Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bethlehem

The Palestinians’ Christmas Lies

Christmas in Bethlehem and video of the annual parade in the Palestinian city south of Jerusalem is standard holiday fare on television news. Since the days of Yasir Arafat the Palestinian Authority has made a big deal out of the Christmas celebration, and the media’s need for footage suitable for a day on which little news is made has always been a bonanza for Fatah. The result is that along with quaint pictures of Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity Western viewers are given the impression that Christianity is both protected and cherished by the PA. PA leaders also use the occasion to try and make the argument that the Palestinians, rather than the Israelis, are the true descendants of the Jewish nation that produced Jesus of Nazareth two thousand years ago.

Both assertions are equally false. Modern day Christians face harassment and exclusion throughout a region where the Arab Spring has brought Islamists to power, and nowhere is that more true than in the West Bank and Gaza. Moreover, the assertion that Jesus was a Palestinian, first aired by Arafat and often repeated by his successor Mahmoud Abbas as well as moderate Salam Fayyad, is nothing less than an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish people and to steal its history. Western news organizations should know better than to fall prey to these propaganda points.

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Christmas in Bethlehem and video of the annual parade in the Palestinian city south of Jerusalem is standard holiday fare on television news. Since the days of Yasir Arafat the Palestinian Authority has made a big deal out of the Christmas celebration, and the media’s need for footage suitable for a day on which little news is made has always been a bonanza for Fatah. The result is that along with quaint pictures of Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity Western viewers are given the impression that Christianity is both protected and cherished by the PA. PA leaders also use the occasion to try and make the argument that the Palestinians, rather than the Israelis, are the true descendants of the Jewish nation that produced Jesus of Nazareth two thousand years ago.

Both assertions are equally false. Modern day Christians face harassment and exclusion throughout a region where the Arab Spring has brought Islamists to power, and nowhere is that more true than in the West Bank and Gaza. Moreover, the assertion that Jesus was a Palestinian, first aired by Arafat and often repeated by his successor Mahmoud Abbas as well as moderate Salam Fayyad, is nothing less than an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish people and to steal its history. Western news organizations should know better than to fall prey to these propaganda points.

As Britain’s Telegraph reports in a timely feature, Christianity is “close to extinction” in the Middle East. While the plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt who face the prospect of life under the Muslim Brotherhood has garnered some attention in the past few months, Palestinian Christians have already been subjected to this sort of situation under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas and the result is the decimation of their community.

Bethlehem is a case study, since the once predominantly Christian town has become a Muslim stronghold ever since Israel ceded control of the area to the PA under the Oslo Accords. Christian villages in the area like Beit Jala also have suffered since the PA let terrorists use it as a launching point for shooting attacks on the adjacent Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem during the second intifada. Should the PA launch a third such offensive against Israel this year, you can bet that Palestinian Christians, who have fled their old homes in large numbers in the last 20 years, will pay a disproportionate price.

Of course, it should be admitted that Palestinian Christians are often the most virulent critics of Israel, since they have seen secular nationalism to be a way of fitting into an Arab world where Muslim faith is the principle source of identity. Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch demonstrated that factor again this year when he told the world that this Christmas would be a celebration of “the birth of Palestine” as well as of that of the Christian savior. But no one should be fooled into thinking Christians are equal partners with the Muslim majority that treats them as nothing more than dhimmi–a protected but unequal minority. For all of the tension between Jews and Arabs, it is only in democratic Israel that Christians have complete religious freedom in the region.

As for the “Jesus is a Palestinian” meme, it is a risible misuse of history that few people take seriously, but it ought not to be ignored. Denying the historical ties between the Jewish people and the land of Israel has always been integral to anti-Zionist propaganda. The point is to depict Israelis as foreign thieves who have stolen Palestinian land rather than as Jews who have returned to their ancestral homeland. The use of this lie is a reminder that the ultimate goal of Palestinian moderates as well as the Islamists of Hamas (who have made the lives of Christians in Gaza untenable–a warning to the Coptics who will have to live under the thumb of their Muslim Brotherhood allies) is to destroy Israel, not to live in peace alongside it.

