“The false gods will be eliminated.”
This verse is taken from the Aleinu, the Jewish closing prayer of the morning, afternoon and evening services. It is a beautiful hymn of praise, one that signifies the Jewish people’s faith in the one true God.
On June 18th, 2015, arsonists twisted that prayer to justify an attack on the Church of the Multiplication located in Tabgha, on the northwest Shore of the Sea of Galilee. It is the site where according to Scripture, Jesus miraculously fed thousands of people with only five loaves and two fishes.
While there was no significant damage to the interior of the Church, storage rooms, offices, and an event room were damaged. In the entrance corridor, the attackers left their mark in red graffiti: The false gods will be eliminated.
Several “price tag attacks” against religious sites have taken place in Israel, usually with a political justification. The attack on Tabgha, however, indicated the use of a religious justification for vandalism. This use for Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, “was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
In an interview with ZENIT from his home in Jerusalem, Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein, the Executive Director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute, speaks on his unique crowdfunding campaign in gathering Jewish leaders to help in not only rebuilding the Church in Tabgha, but also reaffirming the bonds of friendship that exists between Jews and Christians.
ZENIT: Regarding this campaign, was this something that began before, given various similar attacks, or was the attack on the Church in Tabgha the “straw that broke the camel’s back”?
Goshen-Gottstein: It was definitely the straw that broke the camel’s back and the reason is because of the graffiti. Until then, the graffiti was political, what they call “price-tag”. There were some anti-Christian sentiments expressed along the way, but the explicit reasoning was political. This was the first time they took a text from a Jewish prayer book, and they used the text, in a sense, saying, “This is what it means and how it is to be implemented.” In other words “Christianity is idolatrous and therefore we (the perpetrators) have the right to act on it now.”
The whole question of idolatry is something that engages me very much. There is a book of mine coming out this November in Palgrave Macmillan entitled “Same God, Other God“. It’s my working out of the whole notion of idolatry from the Jewish perspective. It’s done in dialogue with both Christianity and Hinduism and a lot of it is relevant to a Jewish view on Christianity. It reviews and reflects on various historical attitudes to Christianity and whether Christianity is considered idolatrous from a Jewish perspective or not. So this issue is one that’s very much alive for me. I write on it, I think on it, I teach on it… And here were these arsonists taking a verse from the prayer book, that was giving it a superficial, if not fundamentalist, interpretation and acting on the subject that is the focus of my own research and engagement. I felt I had to respond. A) because it was an abuse of a prayer that is also mine and of my religion and B) because it was a subject concerning which I was more engaged, and also more competent, even than the average rabbi, given I had been working on it. And so, by initiating the Rebuilding Tabgha campaign I had the opportunity to engage this subject publicly. It allowed me to deal with a core issue. In other words, this was really an issue where bad theology is the source of terrorism.
As you know, we often present our religions as religions of peace and all the good things about our religion. But the bad teachings, or the problematic teachings or the contested teachings in our religions, these can play out sometimes in a very negative way. This year, we are celebrating 50 years since Nostra Aetate, which is the Church cleaning up its act and trying to get things right. Jews haven’t gone through their Nostra Aetate. I published a book in 2012 called “Jewish Theology and World Religions” in which I convened a group of scholars to start a Jewish Nostra Aetate process, reflecting on what we need to think about concerning other world religions; all world religions, not just Christianity. So, the attack on the Church of Tabgha was a case in which a certain, bad, theology of religions led to a direct attack on a religious community. As it happened, it was an attack on a community that I am friendly with. This was also part of the impetus to act – I knew the people there, I’m friendly with them. But more fundamentally, the attack destroys the image of Judaism in the world. And still more fundamentally, it destroys our own souls. So on all these levels, I felt that I had to launch a process that would restore how others see us while bringing out in the open a new discussion of the status of Christianity, in a way that would allow us to balance our view and to be much more thoughtful and considerate. So the first step was to create a cadre of rabbis who supported this initiative. This too was not straight forward because (Orthodox) Jews, as a collective, can’t make up their minds on what the status of Christianity is. If you look at the big picture, there are voices that consider that it is idolatrous because of its use of images, etc. and the worship of a human being. And other voices argue “No, it’s not idolatrous because it is really the same God;” taking us back to the title of my book, “Same God, Other God.”
