Nothing is sacred in the propaganda war on Israel.
Drawing on the stories of the annunciation of the birth of Jesus, Christmas is viewed as a time of peace and goodwill to all.
But for anti-Israel activists and organizations, the holiday season is a perfect occasion to conduct political warfare against the Jewish state.
NGOs, The PA, and The Hijacking
For years vehemently anti-Israel NGOs (non-governmental organizations), charities, and even church groups have been exploiting Christmas symbols, themes, and traditions in order to promote one-sided narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
These recast religiously-themed narratives situate Israel and Jews as the villains and omit any mention of terrorism, or Israel’s need to protect its citizens from harm.
Palestinian Christians in these narratives are depicted as undeservedly maltreated by Israel. Special attention is given to how Palestinians are allegedly hurt by the security barrier surrounding Bethlehem and its adjacent communities.
No mention is made of how, during the second intifada, this area became an infiltration route for Palestinian suicide bombers, or of how Palestinian gunmen seized the homes of Christians there, terrorizing for years the nearby Jewish neighborhood of Gilo with sniper fire.
The precarious situation faced by the dwindling Christian communities living under Muslim majority rule in Gaza and the West Bank is also ignored. Moreover, the well-documented persecution of Palestinian Christians by Islamists in Gaza and the West Bank is effectively erased.
This extensive use of Christian religious themes in order to advance an anti-Israel campaign is meticulously documented in a comprehensive 2013 NGO Monitor report (‘Tis the Season: How Anti-Israel NGOs Manipulate Christmas) and its follow-up study published last year (Come All Ye Haters: NGO Exploitation of Religious Themes to Demonize Israel).
In them, there are detailed descriptions of how anti-Israel groups based in the UK like Amos Trust and the UK Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC), Canadian organizations such as Palestine House and U.S.-based groups like Adalah-NY use offensive and inflammatory rhetoric in Christmas carols, Christmas cards, and even in nativity scenes.
But the epicenter of this appropriation of Christmas imagery to demonize and vilify Israel is in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.
There Palestinians have invented some new traditions for Christmas, like the meme that goes around every year about Jesus being a Palestinian. There’s also the meme that had Jesus lived today he wouldn’t be allowed to enter Bethlehem and would have to “sneak in” and “maybe get searched at a checkpoint”.
Here the claim is that, as depicted in a Huffington Post essay from last year (and updated this week), if Joseph and Mary tried to reach Bethlehem today, they would have to “circumnavigate the Kafkaesque network of Israeli settlements, roadblocks and closed military zones” and Mary would’ve had to “experience labour or childbirth at a checkpoint”.
Basically it’s a pernicious “sort of historical revisionism” that treats ancient Jewish Judeans as if they were Palestinian Arabs and then analogizes modern-day Israelis as oppressors of Jesus and his family. As David Bernstein notes this common trope would be “laughable if it wasn’t so pernicious”: Joseph and Mary were Jews from Nazareth so “they wouldn’t need to be afraid of Israeli roadblocks needed to combat Palestinian terrorism, but of being murdered by terrorists from Hamas or Fatah”.
It’s an effort to utilize Christian sentiment in order to condemn Israel’s security barrier and other counter-terrorism policies that the state undertakes to protect lives, while omitting the context of terrorism that prompted these measures in the first place. Additionally, it’s part of an ongoing propaganda campaign to delegitimize and denigrate the Jewish people’s attachment to the Holy Land.
A typical example of how Christmas is manipulated as a blunt instrument against Israel is a 2013 YouTube clip produced by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) which portrays militant and religiously-insensitive Jewish Israelis hindering the pope’s trip to Bethlehem. A cartoon figure that appears to be the pope riding in a horse drawn carriage is blocked by the security barrier.
Christmas is explained in the accompanying text as a holiday where “Palestine celebrates the birth of one of its own, Jesus Christ”:
Another video clip posted by the PLO last year depicts how awful it is for tourists to have to pass through Israel’s onerous checkpoints on their way to “occupied Bethlehem”:
Basically, as Petra Marquardt-Bigman, a frequent LI contributor, rightly notes in a blog post this week for The Times of Israel:
This Palestinian Christmas tradition exploits Christianity’s most popular holiday as yet another occasion to deny the historic Jewish connection to the land where Jesus was born and to fan the flames of hatred against Israel”.