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Telling the Truth on Facebook

Israel’s embassy in Ireland got itself in hot water for an inflammatory posting on its Facebook page that embarrassed the Jewish state. The post stated that were Jesus and Mary alive today and walking around Bethlehem without security, they would be lynched as Jews by the Palestinians. When a controversy over the post ensued, it was soon deleted and an apology was issued. But the Dublin embassy is not getting off so easy. The New York Times quoted Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent as reporting that this was just the latest though most egregious example of an aggressive stance taken by Israel’s envoys in Ireland. Apparently the embassy is guilty of speaking of Irish anti-Israel activists. It even had the temerity to re-post a satirical video about Irish media bias against Israel by the Latma comedy troupe.

All of this has brought down the opprobrium of Haaretz and the Times on the Dublin embassy. The Times even closed its piece on the subject by quoting a Palestinian response to the posting about Jesus and Mary that said that Christmas is freely celebrated in Bethlehem each year. But that remark, as well as much of the criticism of the supposedly undiplomatic behavior of the envoys, is off the mark. As much as it might have been wiser for anyone connected to the Israeli government to avoid any mention of the holy family or Christmas, their “offensive” post was primarily guilty of doing the one thing that diplomats are generally urged to avoid: telling the truth.

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Israel’s embassy in Ireland got itself in hot water for an inflammatory posting on its Facebook page that embarrassed the Jewish state. The post stated that were Jesus and Mary alive today and walking around Bethlehem without security, they would be lynched as Jews by the Palestinians. When a controversy over the post ensued, it was soon deleted and an apology was issued. But the Dublin embassy is not getting off so easy. The New York Times quoted Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent as reporting that this was just the latest though most egregious example of an aggressive stance taken by Israel’s envoys in Ireland. Apparently the embassy is guilty of speaking of Irish anti-Israel activists. It even had the temerity to re-post a satirical video about Irish media bias against Israel by the Latma comedy troupe.

All of this has brought down the opprobrium of Haaretz and the Times on the Dublin embassy. The Times even closed its piece on the subject by quoting a Palestinian response to the posting about Jesus and Mary that said that Christmas is freely celebrated in Bethlehem each year. But that remark, as well as much of the criticism of the supposedly undiplomatic behavior of the envoys, is off the mark. As much as it might have been wiser for anyone connected to the Israeli government to avoid any mention of the holy family or Christmas, their “offensive” post was primarily guilty of doing the one thing that diplomats are generally urged to avoid: telling the truth.

As the Times notes, Ireland has become a hotbed of anti-Israel incitement in the past few decades. Though Irish independence fighters and Jews struggling to free their ancient homeland once identified with each other due to their common British foe, the Irish Catholics now seem to identify more with the Palestinians while it is the Ulster Protestants who think of Israel as a role model for survival as a minority in a hostile environment. The Irish media is well known for its anti-Israel bias and agitation against the Jewish state that seems to be louder and nastier than in even neighboring Britain.

Perhaps that’s why Israel’s Dublin embassy has come to the reasonable conclusion that it needs to stop playing defense when it comes to correcting misperceptions about the Middle East conflict. In too many instances, Israeli diplomats and spokespersons have avoided getting into scrapes but in the process failed to adequately defend their country at a time when a rising tide of anti-Semitism has distorted the debate about the Middle East conflict in Europe.

More to the point, the embassy’s Facebook comments about Jesus, Mary and Bethlehem actually were very much to the point in dealing with that troubling trend. For decades, the Palestinian leadership has sought to portray Arabs as the true descendants of the biblical Jews. That serves the double purpose of delegitimizing Zionism and Israel while also allowing them to play upon the sympathies of Christians. Modern Christianity has embraced the notion that Jesus was a Jew as part of an effort to move away from a tradition of theology-driven anti-Semitism. But the Palestinians want you to buy into the anti-historical concept that Jesus was Palestinian rather than a Jew.

It should also be stated that the post did no more than state the obvious when it noted that Jews without security in Palestinian Authority-ruled Bethlehem are at grave risk. Indeed, Rachel’s Tomb, which is located outside the town, is often besieged by violent Palestinians seeking to take over that Jewish shrine.

