Every year, at Christmas, Palestinian officials, activists, and a host of virulently anti-Israel groups exploit the holiday season for political purposes.

As we’ve documented in several prior posts, for years Christmas holiday themes, symbols, and rituals have been continuously appropriated and put into service for anti-Israel propaganda:

The most common form of co-opting the holiday is when Palestinian protesters dress up in Santa costumes to grab media headlines by participating in violent rioting or by deliberately confronting Israeli security personnel.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dwCG507BU-E

[Palestinians in Santa costumes march to checkpoint at northern entrance of Bethlehem | December 23, 2018 | credit: YouTube screenshot]

But, as we highlighted in our prior posts, the exploitation of Christmas themes and traditions also includes offensive and inflammatory rhetoric in Christmas carols, Christmas cards and posters, and even nativity scenes.

Particularly ubiquitous is the meme that goes around every year about Jesus being a Palestinian. There’s also the meme that had Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus lived today they wouldn’t be able to enter Jerusalem because of Israel’s security fence and would’ve had to “sneak in” and “maybe get searched at a checkpoint”.

So, what we see is a deliberate effort to hijack a holiday meant to promote goodwill and understanding in order to excuse and justify hostility toward Israel.

Israel is demonized in this hijacked narrative and it’s also made to appear hostile to Christians. The reality is that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that fully protects its minority Christian community. It’s also one of the few places on earth where there’s no war on Christmas.

This exploitation of Christmas to disparage Israel is nothing new, and it gets somewhat worse each year. Clearly the goal is to keep the beleaguered minority Palestinian Christian community in line, while also making Israel look bad. But it’s also part of a much broader global campaign to introduce and embed BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) and political warfare against Israel into churches in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.

Below I provide further details about some of the ways in which Christmas 2018 has been hijacked, in the process denigrating and demeaning the spirit of the holiday. In the post’s concluding section, I contrast this year’s holiday hijack with the actual holiday cheer that Christian citizens and residents of Israel experience and enjoy.

Bad Santas: Palestinians dressed as St. Nick participate in violent protests at the Israel-Gaza border

As we noted in our prior post, during the Christmas season there are Palestinians who dress up as Santa Claus 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. The images and videos of these violently protesting Santas then become part of the visual campaign against Israel.

Many of the December 2017 protests against the Trump administration saw Palestinians dressed in Santa outfits participating in the violence:

In a particular ugly version of ‘Jingle Bells Rock’, one of these Santas was caught throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers and border police at a checkpoint near Ramallah. Here is one of those images from last year, but many more are featured in our prior post (from past years too) and are also on the internet:

[Rock-throwing Palestinian ‘Santa’ | December 2017 | YouTube screenshot]

This past Friday, Santas appeared once again in the midst of hostilities, this time at the Israel-Gaza border. According to media reports, on December 21st thousands of rioters converged on various points along the Israel-Gaza frontier where they burned tires, and launched rocks and incendiary devices.

The rioting was part of the ‘Great Return March’, a Hamas-instigated campaign of violence that’s been ongoing since last March and is characterized by the use of human shields and attempts by militants to breach the border.

The Gaza-based Shehab News Agency tweeted out an image of a man in a Santa hat throwing a rock with a slingshot. See Featured Image via Shehab Agency Twitter. [auto-translate: “Scenes from Juma al-Wafa for the heroes of the resistance in the march of return east of Gaza Strip yesterday”] This is typical of the glorification of rock throwing and the Santa-theme by Palestinian media.

During these violent demonstrations, at least a few of the protesters were wearing Santa hats (see featured image) and one if not more was dressed in a full Santa costume (see AFP photo in this news article). The not-so-jolly images of these Santas participating in a violent protest garnered considerable attention on social media, where they were repeatedly shared:

This past Sunday, December 23, more Palestinian activists dressed in Santa costumes, with a few also wearing gas masks, marched to the northern entrance of the Bethlehem checkpoint, where they held a brief rally at the security fence. They were denied passage into Israel by Israeli security forces. However, entering Israel probably wasn’t the point. The real motive was to get in front of the cameras:

It’s easy to understand why Palestinian protesters are dressing up as recognizable Christian icons and then putting themselves into situations where they can be harmed in clashes with Israeli police or the IDF.

