Crosses Hurt Jewish Feelings, Rabbi Says

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - A group of Austrian Catholic bishops recently was asked to hide their crosses before approaching the Western Wall -- the most sacred Jewish prayer site. The chief rabbi at the site said the crosses would hurt Jewish feelings.

Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch would not allow the Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schonborn, and a delegation of some 20 religious leaders to enter the Western Wall plaza unless they hid their crosses. He also refused to meet with them.

"Crosses are a symbol that hurts Jewish feelings," Rabinovitch was quoted as saying.

There is a way to behave there. Just as one would remove his shoes before entering a mosque, so visitors are asked not to display crosses at the Western Wall, Rabinovitch told Cybercast News Service.

Most Christians who come to the Western Wall would not wear a cross without having to be told, Rabinovitch said. He also said those visitors who do display a cross are always asked to cover it.

The Austrian bishops, who were here for a conference, arrived at the holy site dressed in traditional garb. They decided not to enter the Western Wall plaza, rather than hide their crosses. The rabbi said he was "disappointed" that they didn't simply agree to cover the crosses.

Rabinovitch called it a sign of respect for visitors to the Western Wall to cover the Christian cross. He said it would be just as disrespectful for Jews to enter a church wearing a Jewish prayer shawl.

(The Western Wall has separate prayer areas for men and women. Guards make sure that men wear yarmulkes and women are modestly dressed before they enter.)

According to Rabinovitch, the rule against displaying crosses is not written down anywhere. But by law, the chief rabbi at the Western Wall determines protocol at the site.

Arad Benko, the cultural and press attache at the Austrian Embassy, said if the dress code been explained to the Catholic bishops in advance, they probably would have compromised. As it was, the bishops decided to retreat to a nearby terrace overlooking the Wall rather than create a scene, he said.

Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee in Israel said he thinks the incident was mishandled.

Rosen, who has been involved in shaping Jewish-Christian relations for 35 years, said he has never come across clerics who don't understand the sensitivities of the Jewish people when it was explained to them.

"[The cross] still evokes the memory of hostility and pain of the past," Rosen told Cybercast News Service. For Christians, the cross is a symbol of love but for many Jewish people it is a symbol of hatred, he said.

(Jewish people were persecuted through the centuries by the Catholic Church.)

The more Jewish people become involved in modern society and understand the changes that have taken place in the church, the less problematic the cross becomes for them, he added.

Following the incident, Schonborn said he was not disappointed because his delegation had seen the Wall from the terrace. His group decided not to approach the Wall "out of respect for the religious sensitivities of the Jews," he was quoted as saying.

Schonborn is considered to be a friend of Israel. He has said that it is important for Christians to recognize the connection of the Jewish people to the Holy Land. Some Christians consider the return of the Jews to Israel to be the fulfillment of a biblical prophecy.

Subscribe to the free daily E-Brief.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.