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Fighting Fire with Justice After an Act of Arson in Israel

Fighting Fire with Justice After an Act of Arson in Israel

The Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes was first built on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in 480 AD. It was set ablaze in the middle of the night early last Thursday morning. The perpetrators scrawled in Hebrew on the walls “והאלילים כרות יכרתן” - “foreign idols will be destroyed,” a quote from a Jewish daily prayer.

This was not the first hate crime directed at the church. Last year a group of mostly Jewish youth attacked its outdoor prayer area, pelted stones at worshippers, destroyed a cross, and threw benches into a fire. No one was indicted or held accountable.

This time, the damage to the church and its worshippers was even more severe. Of the 12 people in the church when the fire broke out, a 79 -year-old church volunteer and a 19-year-old tourist were hospitalized for smoke inhalation. Five firefighter teams worked for more than three hours to put out the blaze. By then, the fire had seriously damaged the church structure, roof, reception room, storeroom, souvenir shop, and the nuns’ office. Hundreds of holy books, including rare books locked away in the storeroom, were burned.

We called to offer help. No one answered the phone. The tiny church was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and offers for help that came from Israelis and from all over the world. Even the Chief Rabbi of Israel issued a statement denouncing the act. Clearly Israeli public opinion is against this act of arson.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has ordered that the secret service investigate the crime. This means that now there is a real chance of finding the perpetrators and bringing them to justice. This latest hate crime should not be allowed to join the list of more than 40 places of worship that have been vandalized, burned, and desecrated since December 2009, and for which not even one perpetrator has been found.

I urge the State of Israel to use its immense abilities to find the arsonists this time, bring them to justice and prove to ourselves and the world that such acts of extremism are intolerable to our state.

Anat Hoffman is the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Jewish Movement in Israel. She is also the chairwoman of Women of the Wall, a group of Jewish women and men from around the world who strive to achieve the right of women to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Anat Hoffman
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