The torching of the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish at Tabgha, near Tiberias, on Thursday is the 18th arson attack on a church or mosque over the past four years. Not one of these cases has been solved, none of the perpetrators identified and, obviously, no one charged for the offenses. These are part of a wider range of actions, including hate graffiti sprayed on mosques and churches, spitting at Christian priests in Jerusalem, and the issuing of edicts by assorted rabbis against “gentiles.”
Damaging holy sites is not just a criminal act or a regular hate crime. Protecting the freedom of worship is one of the basic universal precepts included in all international treaties and constitutions, making up a central feature of cultural identity. Even countries that define themselves according to their prevailing religion, such as some Islamic states, view religious institutions of other faiths as holy sites, persecuting and punishing people who defile them.
Legislation against damaging holy sites is crystal clear in Israel, as is the official public discourse purportedly led by the government. In addition to cleaving to the definition of Israel as a Jewish state, the government strongly condemns all cases in which a non-Jewish holy site is defaced. However, it’s hard to take seriously the condemnations uttered by the prime minister, cabinet ministers and Knesset members when, at the same time, they give a nod and wink to those who infringe on the state’s sovereignty by embarking on private religious and cultural campaigns against Christians and Muslims.
What did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu actually broadcast to the public after the latest torching? That he had instructed the head of the Shin Bet security service to accelerate the investigation to find the perpetrators. Does this mean that defacing religious institutions was not on the Shin Bet’s agenda until now? Can one also conclude that locating the perpetrators of anti-Arab hate crimes is not a focus of its attention?
It’s fair to say that defiling holy sites is not perceived as a “classic” terror act that endangers state security. This interpretation is also obvious to the perpetrators of hate crimes and religious fanatics. Their continued freedom gives them a sense of security, which allows them to continue with their crimes.
The government of Israel, rightfully, wouldn’t have ignored the torching of synagogues, the destruction of tombstones in Jewish cemeteries or assaults against Jews in other countries if governments were lax in investigating such crimes. Now, it must show determination to uproot such hate crimes from areas under its jurisdiction, defining perpetrators as terrorists who endanger Israel’s security, no less than those who send car bombs into city centers.
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