Anti-Christian violence is on the rise in Israel. Jewish extremists have attacked Christian sites six times since the new year, compared to nine such attacks in the whole of 2021 and thirteen in 2020. At the Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion, Jewish youths desecrated more than thirty graves, pushing down stone crosses and breaking them with heavy rocks. At the Church of the Flagellation, a Jewish American man shattered an image of Christ with a hammer, declaring, “You can’t have idols in Jerusalem. This is the holy city!” Most recently, two Jewish men disrupted the Sunday liturgy at the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, wielding a stick studded with nails and injuring one cleric. Standing behind these attacks is a clear logic: Since this land belongs to the Jews, non-Jews don’t belong in it.
In January, Jewish settlers followed this logic to its conclusion by attacking the Taboon Wine Bar in East Jerusalem. Dalia Dabdoub, who owns and runs the cafe with her husband, described the attack to me:
It was around 10:30 at night. There were a lot of people sitting outside—foreigners, Jews, Arabs. The settlers came and started attacking, telling the Arabs to go back to Gaza, telling the Christians to go back to the Vatican. We were against forty settlers. A random guy—we still don’t know who he is—helped us prevent them from going inside. So they broke a lot of the tables and chairs, and then they left.
Dabdoub is a Palestinian Christian. Her husband, Miran Krikorian, is part of Jerusalem’s deeply rooted Armenian community, which occupies the southwest quarter of the Old City. Neither has antecedents in the Vatican. Yet they are viewed as interlopers by fringe members of Israel’s settler movement, whose vision of purgation is no less fierce than the one expressed in the Palestinian slogan, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!”
A century ago, Christians made up 25 percent of the population of Jerusalem. Now they are a mere 2 percent. Without an indigenous Christian presence, the Holy Land risks becoming a hall of antiquities through which foreign visitors awkwardly pass, rather than a place in which faith is lived and breathed.
“Every day I come here I think, is it safe today, is it not today?” Dabdoub says. “What can we do? No one can save us. Even on the day of the attack, the government didn’t do anything. They didn’t do anything. So who is supposed to give us support? Who’s supposed to give us safety?”
The attack on the café was part of a broader pattern of violence that targets Christian holy sites, businesses, and institutions. “The day after they came to our restaurant, they attacked the Armenian Quarter,” Dabdoub says. “They started peeing on the door of the convent, and they tried to remove the Armenian flag. And in the Old City you can see on the walls, it is written, ‘Death to the Arabs; death to the Christians.’”
One particularly alarming attack occurred on March 16, when a Catholic convent and girls’ school in Nazareth was fired upon. Even as their numbers decline, Christians remain an important institutional presence in the Holy Land, operating a disproportionate number of charities. Catholic schools have a high reputation and attract many Muslim students. Rafic Nahra, the Catholic bishop in Nazareth, decried the attack in a statement. “We take this incident very seriously, because Christian monasteries and schools have always been outside the cycle of violence that occurs in Arab society.”
Israel represents the greatest triumph of modern nationalism. For if Zionism expresses a very ancient idea—the Jewish longing for the Jewish homeland—it also was shaped by distinctly modern circumstances, above all the rise of German, Italian, Hungarian, and Slavic nationalisms. These European nationalisms broke up the older imperial order in which Jews had found a degree of protection, flourishing in cosmopolitan centers such as the Vienna of the Habsburgs.
Some who witnessed the destruction of the Habsburgs’ creaky but capacious empire conceived a hatred of what Stefan Zweig called the “arch-plague” of nationalism. Zionists, by contrast, believed that Jews needed their own nationalism, and in Israel their hopes have been realized to a stunning degree. Israel can boast of a thriving tech sector and a successful entertainment industry. Minorities enjoy greater religious freedom in Israel than in neighboring countries. Israel is perhaps the only country in the Middle East where one can drive from one end to the other without paying a bribe.
On many scores, Jewish nationalism has surpassed its European counterparts. Irish nationalists dreamed of reviving Gaelic, but the Irish still speak English. By contrast, Israelis successfully revived Hebrew—for centuries a strictly liturgical language—as a living modern vernacular. German nationalists solemnly announced a Thousand Year Reich, which ended after twelve years; Israel has lasted for seventy-five. Hungarian nationalists have cast off the Austrian yoke and survived the Soviets, but they still have to deal with the EU.
Yet if Israel expresses to a unique degree what is admirable in nationalism, it also exhibits nationalism’s limits, one of which is a difficulty in dealing with non-national communities. Not only in the violent acts of young settlers, but in the careers of certain government officials, one can detect disdain for the Christian minority. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the Minister of National Security, has a long career of defending Jewish extremists, including anti-Christian terrorists. In 2015, he led the legal defense for an extremist who had set fire to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in Galilee. After his recent election win, Ben-Gvir thanked his longtime collaborator Bentzi Gopstein, an anti-Christian activist who has described Christians as “blood-sucking vampires” and urged his followers to “throw the vampires out of our land before they drink our blood again.” (Ben-Gvir said, “We don’t agree on everything, but he’s my friend.”)
Faydra Shapiro, an Israeli academic active in Jewish–Christian dialogue, notes that many Israelis are horrified by anti-Christian violence. “I hear a chorus of condemnation from academics, tour guides, and people on the street,” she tells me. “The question is whether religious and right-wing politicians and rabbis are also willing to add their voices, insisting that this is absolutely unacceptable.” Shapiro praises David Lau, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, for issuing a letter that unequivocally condemned the Jewish attack on the Protestant cemetery on Mt. Zion.
For some, the Jewish experience of being a persecuted minority is an inspiration to constitute a better sort of majority. “Israeli Jews are making the connection between our historical experience as a vulnerable minority in the Diaspora and the challenges of Christian life here in Israel,” Shapiro tells me. If this can be done, Zionism will be able to claim another distinction from its rival nationalisms, whose hostility to heterogeneity has often proved self-defeating. If not, it will continue to be plagued by some of the same problems as have those nationalisms.
Matthew Schmitz is a founder and editor of Compact.