“I have a real issue with the Old Testament” and the “mixing up” of ancient and modern Israel, the late Edward Said’s sister Grace stated during the November 8-9, 2013, Waging Peace in Palestine & Israel conference in Washington, DC. As previously analyzed, this event of self-professed Christians castigated modern Israel’s entire existence as unjust, yet, as Said indicated, Israel’s Biblical past did not go unscathed at the conference either. The conference’s revisionist history delegitimized Israel with a transformation of the Bible’s Jewish heritage into the inheritance of a Palestinian people who in turn appeared unified across centuries and cultural divides.
Mitri Rehab, a Palestinian Lutheran pastor from Bethlehem, set a Biblically jarring, anachronistic tone in a keynote address on the morning of November 9, the conference’s single full day of events. As a “Palestinian Arab Christian” born in Bethlehem five years before the 1967 Six Day War, Rehab spoke of the Bible as “our story,” the “story of my forefathers.” The “Bible did not originate in the Bible Belt,” Rehab analyzed, but “actually in Palestine.” When discussing Jeremiah in the Old Testament, Rehab praised this prophet’s faith in God “to invest in Palestine” (Jeremiah 32:6-15).
Rehab thereby appeared to advocate the theses of individuals like the leftwing Israeli Jew Schlomo Sand, author of the The Invention of the Jewish People. Available for purchase at the conference, this 2010 book argued in a discredited thesis (see here and here) that ancient Jews assimilated over time following Roman subjugation to successive inhabitants of the Holy Land like the Arabs. Rather than the descendants of diaspora exiles, meanwhile, modern Jews in Europe and elsewhere largely descended from Jewish converts.
Thus Palestinian Arabs like Rehab, and not Jews who have settled modern Israel, have a far superior ancestral claim to what Rehab called without exception “Palestine,” central scene of the Bible’s narrative. Astonishingly, Rehab believes that the Jewish Old Testament and the New Testament narrative of how various Jews spread the Gospel of the Jew Jesus as messiah are part of his “Palestinian” history. Accordingly, Rehab criticized that Israeli Jews “should not be able to confiscate” the Biblical story along with the Holy Land and denounced “myths” of Jews coming home to Israel. Palestinians lost “our narrative” in 1948 with Israel’s establishment and are now “aliens in the Holy Land.”
Yet the name Palestine for the Holy Land derives from Roman Emperor Hadrian’s designation of Israel as such in 135 AD using a Latinized version of Philistines, a Hellenistic people who in ancient times lived along the Mediterranean coast around Gaza. Roman reference to the “arch-enemies of the Israelites” was not accidental, as Emmy Award-winning journalist Simcha Jacobovici notes. Following the failed 132-135 AD Jewish Bar Kochba revolt, the Romans wanted “to erase the Jewish presence from Judea and to designate their homeland with reference to their Biblical enemies.”
Hadrian also changed the name of Jerusalem to Aelia Capitalina in honor of his clan name. During this period the Romans intentionally violated Jewish law with the placement of pagan deity statues in Jerusalem’s ruins. By contrast, a Roman coin marking the capture of Jerusalem during the failed Jewish revolt of 70 AD bore the Latin inscription “Judaea Capta [Judea captured].”
Similarly, the Bible speaks a geographical language completely different from Rehab’s strained invocations of “Palestine.” Philip Farah of the Palestinian Christian Alliance for Palestine (PCAP) unintentionally recalled this truth while reading during the November 8 opening service from Isaiah 2:1-4. This passage’s famed reference to peoples who “will beat their swords into plowshares” presupposes that the “law will go out from Zion.” Rehab’s Prophet Jeremiah, meanwhile, spoke of a “God of Israel” common throughout the Bible.
With respect to modern Judaism therefore, the Gentile Rehab seems to reject the Apostle Paul’s injunction to “not be arrogant, but tremble” (Romans 11:20) before Judaism given Jesus’ statement that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Unlike other Christians, Rehab draws apparently no affinity for Jews from the Old Testament’s original revelation of the one true “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Acts 3:13) completed in the New Testament. Rehab sees no connection between the “Jewish flesh” in which Jesus became God incarnate, now remembered or indeed transubstantiated in the Eucharist, as the late Catholic priest and scholar Richard John Neuhaus noted, and modern Jews. If anything, these Jews owe a theological debt to Rehab’s “Palestine.”