Below I highlight a few of the ways that Palestinian political and faith leaders and ordinary citizens too have hijacked this year’s holiday season for an anti-Israel hate fest. There are without a doubt many more examples than didn’t make it into the MSM or those that I might’ve missed.
1. The Christmas Tree of Terror
A Christmas tree erected on the campus of Al Quds University in Abu Dis, east Jerusalem was decorated with over 100 photos of Palestinian terrorists, including those involved in the recent wave of Palestinian violence against Israelis, instead of traditional ornaments.
Al Quds University receives funding from the EU’s Partnerships for Peace program, according to NGO Monitor. In recent years it’s been in the news when a series of vehemently anti-Israel protest demonstrations prompted some American universities to cut ties with the campus.
Then controversy was also sparked when a long-time faculty member, Mohammed Dajani, was forced out because of his encouragement of tolerance between Israelis and Palestinians and his commendable interest in bringing Palestinian students to Auschwitz.
According to media reports, a photograph of the tree and Palestinian Greek Orthodox Archbishop Atallah Hanna standing beside it, was originally posted on the university’s Instagram account and was then shared extensively on Twitter.
Hamas’ reporting of the Christmas tree display also noted that it was unveiled at a special ceremony attended by Archbishop Hanna, the university’s president, and the Mufti of Bethlehem.
Apparently, the tree was so “praised and welcomed” by Al Quds students that it inspired administrators and faculty at the West Bank’s Quds Open University in Jenin to erect their own “martyr’s Christmas tree”.
The pro-Israel organization StandWithUs had this to say about this year’s Christmas trees venerating terrorists as sanctified martyrs:
This is especially ironic considering many of these terrorists would have no problem whatsoever with killing Jesus himself today, as he was a Jew in the land of Israel…using Christmas to glorify Islamic terrorists is insane”.
2. The PA President’s Christmas Message
As noted by Sharona Schwartz in an article published several years ago in The Blaze, “Every Christmas in recent years at least one senior Palestinian official comes out and says Jesus was a Palestinian”.
The claim is astonishing not least because it’s widely recognized, according to scripture and historians too, that Jesus was a Jew.
Back in 2013, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas delivered a Christmas message stating:
In Bethlehem, more than 2,000 years ago, Jesus Christ was born, a Palestinian messenger who would become a guiding light for millions around the world…As we Palestinians strive for freedom two millennia later, we do our best to follow his example”.
This past Wednesday, Abbas’ remarks on that score were toned down, but included this reference point: “Jesus is a symbol for all Palestinians”.
Abbas also took the opportunity to attack Israel, accusing the Israeli government of “consolidating an apartheid regime”, constructing an “Annexation Wall” that separated Bethlehem from Jerusalem and uprooting “historic olive trees” near Bethlehem.
Then he pleaded with the international community to “help protect Palestinians from Israel”.
It’s an outrageous claim to make when Israelis are the ones who have been trying for the last 100 days to defend themselves from vehicular attacks, rock throwing, firebombings, stabbings and shootings on a near daily basis.
But it’s a particularly galling statement to include in an address to Palestinian Christians.
Palestinian Christians don’t need to shield themselves from the Israeli state or its society. But the reality is that they do need protection from radical Islamists. It’s protection that Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) aren’t providing.
For the last ten years, since the area was handed over to the PA as part of the Oslo concessions, the PA has done nothing to prevent the harassment and intimidation of West Bank Christians. What’s more, the governing authority has often aided and abetted it.
According to media reports today, as thousands of Christian pilgrims flocked to Bethlehem, the PA beefed up security amid fears that Salafist radicals affiliated with the Islamic State would attempt a shooting or bombing attack on the celebrations.
