During the week covered by this review, we received 30 articles on the following subjects:
The Pope and the Vatican
Haaretz, December 22, 2013
The paper ran a photograph of Father Ibrahim Shomali, the Catholic parish priest of Beit Jala, serving mass in a pre-Christmas celebration. The caption noted that “the heads of 13 Christian churches in Jerusalem used a joint seasonal message yesterday to underline their strong opposition to the use of violence to solve conflicts.”
The Jerusalem Post, December 22, 2013
The Jerusalem municipality will be distributing free Christmas trees to the city’s Christian residents. Mayor Nir Barkat said: “As the home of the three Abrahamic traditions, Jerusalem is dear to over 3.5 billion people of varying faiths around the world. … Our city is proud to be an open city, with freedom of religion for all residents.”
The Jerusalem Post, December 22; Maariv, The Jerusalem Post, December 23; Makor Rishon, Yisrael HaYom, December 27, 2013
Christian MK Hanna Sweid of the Hadash party has asked that a Christmas tree be placed in the Knesset ahead of the holiday. “Placing a tree in the parliament would be an important gesture to Christians in Israel and around the world,” Sweid wrote, “especially after so-called ‘price-tag’ vandalism against churches.”
In response, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said that “it is not appropriate for the Knesset to have a Christmas tree,” although Sweid is welcome to put one up in his office. Sweid admitted that he is disappointed by this decision. A Christmas tree “could have been an opportunity to emphasize the Knesset’s special status as an official institution, but also a pluralist one where Arab MKs are elected by the public, including Christians, and there are representatives of all sectors of the population. … The public space does not only belong to the Jewish majority,” said Sweid.
Writing for Maariv, Arik Bender says that the decision not to have a Christmas tree in the Knesset is out of place. He suggests that a tree could have been put up in one of the hallways (if not the main entrance) “as an act of identification with the Christian faction in Israel and the many Christian pilgrims who visit the land during the holidays.” Indeed, writes Bender, “only recently have we become aware of those Christian Arabs who are volunteering to serve in the IDF. … This is a group that is loyal to the State of Israel.” Edelstein should have taken his cue from Obama, says Bender, who lights a hanukiya (menorah) every year in honor of the Jewish holiday.
Dan Margalit of Yisrael HaYom agrees with Bender that the decision was a mistake. He goes so far as to use the story of a nameless IDF soldier who rose in the ranks of the army and was highly respected until the day he confessed to his superiors that he is a Messianic Jew. He asked them if, in light of this information, they would like him to resign, and after some deliberation, his colleagues told him, “you are one of us.” He was respected until the day he died, regardless of his Messianic faith. Margalit retells this story to highlight the difference between the army commanders’ “wise decision” in comparison to Edelstein’s cowardly one.
Hagai Segal, on the other hand, writes in Makor Rishon that Yuli Edelstein was right to turn down Sweid’s request: “He did not fall into the trap set for him” by comparisons made between a Christmas tree in the Knesset and a hanukiya in the White House. Because religion and politics are separated in the United States, “everyone understands that having a hanukiya in the White House does not make the USA a Jewish state.” There is no such separation in Israel, however; Israel “defines itself as a Jewish state.” Moreover, writes Segal, not only is MK Sweid a Christian, he is also identified with the “Palestinian resistance, which refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Because of him, and other stubborn Arab leaders like him, it is very important that we stand guard over our Jewish symbols and Jewish identity. … If Sweid would be willing to recognize our Jewishness, maybe we will have something to talk about.”
Yisrael HaYom, December 23; The Jerusalem Post, December 25; The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, December 26, 2013
About 100 Christian Arabs currently serving in the IDF gathered together on Sunday at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Nazareth to hear a recorded Christmas message from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu expressed his support for those who are joining the IDF and said the government would show zero tolerance towards any violence perpetrated against Christian Arab recruits and their families.