To the extent Israel’s relationship to the Old Testament appeared during the conference, participants radically reinterpreted this relationship or reduced its significance. One conference participant, for example, expressed Marcionite tendencies during the breakout session presentation of Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA) at which Said expressed her Old Testament concerns. Among Baptists, he said, emphasis on the “whole Bible is a pretty new idea” stemming from the “fundamentalists” who took over the Southern Baptist Convention.
In an eponymous November 9 panel, Zionism through Christian Lenses author Carole Monica Burnett, meanwhile, described Abraham receiving in his covenant (Genesis 15) “not a piece of real estate” but “companionship with God.” Her co-author Daryl P. Domning additionally defined this covenant as “not unconditional” but demanding Jewish justice. This entailed Israel choosing between a “Darwinian realpolitik” serving a territorial “false god” or being a “blessing to all nations” under a real God of justice. The third book author on the panel, Stephen H. France, likewise condemned Israel’s “dominion and cruelty” as manifesting “empire thinking,” the “central error or sin that God hates above all.” Domning, in contrast, saw divine reward for the Jews if they would “sacrifice their own fetishes” of ethnocentrism and unite in one state with Palestinian Christians and Muslims who all supposedly “worship the same God of Abraham.”
France therefore expressed a sentiment common to the conference of harmony between Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land and beyond. Briefly interviewed by me on November 9, Rehab foresaw absolutely no difficulties in making Christian professions of faith among his fellow Palestinians, 99% of whom are Muslim. Discussing religious repression of Christians today in Muslim-majority Arab countries like Egypt and Syria, Rehab called this a “recent phenomenon.”
Farah likewise vaguely referenced Jews, Christians, and Muslims living together in harmony in the past around Gaza during the November 9 “Myths about the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict and Impediments to Peace” panel. While discussing the controverted “invaluable” contribution of Islamic to Western civilization, Farah noted the influence of Muslim thinkers like Averroes (Ibn Rushd) upon the Jewish scholar Maimonides. Farah invoked these two men born nine years apart (1126 and 1135, respectively) in Cordoba, Spain, as a manifestation of Islam’s more imagined than real Golden Age in Andalusia.
Yet Farah overlooked certain facts, as the sharia scholar Andrew Bostom notes. In addition to studying philosophy, Averroes “was also a traditionally bigoted Maliki jurist who rendered strong anti-infidel Sharia rulings and endorsed classical jihadism.” Such jihadism confronted Jews like Maimonides themselves with the choice of Islamic conversion or flight when Cordoba fell to the “particularly fanatical Berber Muslim Almohads” in 1148. Like other medieval Jewish writers, Maimonides often referred to Islam’s prophet as ha-meshugga or the “madman.” Writing in 1172 to Jews persecuted by Muslim rulers in Yemen, Maimonides judged that “on account of the vast number of our sins, God has hurled us in the midst of this people, the Arabs, who have persecuted us severely.” Reactions against liberal thinking, meanwhile, resulted in Averroes’ exile to the predominantly Jewish village of Lucena outside of Cordoba and the banning and burning of his books in 1195, three years before Averroes death.
Rehab and Farah’s fantasies aside, Palestinian territories are not exempt from the reality of Islamic intolerance, as the conference itself could not hide. Presenting the United Palestinian Appeal (UPA) during a breakout session, UPA Grant Development Director Carlton Cobb noted the cancellation of a planned April 10, 2013, Gaza marathon after Hamas objected to women runners. Christians are not faring any better in Palestinian society, if the diminishment of Christians from 10% of the Palestinian population in 1920 to one percent today is any guide.
Like other Palestinian Christians, Farah spoke of Israel having “all but exterminated” the Palestinian Christian community. The Palestinian Basic Law (PBL), the Palestinian Authority’s temporary constitution, however, suggests that Muslim mores are the culprit for this Christian religious cleansing. Proclaimed with the traditional Muslim invocation of the “Name of God, the Merciful and the Compassionate,” the PBL seeks a state for the “Arab Palestinian people.” The capital will be “Jerusalem (al-Quds al-Sharif)…the first shrine and the third mosque, to which the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, traveled by night.” PBL Article 4 proclaims that “Islam is the official religion in Palestine” and the “principles of Islamic Shari’a shall be a principal source of legislation,” although the “sanctity of all other divine religions shall be maintained.”
