Hebrew Catholics - The Emerging Hebrew-speaking Catholic Community in The State of Israel

The Emerging Hebrew-speaking Catholic Community in The State of Israel

Since most Christians in Israel and the Palestinian Territories are of Arab ethnicity, Christian clergy is mostly involved in community work with Israeli Arabs or with residents of the Palestinian territories, but rarely with Israeli Jews – save Russian immigrants who consider themselves Christians. Israeli Arabs who belong to the Christian religion are recognized as such under Israeli law, but Jews who have converted are in most cases still registered as Jewish, as the State is very reluctant to recognize such conversions, even though there is no law against it. Some changes in attitude have taken place, as Israeli society is becoming more accustomed to the presence of a variety of religious denominations.

Another sensitivity is regarding Christians of Jewish origin who still regard themselves as Jewish – Messianic Jews – considered by both Jews and Christians as a marginal cult.

A significant aspect in Jewish-Christian and Jewish-Catholic relations in Israel is government policy. Ever since the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, Judaism has been used in government policy and legislation as a means to give the Israeli society a sense of identity. As a result, all matrimonial laws in Israel are religious, as no civil marriage can take place. Education is also segregated to a large degree between various religious denominations. As a result, a general social attitude of disrespect towards non-Jews has evolved within Israeli society, causing great difficulties to them to find employment or rent apartments in Jewish cities. These attitudes were increased following the Six Day War and the construction of settlements in the Palestinian Territories after 1967. The Settlers have become a new political force, and this led to a greater sense of animosity by Jews towards anything viewed by them as non-Jewish.

One factor mitigating the external appearances of that animosity was the spread of media coverage of Israeli society, which caused politicians as well as the general public to refrain from openly advocating violence against non-Jews in general. In addition, as the Israeli government is receiving considerable support from Evangelical Christians around the world, it must restrain some of the negative attitudes against Christians prevalent among many Jews. This was instrumental in 1997, when some Knesset members tried to pass a bill that would criminalize any proselytism by Christians in Israel, but the government under Netanyahu blocked their attempt. Nevertheless, social antagonism among Jews in Israel towards Christians is still prevalent, even though less visible on a daily basis. However, some sporadic acts of violence against Christians – foreign and Israeli – are being committed by ultra-Orthodox Jewish individuals. The most severe act of violence so far was on 20 March 2008, Amiel Ortiz, the 15 year old son of Messianic Jewish Pastor David Ortiz in the settlement of Ariel, was critically injured and lost two fingers by an explosive package that was meant for his father. It was later discovered that the explosive was sent by a religious settler named Ya'akov (Jack) Teitel. Animosity towards Catholics of Jewish origin in particular was displayed in 1995, when Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger visited Israel and the Chief Rabbi Meir Lau publicly accused him of betraying the Jewish people.

As a result of negative stance against Christians, even though there is no law against Jews converting to Christianity or Christians living in Jewish cities, many Jews are very reluctant to visit in a church or enter into friendly relations with any Jewish convert to Christianity or any Christian – Israeli or foreign – who is trying to find employment or residence within the Jewish sector in Israel.

Vatican attitudes towards Israeli Catholics of Jewish origin have also shifted. From 1955, unofficial communities began performing the mass in Hebrew with official Vatican endorsement. However, the Vatican has kept a low-key attitude towards this congregation, in order not to antagonize the Arab speaking Catholic community, which may not favor Catholics with pro-Jewish sentiments. The number of Israeli Catholics of non-Arab origin increased during the 1990s, due primarily to immigration from the former Soviet Union. As a result, the Vatican changed its policies in 2003, for the first time ordaining Jean-Baptiste Gourion as Auxiliary Bishop to overlook the Hebrew Catholic community in Israel. The appointment of Father David Neuhaus as vicar upon Gourionan's death in 2003, however, is not in conformity with the importance that the Holy See ostensibly attributes to the newly emerging community. On the other hand, Neuhaus did participate in the Synod for Middle Eastern clergy as a special invitee of the Pope, and Hebrew – for the first time ever – was one of the official languages in which Radio Vatican covered the event.

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