The PA reportedly arrested sixteen radical Islamists, holding them without charge. In addition, Palestinian security forces reportedly arrested two suspects who set a Christmas tree on fire in Zababdeh, a Christian-majority town near Jenin in the northern West Bank. Both of those suspects were also under investigation for possible ties to extremist Islamic groups, according to a Palestinian security officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
It’s good that this Christmas the PA took credible threats to the West Bank’s Christian community seriously. But this doesn’t absolve it from criticism over the shabby and shameful job it’s been doing in combatting endemic discrimination and persecution that Christians living in PA-controlled areas routinely face.
Too afraid to speak out against the abuse, Christians have been leaving the area in droves. And so, just like the rest of the Middle East, Bethlehem and the other Christian Triangle communities (Beit Sahour and Beit Jala) are hemorrhaging their Christians.
Anyone that can get out, does. The result: a Christian community that once grew and thrived under Israeli rule is now at risk of disappearing.
3. Palestinian “Santa Claus” Protestors
Each year there are Palestinians who dress up as Santas and go out into the streets looking for a fight with police or the IDF. Cameras and video recorders are always at the ready at these staged events.
— Rachel Steinmetz (@RachelSteinmetz) December 22, 2015
What these Santa rioters want to do is to capture the negative image of Israel’s security forces fighting a symbolic and beloved Christian figure. Why else would they deck themselves out like Santa other than to make Israel look bad? The point is that there’s nothing spontaneous to these clashes. Here’s a video of this year’s staged riots in the West Bank which took place last week:
Photos of Santas protesting become part of the visual campaign against Israel:
Today was no exception:
(ADDED): The Tamimi children and other kids from the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh also participated in the day’s festivities as “protesting Santas”.
As we’ve documented in a number of prior posts (see here and here), Bassem Tamimi and his wife Nariman are notorious for disseminating videos and photos that they create by sending children, including their own, to confront IDF soldiers.
On Christmas Day, the Tamimi children and other kids from Nabi Saleh were once again exploited as props for anti-Israel propaganda.
In the video below, shot by a professional-looking cameraman, two women accompany a group of kids through the village. Some of the younger kids are dressed as Santa. Nor surprisingly, given that she’s become quite the famous starlet over the years, Tamimi’s photogenic daughter Ahed leads the procession as the group merrily belt out a round of “Jingle Bells”.
The caroling continues down the hill that leads out of the village. There, the older kids hurl rocks of some considerable size with slingshots and roll burning tires at the IDF soldiers stationed below. Obviously they’re itching for a fight and are hoping to provoke a clash—one that can be caught on video. The soldiers don’t rise to the challenge though.
The clip ends with a dispirited group of Santas trudging back up the hill home.
Sure enough, as reported today by blogger Aussie Dave for Israellycool, anti-Israel activists are now sharing on social media a new “Christmas blood libel”:
— Palestine is (@eddie1971nyc) December 24, 2015
— Real Aussie Dave (@Israellycool) December 25, 2015
4. The PLO’s Christmas Party
In a Forward article published this week, Naomi Zeveloff describes an annual festive Christmas dinner hosted by the PLO for foreign journalists:
The event is an opportunity for Saeb Erekat, the secretary general of the PLO, to spread Christmas cheer, toast the New Year, and make predictions about 2016 over plates of maqluba, a Palestinian chicken-and-rice dish”.
This year the dinner was held on December 17 in Beit Jala. There, Erekat—a so-called moderate and as the PA’s chief negotiator, the person that Israelis are supposed to sit across from at the negotiating table—claimed that Jews living in the West Bank were “behaving like ISIS”.
Then he blamed Israel for the last 100 days of Palestinian violence that’s left 24 murdered Israelis and over 260 wounded, many of them severely:
Those that steal hope from the minds of these young Palestinians, those that tell those Palestinians that you have no future, no dignity, no freedom, no hope of having your independence should look in the mirror and see where responsibility lies”.
In his speech, Erekat conveniently forgot to tell the gathered foreign correspondents about his own incitement to violence or the PA governing authority’s and the Fatah political party’s incessant incitement to violence.