From a PR perspective, it doesn’t look very good to have Israeli security forces appear to be fighting against a hugely popular and symbolic Christian figure. Getting injured in the process just makes Israel look even worse—which is exactly what these propagandists are aiming for.

The fact that doing this is extremely disrespectful to the faith and to Palestinian Christians doesn’t seem to factor in at all to their calculations.

Hamas disseminates ‘violent Santa’ image to falsely accuse Israel of preventing Gaza’s Christians from entering Bethlehem

Last week a Hamas media site, the Palestinian Information Center, released an image of an altercation between a Palestinian protester dressed up as Father Christmas and Israeli security personnel. The feature image was accompanied by an article that accused Israel of preventing Palestinian Christians in Gaza from visiting Bethlehem for the holidays and depriving them of their “religious freedom”:

But as reported by blogger IsraellyCool, the image is fake news—it’s actually from 2007 and it wasn’t an altercation that involved preventing Christians worshipers from getting to Bethlehem.

In addition, as blogger Elder of Ziyon notes, it’s simply not the case that Israel has refused to issue entry permits this year, as the Palestinian Information Center article claims.

In fact, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem issued a press release nearly a month ago in which it acknowledged that Israel had issued 500 permits for Christians in Gaza so that they could have access to the West Bank and east Jerusalem for Christmas celebrations.

The Latin Patriarchate clearly wants to see more permits issued, or even none at all with Christians in Gaza having free access without the need for permits. Still, according to a parish priest in Gaza, quoted in the press release, although not all the permits had yet been received, Israel had approved this year for entry people over the age of 55, and also those between the ages of 16 and 35.

It’s worth noting that Hamas isn’t the only group that’s now actively working to spread the lie that Israel is behaving especially cruelly to Christians during Christmastime. In a new video that’s now gone viral, a few Christian Palestinians in Gaza basically blame Israeli officials for ruining their holiday by refusing to issue permits to enter the West Bank and east Jerusalem:

The video was produced and disseminated by the vehemently anti-Israel Middle East Eye, a ‘news’ organization apparently uninterested in even basic fact-checking.  

Anti-Israel activist shares ‘violent Santa’ greeting with cartoon created by antisemitic artist Carlos Latuff

Also exposed by ‘Aussie Dave’ on his IsraellyCool blog is a Christmas greeting that includes an image of a ‘jolly’ Santa dumping rocks on a fleeing IDF soldier:

[credit: Twitter | h/t IsraellyCool]

As noted in the post, this shameful online Christmas card was recently shared by Rena Solomon, a California-based activist who runs the anti-Israel 48 Palestinian Revolutionary United Front website.

What’s particularly nasty about this ‘Bad Santa’ image is that it was created by Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian political cartoonist who has a penchant for depicting Israel as a ravenous octopus and the IDF as Nazis. Latuff also was a recipient of an award bestowed at a 2006 holocaust denial conference in Iran.

So, this is probably among the worst examples of the usual cultural appropriation of Christmas to spread anti-Israel propaganda.

Video about Christian Palestinian family now living in the U.S. falsely blames Israel for Christian exodus from Gaza and the West Bank

The completely inappropriately named Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU) has released a new video for Christmas 2018 which blames Israel for preventing the continuity of Christianity in the Middle East and for causing Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and Gaza to leave these areas:

[credit: Facebook]

The pro-BDS IMEU self-describes as an independent, not-for-profit organization that aims to provide journalists with “facts and information” about “Palestine and the Palestinians”. The reality is that its content is nearly completely given over to demonizing and delegitimizing Israel, as is evident from a review of its website and social media postings.

The short video, which has now gone viral with hundreds of views, depicts the Marajdas—a family of Christian Palestinian immigrants to the U.S. who own a wood-caving business and who pass down this tradition from one generation to the next.

The video wouldn’t be problematic at all in terms of showcasing this Palestinian American family and featuring Christian Palestinian culture, except that the last part falsely accuses Israel for ruining the lives of Christians in the West Bank and Gaza and thus causing a decline in the Christian population there.