In raising the subject, the embassy did the unthinkable and told the truth about Palestinian violence and prejudice. While that might have been considered undiplomatic, that is something that more Israeli diplomats as well as members of the media ought to be doing more often.

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Will Sacramento Choose an Israel “Sister?”

In 2009, the Sacramento City Council designated Bethlehem in Israel as one of Sacramento’s “Sister Cities.” Tomorrow, the council is set to vote on whether to make Ashkelon, Israel, a Sister City as well, and anti-Israel groups are frantically working to kill the initiative:

Supporters and protesters are expected to pack Sacramento City Council chambers when it decides whether to become a sister city with Ashkelon, Israel.

The council has a vote planned Tuesday on whether to add Ashkelon, a frequent target for bombs from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

The California capital already has joined up with nine cities, including what it calls “Bethlehem, Palestine,” and has been discussing adding an Israeli town for several years.

Those opposed to becoming a sister city with Ashkelon have waged an active campaign, claiming that Arabs there are second-class citizens and that other Arabs were evicted from the area following Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

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In 2009, the Sacramento City Council designated Bethlehem in Israel as one of Sacramento’s “Sister Cities.” Tomorrow, the council is set to vote on whether to make Ashkelon, Israel, a Sister City as well, and anti-Israel groups are frantically working to kill the initiative:

Supporters and protesters are expected to pack Sacramento City Council chambers when it decides whether to become a sister city with Ashkelon, Israel.

The council has a vote planned Tuesday on whether to add Ashkelon, a frequent target for bombs from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

The California capital already has joined up with nine cities, including what it calls “Bethlehem, Palestine,” and has been discussing adding an Israeli town for several years.

Those opposed to becoming a sister city with Ashkelon have waged an active campaign, claiming that Arabs there are second-class citizens and that other Arabs were evicted from the area following Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

Israelis in Ashkelon live under constant threat from Hamas rocket attacks, and suffered regular casualties and injuries before the deployment of Iron Dome. The city falls within the pre-1967 borders, so the objection to Ashkelon as a Sacramento Sister City has nothing to do with territorial disputes — it’s about opposing Israel’s existence, and shoring up the fringe U.S. arm of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

“This is a fundamental attack on Israel’s existence,” said David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, who is leading an effort to support the Sister City initiative. “Luckily, those opposing the Sister City relationship obviously represent a radical fringe of American opinion.”

Brog added that the pro-Israel community “cannot afford to be silent.”

CUFI sent out an action alert urging supporters to contact Sacramento city council officials on behalf of the Sister City initiative. According to the group, there have been 22,500 responses to the action alert since it was launched last Thursday. CUFI members will also be in attendance at the city council vote tomorrow.

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Preserve Bethlehem’s Christians as Well as the Church of the Nativity

Last week’s decision by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to designate the Church of the Nativity as a world heritage site was rightly opposed by the United States because it was seen as merely a ploy to boost the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood. UNESCO was the only UN agency to recognize the PA as an independent state, and this announcement was merely a jab at Israel as part of a campaign to falsely claim the Jewish state is endangering the future of the shrine as well as the Christian population in the West Bank.

But if UNESCO and those who applauded the decision were truly interested in the well-being of Palestinian Christians, they would have recognized that not only has the PA been the one desecrating the Church of the Nativity, but it has been assisting the efforts to transform Bethlehem from a traditional stronghold of Christianity into one where Christians no longer have a future.

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Last week’s decision by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to designate the Church of the Nativity as a world heritage site was rightly opposed by the United States because it was seen as merely a ploy to boost the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood. UNESCO was the only UN agency to recognize the PA as an independent state, and this announcement was merely a jab at Israel as part of a campaign to falsely claim the Jewish state is endangering the future of the shrine as well as the Christian population in the West Bank.

But if UNESCO and those who applauded the decision were truly interested in the well-being of Palestinian Christians, they would have recognized that not only has the PA been the one desecrating the Church of the Nativity, but it has been assisting the efforts to transform Bethlehem from a traditional stronghold of Christianity into one where Christians no longer have a future.