PA President Abbas' Fatah FB page was shut down for the 4th time b/c of its support for terrorism against Israelis. https://t.co/kwc29beAK0
— Ofir Gendelman (@ofirgendelman) December 24, 2015
As we’ve highlighted in a number of recent posts on the “knife intifada”, in recent weeks the PA, Fatah and other officials on the PLO payroll have used everything from cartoons, children’s sing-alongs and poems, to televised broadcasts and public ceremonies in order to honor terrorists, praise terror attacks as courageous, and depict Israeli soldiers as deliberately murdering Palestinian children—a modern version of the anti-Jewish blood libel.
Nor did Erekat say anything about the NY conference that he recently attended, co-sponsored by the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz and the controversial New Israel Fund. There, he refused to speak unless Israel’s flag was removed from the stage.
He also neglected to mention the tribute that he paid earlier this month to the family of a terrorist who shot and wounded two Israelis before being killed by the IDF.
PA's clear support for attacks on Israelis: Saeb Erekat visits the family of a PA officer who perpetrated an attack. pic.twitter.com/XofszQfB2L
— Ofir Gendelman (@ofirgendelman) December 5, 2015
The assailant was a PA intelligence officer. He also happened to be Erekat’s nephew.
5. Sabeel’s Christmas Message
As discussed in detail in a prior post, Sabeel (Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center) is an anti-Israel self-identified Christian organization based in east Jerusalem with affiliates (Friends of Sabeel) in the US, Europe, and Canada. Its founder, Rev. Naim Ateek, denies Jewish religious and historical connections to the Land of Israel, claims that Jews are Christ-killers, and promotes an anti-Semitic brand of Palestinian liberation theology.
Ateek writes Sabeel’s annual Christmas address which is disseminated worldwide via its global affiliates. In them he typically pins all the blame for the Palestinians’ problems on to Israel, and makes obnoxious moral equivalences between terrorism and self- defense.
This year’s address was no exception:
…Tragically, we have been witnessing on a daily basis terror vs. terror, military power vs. military power, revenge and counter revenge, a hundred eyes for one eye, and inhuman behavior among people. Jesus Christ seems to have no place in the raging conflicts, and justice does not seem to stand a chance…• The prophetic cry against the Israeli government’s continued disregard of Palestinian political and human rights and its infringements on international law have become subdued and muted. It is the responsibility of our church leaders, Imams, and Rabbis in Jerusalem and throughout the world to take a stronger and clearer stand against Israeli oppression of the Palestinians…”.
Actual Christmas Cheer in Israel
The manipulation of Christmas by Palestinian leaders for anti-Israel propaganda is primarily directed at a foreign audience. So it’s worth considering if ordinary Arab Christians living in areas under Israeli control buy into this hateful appropriation of the holiday.
To get a bit of a perspective on that (admittedly anecdotal, but revealing nonetheless), I share below two news stories featured this past week.
The first is a short piece with a corny title (“Don’t pine, Jerusalem has Xmas cypresses fir yew”). Published in The Times of Israel it recounts how the Jerusalem municipality gave away 200 free Israel-grown Christmas trees, much to the delight of the city’s Christian Arab residents.
The trees were donated by the Jewish National Fund, which also distributes trees free of charge in Jerusalem and Nazareth to churches, Christian schools, monasteries and convents, embassies, foreign journalists, and the general public.
The Jewish National Fund has for years been the target of a BDS campaign to get it defunded. So this is just one more example of how out of touch the anti-Israel movement is with the lives of the real people who they profess to care so much about.
The second news item (with a cute title, I thought) appeared in The Jerusalem Post and was about a “cheerful Santa” coming to the “HO HO HOly city of Jerusalem”.
Jerusalem, which Christians believe to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, is a tourist attraction for tens of thousands of pilgrims annually. But during the Christmas holiday season it takes a back seat to Bethlehem, which prides itself on being the birth town of Christ.
All the action is in Bethlehem.
Even the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem leaves the city, depleting it of much its clergy who join him in a festive motorcade. It’s in Bethlehem that he leads Christmas Eve mass at the Church of the Nativity.