These charges have no basis in the facts.

In our prior post we highlighted that the West Bank and Gaza have been hemorrhaging their Christians, who are fleeing in the face endemic discrimination from the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas—not Israeli actions. In Gaza, Christians have been murdered for their faith. In the West Bank, they’re treated as second-class citizens. In both of these Palestinian-controlled areas, Christian holy sites have been repeatedly desecrated and destroyed.

It’s important to understand that between 1967 and the mid-1990s when Israel governed the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian Christian community wasn’t negatively impacted—it was only after the Oslo Accords established the PA governing authority in the 1990s and after the Hamas brutal military coup in 2007 that Christians began leaving in droves. As we wrote in our prior post:

In Gaza, ‘Christian shops and schools in Gaza have been firebombed’ and there’s a ‘climate of intimidation and fear for Palestinian Christians’.

Since Hamas’ takeover of the enclave in 2007 half the Christian community has left. Forced conversions are reportedly also taking place.

In the West Bank, Fr. Naddaf writes of land and homes being confiscated, and churches and holy places attacked and desecrated. He notes that ‘By the end of the first decade of PA rule, the number of Bethlehem’s Christians had dwindled by two-thirds.”

Of course, the IMEU video doesn’t mention any of this. So, the real reasons for the precarious situation faced by the dwindling Christian communities living under Muslim-majority rule in Gaza and the West Bank is ignored and the well-documented persecution of Palestinian Christians by Islamists in Gaza and the West Bank is effectively erased.

US Campaign for Palestinian Rights promotes ‘Holiday Season Boycott Action Kit’

Among the more obnoxious cultural appropriations of Christmas for anti-Israel propaganda purposes this year is the “holiday season boycott action kit” put together by the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USCPR).

As we’ve highlighted in a prior post, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund-supported USCPR is one of the leading anti-Israel and pro-BDS groups operating in America today, ALERT: Anti-Israel coordinating group to launch municipal-level campaigns against Israel in June.

Among its many virulently anti-Israel campaigns, its Christmas hijack is especially offensive in that it demands that all Christian supporters of the Palestinian cause infuse the traditional customs of Christmas, like gift-giving, with anti-Israel animus. Basically, they’re supposed to forget about the real reasons for holiday gifting and are instead meant to spend the holiday season working to “keep apartheid off” of “shopping carts”:

The online ‘kit’ includes suggestions for how to flyer outside of malls; hold teach-ins with local store owners; and plan flash mobs and street theater. My personal favorite is the recommendation that activists go “BDS holiday caroling”.

The links to examples of songs to use are disabled, but you can get a sense from this video of what USCPR had in mind. It depicts a picket in front of Lev Leviev’s jewelry store on Madison Avenue, NYC a few years ago before Christmas. The carolers are from Adalah-NY (Adalah, NY is one of dozens of anti-Israel groups supported by USCPR umbrella organization):

Palestinian Authority (PA) officials present Jesus as a Palestinian

For years, officials in the West Bank’s governing authority have hijacked the baby Jesus story, part of their ongoing effort to denigrate Jewish connections and attachment to the land.

This year was no exception. In a report issued today by the watchdog group Palestinian Media Watch (PMW), various instances of this historical revisionism by top PA and Fatah party officials are documented.

They include a Fatah official and PLO Executive Committee member claiming yesterday (on Christmas Eve Day) that Jesus was the “first Palestinian” and that “Christmas is one of the permanent Palestinian symbols”, thereby ignoring that Jesus was a Jew of Judea according to Christian tradition.

Another example was PA Parliament member Mustafa Barghouti stating that “Jesus, who was born on this land, was a Palestinian and defeated his suffering” (his statement was reportedly quoted in a December 20th article in the official PA newspaper).

Many other examples of these obnoxious false claims about Jesus are provided in the PMW article, like this one posted to Facebook last Christmas Day by PA Minister of Education (no less!) Sabri Saidam:

https://www.palwatch.org/main.aspx?fi=157&doc_id=26965

[credit: Palestinian Media Watch | Facebook]

Celebrating the holiday in Israel: actual Christmas cheer  

Christmas is being celebrated in a big way as usual in cities and towns across Israel, where the holiday is being enjoyed by all, as it is every year:

[credit: YouTube screenshot]

[Christmas celebrations in Haifa, Israel | credit: YouTube screenshot]

This year, Israel even has its “very own Christmas village”.

