Of Many Things
Uri Mor was the late director of Christian Community Affairs for the Israeli Ministry of Religion. His job was to address the concerns of the Christian churches in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Uri carried out his duties with manners that mixed Old Europe with the Middle East. He would greet Christian officials with a smile, an outstretched hand, a kiss on both cheeks and a salutation in a scratchy, high-pitched voice.
In the early years, Uri would come to meet me at Notre Dame of Jerusalem, the Vatican pilgrim hospice. Later, when he obtained an office, he would always offer sweet cakes, juice and Arabic coffee to his guests. When I had a ranking prelate in tow, Uri would arrange for us to depart from Ben Gurion airport with V.I.P. status. I didn’t learn until sometime later that those V.I.P. exits cost his office $1,000 a head.
I have fond memories of Mor because, despite being caught between his own government and his Christian clients, he worked hard to serve the Christian communities. When the first Netanyahu government came into power in 1996, it wanted to move his office into Pisgat Zev, a Jewish settlement north of Jerusalem. He told his superiors he couldn’t do his work in a settlement where Christians would be shown disrespect. For a year and a half, Uri and his assistant worked from his kitchen table and his car. He worked ceaselessly to obtain permits from other ministries and find compromises for issues like visas for clergy and other religious workers.
Not everything was sweetness and light, however. One of Mor’s duties was to rebut every public statement made by the Latin Patriarch, then Michel Sabbah, and the other heads of churches. No sooner did they make a statement than Uri called a press conference to voice the official Israeli view. The Israeli policy was clear. Any criticism had to be responded to—aggressively. In Uri’s case, no matter how vehement the response, I knew it came from a friend who was also working on our behalf, often at cost to himself.
With the rise of the Israeli right and especially after 2009, with the second Netanyahu government, there has been no tolerance for alternative views. In his book The Crisis of Zionism (Macmillan), Peter Beinart describes the closed-minded Jewish exclusivism of Mr. Netanyahu in a chapter entitled “The Monist Prime Minister.” That closed-mindedness has taken form in numerous initiatives to silence dissent. Legislation has cracked down on human rights groups, peace activists and journalists. A recent effort to suppress news about the disappearance of native Arab Christians from the Holy Land, however, backfired.
Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, tried to block CBS News from broadcasting a “60 Minutes” segment on April 22 about Christian emigration from the Holy Land. Under intense high-level pressure, the veteran CBS correspondent Bob Simon met with Oren, and that interview was made part of the story. Simon, believing in his story and believing even more in the integrity of the press, upstaged Mr. Oren. He had faced criticism for stories in the past, Simon said, but never for a story that had yet to be aired and one the ambassador had not viewed.
The subsequent Jewish outrage was predictable. More surprising was the petition from Jewish Voices for Peace that drew some 35,000 signatures. By advocating a free, tolerant and open Israel, where Jews can live in peace alongside Christians and Muslims, the J.V.P. organizers and signers are worthy successors to an older generation of Israeli officials like Uri Mor.