Gilad Sharon, writing for The Jerusalem Post, expands on the issue of Christian Arabs joining the IDF by focusing on Father Gabriel Nadaf, the Orthodox priest who is spearheading the movement. Nadaf “bears a heavy burden,” writes Sharon, “not unlike Christ in the painting on the wall of his home in Nazareth, who carried the cross on his back. But Father Gabriel Nadaf’s burden is of a different sort: to persuade the Christian population in Israel to join the IDF.” Nadaf has been ostracized by his Muslim neighbors, but has also received a lot of criticism from his fellow Christians. He has received death threats, and his children have been attacked – all because “a man of God, a citizen of Israel, is calling on the members of his community to display loyalty to their country and integrate into its society.”
Sharon explains how the Christian Arabs in Israel are a minority within a minority, but are still treated better here than in other parts of the region, where Christians suffer from “relentless persecution, and their situation … is nothing short of catastrophic.” As a result, the Christians have had few options to help them survive within the majority Muslim communities, like becoming communist, or extremist, “uncompromising in their rejection of Israel in an effort to demonstrate their loyalty and gain the approval of a hostile environment that victimizes people of their faith.”
And yet, “anyone with eyes in their head, such as Father Nadaf, can see that there is no place for Christians in the Arab world. The chairman of the Palestinian Authority may have his picture taken at midnight mass in Bethlehem for all the world to see, but there is no greater hypocrisy.” This is why, according to Sharon, Father Nadaf is “a man of honor” who “encourages his community not only to take from the country, but to give to it as well.”
In a separate article, Ya’acov Lapkin reports on the rise in Christian-Arab enlistment in the IDF. Quoting an army source, Lapkin writes that “the last recruitment cycle is the largest observed in recent years.” There are currently 140 Christian Arabs in active service and 400 in the reserves. According to Lapkin, the military believes that Father Nadaf’s efforts have more than doubled the number of Christians serving in the military.
The Jerusalem Post, December 20, 2013
Israel’s Tourism Ministry published a list of events taking place in Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem in celebration of the Christmas holiday.
Maariv, December 25, 2013
This three-page article describes the Christmas festivities in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Most of the three pages are filled with pictures of the event, which drew thousands of Christians and Muslims to the “city of Jesus’ birth.” The article reports that in 2013, 1.3 million tourists visited Bethlehem, which is a record number. Last year it is estimated that around 170,000 tourists visited the city between Christmas and New Year, while this year the number is expected to almost double. The army told Maariv that it has granted some 20,000 permits to Christian Palestinians, which allow them to pass in and out of Bethlehem during the holidays.
In an interview for the paper, Bethlehem’s mayor, Vera Babon, says that Bethlehem is an example of the way Christians and Muslims can live together in harmony: “As opposed to other places around the world, the relations here are an example of cooperation between religions without distinction. … We have a joint purpose: both Muslim and Christian Palestinians are interested in bringing an end to the Israeli occupation.” Babon also expresses her regret that so few (if any) Jews attend the Christmas celebrations in her city. “It’s sad that there is a fence that separates us,” she says.
Globes, December 2, 2013
Globes released some interesting statistics about the Christian community in Israel in honor of Christmas: today there are about 161,000 Christians living in Israel, making up 2% of the population; 79.8% of these Christians are Arab, while the rest are relatives of Jews who made aliya under the Law of Return. Nazareth, Haifa, Jerusalem, and Shfar’am have the highest concentration of Christians. Christian Arabs have the highest success rate in the Bagrut exams (Ministry of Education matriculation exams) in comparison to both Muslim and Jewish students throughout the country.