The village of Fassuta, on the northern border with Lebanon, is welcoming tens of thousands of visitors this year. The Christmas celebrations and market there are get bigger and better with each passing year, as highlighted in several media reports this past week (see here and here). In fact, Fassuta is fast becoming a “hub for Christian tourism”.

This year, the local council is reportedly working with Israeli police to ensure that tensions at the Lebanese border don’t disrupt the festivities (Israel recently launched Operation Northern Shield, a military campaign aimed at destroying Hezbollah attack tunnels into Israeli territory).

In Jerusalem, there’s also a lot of holiday cheer courtesy of the city’s very own official Father Christmas. As we noted in our prior post, instead of the traditional reindeer sleigh this Santa rides a camel.

An Arab Greek Orthodox Jerusalemite, this wonderful Papa Noel—Issa Kassissieh—has recently participated in the annual World Santa Claus Congress in Copenhagen (where he became a full-fledged Santa) and completed Santa training in Denver, Colorado’s professional Santa Claus school.

Last year, as we highlighted in our post, Kassissieh was busy reportedly greeting tourists, handing out chocolates to the children, meeting with kindergarteners and with children from a special needs school, hosting visitors at his Santa workshop, and walking the Old City’s walls.

[Jerusalem’s Official Santa | credit: YouTube screenshot]

This year, his Santa duties have reportedly also included greeting over 3,000 visitors with “sparkling Santa stardust, imported candy canes and fake snow.”

You can see many photos of Kassissieh bringing holiday cheer to the children in this Washington Post article published a few days ago. It focuses on “Jerusalem’s St. Nick” along with his 700-year-old tinsel-lined home on Santa Claus Lane in Jerusalem’s Old City.

In addition, the website Israel21c has produced a new video featuring Kassissieh in the “HoHoHolyland”:

It’s worth noting that in all these stories and videos about Kassissieh, he never once mentions politics. “My aim as Jerusalem Santa is to bring everyone together with peace and security”, he said last week, reportedly adding that “tensions between Israelis and Palestinians would not deter him from spreading Santa’s joy”.

Kassissieh’s refusal to politicize the holiday would be unremarkable, except for the fact that so much pro-Palestinian activism during Christmastime does politicize the holiday—it disgracefully appropriates the holiday’s themes and traditions to spread anti-Israel hate. So, Kassissieh’s approach definitely stands out.

Conclusion

Drawing on stories of the annunciation of the birth of Jesus, Christmas is universally viewed as a time of peace and goodwill to all.

But for many Palestinians and anti-Israel protesters and activists, the holiday season has become the perfect occasion to appropriate Christmas themes, symbols, and rituals in order to conduct political warfare against Israel.

Last year, because the Christmas season coincided with anti-U.S. protesting over Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city and honor U.S. law by moving the embassy from Tel Aviv, Christians Palestinians were pretty much denied their Christmas celebrations. This year, it appears that Christmas wasn’t canceled, but Christians Palestinians still had to contend with the usual obnoxious spectacle of violent Santas combined with the exploitation of the baby Jesus story and traditional Christmas customs for virulent anti-Israel propaganda.

It shows that nothing is sacred. Even holiday and seasonal joys and pastimes are expendable and must be sacrificed in order to advance an anti-Israel political agenda.

Except that I’m not aware of any occasion when a Muslim holiday was restricted or muted or co-opted for political purposes. For example, to the best of my knowledge Ramadan’s traditions and festivities have never been canceled or appropriated for anti-Israel messaging, and it’s hard to believe that anyone would ever think of doing that for a political purpose or as part of a political protest.

So maybe some things really are sacred.

Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Inaugural Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 65 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Recently, Elman was included on the Algemeiner newspaper’s 2018 list of the top 100 people worldwide who are “positively influencing Jewish life.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @MiriamElman