Sunday, 28 April 2019

Should we set fire to churches (& mosques)? This is burning religious issue in Israel

Israel destroyed the Notre Dame of Gaza – but there was only silence from the West

As Yossi Gurvitz explained, the fire at Notre Dame has caused an argument within Israeli Orthodox circles.
Rabbi Shlomo Avineir of the Beit El settlement in the West Bank (the one that US Ambassador David Friedman has helped raise funds for) suggested that the fire at Notre Dame was divine punishment for the burning of the Talmud in France in the 13th century! God has, it would seem, a very long memory and clearly is not only a vengeful god but spiteful too as it is not clear what responsibility the French have for what happened 800 years ago.
But what is not in doubt is that since 2009 53 mosques and churches have been vandalised or set fire to in Israel. As is normally the case with attacks on non-Jews, the Israeli Police have not exerted themselves. Only 9 indictments to date have been filed by the police.
What makes this worse is that there are sections of Israeli society who openly justify the destruction of churches and mosques on religious grounds.
The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on fire, April 15, 2019. (Photo: LeLaisserPasserA38/Wikimedia)
Rabbi Benzi Gopstein, the head of the anti-miscegenation organisation Lehava in a panel discussion in 2015, in answer to a question as to whether he supported the burning of churches, referred to the teachings of the famous Spanish Jewish philosopher Maimonedes . Gopstein was asked by Benny Rabinowitz, a writer for an ultra-Orthodox newspaper, "Do you support burning churches in Israel, yes or no?" Gopstein, citing a Maimonides ruling that churches should be burned responded "Are you for Maimonides or against him?"
Gopstein's answershocked the attendees’ who asked "Benzti are you for burning or not?" "Of course I am," Bentzi replied "It’s Maimonides. Simply yes, what is there to question?"

This prompted the Vatican to call for Gopstein’s prosecution and the Police did call him in for interrogation. However Gopstein wasn’t an Arab who had justified the burning down of synagogues.  That would have merited a hefty prison sentence. The Attorney General refused to prosecute because in Israel racial hatred or discrimination on the grounds of religion is not a criminal offence.

FATHER NIKODEMUS SCHNABEL inspects the damage at Capernaum’s Church of the Loaves and Fishes caused by an arson attack. (photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)
However there was no such inhibition when it came to prosecuting Raed Salah, the leader of the Northern Islamic League for allegedly referring to the medieval blood libel about baking bread with the blood of non-Jewish children when opposing Israeli attacks on the worshippers at the Al Aqsa mosque. Even though Salah denied having made any such statement and an examination of his remarks confirms that he made no mention of Jews (he maintained he had been referring to the Spanish Inquisition) he was convicted and sentenced to 9 months. For a thorough investigation of the affair see the Sheik Raed Affair and May warned of weak case against Sheikh Raed Salah and Jonathan Cook’s The real preachers of hate: Britain’s arrest of Sheikh Raed Salah
Bentzi Gophstein
Prominent settler Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, ruled that burning churches outside of the Land of Israel “isn’t our job for now”, but in Israel “the issue is more complicated”.
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner (Photo: Wikimedia)
Avineir is a state official and draws a public salary as the rabbi of a major settlement Beit El. He is also the rabbi of a prominent settler Yeshiva (Ateret Yerushaliam, formerly Ateret Cohanim), ‘He  is considered to be one most important rabbis of the religious nationalist sector.’
After the fire in Notre Dame Cathedral, Aviner was asked:
“The great Christian Church in Paris is on fire. Should we feel sorry for that, or should we rejoice, as it [the cathedral] is idolatry, which is a mitzvah to burn?”
Aviner replied:
“This isn’t our job for now. There is no mitzvah [a religious commandment] to seek out churches abroad and burn them down. In our holy land, however, the issue is more complicated. Indeed, the Satmar Rabbi noted one of his arguments against immigrating to Israel, that here it is indeed a mitzvah to burn churches; and by not doing so, those [immigrating to Israel] are committing a sin.’
The problem is further compounded by the fact that if Jews do burn down churches ‘we’ll have to rebuild, and it’s a greater sin to rebuild [a church] than leave it standing.’
Gurvitz commented wryly:
(Oh, yes: American Jewish readers, I probably need to stress this – this is not a parody or a satire. This is actual rabbinical discourse in 2019 Israel.).’
Screenshot of Aviner’s opinion re church fires.
The point however is that many churches (and mosques) have been burnt in Israel in the last few years, and the police have been disinterested in capturing the arsonists. In several cases, the arson was accompanied by slogans familiar from ‘price tag’ attacks in the West Bank (mostly along the lines of Jewish vengeance). 
Gurvitz writes that:
Several immensely important rabbinic rulers, most prominent among them Maimonides, ruled that churches are places of idolatry and ought to be destroyed. The rulings are very clear. However, to support those rulings today would lead to violence, probably to a rise in anti-Semitism, and will jeopardize the alliance between the settler movement and the evangelical movement. There is also a chance of getting prosecuted for incitement for hatred, which is a crime in Israel – but then again, the law has a special exemption for “religious studies”, and the prosecution has been very leery of prosecuting rabbis for hate speech, making “religious discussions” the prime way of legally-protected incitement.’
Below is an article on the deliberate destruction of Gaza’s mosques by the Israeli military in the course of successive attacks on Gaza from 2008-2014 in Operations Protective Edge, Cast Lead and Pillar of Defence and the hypocrisy of Western indifference to this compared to the tears over Notre Dame.
Ramzy Baroud April 25, 2019

