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April 20, 2003

Arafat's Jesus

Gerald A. Honigman writing in Jewish Xpress Magazine.
"Now Jesus, having been born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod..." is how the account of Jesus' birth begins in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.

Notice, please, the location is Bethlehem of Judea... not the "West Bank"... not "Palestine"... but Judea.

As the year 2003 begins, Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Irineos seeks appointment as Patriarch of Jerusalem. Letters with his signature on them to Yasser Arafat contained, among other things, the following:

"You are aware of the... disgust... all the Holy Sepulchre fathers feel for the descendants of the crucifiers of our Lord Jesus... crucifiers of your people... Jewish conquerors of the Holy Land of Palestine." Irineos claims that his 6/17/01 letter, published in Maariv, was a forgery. Unfortunately, there are evidently many other documents of the same flavor making the rounds as well.

Irineos's attitude is not uncommon among many Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere. Indeed, the quote above is virtually the same as words often spoken by the Greek Catholic Archbishop of Jerusalem, Hilarion Capucci, a few decades earlier. So it's safe to assume that many people share these beliefs. Some have simply inherited and modified them from traditional Christian teaching. Others, feeling exposed and vulnerable themselves living among real or potentially hostile dominant Muslim populations, seek common ground with their own off again/on again persecutors by turning the focus on a common demon, the Jew.

Christians played an important role in the nascent Arab nationalist movement in the late 19th and 20th centuries (does the name George Habash and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine sound familiar?), and the above explanation was certainly one of the main motivating factors. This was not unlike some Jews seeking to be absorbed under the potentially protective, inclusive umbrella of various socialist movements in Christian Europe around the same time.

A few years ago, during the Pope's visit to Israel, the media reported one of many of Arafat's own frequent comments on this subject. Speaking of the Apostle Peter, Arafat explained the "Palestinian" - i.e. non-Jewish - identity of Peter & Co.

Now for a reality check...

There was no country or nation known as "Palestine" during the time of Jesus. The land was known as Judaea and its inhabitants were Judaeans... Jews.

Tacitus and Dio Cassius were famous Roman historians who wrote extensively about Judaea's attempt to remain free from the Soviet Union of its day, the conquering Roman Empire. They lived and wrote not long after the two major revolts of the Jews in 66-73 C.E. and 133-135 C.E. They make no mention of this land being called "Palestine" or its people "Palestinians." And they knew the differences between Jews and Arabs as well.

Listen to this quote from Vol. II, Book V, The Works of Tacitus:

"Titus was appointed by his father to complete the subjugation of Judaea... he commanded three legions in Judaea itself... To these he added the twelfth from Syria and the third and twenty-second from Alexandria... amongst his allies were a band of Arabs, formidable in themselves and harboring towards the Jews the bitter animosity usually subsisting between neighboring nations."

After the 1st Revolt (see also the contemporary accounts of the Roman-sponsored Jewish historian, Josephus, in his extensive Antiquities of the Jews and Wars of the Jews), Rome issued thousands of Judaea Capta coins which can be seen today in museums all over the world. Notice, please... Judaea Capta... not "Palaestina Capta." Additionally, to celebrate this victory, the Arch of Titus was erected and stands tall in Rome to this very day.

When, some sixty years later, Emperor Hadrian decided to further desecrate the site of the destroyed Temple of the Jews by erecting a pagan structure there, it was the grandchildren's turn to take on their mighty conquerors.

The result of the struggle of this tiny nation for its freedom and independence was, perhaps, as predictable as that which would have occurred had Latvia taken on the Soviet Union during its heyday of power. Listen next to this quote from Dio Cassius:

"580,000 men were slain, nearly the whole of Judaea made desolate. Many Romans, moreover, perished in this war (the Bar Kochba Revolt). Therefore Hadrian in writing to the senate did not employ the opening phrase commonly affected by the emperors, ' I and the legions are in health.'"

The Emperor was so enraged at the Jews' struggle for freedom in their own land that, in the words of the esteemed modern historian, Bernard Lewis, "Hadrian made a determined attempt to stamp out the embers not only of the revolt but also of Jewish nationhood and statehood... obliterating its Jewish identity."

Wishing to end, once and for all, Jewish hopes, Hadrian renamed the land itself from Judaea to "Syria Palaestina" - Palestine - after the Jews' historic enemies, the Philistines, a non-Semitic sea people from the eastern Mediterranean or Aegean area... Sorry Yasser... hijacking the latter's identity won't work either.

All of this did not occur until after 135 C.E., with the defeat of Judaea's charismatic leader, Shimon Bar Kochba. And, as with the breathtaking discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls practically at the moment of Israel's rebirth almost six decades ago by an Arab shepherd boy, Bar Kochba's letters to his troops, his minted coins "For the freedom of Israel," and other archaeological treasures were also soon unearthed.

"Palestine" became largely "Arab" the same way that most of the twenty-two states that call themselves "Arab" today did... by the conquest, occupation, and forced Arabization of other native, non-Arab peoples and their lands... Berbers, Copts, Black Africans, Jews, Kurds, etc. Muhammad's and his successors' imperial caliphal armies burst out of the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century C.E. and spread in all directions.

From the 10th century onwards, the Arabs lost control of the land themselves. And when the Arabs' own caliphal empires ruled, it was from Damascus or Baghdad. There was no independent entity of Arab Palestine then either.

The Ottoman Turks were the latest in a long series of imperial conquerors to rule the land since the Jews fought for their freedom against Rome. They did so for some four centuries up until World War I. During the Mandatory period soon afterwards, the League of Nations Permanent Mandates commission recorded scores of thousands of Arabs pouring into a largely depopulated Palestine from surrounding countries to take advantage of the economic development going on because of the Jews. Many more entered under cover of darkness and were never listed. All of these folks were preceded in the 19th century by many thousands of Egyptians who came with Muhammad Ali's invading armies and never left... more Arab settlers in Palestine. Arafat himself was one of them. So was Hamas' patron saint, Izzadin al-Qassam... coming from Aleppo, Syria.

And so much for Arafat's "Palestinian" Jesus.