Not surprisingly in light of the PBL, ample evidence documents longstanding Muslim persecution of Christians in the Holy Land independent of conflict with Israel. Pace Rehab, this persecution accords with orthodox authoritarian sharia norms such as the “second class” dhimmi status of Christians and others present throughout history’s Muslim-majority societies. Arab Christian opposition to Zionism and denial of Muslim oppression, meanwhile, has often reflected Arab Christians’ “way to deflect Muslim hostility away from themselves,” according to one analyst. A Jerusalem Christian cleric interviewed by this analyst “compared the behavior of Christian dhimmis to that of battered wives or children, who continue to defend and even identify with their tormentor even as the abuse persists.”
Yet in contrast to the flight of Christians throughout the Middle East, Israel has seen its Arab Christian population increase from 34,000 in 1949 to 125,000 in 2011. Even the Palestinian territories have witnessed a slight increase in their Christian population under Israeli control from 42,494 in 1967 to 51,710 in 2007. In light of this security offered to Christians by the free Jewish state of Israel, some Christians have begun to reexamine their identities, saying that they are not Arabs but “Christians who speak Arabic.” Arabs, after all, as one Israeli writer notes, “imposed their religion, their culture and their language” during a seventh century conquest of Middle East peoples, the “vast majority of which was actually originally not Arab.”
Accordingly, an Israeli Arab Christian party formed in July 2013, B’nei Brit Hahadasha (“Sons of the New Testament” in Hebrew), advocating Christian Arab enlistment in the Israeli military. During 2013, meanwhile, 90 Israeli Arabs volunteered for the Israeli military, a threefold increase in comparison to 2010; the 3,000th Israeli Arab also volunteered for civil service, almost double the number of 1,700 in 2012. Druze Arabs in the Golan Heights unilaterally annexed by Israel from Syria in 1981 also increased their requests for Israeli citizenship several-hundredfold in 2012 in light of Syria’s bloody civil war.
These facts of the Holy Land’s past and present should frame Rehab’s somewhat dubious keynote address statement that Palestinians have no means of resistance “except through story.” Rehab thereby sees Israelis fearing Palestinian Christians because “we have access to the pulpits” in countries like the United States. Here “theology is part of the problem” for Palestinians, “not part of the solution.” While weapons from around the world form Israel’s “hardware” in an “illegal occupation,” Rehab argued during the November 8 service, the “people in the pew” in an American “country full of churchgoers” are the “software.”
Thus Rehab saw a “great need of an awakening” concerning Palestine and Israel. Rev. Dr. Steve Hyde of Annandale, Virginia’s Ravingsworth Baptist Church likewise referenced during the service the “disconnect between good, decent people” and their use of “racial slurs” in the segregated Arkansas of his youth. Hyde could not “join the oppressors of those I choose to ignore.” During a breakout session presentation of PCAP, Farah also saw a need to “first build the grassroots” in the United States for the Palestinian cause.
Nonetheless, the story offered at Waging Peace in Palestine & Israel suffers from numerous flaws. The Palestine celebrated by the conference attendees derives its name from the same Roman imperialism Rehab and other conference participants constantly invoked to compare Jesus’ life under foreign rule with Israeli occupation. Palestinian Christians like Rehab, meanwhile, descend from peoples assimilated over the centuries to (Muslim) Arab culture through another act of imperialism in many ways still ongoing. Farah’s reference during the “Myths” panel to Gaza as a source of fine wines enjoyed by Julius Caesar as well as barley for beer unintentionally recalled this pre-Arab past before Hamas made imbibing a perilous pleasure.
In yet another, more modern distortion of vocabulary, audience member and Palestinian activist Katherine Metres proposed redefining anti-Semitism to encompass Arabs as well as Jews as Semites. This would reverse the tables on a charge often made against Israel’s opponents. Fortuitously, she argued this precisely on the 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht national pogrom, a historical fact indicating the gravity of this term and its need for proper definition.
Like the conference’s biased understanding of Israeli-Palestinian conflict issues, Waging Peace in Palestine & Israel’s half-baked, hate-based history offers no basis for peace and freedom in the region. The conference merely continues traditions of Palestinian Christians seeking acceptance in an authoritarian Arab society as a dhimmi appendage of a Muslim jihad against Jews. The best chance in the region of enjoying liberty under law for Christian Arabs and others lies instead with acceptance of Israel and its Biblically-based values of human dignity. By living amongst Jews, moreover, Arab Christians can experience the living history of Christianity’s Jewish roots. Christians around the world who “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6) should reject the “false prophets” and wolves “in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15) of Waging Peace in Palestine & Israel.