The manipulation of the Church by the Palestinians and their friends in the UN bureaucracy is shameful. By putting the place Christians venerate as the birthplace of Jesus on the list of places that are “World Heritage in Danger,” the Arabs may have thought they were embarrassing Israel. But, they are just drawing attention to the fact that it was the PA that used the sacred site as a hideout for terrorist murderers in 2002 when Israel sought to arrest those involved in a number of vicious attacks on Jewish targets during the second intifada. Out of respect for the Church, Israel agreed to let those criminals inside the church avoid prosecution so as to avoid bloodshed or possible damage.

The current state of the Church, which is suffering from water leaks, is the result of the mismanagement of the area by the PA, not Israel. But far more important is the fact that under the PA’s administration, Christians have been pushed out of the city as Islamist factions started to throw their weight around. Christians have been fleeing Bethlehem for a better life elsewhere for the past 19 years since the Oslo Accords. The same is true of the rest of the West Bank.

Palestinian Christians know better than to criticize Muslim authorities for their problems, as doing so puts them in great danger. So they too join the chorus blaming Israel, but the reality is that as Hamas and other extremist factions gain greater influence and Fatah seeks to compete with them to maintain its popularity, Palestinian society has become an even more hostile place for religious minorities.

While the Church of the Nativity is worthy of the World Heritage site designation, those who are interested in preserving it and the community who has long lived in its shadow should not be playing into the hands of those who are driving Christians out of the country.

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UN “Peace” Coordinator: Jewish Heritage an Invalid Concept

Earlier today I wrote about the implications of an important new archeological discovery that highlights the 3,000-year-old Jewish heritage in East Jerusalem. Such finds have political significance specifically because the whole focus of Palestinian nationalism has been to deny Jewish ties to the land and to attempt to rewrite history in such a way as to expunge the historicity and continuity of the Jewish presence.

But the reason why this issue is so important was brought home again today by a statement coming from Robert Serry, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. In it, Serry went out of his way to condemn the recently announced National Heritage Plan announced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because two ancient Jewish religious shrines were included in the list of sites to be preserved and protected. Serry objected to the inclusion of Rachel’s Tomb outside Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the list of essential places in Jewish history, because the two are in the West Bank and thus, in his view, “occupied Palestinian territory.” The fact that they are located on land that is subject to dispute between the two parties is of no interest to the UN official who, despite his status as a peace mediator, is ready to dictate where the borders of a putative Palestinian state must be. But Serry’s argument is not merely one of borders, because in the same statement he claimed that the sites “are of historical and religious significance not only to Judaism but also to Islam, and to Christianity as well.”

It is true that Christians and Muslims have an intrinsic interest in any biblical site. And since Muslims, like Jews, consider Abraham to be one of their patriarchs, they have a religious stake in the Cave of the Patriarchs. But Muslims have never been willing to share this most ancient of Jewish shrines with other faiths. Throughout the history of Muslim control of the land of Israel, through the Ottoman era and even during the time of British rule, Jews were forbidden to enter the cave and were, instead, constrained to ascend no higher than the seventh step of the entrance to the sacred place. Jewish prayer inside the cave only resumed in June 1967, after the Israeli conquest of Hebron, after which the two religions have shared the place despite the history of tension and bloodshed in the Hebron area.

As for Rachel’s Tomb, it is simply a lie to consider it anything but a Jewish synagogue. No faith but Judaism has ever held worship services in the place or considered it a shrine. Palestinian propaganda that has attempted to portray it as some sort of a Muslim site are of recent vintage and utterly false.

But much like the history of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where Jews were forbidden even to visit while it was under Muslim sovereignty from 1949 to 1967 during Jordan’s illegal occupation of East Jerusalem, the only thing that has guaranteed Jewish access to both the Hebron and Bethlehem sites has been Israel’s control of these areas. Moreover, and this is a crucial point, the only time in the history of Jerusalem or Bethlehem or Hebron that these religious sites have been kept free and open to all visitors of all faiths has been the 42 years since the Six-Day War. Netanyahu’s Heritage Plan is no threat to other faiths, because only Israel is committed to religious freedom and the protection of all religious shrines.

