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Jewish World Review Jan. 7, 2001 / 23 Teves, 5762

Jonathan Tobin

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Believing Christians better wake-up to Arafat's ultimate goals -- ONE of the most curious paradoxes of the Middle East is that one of the first important Palestinian Arab nationalists was a Christian.

George Antonious' book The Arab Awakening was one of the earliest intellectual expressions of Palestinian Arab resentment about Zionism. But Antonious was far from alone as a Christian Arab who saw his future with the aspirations of the Muslim majority in the Arab world rather than with that of the Christian West. Some might have adopted these views as a defense mechanism, but others such as Antonious were determined to be better Arabs than any Muslim.

Other Christians in Lebanon and even Syria adopted a fierce Arab nationalism. The founders of the Ba'ath party - a secular Arab ideology whose adherents currently hold both Syria and Iraq in a reign of terror - were Christian. And indeed, many of the leading voices of Palestinian Arab politics and violence are Christian, such as terror chief George Habash and spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi.

It is only in this context of a nexus between secular Christians and Muslim-dominated nationalist movements that one can understand the way the annual Christmas festivities in Bethlehem have been transformed into a symbol of Palestinian identity.

Thus, the skepticism about the need for a Muslim terrorist like Palestinian Authority Yasser Arafat to attend Midnight Mass in Bethlehem is somewhat off the point. Arafat and his propaganda spinners in the Palestinian press have continually embraced Christian symbols if only to more thoroughly disinherit the Jews from the Land of Israel and to engage Christian sympathy abroad. In this distorted mythology, the Jews are European "colonists" in Israel, whose natives are the ancestors of the Jews of Biblical times.

This vicious brand of revisionism has been encouraged by generations of Christian, chiefly Protestant, missionaries in the region, who founded institutions such as the American Universities in Cairo and Beirut, which are centers of Arabism and hostility to Zionism.

But at the same time that the Palestinians have been portraying the Christian Savior as the first Palestinian and the Palestinians as the modern embodiment of their crucified Messiah, another even more sinister trend has taken place in the region: the wholesale decimation and depopulation of Christian Arab communities in Arab lands.


In Lebanon, the demise of the Christian Maronites who once ruled the roost was, perhaps, inevitable. Never willing to wholly ally themselves with the Jewish state, the Maronites didn't lift a finger to aid Israel's misguided intervention in 1982 (other, that is, than to settle scores with their Palestinian enemies and leave Israel to take the blame) and have settled uncomfortably into their place under the rule of Syria. Even as Beirut has revived after the end of the long Lebanese Civil War, Christian Lebanon is shrinking.

Even more dramatic is the collapse of Christian Arab society under the rule of Arafat, following Israel's handing over of large parts of Judea and Samaria to the Palestinian Authority.

The Muslim-dominated P.A. has made life uncomfortable for Christians. And the rise of Hamas and Islamic Jihad - Islamic fundamentalists who are both rivals and allies of the P.A. and its terrorist forces - has left the continued survival of Palestinian Christians in doubt.

Areas where Christian Arabs were recently the majority, such as Bethlehem and its surrounding villages, are now majority Muslim. Thousands continue to immigrate to Latin America and the United States, where many serve as a vocal anti-Israel advocates.

Christians have suffered the most from the mafia-style rule of Arafat's kleptocracy. This is highly reminiscent of what went on in southern Lebanon before Israel ousted the Palestine Liberation Organization from that region in 1982. Just as in Lebanon, violence directed at Christians, particularly Christian women, is endemic and, apparently, not discouraged by Palestinian leaders who refuse to discipline Tanzim and Fatah "activists" who have been accused of violent crimes.

It may be that this is more a function of life in a place where there is little concept of the rule of law than religious discrimination, but that is always the fate of religious minorities in such societies. Dhimmi, the classic 1985 study of the life of religious minorities under Muslim rule by historian Bat Ye'or, highlighted this paradox. Though Palestinian nationalism is basically secular, life under its rule appears to offer Christians the same status as classic Islam: life as an inferior, though protected, minority. In her newest book Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide, Ye'or adds new insight to this concept and how the westernization of the Islamic world has added to the feelings of frustration of Muslims who are infuriated by the presence of a Jewish majority state in the Middle East.

Given their common status as minorities within an overwhelmingly Muslim region, you might expect Christian Arabs to find some common cause with Jews and Israel. But the traditional antipathy of Eastern Christianity for Judaism, combined with the futile hopes for assimilation within the Arab world, have closed off that option.

All this has led us to the curious point where Christians Arabs are simultaneously being ousted from Palestinian areas and yet serving as some of the most vituperative foes of Israel.


Just as curious are the equally diverse sentiments of American Christians towards Middle East issues.

Most American Christians are simply indifferent to the fate of their co-religionists in the Arab world. While dangers posed to Jews abroad have been a source of political activism, philanthropy and genuine concern for American Jews, the state of Christians in Israel and Arab countries is not something that gets the 90-something percent of Americans who identify with Christian denominations terribly upset.

At the same time, though Arafat hopes and Israel fears that his Christmas symbolism will resonate with Americans, it is highly doubtful that anyone much cares about this in the United States. American Jewish paranoia about anti-Semitism notwithstanding, believing Christians now serve as the backbone for American support for Israel.

Recent statements by the pope and the Vatican's fears for the safety of Arab Christians have led to policies that have upset Israel. But the Catholic Church's rejection of anti-Semitic teachings stands in contrast to some of the less enlightened rhetoric that has emerged from Christian communities in the East. And though liberal Protestant denominations are sympathetic to Arab nationalism and hostile to Zionism, more conservative evangelical Christian Protestants are just the opposite, with many being Israel's biggest fans.

Ironically, both American Christians and Israeli Jews are left as puzzled bystanders to the ongoing destruction of Palestinian Christian life. Instead of using the proximity of Israel and the potential of aid from the United States as a lever to lessen Muslim oppression, Arab Christians seem incapable of speaking out in their own defense, especially if it could give Israel any advantage.

The Christians of "Palestine" are fated to see their way of life undone by the very cause they have done so much to advance.

Such are the ironies of religious wars, which have blinded this unhappy community to their own best interests.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin