TIME Israel

Pope’s Upcoming Visit to Holy Land Marred By Attacks on Churches

Israeli officials blame Jewish extremists for the surge in anti-Christian vandalism

As the Israeli government prepares to welcome Pope Francis on his first visit as Pope later this month, vandals have scrawled hate-filled graffiti at some Christian sites. “Jesus is garbage,” “Death to Christians” and “We will crucify you” are among the messages that have been spray-painted on the walls of Christian churches and monasteries in Israel in recent weeks.

Although no arrests have been made, Israeli officials say they suspect Jewish extremists of being behind the vandalism. Israeli officials link the surge to the Pope’s visit, which appears to have ignited resentment toward Christianity by some Israeli Jews. A small minority of Israeli Jews blames Christians for past violence by Christians against Jews and for what they perceive as ongoing attempts to convert Jews to Christianity.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said most of the perpetrators act individually: “It’s not like dealing with a terror organization.”

Pope Francis’ three-day visit starts in Jordan on May 24. He then travels to Bethlehem in the West Bank, and Jerusalem, where he will visit Yad Vashem, the museum commemorating victims of the Holocaust. The trip was scheduled to commemorate the 50th anniversary of rapprochement between Pope Paul VI and the leader of the Orthodox Christian church. Publicity over the church attacks – not seen before previous papal visits – has some Israelis asking why it’s happening now. “The question to ask is what kind of Israeli state do we want here? Our educational challenge is to promote respect to the other,” says Amnon Ramon, a specialist on Christianity at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, an independent think tank.

Amos Oz, perhaps Israel’s most celebrated author, called the extremists “Hebrew neo-Nazis” at a public event, adding that perpetrators “enjoy the backing of numerous nationalist lawmakers — maybe even racist — and also rabbis who give them a foundation that is, in my opinion, pseudo-religious.” Oz’s remarks stirred up a fresh wave of debate and name-calling, an unwelcome drum-roll for a papal visit intended to celebrate the overcoming of historical enmities.



TIME Israel

Israel Passes Law Drafting Ultra-Orthodox Into the Army

Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews rally in a massive show of force against plans to force them to serve in the Israeli military, blocking roads and paralyzing the city of Jerusalem, March 2, 2014.
Oded Balilty—AP Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews rally in a massive show of force against plans to force them to serve in the Israeli military, blocking roads and paralyzing the city of Jerusalem, March 2, 2014.

Israel’s parliament passed a controversial law mandating that some ultra-Orthodox men serve in the national army despite their religious beliefs. The law will take effect as soon as it gets approval from Prime Minister Netanyahu's cabinet

Israel’s parliament on Wednesday passed a law requiring at least some ultra-Orthodox men—strictly observant Jews known by their black fedoras and discomfort with the secular world—to serve in the national army. The controversial measure will become law with cabinet approval, which is virtually assured given the support of 67 of the 68 lawmakers who make up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.

The stated intention of the bill is to share the burden of military service equally, but it’s also aimed at preserving Israel’s economy: Military service is an established gateway to employment and currently fewer than half of ultra-Orthodox men work for a living. Jewish Israelis not protected by exceptions previously granted the ultra-Orthodox are obliged from age 18 to present themselves for military service that runs three years for men and two years for women.

Beyond the inevitable social resentments of taxpayers irked by having to support the ultra-Orthodox community, the absence of ultra-Orthodox from the workforce cost Israel’s economy more than $1.5 billion in 2010, according to the finance ministry. Known in Hebrew as haredi, or “God-fearing,” the ultra-Orthodox currently make up 10 percent of Israel’s population, but are the fastest-growing segment of the country’s population, with a birth rate of 7.1 percent (compared to 1.4 percent for other Jewish Israelis). More than half now live in poverty. The governor of Israel’s central bank recently warned that failing to integrate them into the workforce will cost the gross national product three percentage points a year.

“Listen, one in every seven 18-year-old male Israelis is haredi,” says Ofer Shelah, a leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, which campaigned heavily on the issue in elections last year. “A third of those who entered first grade in the Jewish population of Israel entered a haredi school. Therefore, if we don’t get them into the draft–and even more important, into the work force—in 12 years we will have nobody to serve in the army, and in 15 years we’ll have nobody to work… That is how important this bill is.”

The problem has its roots in state policy: At Israel’s 1948 founding, its founders agreed to subsidize the livelihoods of 400 “Torah sages” to replace the religious scholars lost in the Holocaust. Over the years, the subsidies were extended to any haredi man who wished to spend his day studying scripture, as community norms prescribe.

“To live a spiritual life and study the Torah is a life aspiration for any haredi man, but when you can’t feed your family, that’s a privilege you can’t afford,” says Yitzhak Bloch, 28, an ultra-Orthodox man from the central Israel city of Elad who came to the conclusion when he found his family on the brink of poverty, after the birth of a third child. He found work as an investments consultant, and says gainful employment “doesn’t come at the expense of spirituality. I still study the Torah, after working hours. Studying the Torah was and still is the essence of any haredi man.”

Few ultra-Orthodox are educated to enter the workforce, however. In their emphasis on religious studies, ultra-Orthodox schools seldom teach math or English, crucial subjects to employers. “The greatest difficulty today is the English language,” says Motti Feldstaine, director general of the Kemach, a foundation offering vocational training to ultra-Orthodox. “Math you can get in a concentrated course, but a language is much harder to assimilate in a short period.”

Still, driven by shrinking subsidies and rising costs of living, increasing numbers of religious males are working. In 2007, only 39 percent of ultra-Orthodox men had paying jobs. A gradual acceptance in the haredi community of the need to work, coupled with growing state funds promoting training for them, brought participation in the work force to 46 percent in 2010. The goal for 2020 set by a government committee is 65 percent.

It won’t be easy. Many senior rabbis see the government’s efforts as an assault on religion—a sentiment, critics suggest, that the law passed Wednesday aggravates by threatening draft dodgers with jail. Moreover, the haredi emphasis on living apart from secular society—ultra-Orthodox have sometimes stoned cars that drive on the Jewish Sabbath—has made them an “other” to many Israelis. “There’s a great barrier among secular employers when it comes to employing haredi men,” says Pini Gross, head of the Maftech job placement center. “They see them as bunch of stone throwers and their natural attitude is to employ only the ones who are like them.”

But working side by side seems to help, says Bloch. “Many secular workers join us for the prayers, and there are also some friendships between secular and haredi workers,” he says. It just takes, he says, an openness to change.

with reporting from Karl Vick / Tel Aviv

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