Israel’s Knesset considers bill to identify Palestinian Christians as ‘non-Arab’

One of the oldest churches in the world (over 1600 years), St. Porphyrius Orthodox church in Gaza.
St. Porphyrios Orthodox church in Gaza, 5th century

The delusional virtual reality that many in the West already live in will now possibly be given legal justification by the Israeli government. Israel’s Knesset is now considering a bill that would identify all Palestinian Christians with Israeli citizenship as non-Arab. It is unclear then how their culture, ethnicity, or language will be defined, but what is clear is that Israel intends to simply declare a fiction through mere legal fiat. Israel knows what it’s doing, but this will only serve to confirm the deep ignorance of pro-Israel Americans and Westerners in general when it comes to demographic realities among Palestinians. See this from the original Al-Akhbar report:

The bill was proposed by Yariv Levin, coalition chairman for the governing conservative Likud-Yisrael Beitenu faction, in January.“My legislation will award separate representation and a separate frame of reference to the Christian public, distinguishing them from Muslim Arabs,” Levin had said at the time. “This is an important, historic step that could introduce balance to the State of Israel, and connect us [Jews] with the Christians,” he added. “I make sure not to refer to them as Arabs, because they are not Arabs.”

It is easier for Israel to sell its policies to the Western public if it can maintain a simplistic black-and-white narrative of an Israeli Jewish fight against a sea of Arab Muslims. This ultimately serves to underscore the narrative of Palestinian Arab=Muslim. Nevermind the large sectors within Palestinian society that lack affiliation with Islam: secularists, communists, Arab nationalist, Druze, or Christians. And nevermind the inconvenient fact that the oldest identity when it comes to the Palestinian Arab demographic is represented in the Christian segment of the population. For a little review see here:

There are over 14 million Christians living in the Middle East (most are Orthodox, followed by Catholics). These Christian communities, in their ancient origins, predate the existence of Islam. Arabic as a spoken language was used by Christians six centuries prior to the writing of the Koran, and Church history testifies to the presence of at least one Arab bishop at the Council of Nicaea.

In Texas, and throughout the American South in general, where the most dedicated devotees of Zionism are Evangelical Christians, I receive blank stares anytime I say the words ‘Palestinian Christians’ or ‘Arab Christians.’ After a little attempt to process, the initial response, if I get one at all, is “but when did they convert from Islam?”

When most American Christians read the Bible and see names of ancient cities like Antioch, Damascus, Tyre, Sidon, Nazareth etc… identified with the earliest foundational Christian communities, this is for them a sort of distant, mythic reference to a mysterious and obscure moment in time when “Bible figures” happened to briefly stroll these ancient Eastern streets prior to these regions being engulfed in Islam. If American Protestants feel the need for a “Christian antiquity fix” they take roadtrips down to places like Holy Land Experience in Florida, or they name their Baptist churches “Antioch Baptist” or “Antioch Community Church” etc… Even the idea that a “sea of Islam” definitively and with finality took over the whole Middle East in the 7th and 8th centuries is a myth – many urban centers, especially in the Levant remained entirely Christian throughout the middle ages and into the modern period.

Many of the Middle Eastern cities named in the Book of Acts still have skylines dominated by crosses and Byzantine style church domes. Walk in to Holy Cross Orthodox Church in the Qassaa neighborhood of Damascus, for example, on a Sunday morning or Wednesday evening and you’ll find it packed with Syrian Christian college students and young adults. When did their families become Christian?…the answer you’d receive is this: when Paul and other Apostles preached there in the first century.

One can even visit large urban churches in Gaza – like the one pictured above. I’ve heard multiple accounts from American Protestant families just returning from a trip to the Holy Land that go like this: “The holy sites just weren’t spiritual enough! They were cluttered with all this ‘catholicy’ stuff like icons and candles!” This is of course a reference to the Orthodox churches and shrines that dominate Jerusalem’s Old City and its environs. Israeli Parliament, believe it or not, even sits on land owned by the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

This Israeli attempt to erase, at least within its borders, Arab Christian identity is really a PR campaign aimed primarily at a West that is already deeply ignorant. A result of this ignorance, especially in the United States, is that the West consistently approves of or looks the other way when it comes to controversial Israeli expansionist policies.

The Knesset resolution is one proposed solution to the ongoing debate among Israeli policymakers over what to do with the influential Christian Palestinian resistance movement, centered in places like Beit Sahour – the Orthodox Christian village (West Bank) which pioneered a nonviolent resistance movement during the First and Second Intifadas. The attempt of the Christians of Beit Sahour to gain some international attention to their plight under harsh Israeli occupation met with some success during both Intifiadas.

Beit Sahour, a Christian village in the West Bank, just east of Bethlehem
Beit Sahour, a Christian village in the West Bank, just east of Bethlehem

In 1989 (during the First Intifada), diplomats from Britain, France, Belgium, Greece, Italy, Spain and Sweden attempted to gain access to Beit Sahour during a complete Israeli siege and blockade of the Christian town. These diplomats were prevented from entering as the Israeli Defense Forces did house to house searches and seizures. During the Second Intifada, multiple Christian youths were killed and wounded as the IDF again attempted to bring the town into compliance.

Christian Palestinians are overwhelmingly against the modern state of Israel and its expansionist policies. Israeli bulldozers level Christian villages just as they do Muslim villages. Christians also certainly suffer from occasional random acts of violence from West Bank and Gaza Islamic fundamentalist groups, but the consistent message of Palestinian Christians is that they are ultimately victims of multiple decades of Israeli persecution and land grabs. As Al-Akhbar reports:

Levin’s opinion in regards to the non-Arab status of Palestinian Christians was strongly condemned by Palestinians and Christian organizations that Al-Akhbar was able to contact in regards to the topic. “First of all, Palestinian Christians and Muslims are the same,” Mustafa Barghouti, founder and Secretary General of the Palestinian National Initiative, told Al-Akhbar. Barghouti noted that some of the most prominent champions of Arab nationalism and the Palestinian liberation movement were Christians, such as George Habash and Edward Said. “We are all proud of people like Edward Said who was at the forefront in the fight against occupation, colonialism, and occupation,” Barghouti said. “This is an act of arrogance and a violation of basic rights. Israel is conducting the usual colonial practice of divide and rule,” he said… “What Israel is doing is the worst form of racism and orientalism. They have no right to speak on behalf of Christian Palestinians, and Christian Palestinians will no doubt respond to this,” Barghouti added.

The problems of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are complex – the attempts being made to simplify it into false black-and-white categories will only make things more difficult for all, especially for those people that have inhabited the land for the longest unbroken succession over the last 2,000 years: the Palestinian Christians – who alone can speak for their identity and culture.

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