in Israel, the territories and the Middle East: context from Michael Oren

Briefing 254 – 17 April 2010
Jerusalem: the battle over facts, context and history