(December 24, 2019 / JNS) Every year, in the days leading up to Christmas, the “Jesus was a Palestinian” talking point surfaces off and online. Every year, anti-Israel activists hop on this bizarre bandwagon and drive it over historical facts.
Many of the public figures that push this phrase are not Christian; they have no stake in Jesus’s ethnic background. They claim he was a Palestinian because it furthers the erasure of Jewish people’s connection to the land of Israel.
The theory originated with former Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat, and has snowballed since. Today, some even argue that Jesus was the first Palestinian “martyr.” This year, anti-Israel BDS supporters such as Rep. Ilhan Omar, Omar Suleiman and Linda Sarsour have advanced this ahistorical narrative. Al Jazeera, The Independent and even The New York Times have published articles defending this conjecture.
The goal of the argument that “Jesus was a Palestinian from Nazareth” is not only to erase Jewish ties to the land of Israel, but also to depict all Jews as “white,” and in consequence, less sympathetic to intersectional social justice movements.
This April, the Times published an article on the deep importance of Jesus’s skin color, stating that: “Jesus, born in Bethlehem, was most likely a Palestinian man with dark skin.”
The message is coupled with Palestinian propaganda. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat tweeted a video titled “Merry Palestinian Christmas” with a Palestinian saying that “Jesus was one of us. He didn’t have blonde hair and blue eyes; he wasn’t from Kentucky. He looked like DJ Khaled, minus 200 pounds. Mary, too, was a Palestinian. Mary’s grandmother—a Palestinian, John the Baptist, St. George, the apostles—all Palestinians.”
Countless Jews have dark skin. Claiming that because Jesus was a person of color he must be ethnically Palestinian erases countless Jews in the world today. Mizrahi Jews, the largest ethnic group of Jews in Israel today, share the same skin tone, heritage and birthplace as Jesus. Yet we would never be accepted as Palestinian or identify ourselves as such.
Indeed, activists furthering the Palestinian Jesus narrative are aware of the diversity of Israeli society and the global Jewish community; they distort it to deny all Jewish people our indigenous rights.
“While evidence in favor of this view is overwhelming, activists who oppose Israel’s right to exist and deny the Jewish people’s connection to the land—perhaps before learning where indigenous status stems from and what it means—still have an issue with this claim, supporting a narrative built on falsehoods that today is basically acknowledged as fact,” explains indigenous rights activist Ryan Bellerose.
To get the movement to crush Israel welcomed in social justice spaces where indigenous rights are valued, activists must falsely allege Jews are not indigenous.
“Archaeology, genealogy and history all support the Jewish claim to indigeneity,” says Bellerose. “To say that Palestinian Arabs were the first inhabitants of the land of Israel is problematic for actual indigenous people like the Jewish people, the Amazigh, the Copts, the Assyrians, the Samaritans and others who were forcefully conquered, subsumed and converted. It would literally be akin to white Europeans in North America making that same claim.”
When challenged, anti-Israel advocates who deny that the Jews are indigenous to Israel brush it off, saying that it is ridiculous to go “that far back.”
Nevertheless, when we are going as far back to the birth of Jesus, it is essential to get the facts straight. The simple truth is that activists are taking a relatively new name for this region—“Palestine”—and placing it upon a far more ancient Jewish person.
In 132 CE, the current state of Israel was renamed “Palestina” by the Romans. They did this to punish Jews for their largest revolt against Rome by stripping them of name connection to Jerusalem and Judea while honoring the Philistines, a foreign people who had conquered them.
The use of even the earliest variants of Palestine began over 100 years after the birth of Christ. The term “Palestine” was unofficially used to describe land south of Syria by the Ottoman Empire in the 1500s and was not popular among the people living in the region at the time. Only after World War I did another occupying force, Britain, declare modern-day Israel, as well as Jordan, “Palestine.”
Just like the Romans, anti-Israel activists use this term to diminish Jewish historical claims to Israel.
This is a tactic to deceive people into thinking that since Jesus had darker skin and was from the Middle East, he cannot be Jewish. It exploits people’s lack of knowledge about Jewish diversity; most people in Western societies only know Jews who have lighter skin and are usually of recent European descent. However, while all Jews are indigenous to the land of Israel, 56 percent of the Jewish population of Israel (over three million people) never left the Middle East and Africa.
In modern terms, all Jews were once “Mizrahi Jews.” Therefore, if you want to give Jesus a contemporary ethnicity, it is Mizrahi Jew that fits, not “Palestinian.”
When I tweeted that Jesus was a Mizrahi Jew, I was inundated with comments from non-Mizrahi Jews devoutly claiming to have the same heritage as the Christian messiah. It resembled a “Jews for Jesus” gathering, as one Twitter user described it.
Instead of ripping apart Mizrahim as we combat lies about the Jewish community and Israel, our entire community must educate non-Jews about the diversity of our people.
Acknowledging Jesus was a Mizrahi Jew does not erase Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jews or their deep connection to the land of Israel. The same goes for Palestinians. Rather, pursuing historical honesty overcomes misconceptions about race within the Jewish nation.
I do not claim Jesus in any way; he is a religious leader of another faith, which I respect. However, knowing where he was born and raised, he was undeniably a Mizrahi Jew.
Hen Mazzig, an Israeli Mizrahi writer and LGBTQ+ activist, he is a senior fellow at The Tel Aviv Institute. Follow him: @HenMazzig.
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