Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to the Christian Media Summit in Jerusalem on Sunday and uttered something that was incontrovertibly true: “Israel is the only country that protects the human rights of all. We protect the religious rights of all. We don’t just protect Christian sites—we protect Christian people. Christians should enjoy all freedoms to worship as they please in the Middle East and anywhere else. And the only place in the Middle East where they can do so is Israel. We have no better friends in the world than our Christian friends.”
As further proof, he cited the fact what has happened in Bethlehem, which was a city that Christians once dominated. The turning point was Israel’s 1995 handover of the area to the Palestinian Authority under the terms of the Oslo peace accords. Under Israeli rule, Bethlehem was 80 percent Christian. Only 23 years later, its population is now 80 percent Muslim.
But while participants at the event, which was organized by the Israeli government and is part of the Jewish state’s outreach efforts to Christian supporters, applauded his statement, it drew negative reviews from other Christians.
In particular, Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman denounced the prime minister’s comments. He said the problem was entirely Israel’s fault, citing “50 years of occupation” that had negatively affected Arab life in the territories. In addition to complaining about Jewish settlements in the area, among which he numbered Jerusalem neighborhoods like Gilo, Salman complained about Israel’s security fence, parts of which lies close to his town.
This isn’t the first time that Salman has blamed Bethlehem’s problems on Israel. In a 2017 column published in Haaretz, he lamented the fact that most U.S. Christians support Israeli policies that he said “strangled Jesus’ birthplace.”
But, of course, Salman has no answer as to why the Christian population in Bethlehem and the entire West Bank should collapse under P.A. rule at the same time that we’re told that the overall Arab population continues to grow at astonishingly high rates.
The reason is no secret. Though the Fatah Party of both Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas is routinely described as a secular alternative to the Islamists of Hamas, it also treats Islam as the state religion and bullies religious minorities as much as it does those who dissent against its kleptocratic rule. As soon as Arafat’s minions took over Bethlehem, Christians were pushed out and made to understand that they had no future in the country.
It’s a familiar pattern throughout the Middle East as communities of Christians that date back to the first millennia have been first marginalized and then persecuted by the Muslim regimes that emerged in the 20th century after the collapse of the Ottoman empire, and then the European colonial governments that ruled much of the region. The persecution of Christians has resulted in the exodus of that faith group from the region.
But rather than see the emergence of Israel as a beacon of hope for non-Muslim minorities, it’s also true that those who remain are most often the most ardent Israel-bashers.
Salman is a hypocrite in that he argued that accounts from the New Testament were historical truth. But he declares that Jewish claims that the Bible provides the historical basis for Israeli rights to the land, and especially to Jerusalem, were invalid and showed the Jews as trying to use their religion to assert a “Divine right” to steal Palestinian Arab land to which they had no right.
In doing so, the mayor is merely following the party line of the Palestinian Authority he serves, which argues that Jewish claims to the land of Israel are fictional, and that the biblical Holy Temple was not located on the Temple Mount (underneath the mosques that were subsequently built on their ruins), whose remnants are clearly visible at the Western Wall. As Netanyahu again said on Sunday, for proof of Jewish history, you need only get a shovel and start digging anywhere in the country.
But the exchange between the prime minister and the mayor illustrates a fact of political life in the region. While Muslims have persecuted them, many Christian Arabs have been the most ardent advocates of pan-Arab nationalism and opponents of Zionism.
For example, George Antonius, a Lebanese Christian who ultimately settled in Jerusalem, was the leading ideologue and historian of Arab nationalism. Like others of his faith, he sought to create a Middle East in which Christians and Muslims would unite against Jews and Europeans. But his efforts to achieve theoretical equality for Christians in this manner ultimately ran afoul of Islamist realities that served to marginalize and persecute non-Muslims even if they failed to destroy Israel.
The remnants of Christians living under Palestinian rule have no choice but to echo Muslim propaganda against Israel, despite the fact that the Jewish state offers Christians rights denied to them elsewhere in the region.
They want us to ignore the fact that it was Muslim terror gangs that took over parts of Bethlehem to turn them into firing positions against Gilo and the rest of Jerusalem, as well as to besiege the Tomb of Rachel, and to force Israel to turn it into an armed fortress to ensure that it would not be overrun or demolished as was the case with other Jewish holy sites.
It’s important for Western Christians to understand this dynamic and to realize that attacks on Israel from Palestinian Christians are more a symptom of the bullying and fear that is part of life under Muslim rule for non-Muslims than the faults of the Jewish state. While Israel is not perfect, Netanyahu is right when he says that it is the only place in the Middle East where Christian communities can thrive. That is why the overwhelming majority of American Christians regards Israel with affection rooted in shared values about religious freedom. They also need to realize that the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are enemies of those values and the future of Christianity in the holy land.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.