A recent report in Haaretz has highlighted a controversy in Australia about the Palestinian identity of Jesus of Nazareth.
The controversy itself is spiralling into an unattractive—and mostly ill-informed—social media ‘debate’ about the existence of Palestine prior to the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman forces in 70 CE, the on-going conflict over Palestine as in some sense also a Jewish homeland, and even the historicity of Jewish cultural continuity with the biblical lands. This is the stuff of media controversy that makes news editors happy at the festive season in the Western world.
The three critical players in triggering this controversy are:
Two members of APAN (Australian Palestinian Advocacy Network), who published an opinion piece in New Matilda about a recent Australian delegation to Palestine that was criticised by local officials for its alleged ignorance of Palestinian issues. The opening paragraph of that op-ed piece reads as follows:
So this is Christmas, and what has Australia done? An official delegation representing our country in Israel has added fuel to the flames of extremism abroad by applauding proven human rights violators and insulting the living descendants of Christ in his home of birth in Palestine.
That final comment was hardly the primary point of the article, but it provided the basis for a complaint by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, who is the second critical player in this fake controversy. They addressed their concerns not to New Matilda, nor even to APAN, but to the President of the Uniting Church in Australia; with which APAN has a very informal connection via the local ecumenical networks.
The third player in this saga is the ill-advised President of the Uniting Church in Australia, who issued a statement that betrays a profound lack of knowledge about the historical realities in Palestine as well as the political dynamics of the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. The key text from his statement is as follows:
I would like to assure you and the Jewish community that the Uniting Church does not accept the view that Jesus was Palestinian. We affirm that Jesus and most of his early followers were Jewish. We note that Jesus was born neither in Israel nor in Palestine, but in the Roman-occupied province of Judea, and that it is entirely inappropriate for anybody to attempt to claim political capital from the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem to bolster claims of either ‘side’ of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Apart from the nonsense of claiming to speak from a non-political position in this most-politicised of all religious issues, this statement betrays a lack of knowledge of the historical connection of all Palestinians—whether Christians or Muslims—to the figure of Jesus.
It is beyond reasonable debate that Jesus was a Palestinian, but he was a Palestinian Jew (or a Jewish Palestinian, if you prefer). He was a Palestinian because he lived in Palestine, and seemingly moved between different political entities within his country—including checkpoints (toll booths) as he passed from one jurisdiction to another—in a way that resonates for many contemporary Palestinians.
For the record, it is inaccurate and misleading to describe the homeland of Jesus as “the Roman-occupied province of Judea”. Rome established political control of Palestine in 63 BCE, but chose to work through local indigenous political structures until after the Jewish rebellion in 66 CE. At first Rome worked with the Hasmonean dynasty; and later with Herod the Great, appointed ‘King of the Jews’ by Rome in 37 BCE.
If Jesus was born prior to the death of Herod in 4 BCE, then he was not born in “the Roman-occupied province of Judea” but in the puppet kingdom of Herod the Great. If Jesus was born in Bethlehem between 4 BCE and 6 CE, then he was born in the puppet kingdom of Archelaus, Ethnarch of the Jews. If Jesus was born in Nazareth any time after 4 BCE, then he was born in the puppet kingdom of Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. At no stage in these three different political arrangements was Palestine occupied by the Roman army. That happened in Judea from 6 CE, following the dismissal of Archelaus; and in the rest of the country only after 70 CE.
(This contrasts with the parallel situation in Britain at the time, where Rome did not work with local rulers, but conquered the country and maintained the Pax Romana by direct military presence.)
The ‘hot button’ issue underlying this fake controversy is not the political arrangements at the time of Jesus’ birth, but the present day conflict between Jews and Arabs for control of Palestine. Official Israeli representatives and members of the Jewish diaspora communities in Western countries, are highly sensitive to two issues caught up in this controversy.
In the first place, and quite correctly, there is deep concern at the recent tendency of Palestinian advocates to question the historical connection between the Jewish people and the land of Palestine. Such historical revisionism draws on critical biblical scholarship, including work by esteemed Jewish colleagues, that undermines the historicity of the Old Testament narratives. It is correct (and important) that we acknowledge the non-historical character of the biblical traditions about Abraham, the Exodus, the Conquest and even the ’empire’ of David. But this in no way undermines the authentic Jewish connection to the biblical lands.
Just as we should not countenance Zionist exploitation of the great Jewish religious texts for contemporary nationalistic purposes, nor should we allow Palestinian advocates to distort biblical and historical scholarship to deny Jewish links to Palestine. In both cases this represents an abuse of good scholarship and a betrayal of the best of our shared biblical heritage.
Secondly, and equally unacceptable, there is a tendency among Jewish advocates to deny the historical existence of the Palestinians, including their authentic connections to this Land. It is a well established fact that the Palestinian population are the direct descendants of the ancient peoples of this land, including ancient Jews. As another recent Haaretz article has reported, DNA analysis has demonstrated that the closest match for Jewish DNA is to be found in the Palestinian population, including Bedouin and Druze.
Some of the most recent research was by Ostrer and Skorecki, and was reviewed in the journal, Human Genetics in October 2012. They summarise their findings as follows:
The closest genetic neighbors to most Jewish groups were the Palestinians, Israeli Bedouins, and Druze in addition to the Southern Europeans, including Cypriots …
The persistent Israeli refusal to recognise the ancient connection of the Palestinian population with the Jewish population in biblical times is a sad index of the nature of the conflict over Palestine. The Jewish and Arab populations have equal historical connections to the biblical lands, which is not the same as a valid claim to political sovereignty over Palestine. We are dealing with a conflict between two related population groups which, over time, have adopted different identities.
Jewish diaspora communities in the Middle East and in Europe maintained a sense of their identity, as well as their deep attachment to Jerusalem and to Eretz Israel. From time to time, and especially during the Ottoman period, significant numbers of these Jews returned to Palestine. However, they held no dreams of a Zionist state.
Over the past 2,000 years, the Jewish and non-Jewish populations that remained in Palestine adopted a series of new identities, including Byzantine Christian and—from the seventh century CE—Arabic. As they adopted Arabic language and accommodated to the new realities following the Islamic conquest of Palestine in the 600s, these ‘Arabs’ mostly forgot their own ancient identities as Jews, Canaanites, Phoenicians, etc.
For both communities the land is basic to their identity. In addition, they have a common attachment to Jerusalem.
In the late nineteenth century, European imperial interests colluded with an emerging sense of nationalism among European Jewry, to cultivate the dream of the Jewish colonisation of Palestine. All of the people of Palestine, whether they identify as Arab or Jewish, continue to suffer from the tragic consequences of European colonialism; as do their neighbours in Iraq and Syria, where international borders drawn up by imperial bureaucrats in London and Paris continue to diminish the lives of people across the Middle East.
It would truly be a Christmas gift worthy of celebration if we could avoid the fake controversy around the New Matilda article, and focus on the quest for an outcome that offers hope to millions of people in Palestine and its neighbours.