Palestinians walk past a mosque which witnesses said was destroyed by an Israel air strike during the offensive, on the second day of a five-day ceasefire, in Gaza City on August 15, 2014. (Photo: Ezz Zanoun/APA Images)

As the 300-foot spire of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris tragically came tumbling down on live television, my thoughts ventured to Nuseirat Refugee Camp, my childhood home in the Gaza Strip.
Then, also on television, I watched as a small bulldozer hopelessly clawed through the rubble of my neighborhood mosque. I grew up around that mosque. I spent many hours there with my grandfather, Mohammed, a refugee from historic Palestine. Before grandpa became a refugee, he was a young Imam in a small mosque in his long-destroyed village of Beit Daras.
Mohammed and many in his generation took solace in erecting their own mosque in the refugee camp as soon as they arrived to the Gaza Strip in late 1948. The new mosque was first made of hardened mud, but was eventually remade with bricks, and later concrete. He spent much of his time there, and when he died, his old, frail body was taken to the same mosque for a final prayer, before being buried in the adjacent Martyrs Graveyard. When I was still a child, he used to hold my hand as we walked together to the mosque during prayer times. When he aged, and could barely walk, I, in turn, held his hand.
But al-Masjid al-Kabir – the Great Mosque, later renamed al-Omari mosque – was completely pulverized by Israeli missiles during the summer war on Gaza, starting July 8, 2014.
Hundreds of Palestinian houses of worship were targeted by the Israeli military in previous wars, most notably in 2008-9 and 2012. But the 2014 war was the most brutal and most destructive yet. Thousands were killed and more injured. Nothing was immune to Israeli bombs. According to Palestine Liberation Organization records, 63 mosques were completely destroyed and 150 damaged in that war alone, oftentimes with people seeking shelter inside. In the case of my mosque, two bodies were recovered after a long, agonizing search. They had no chance of being rescued. If they survived the deadly explosives, they were crushed by the massive slabs of concrete.
In truth, concrete, cements, bricks and physical structures don’t carry much meaning on their own. We give them meaning. Our collective experiences, our pains, joys, hopes and faith make a house of worship what it is.
Many generations of French Catholics have assigned the Notre Dame Cathedral with its layered meanings and symbolism since the 12th century.
While the fire consumed the oak roof and much of the structure, French citizens and many around the world watched in awe. It is as if the memories, prayers and hopes of a nation that is rooted in time were suddenly revealed, rising, all at once, with the pillars of smoke and fire.
But the very media that covered the news of the Notre Dame fire seemed oblivious to the obliteration of everything we hold sacred in Palestine as, day after day, Israeli war machinery continues to blow up, bulldoze and desecrate.
Palestinians and Palestinian security forces inspect the damage inside a mosque torched and vandalized by arsonists in the West Bank village of Qusra, near Nablus, Monday, Sept. 5, 2011. Arsonists tossed two tires into the first floor study hall of the mosque. (Photo: Wagdi Eshtayah/APA Images)
It is as if our religions are not worthy of respect, despite the fact that Christianity was born in Palestine. It was there that Jesus roamed the hills and valleys of our historic homeland teaching people about peace, love and justice. Palestine is also central to Islam. Haram al-Sharif, where Al-Aqsa mosque and The Dome of the Rock are kept, is the third holiest site for Muslims everywhere. Yet Christian and Muslim holy sites are besieged, often raided and shut down per military diktats. Moreover, the Israeli army-protected messianic Jewish extremists want to demolish Al-Aqsa and the Israeli government has been digging underneath its foundation for many years.
Although none of this is done in secret; international outrage remains muted. In fact, many find Israel’s actions justified. Some have bought into the ridiculous explanation offered by the Israeli military that bombing mosques is a necessary security measure. Others are motivated by dark religious prophecies of their own.
Palestine, though, is only a microcosm of the whole region. Many of us are familiar with the horrific destruction carried out by fringe militant groups against world cultural heritage in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Most memorable among these are the destruction of Palmyra in Syria, Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan and the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul.
Nothing however can possibly be compared to what the invading US army has done to Iraq. Not only did the invaders desecrate a sovereign country and brutalize her people, they also devastated her culture that goes back to the start of human civilization. Just the immediate aftermath of the invasion alone resulted in the looting of over 15,000 Iraqi antiquities, including the Lady of Warka, also known as the Mona Lisa of Mesopotamia, a Sumerian artifact whose history goes back to 3100 BC.
A Palestinian protester holds a cross during a demonstration against acts of vandalism on Christian sites including smashing headstones in a Christian cemetery in Israel and the occupied West Bank, outside Jerusalem’s Old City October 6, 2013. (Photo: Saeed Qaq/APA Images)
I had the privilege of seeing many of these artifacts in a visit to the Iraq Museum only a few years before it was looted when US forces failed to protect the site. At the time, Iraqi curators had thousands of precious pieces hidden in a basement in anticipation of a US bombing campaign. But nothing could prepare the museum for the savagery unleashed by the ground invasion. Since then, Iraqi culture has largely been reduced to items on the black market of the very western invaders that have torn that country apart. The valiant work of Iraqi cultural warriors and their colleagues around the world have managed to restore some of that stolen dignity, but it will take many years for the cradle of human civilization to redeem its vanquished honor.
Every mosque, every church, every graveyard, every piece of art and every artifact is significant because it is laden with meaning, the meaning bestowed on them by those who have built or sought in them an escape, a moment of solace, hope, faith and peace.
On August 2, 2014 the Israeli army bombed the historic al-Omari Mosque in northern Gaza. The ancient mosque dates back to the 7th century and has since served as a symbol of resilience and faith for the people of Gaza.
As Notre Dame burned, I thought of al-Omari too. While the fire at the French cathedral was likely accidental, destroyed Palestinian houses of worship were intentionally targeted. The Israeli culprits are yet to be held accountable.
I also thought of my grandfather, Mohammed, the kindly Imam with the handsome, small white beard. His mosque served as his only escape from a difficult existence, an exile that only ended with his own death.

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