Yisrael HaYom, December 25 & 27 [X3], 2013
Abu Mazen, Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, offered his good wishes to the Christians living in the West Bank and Gaza as well as Christians around the world as they celebrate Christmas. However, Abu Mazen “raised a few eyebrows around the world when he said in his speech that Jesus was a Palestinian: ‘In Bethlehem,’ he said, ‘2,000 years ago, Jesus was born, a Palestinian who brought the gospel and became a mentor for millions all over the world. Just as we Palestinians are fighting for our freedom 2,000 years later – we are trying to walk in his footsteps as much as possible.’” A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in response that Abu Mazen “ought to check his facts: he should have read through the New Testament very carefully before making such a statement. But we forgive him, because he knows not what he does.”
The Jerusalem Post, December 26, 2013
As the year draws to a close, Benjamin Weinthal surveys the plight of Christians throughout the Middle East in 2013, concluding that the year was “lethal and horrific” for the Christian Arab minorities. “In October, four Coptic Christians were riddled with bullets in front of their church in Cairo,” he writes, “and the Islamic Republic of Iran sentenced Christians to 80 lashes for drinking wine during communion and operating a satellite television dish. … Muslim Brotherhood activists torched Egyptian churches and kidnapped Coptic Christians. Radical Islamic extremists stamped out a Christian presence in the northern city of Raqqa. Jihadists are believed to be behind the kidnapping of 12 Syrian nuns.”
The plight of Christians in the Middle East is so terrible that both the pope and Prince Charles have felt the need to highlight their situation and plead for an end to the persecution. In light of this, Weinthal is very critical of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Christmas message, which focused on the injustices being perpetrated against Palestinians instead of looking at the broader picture. “Why Israel was singled out in the midst of massive violence directed at Christians in Egypt, Syria and Iraq is nothing short of perplexing. After all, Israel’s Christians are largely immune from the persecution and violence inflicted on their fellow Christians in the heartland of the Middle East.”
Weinthal here turns his attention to those Christian Arabs in Israel who are choosing to defend their homeland by serving in the IDF, recognizing that this is the only safe haven available to them in the Middle East. And yet, in spite of this, the Christians in Israel still have their problems to deal with: “There have been ‘price-tag’ attacks on Christian institutions in Israel and the disputed territories, including the scrawling of anti-Christian graffiti on Christian worship sites.”
In conclusion, Weinthal wonders what 2014 will hold for the Christian community throughout the Middle East, assuming that “times will likely grow even tougher and more grueling for this persecuted minority in Muslim-majority countries.”
Israel Post, December 26, 2013
The paper criticizes the Israeli government for not doing enough to cash in on the Christmas holiday tourist potential. “Israel has done little to develop this tourist potential,” most especially by neglecting to invest in the city of Nazareth.
Haaretz, December 26, 2013
Yosi Klein reflects on the love-hate relationship Jews have with New Year’s celebrations, concluding that Jews are suspicious of anything that might be connected to Christianity, even though they long to party and celebrate along with the rest of the world. Klein laments the fact that this suspicion keeps Israelis from really understanding Christianity, including getting to know their Christian “neighbors” the world over. He blames the religious Orthodox faction for this enclosed, secluded mindset that keeps Israel (and Jews) isolated within the global context.
The Pope and the Vatican
Maariv, December 26, 2013
This four-page article looks back on the first papal visit to Israel fifty years ago, comparing the then pope, Paul VI, with today’s Francis I. The two significant differences, writes David Melamed, are that the current pope does not have a black mark on his personal history in relation to the Holocaust, and that Israel’s chief rabbis are not expected to boycott Pope Francis’ visit as they did Pope Paul’s. Even though Israel was extremely interested in the pope’s visit in 1964, and went to great efforts to prepare for his arrival (spending vast sums of money), the Vatican did not coordinate any of the visit with the Israeli government, refusing to recognize Israel as a state. Melamed concludes by writing that the hype that surrounded that first visit – the heightened expectations on the part of Israel – will not be repeated during Pope Francis’ visit in the spring, for Israel has learned its lesson.
