Sunday 6 November 2011

A Spitting Shame

I was horrified to read the details of the trial of Johannes Martarsian, which took place in the Jerusalem Magistrates Court last week.  Martarsian, an Armenian priesthood student, was charged with assault after he punched an ultra-orthodox Jew in the face and made him bleed.  The incident took place in Jerusalem's old city after the ultra-Orthodox man spat at Martarsian.

Judge Dov Pollock annulled the indictment against Martarsian and wrote, "putting the defendant on trial for a single blow at a man who spat at his face, after suffering the degradation of being spat on for years while walking around in his church robes is a fundamental contravention of the principles of justice and decency."  Fortunately, in this case, the judge had the good sense not to waste any more taxpayer money on proceeding to a trial.  Throwing the case out of court was exactly the right response to such a disgraceful situation.

The trial has brought to the fore some of the bad behaviour which is prevalent amongst the ultra-Orthodox community.  It seems as though the spitting incident is not an isolated one.  Clergymen from the Armenian church who are based in Jerusalem report that they are frequently subject to being spat and cursed at by ultra-Orthodox Jews.  One Armenian priest said that he wonders to himself if he will be spat at each time he walks by an ultra-Orthodox Jew in the street.  For some priests, it is difficult to simply ignore the repeated incidents of bad behaviour that they are forced to endure.  Johannes Martarsian is an example of one who decided to respond rather than to simply turn the other cheek, despite the fact that Armenian priests are encouraged by their church not to respond to these incidents of gross provocation.

The ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem has an unfortunate reputation for bad behaviour in many different situations.  Women who venture into ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods in Jerusalem like Mea Shearim, and who are not dressed according to the ultra-Orthodox conservative dress code, will already know that they also become spitting targets.  Equally, cars driving through religious neighbourhoods on Shabbat have been subject to stoning attacks.  This has given rise to the famous T-shirt that has been sold in Jerusalem and purchased by thousands of tourists stating, "I got stoned in Mea Shearim"!  Although these types of attacks are unacceptable, there may be some part of a reasonable person that could condone such behaviour where people enter religious neighbourhoods without respecting the norms of the people that live there.

The attacks on the priests seem of a completely different nature.  There is no disrespect of the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle involved, and no violation of the norms by which they live.  Jerusalem is a city which is open to all religions which wish to be present there.  Not only is this a policy which is rigorously adhered to by the Israeli government and the city of Jerusalem, it is also the source of a great deal of tourist Dollars into the city.  At times, it seems as though the ultra-Orthodox community are completely divorced from the society in which they live, and their actions cannot be tolerated by other reasonable people.  The truth is, that some of their actions are so intolerable, that even those who have grown up within their sects and have become used to their social norms, cannot accept the way in which some situations are dealt with.

The types of insults that these young men give by spitting at others created in G-d's image, have caused me to wonder how they can reconcile this behaviour with their religious beliefs.  The Jewish religion believes in 613 mitzvot (precepts) that observers are required to adhere to.  They are split into mitzvot concerning man's relationship with his G-d, and mitzvot concerning man's relationship with his fellow-man.  Neither group has precedence over the other - they are both equally important.  On many occasions such as stoning a car that is transgressing the Shabbat, the justification for the action taken by somebody against his fellow-man is to protect his relationship with his G-d.  In light of the fact that these mitzvot do not enjoy precedence, there is a view that says that the transgression against the fellow-man cannot be justified, even if it is an act to protect his relationship with his G-d.  The act of spitting at the priests, however, seems to serve no religious purpose at all and has no positive side to it.  Rather, it represents an act of unjustified discrimination.  So how much less can this be justified in religious terms?

What is even more unfortunate about this sad situation, is the fact that priests say that reports made about these incidents to the police fall on deaf ears.  Perhaps it is because the police feel that it is impossible to catch the perpetrators and bring them to justice, that no action is taken.  It is also fair to say that Jerusalem's police force has its hands full with high-level security threats which it is required to take care of on an ongoing basis.  Whatever the reason for the lack of action, it is sends an entirely wrong message about the acceptability of this behaviour.

The ultra-Orthodox community present themselves as representing all that is good when acting in strict observance of the Torah.  Too often, however, the pursuit of individual points of observance causes the individual to lose the wood for the trees.  There seems to be no broader perspective, or ability to see the bigger picture.  This is extremely damaging to the standing of the ultra-Orthodox community in the world in which they are forced to live.  The time has come for concerted action to be taken to change the bad behaviour.  The yeshivot (institutions of religious learning) need to be responsible for teaching their students about the unacceptability of spitting at others.  The police on the streets need to keep their eyes open for such incidents, and act upon them immediately. 

Jerusalem is a city that is open to people of all religions to visit and to live in.  While it serves as the capital of the Jewish State of Israel, the government has undertaken that the city will be open to all religions for tourism, learning and worship.  This means that it is not the private domain of ultra-Orthodox Jews, even though it is their religion's holiest city.  There should be no reason why priests who have come to Jerusalem for the purpose of furthering their religious studies and experiences, should be subject to any sort of bad behaviour by ultra-Orthodox Jews or anybody else.  The time has come to take action to stop this intolerance and insulting behaviour.

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