Spitting on Christians in Palestine

You’ve got to hand it to the Israeli Haaretz (The Land) newspaper and its editors, prominent among them are Gideon Levy and Amira Haas.

In a cauldron of madness and turmoil, today Haaretz and the Israeli online blog +972 Magazine (as they have been) are perhaps the only Israeli voices of conscience.

And in its rabid descent into mayhem and chaos bordering on anarchy, Israeli society, under Benjamin Netanyahu and his cohorts of rightwing xenophobic coalition of convicted felons and religious ideologues, is finally unmasking its heretofore shellacked over and camouflaged fault lines of Israel’s past and present.

The Gutsy Haaretz did what no major American or European media dared do.

On October 3, 2023 under the title Prominent Settler Activist Says Spitting on Christians ‘Ancient Jewish Custom’,  Haaretz  reported that “Israeli settler Elisha Yered, who is suspected of involvement in the killing of Palestinian teen Qosai Mi’tan, made the comment amid a rise in incidents of Jews spitting on or near Christian worshippers in Jerusalem’s Old City.”  For the disgusting ocular proof, the reader is invited to view footage of a spree of spitting incidents by Settler and Haredi males of all ages, from the 5-year-old to the elderly.

Elisha Yered’s October 3, 2023 comment on Twitter “that spitting at Christians is  ‘an ancient Jewish custom,’” drew Haaretz’s ire. The daring Haaretz report on Yered’s comment is merely an ongoing journalistic investigation reporting  on this sordid practice, many of which were filmed on Sunday and Monday.  This most recent news report according to the Haaretz, “ gives more evidence to the fact that these attacks have become widespread.”

When I was a child in the early and mid 1950s still living in Jerusalem, my uncle had a much smaller version of a Bed Bath and Beyond store. Located in upper Bakaa, a southwest suburb of Jerusalem, the store was positioned on the Jerusalem Bethlehem road. Because we are Christian Palestinians, my uncle closed his store on Sundays, yet opened it on Saturdays. We, a handful of Palestinian families, and mostly off the ships European Jews,  lived in this suburb.   Practically all of the Saturday customers were secular Jewish men or women. And on Saturdays observing Jewish men (men only), dressed in their Shabat best, would walk by the store and spit on the inside.

And each Saturday at least three such dastardly acts played out. And yes, there were repeat offenders.

Most of those promenading throughout the day on Saturdays were Haredi Jews of European (Ashkenazi) extraction. Their trademark attire was white shirts, full-length dark suits,  and skull caps over which a shtreimel, better known as a fedora, would crown their heads. As a youngster, I always wondered what furry animal had to give up its fur for the massive, round, headdress, akin to a crown of fur.  While some of the Haredi men would expectorate on the go, others would take one or two steps past the store’s threshold, stand defiantly on the inside,  take a deep breath, and spit their saliva and phlegm on the tiled floor.

Because The Jerusalem Bethlehem Road had inviting wider sidewalks conducive for leisurely promenades, the Sephardic (Oriental) Jewish men would wander from their ostracized and segregated neighborhoods to the south to enjoy their Shabat strolls. Like their Haredi counterparts, the Sephardic men were afflicted with the same spitting malady, and they differed in only one manner: armed with sacks of roasted sunflower, watermelon, and peanuts, the Sephardic men (mind you, only men) would fill their mouths with spent sunflower seed shells, walk by, or step into the store, and spew a jet of saliva and an abundance of slimy shells on the store floor.

So much for tolerance and Shabat behavior after a morning at the synagogue.

Our Saturday family routine was as follows: by 8 a.m. my twin brother and I would trek the half-kilometer distance from our house to Uncle Naim’s store to spend the morning hours; with children out of the way, our widowed mother loaded the tub of her vintage hand-cranked wringer Maytag washing machine and performed the mundane household chores; in between customers uncle Naim would, and in preparation for Sunday morning church attendance, place us in his lap to trim our nails and or cut our hair, but mostly to read to us from his favorite poetry and other books.

Only seven years old at the time, Ramzy and I had to witness and experience the spitting sprees with much anguish. And what surprised us most was Naim’s stoic resilience at the ghastly behavior of adult men and occasionally, their copycat children. And why do they do this sort of thing? Why don’t you tell them to stop? Why don’t you report this ghoulish behavior to the police? And so many other questions our 7 and 8-year-old mouths would utter.

Niam’s responses are deeply inscribed in the cortex of my brain: They don’t know any better, they are misguided, you should never emulate this behavior, one must forgive and forget, and God will forgive them for their unbecoming behavior were some of the responses we heard.

Standing in a corner behind one of the doors was a broom, a mop, and a bucket full of disinfectant. And many times a container of vinegar from which a generous sprinkling was poured as an added cleanser.

October 1 through October 6 is the week of Sukkot, a week-long Jewish holiday during which the fall harvest is celebrated. And sadly 70 years after my Jerusalem sojourn this uncivilized behavior of spitting on non-Jews has become a brazenly institutionalized behavior by Israeli Settlers and some of their  Haredi supporters. The Haaretz reported that “tens of thousands of Jews joined in events and prayers for the Sukkot holiday during which many of the spitting incidents were recorded.”  Footage of the Haredim, men only, of course, and children of all ages are seen spitting on Christian tourists (from Latin America and the Philipines) on their pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Dressed in their traditional Haredi orthodox attire, The videos depict Haredim of all ages marching in the narrow streets of Jerusalem and spitting on Christian tourists carrying crucifixes.

How come American media ignores this egregious behavior? And, are there any adults in Israel’s ultra-religious community?

In his post, Yered states “It’s a good time to mention that spitting near [Christian] priests or churches is an ancient Jewish custom, and there’s even a special blessing in Jewish law that should be recited when you see a church.” He goes on to say “Perhaps under the influence of Western culture we have somewhat forgotten what Christianity is, but I think the millions of Jews who suffered in exile from the Crusades, the torture of the [Spanish] Inquisition, blood libels and mass pogroms – will never forget.”

To his credit, Tourism Minister Haim Katz condemned this thinking and iterated that even though this “is an ancient and even acceptable custom,” it “ is horrible. The actions of a handful of extremists make people hate Judaism, damage Israel’s image and affect tourism.”

Likewise, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel David Lau and Religious Services Minister Malkieli condemned the repeated spitting attacks on Christian tourists.

And I am still waiting to hear similar condemnations of spitting attacks on Palestinian Christians and attacks on their churches and cemeteries, including the unconscionable attacks on the Al Aksa mosque.

Concerned about the spitting phenomenon “ Last week, chief of the Israeli army’s Central Command, Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, ordered Yered to be barred from the West Bank for a period of five months and prohibited him from contacting five known settler activists.”

In closing, had the incident involved Christians spitting on Jews anywhere in the world, those doing the spitting would be accused – as they should be – of being anti-Semitic, and it would have been a 24/7 news cycle.

Until and unless Israelis and their supporters around the world have an honest discussion about justice, xenophobia (in all its forms), colonial settler expansionism, tolerance, pogroms and daily killing sprees sanctioned by a government attempting to change its political system so as to get a corrupt Netanyahu off the hook and give its religious fanatics more power, Israel is on its way to more chaos, more anarchy, and certainly more fragmentation.

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist. halabys7181@outlook.com