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Minority Within a Minority: Armenians Feel Caught Between Jews and Muslims

It was a solemn procession: A line of Armenian clergymen clad in black robes quietly followed the bearer of a cross through the narrow alleys of Jerusalem’s Old City. They were returning from prayer at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher when a young yeshiva student approached the clergymen and spat at the cross.

After the initial shock, Archbishop Nouehan Nanougian, second in rank to the Armenian patriarch, lost his cool and slapped the young student.

After a brief scuffle, police intervened and summoned the yeshiva student for questioning. A magistrates court ordered him to stay out of the Old City for 75 days.

On Oct. 14, four days after the incident, the student, Mattan Zvi Rosenthal, 21, returned to police headquarters, accompanied by a rabbi, to apologize. Archbishop Nanougian accepted his apology.

Still, Bishop Aris Shirvanian, director of ecumenical and foreign relations for the Armenian Patriarchate, told JTA, “This is nothing new.”

“It’s quite common,” he said. “It happens all the time. If not every day, then at least every week.”

Since the outbreak of the intifada four years ago, Israel’s Armenians have felt the squeeze of living among warring peoples. Israel has taken small steps toward addressing their situation, but Jerusalem’s Armenian leaders would like to see more done.

A foreigner could hardly tell the difference between the Old City’s Jewish and Armenian Quarters: In each, one narrow alley leads to another, and the homes look largely similar, though the Armenian houses often are hidden behind heavy iron gates.

“Life hasn’t been the same ever since the Intifada,” said Ani Hekmanian, a young hairdresser who used to work in the Jewish part of Jerusalem.

With the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada, the city’s Armenians, as well as other Christians, found themselves caught between radical Muslims and Jews fearful of anyone who was not Jewish.

“I once walked in Givat Shaul,” a predominantly charedi neighborhood at the western end of Jerusalem, “with my cross hanging on my neck, when suddenly a young man approached me and spat in my face. I was shocked. I didn’t know what to do,” Hekmanian said.

“Had I complained to police they would have considered me crazy, or would have blamed me for causing trouble,” she surmised.

Now she works at home and tries to avoid both Jewish western Jerusalem and the nearby Muslim Quarter.

During the Camp David negotiations in the summer of 2000, the parties reportedly agreed that most of the Old City — the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter and part of the Armenian Quarter — would be handed over to the Palestinians.

The Armenian patriarch, Torkom II, along with his Catholic and Greek colleagues, wrote to the Camp David negotiators, urging them “to ensure that the Christian communities within the walls of the Old City are not separated from each other.”

With the collapse of the talks, the issue was removed from the international agenda.

But ask anyone in the alley, and they will tell you — on condition of anonymity — that despite the present difficulties, they prefer the status quo to any new local order.

“We prefer an established state such as Israel, which we know well, over a new Palestinian state,” one young Armenian said.

The Jews and Armenians share certain historical attributes: Both peoples are dispersed and have suffered persecution and abuse. Both have experienced a Holocaust: Some 1.5 million Armenians perished at the hands of the Turks between 1915 and 1923, in what many researchers consider a genocide.

The Armenian population in Israel numbers some 22,000 and considers itself a minority within the Arab minority. It would have been natural for Jews to embrace this population, much as they embraced the Druse community, but Armenians, unlike the Druse, do not serve in the army.

“I am so afraid when I go to the dati,” or Orthodox Jewish, neighborhoods, said Anush Hagopian, 25. “During daytime, I conceal my cross.”

As she spoke, while walking from the Armenian St. James Monastery, a group of charedim approached from the opposite direction. The Armenian girl and the Jewish group exchanged glances as if through an invisible barrier.

Except for the cross around her neck, Hagopian looks like many Israeli Jews: She dresses casually, with light hair and smiling blue eyes. She studied computer graphics in western Jerusalem but is now jobless, and soon will leave for the United States.

“There is no future here. Everyone is leaving,” she said. “We can’t even get married, for lack of young men.”

The Armenian Quarter is located next to the main street leading from Jaffa Gate to the Jewish Quarter. For Armenians and Jews to cross each other’s paths is unavoidable. But rather than saying hello to each other, encounters between them often end with insults — and the venom is not just reserved for clergymen, but for women and children, too.

Israel’s interior minister, Avraham Poraz, issued a statement condemning the “frequent harassment of Christian clergymen by Jews.”

“It is our duty to show tolerance to all religions in Israel,” Poraz said, urging Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra to take all necessary measures to put an end to the phenomenon.

The Knesset Interior Committee also met this week to discuss the matter, an indication that it’s now being taken more seriously.

Daniel Rossing, head of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, said the harassment of Christians particularly is directed at members of the Assyrian and Armenian communities.

Rossing intends to send a circular to all churches in the Old City, asking them to report any such incidents so police can cope with the matter more effectively.

Yet the key may lie at home and in the educational system.

“I can understand that the hatred comes from generations of Jewish persecution,” Shirvanian said, “but it is now the duty of the rabbis to put an end to this hatred.”

Following criticism in the press alleging that the rabbinical establishment did not condemn the incidents, Israel’s Ashkenazic chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, invited the heads of the Christian denominations in Israel for a meeting next week.

“Despite the fact that we have been neighbors for 37 years, we have no contacts whatsoever with the neighboring yeshivot in the Jewish Quarter,” Shirvanian said. “It would be nice to have a meeting sometime.”

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