Yisrael HaYom, December 27, 2013
Twenty years after Israel and the Vatican signed the historic agreement that allowed for both states to open embassies in the other’s country, Yosi Beilin, who signed on behalf of Israel, reflects on the experience. He remembers how little he knew about the Vatican, explaining that one did not encounter Christianity in school and could very well obtain a PhD without ever encountering it.
The Jerusalem Post, December 23, 2013
A small group of Jews, Christians, and Muslims gathered in front of the Prime Minister’s office on Sunday morning to protest against the growing number of “price-tag” attacks. “We are here across from the PM to call for him and the government to stop the price-tag attacks,” the protesters said. “It can’t be that for four years Jewish terror cells have run amuck in the state of Israel without being disturbed.”
In the past three years there have been 176 price tag attacks against Muslim or Christian factions. The number of attacks is probably higher than that, however, since many of them go unreported. Ahmed Hilchem, from the Wadi Ara Council, told the Post that “there is no reason to refrain from classifying these attacks as acts of terror,” adding that “if I had gone into Hadera and done this kind of thing, they would have caught me in five or six hours and declared that I was a terrorist.”
The Jerusalem Post, December 20, 2013
The former chief rabbi of Ireland, David Rosen, kicked off the English Speaking Residents Association winter lecture series. Rabbi Rosen is “one of the leading Jewish liaisons with the Christian world” and is “an internationally recognized authority on Jewish-Christian relations.” His vast experience in interfaith dialogue more than equips him “to discuss the extent to which the Christian world has really changed in its attitude towards Jews and Israel.”
Olam Katan, November 29, 2013
This two-page article focuses on the Jewish community in Greece and how it has managed to survive over the centuries. Of interest is a short paragraph in which the former chief rabbi of Athens explains that most of the Greek population is Orthodox – a faction of Christianity that has hate for the Jews ingrained in its theology. Rabbi Arar demonstrates this by quoting a Christian hymn commonly sung at Easter, which says: “This day the sky is black, because the Jews decided to crucify Jesus.” Arar has countered this by telling the Greeks that “Christians need to thank us for what we did” during the Hasmonean period, when the Jews overthrew the Greeks, “because without that victory … there would be no Christian Orthodox religion in Greece.”
Maariv, December 27, 2013
Avi Becker reviews Simon Sebag Montefiore’s book Jerusalem: the Biography, which was recently released in a Hebrew translation. He focuses much of his review on the historical presence of Christians in Jerusalem (beginning with the Crusades) and how these drew much of their religious inspiration and ceremonies from the Jews who had been there before them – those whom the Christians tried “to replace as the new chosen nation in the chosen city.” Becker is impressed with the way Montefiore manages to portray the human narrative of Jerusalem’s dense history, while managing to stay away from political analyses. After describing the book in some detail, Becker then gives a biographical sketch of Sebag Montefiore, who is a descendent of the celebrated British Zionist Moshe Montefiore.
Hadashot HaSharon Herzeliya, December 20, 2013
Students of music from Israeli, Christian, and Muslim schools travelled together to Germany where they gave several performances under the title “Music to One God.” The event was organized by Michael Krebs, an Israel-loving Christian who was looking for a way to find something in common for students of all three faiths.
The Jerusalem Post, December 24, 2013
In the Letters section of the paper, Jacob Mendlovic criticizes Nelson Mandela’s propensity to forgive those who had wronged him, saying that this kind of forgiveness “clashes with King David’s deathbed order to his son … to exact retribution against Joab and Shimei for the wrongs they perpetrated against David.” Mendlovic then asks which message is superior – the one from 1 Kings or the message of forgiveness. He explains that “while the former sounds like the New Testament precept to love thine enemy – as Christians practice it – the latter conforms with the distinction between good and evil in the Hebrew Bible. Would Mandela have forgiven savages who dispatch suicide bombers to slaughter civilians? If he did, he would have made a mockery of the principle of justice.”
The Jerusalem Post, December 27, 2013
Barry Davis reports on the Bible exhibition currently on display at the Bible Lands Museum.