Should the UN coordinator have his way and Rachel’s Tomb or the Cave of the Patriarchs ever fall under the control of the Palestinian Authority, let alone Hamas, we know very well what would happen. Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, a longtime site of Jewish worship and study, was sacked and burned by a Palestinian mob aided and abetted by PA policemen in 2000 at the outset of the second intifada. The PA has prevented the reconstruction of the site. An ancient synagogue in Jericho, also under PA control, met the same fate.

By opposing the Jewish Heritage Plan, the UN isn’t merely sniping at Netanyahu. It is signaling its backing of a Palestinian and Muslim approach to the history of the land in which Judaism is systematically erased. If indeed Serry and the UN are actually interested in preserving these sites for members of all faiths to visit, rather than in merely chasing the Jews out of them, the only formula for their preservation lies in continued Israeli control.

Earlier today I wrote about the implications of an important new archeological discovery that highlights the 3,000-year-old Jewish heritage in East Jerusalem. Such finds have political significance specifically because the whole focus of Palestinian nationalism has been to deny Jewish ties to the land and to attempt to rewrite history in such a way as to expunge the historicity and continuity of the Jewish presence.

But the reason why this issue is so important was brought home again today by a statement coming from Robert Serry, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. In it, Serry went out of his way to condemn the recently announced National Heritage Plan announced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because two ancient Jewish religious shrines were included in the list of sites to be preserved and protected. Serry objected to the inclusion of Rachel’s Tomb outside Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the list of essential places in Jewish history, because the two are in the West Bank and thus, in his view, “occupied Palestinian territory.” The fact that they are located on land that is subject to dispute between the two parties is of no interest to the UN official who, despite his status as a peace mediator, is ready to dictate where the borders of a putative Palestinian state must be. But Serry’s argument is not merely one of borders, because in the same statement he claimed that the sites “are of historical and religious significance not only to Judaism but also to Islam, and to Christianity as well.”

It is true that Christians and Muslims have an intrinsic interest in any biblical site. And since Muslims, like Jews, consider Abraham to be one of their patriarchs, they have a religious stake in the Cave of the Patriarchs. But Muslims have never been willing to share this most ancient of Jewish shrines with other faiths. Throughout the history of Muslim control of the land of Israel, through the Ottoman era and even during the time of British rule, Jews were forbidden to enter the cave and were, instead, constrained to ascend no higher than the seventh step of the entrance to the sacred place. Jewish prayer inside the cave only resumed in June 1967, after the Israeli conquest of Hebron, after which the two religions have shared the place despite the history of tension and bloodshed in the Hebron area.

As for Rachel’s Tomb, it is simply a lie to consider it anything but a Jewish synagogue. No faith but Judaism has ever held worship services in the place or considered it a shrine. Palestinian propaganda that has attempted to portray it as some sort of a Muslim site are of recent vintage and utterly false.

But much like the history of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where Jews were forbidden even to visit while it was under Muslim sovereignty from 1949 to 1967 during Jordan’s illegal occupation of East Jerusalem, the only thing that has guaranteed Jewish access to both the Hebron and Bethlehem sites has been Israel’s control of these areas. Moreover, and this is a crucial point, the only time in the history of Jerusalem or Bethlehem or Hebron that these religious sites have been kept free and open to all visitors of all faiths has been the 42 years since the Six-Day War. Netanyahu’s Heritage Plan is no threat to other faiths, because only Israel is committed to religious freedom and the protection of all religious shrines.

Should the UN coordinator have his way and Rachel’s Tomb or the Cave of the Patriarchs ever fall under the control of the Palestinian Authority, let alone Hamas, we know very well what would happen. Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, a longtime site of Jewish worship and study, was sacked and burned by a Palestinian mob aided and abetted by PA policemen in 2000 at the outset of the second intifada. The PA has prevented the reconstruction of the site. An ancient synagogue in Jericho, also under PA control, met the same fate.

By opposing the Jewish Heritage Plan, the UN isn’t merely sniping at Netanyahu. It is signaling its backing of a Palestinian and Muslim approach to the history of the land in which Judaism is systematically erased. If indeed Serry and the UN are actually interested in preserving these sites for members of all faiths to visit, rather than in merely chasing the Jews out of them, the only formula for their preservation lies in continued Israeli control.

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