I knew some important rabbis had a very clear position concerning Christianity not being idolatrous. I enlisted them to the project, which in turn sparked a very lively debate in certain circles on the internet. People were shocked saying, “Why are these rabbis supporting the rebuilding of a church?” So that sparked a very lively discussion that gave these rabbis the opportunity to affirm that Christianity is not idolatrous. So it was an educational initiative and at the same time, it was an initiative for rebuilding friendship. It was working inwards, and it was working outwards
ZENIT: What has been the reaction to the campaign? While I’m sure that there has been a positive reaction, have you received any negative backlash especially from those who don’t agree?
Goshen-Gottstein: Yes of course there has been some opposition to it. I’ve personally been harassed on account of it. Facebook has been an important instrument in driving this campaign and there has been opposition: I have various op-eds published on Israeli newspapers and there are comments that say: “Why are Jews rebuilding for Christians? What are Christians doing [for Jews]?” Most of the negative reactions are based on ignorance. It’s amazing how people don’t want to let facts confuse their pre-existing, negative views on Christianity. In other words, they say “they did this to us.” And yes there is a long and painful history of Christians treating Jews very poorly, and yet the Church has changed its views radically. Nevertheless, there are many Jews who refuse to recognize this. There is a remarkable obstinacy, in the name of faithfulness to historical memory, of people refusing to recognize changes that have taken place amongst the Catholics. Consequently, we continue to see negative representations of Christians, which in turn feed moments of such religious extremism and violence. So those views keep coming up time and again, further supported by positions that consider Christianity is idolatrous. So certainly, there has been some objection. Still, the campaign has made an impression, especially on the “middle ground”, those individuals who are open to reexamining their positions.
ZENIT: You touched upon something that has been a global phenomenon for quite some time: religious extremism, the notion of using religion to justify violence. What do you think is the best way to confront this? Can religious leaders of different traditions collaborate in combating it?
Goshen-Gottstein: First of all, there already is a front of interreligious collaboration on this matter. Many religious leaders are getting together and speaking out together, as well as religious organizations that are working together. My own organization, the Elijah Interfaith Institute, brings together world religious leaders who have a common voice on this topic, as do other organizations, such as Religions for Peace. And yet, such a common front may be of limited value in combating extremism. The problem is that while there is a common denominator of extremism, the individual contours of it are very different inside each religion. The theological logic that feeds such extremism varies from one religion to another. Consequently, if religious leaders from different religions get together, paradoxically they lose some of their efficacy in terms of being able to deliver a message to their constituencies. These would listen to a teaching much more readily if it was delivered as an internal religious teaching, rather than coming from a united front. I think the important thing about a group of religious leaders coming together is to speak to the world at large. If we really want to have an effect on these communities, it has to be done religion by religion, because each religion has its own internal dynamics.
ZENIT: Finally, when people look in the news and see these type of attacks, such as in Tabgha, some ask “What can I do?” What message do you have for those who want to help?
Goshen-Gottstein: There’s long-term and short term. The short term: we’re extending the campaign. Yesterday, the Huffington Post wanted to do a story, now ZENIT is doing a story. We’re extending the campaign so that people who want to support, can support the campaign further in a concrete way. The campaign is not for Jews only. All are invited to show their support for the burnt church, but more fundamentally – for Jewish-Christian friendship, by supporting this campaign. That’s the short term and we absolutely encourage people because it’s a campaign about building friendship.
In the longer term, what people have to do is to implement friendship in their own environment. The antidote to extremism is friendship, relationship and knowledge of the other. The need for these is global and not limited to the Holy Land. We see similar tensions in many parts of the world, including Europe with its own problems of immigration. In the United States, where friendship and knowledge are on a slightly better level, we also encounter less violence between groups. Therefore, knowledge and friendship are the two antidotes to extremist behavior: everyone should be invited to practice these. We’ll be coming out with some new initiatives on those two fronts. The tagline of our organization is “Sharing Wisdom, Fostering Peace”, and we’re thinking now of some new ways of using technology to share wisdom more broadly to create a broader global community. I will be more than happy to share these initiatives with your readers in the future.
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On the Web:
For more information or to contribute to the Restoring Friendship Campaign, go to: https://www.mimoona.co.il/Projects/2748&ChangeLang=English
For more information on the Elijah Interfaith Institute, please visit https://www.facebook.com/Elijah.Interfaith.Institute and in a few days, the revised www.elijah-interfaith.org.