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem escorted by Israeli police on his way to Bethlehem to prepare for ChristmasEve mass pic.twitter.com/olVG0BzdPJ
— Ofir Gendelman (@ofirgendelman) December 24, 2015
So it must have been special for the Christian residents of Jerusalem to hear Christmas bells ringing from Jerusalem’s Old City Walls as Santa Claus walked them back and forth.
Issa Kasasiya, who was dressed as Santa reportedly said that, “I give this joy for the kids in Jerusalem and for the kids all around the world and I wish peace, love and happiness for all the world”.
Thomas, another Jerusalem resident who didn’t give his last name, wished for world peace as he came to pick up one of the free Christmas trees stacked up at the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Old City. He reportedly said: “This tree is like the symbol of life because it is always green, it continues the joy that peace will come for the world and for every people”.
It’s good to see ordinary people rejoicing in the true spirit of Christmas in the Holy City because in far too many places in the Middle East it’s a “sad and tragic time”.
As The Rebel Media noted yesterday,
In most Muslim majority countries, Christians continue to suffer severe persecution causing many to flee or remain and suffer a living hell on earth. Yet, all hope is not lost for Christians in the Middle East because there is one country where Christians have complete freedom and where Christmas is always celebrated, and that country is Israel”.
Here’s how Christians are joyously celebrating Christmas this year in Haifa and Nazareth:
Israel’s Christian Soldiers Also Rejoice
Writing in a Facebook post this week, Father Gabriel Nadaf, a Greek Orthodox priest from Nazareth, slammed Abbas for his Christmas message:
On what authority does President Abbas claim that Jesus was a Palestinian? The Bible says that He was born in the Jewish city of Bethlehem to Jewish parents from the city of Nazareth and circumcised on the 8th day as a Jew and presented to the Jewish Temple by His parents…His family were Torah-observant Jews and as an adult Jesus Himself affirmed the authority of the Torah and the Prophets. He attended Synagogue on Sabbath and even taught in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and observed the Jewish feasts of Hanukah and Passover”.
As noted in a prior post, Father Nadaf, an Aramean who self-describes as a “proud Israeli”, heads Israel’s Christian Empowerment Council (CEC). It’s been instrumental in encouraging Christian Israeli Arabs to “give to their country” by serving in the IDF—an initiative that’s had considerable success in recent years.
Last week the CEC hosted a pre-Christmas party in Jerusalem for Israel’s Christian soldiers. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon officiated.
— Fr. Gabriel Naddaf (@FrGabNaddaf) December 17, 2015
The festivities for the IDF’s Christian troops continued into this week as well.
And yesterday both PM Benjamin Netanyahu and lawmakers from the governing coalition and the opposition wished a Merry Christmas to all those who celebrate it in separate holiday videos (the Ministers and MKs video can be viewed here in Hebrew).
During the past few weeks anti-Israel propaganda has been infused into the Christmas rituals and appeals promoted by Palestinian political and spiritual leaders. What we see is a deliberate effort to hijack a holiday meant to promote peace and understanding in order to excuse and justify hostility toward the Jewish state and its people.
Israel is demonized in this hijacked narrative and made to appear hostile to Christians. In reality, Israel is the only Middle East nation fully protecting its minority Christian community.
Merry Christmas from Lt. Ruhi Dabas! A Christian IDF soldier protecting our border with Gaza. pic.twitter.com/dNjkp3ygrN
— IDF (@IDFSpokesperson) December 24, 2015
Israel is also one of the few places on earth where there’s no war on Christmas.
Pictures I took in Bethlehem today. Merry Christmas guys pic.twitter.com/IQ199ozVaS
— Gal Berger גל ברגר (@galberger) December 24, 2015
The exploitation of Christmas to delegitimize Israel is nothing new. This abuse of the holiday season in the Holy Land has been going on for years. Clearly the goal is to keep the beleaguered minority Christian community in line, while also making Israel look bad. But it’s also part of a much broader global campaign to introduce BDS and political warfare against Israel into churches, mainly in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.
Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics in the Middle East, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElman