‘Israel and the Plight of Mideast Christians’

‘Israel and the Plight of Mideast Christians’

Someone sent me this piece below, and I hesitated to send it out. My internal dialogue went like this: This looks like a propaganda piece, but just because it is from Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., doesn’t mean it is propaganda. If it is all true, so what’s the problem? Still, it casts doubt on Islam as a tolerant religion. 

  • March 9, 2012, The Wall Street Journal

Israel and the Plight of Mideast Christians

Just as Jews were once expelled from Arab lands, Christians are now being forced from countries they have long inhabited. By MICHAEL OREN

The church in Bethlehem had survived more than 1,000 years, through wars and conquests, but its future now seemed in jeopardy. Spray-painted all over its ancient stone walls were the Arabic letters for Hamas. The year was 1994 and the city was about to pass from Israeli to Palestinian control. I was meeting with the church’s clergy as an Israeli government adviser on inter-religious affairs. They were despondent but too frightened to file a complaint. The same Hamas thugs who had desecrated their sanctuary were liable to take their lives.
The trauma of those priests is now commonplace among Middle Eastern Christians. Their share of the region’s population has plunged from 20% a century ago to less than 5% today and falling. In Egypt, 200,000 Coptic Christians fled their homes last year after beatings and massacres by Muslim extremist mobs. Since 2003, 70 Iraqi churches have been burned and nearly a thousand Christians killed in Baghdad alone, causing more than half of this million-member community to flee. Conversion to Christianity is a capital offense in Iran, where last month Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani was sentenced to death. Saudi Arabia outlaws private Christian prayer.
As 800,000 Jews were once expelled from Arab countries, so are Christians being forced from lands they’ve inhabited for centuries.
The only place in the Middle East where Christians aren’t endangered but flourishing is Israel. Since Israel’s founding in 1948, its Christian communities (including Russian and Greek Orthodox, Catholics, Armenians and Protestants) have expanded more than 1,000%.
Christians are prominent in all aspects of Israeli life, serving in the Knesset, the Foreign Ministry and on the Supreme Court. They are exempt from military service, but thousands have volunteered and been sworn in on special New Testaments printed in Hebrew. Israeli Arab Christians are on average more affluent than Israeli Jews and better-educated, even scoring higher on their SATs.

A damaged crucifix survives the burning of a Greek-Orthodox church in Tulkarem in the West Bank on Sept. 17, 2006.

This does not mean that Israeli Christians do not occasionally encounter intolerance. But in contrast to elsewhere in the Middle East where hatred of Christians is ignored or encouraged, Israel remains committed to its Declaration of Independence pledge to “ensure the complete equality of all its citizens irrespective of religion.” It guarantees free access to all Christian holy places, which are under the exclusive aegis of Christian clergy. When Muslims tried to erect a mosque near the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Israeli government interceded to preserve the sanctity of the shrine.
Israel abounds with such sites (Capernaum, the Hill of the Beatitudes, the birth place of St. John the Baptist) but the state constitutes only part of the Holy Land. The rest, according to Jewish and Christian tradition, is in Gaza and the West Bank. Christians in those areas suffer the same plight as their co-religionists throughout the region.
Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, half the Christian community has fled. Christmas decorations and public displays of crucifixes are forbidden. In a December 2010 broadcast, Hamas officials exhorted Muslims to slaughter their Christian neighbors. Rami Ayad, owner of Gaza’s only Christian bookstore, was murdered, his store reduced to ash. This is the same Hamas with which the Palestinian Authority of the West Bank recently signed a unity pact.
Little wonder, then, that the West Bank is also hemorrhaging Christians. Once 15% of the population, they now make up less than 2%. Some have attributed the flight to Israeli policies that allegedly deny Christians economic opportunities, stunt demographic growth, and impede access to the holy sites of Jerusalem. In fact, most West Bank Christians live in cities such as Nablus, Jericho and Ramallah, which are under Palestinian Authority control. All those cities have experienced marked economic growth and sharp population increase—among Muslims.
Israel, in spite of its need to safeguard its borders from terrorists, allows holiday access to Jerusalem’s churches to Christians from both the West Bank and Gaza. In Jerusalem, the number of Arabs—among them Christians—has tripled since the city’s reunification by Israel in 1967.
There must be another reason, then, for the West Bank’s Christian exodus. The answer lies in Bethlehem. Under Israeli auspices, the city’s Christian population grew by 57%. But under the Palestinian Authority since 1995, those numbers have plummeted. Palestinian gunmen seized Christian homes—compelling Israel to build a protective barrier between them and Jewish neighborhoods—and then occupied the Church of the Nativity, looting it and using it as a latrine. Today, Christians comprise a mere one-fifth of their holy city’s population.
The extinction of the Middle East’s Christian communities is an injustice of historic magnitude. Yet Israel provides an example of how this trend can not only be prevented but reversed. With the respect and appreciation that they receive in the Jewish state, the Christians of Muslim countries could not only survive but thrive.
Mr. Oren is Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

As I said earlier, there is truth in the Oren contention that Christians have suffered at the hands of extremist Muslims.  The responses, on the whole, have challenged Oren; I have bolded and italicized one sentence in dear Jonah’s response, which I find goes over the top.  Somehow I can’t see blaming Israel for the persecution of the Copts in Egypt.  I most of all agree with Lesley Hazelton: ” Religion is a human construct, a deeply emotional one that is easiy manipulated for political ends.”  And as we go into the election of 2012 it is good to remember Letty’s words: “….a coded appeal for more support from Evangelical American Christians.”–Lilly  
These are the responses I received in order of their arrival:

Letty Cottin Pogrebin:
Even assuming what he says is true (I assume it is) about some Muslims’ treatment of some Christians, why is he not similarly exercised about some Israelis’ violations of Muslim rights, desecration of Muslim mosques, and appropriation of Muslim holy sites for the purpose of Jewish ultra-Orthodox settlement expansion in East Jerusalem? And why doesn’t he apply that oft-quoted, and properly cherished, precept from the Declaration of Independence to Israeli citizens who are Arabs and Muslims?
My sense is that Oren’s expressed concern for Arab Christians is a coded appeal for more support from Evangelical American Christians, who are more numerous by many millions than American Jews, and who are more and more overtly claiming the identity of “Christian Zionist” and putting their money and political clout behind their beliefs.
Finally, am I the only one who senses in Oren’s piece a veiled suggestion that if Obama were really a Christian (and not secretly a Muslim) he would be speaking out more forcefully against the maltreatment of Christians? Also implicit is the suggestion that Obama worries more about the rights of Palestians and the success of the Arab Spring which has ended up raising the fortunes of the repressive, fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.
Selective outrage isn’t outrage, it’s propaganda and pandering.
Lesley Hazelton:
Lilly — re your comments, I’m not sure there is such a thing as a tolerant religion.  Tolerance or intolerance inheres in people, not a religion as a whole.  Tolerant Muslims cite certain verses of the Quran, intolerant ones others.  Same with tolerant and intolerant Jews re the bible.  And of course tolerant and intolerant Christians.  Religion is a human construct, a deeply emotional one that is easily manipulated for political ends.  
Jonah Shepp:
Wedge issues are famous friends of idologues and political opportunists alike, so it’s no surprise that Oren, who is both, has latched onto this situation as a means of saying something positive about Israel when Israel really has not done anything much to improve the situation of Arab Christians.

This is a good example of the exquisite slickness of Israeli hasbara, in which one makes several true statements that look persuasive together but must divorce them from context to make the point stand,
and sweeping statements that are at best half true but can always be supported by suggestive anecdotal evidence. It is entirely correct that the rise to power of Islamists across the region–ongoing for some 20 or 30 years but now reaching its zenith–has some frightening implications for Arab Christians (and women, and the educated and liberal-minded). But what does this have to do with Israel, other than that resistance to the occupation has been a major rallying cry for these movements? One could just as easily say that in its reluctance to achieve a fair peace, Israel has exacerbated this very same problem by giving these ideologues a consistent source of red meat for their support base. [As I’ve indicated, I disagree with this–Lilly]

As for the situation in Palestine itself, Oren of course neglects to mention Israel’s tacit support for the ascendant Palestinian Islamists in the 80s and 90s as part of its divide-and-rule strategy and in the hopes that they would prove a weaker enemy than the secular nationalists of Arafat’s ilk. Because it would complicate and dilute his argument to the point of incoherence, he of course can’t even begin to address the role the occupation and its dehumanizing effects have had on social development in the OPT, the ways oppressed and insecure societies are more susceptible to radicalization, and the extent to which that state of affairs is the result of Israeli policy. Instead he alludes (but, in the grand tradition of plausible deniability for which such hasbara is renowned, never explicitly refers) to a crude caricature of Islam in which intolerance and extremism are innate qualities rather than products of historical causality.

The main thrust of his argument–that Israel is a force of moderation and stability in an otherwise intolerant and backwards region–is easily presented with the backing of provocative anecdotes, but if one steps back and looks at the broader picture over time, I think a more accurate assessment is really that Israel has had many opportunities to neutralize Arab extremists by taking away their cause celebre, but has neglected to take them, whether out of ignorance of the consequences or more cynically in the knowledge that the rise of theocratic politics in the Middle East would further weaken and divide Arab societies, hobbling resistance to the Greater Israel party’s expansionist ambitions.

Hillel Schenker:
Yes, the rise of political Islam in the wake of the Arab Spring definitely makes things more difficult for Christians in the Arab world.  They had it better under Arab socialism and Arab nationalism, which unfortunately did not adequately provide for the needs of the populations in the various Arab countries.
However, this piece is also propaganda, which is clearly making a play for the support of the influential and fundamentalist Evangelical Christians in the U.S.   Oren conveniently forgets that both Moslem and Christian Palestinians would like to see Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christianity or at least Jesus, as part of an independent Palestinian state.
And he forgets that Christian priests are spit at by Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem.
How tolerant is the mainstream of Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jewry, a growing segment of Israeli society towards others, including Reform, Conservative and Secular Jews, particularly women, much less Christians?
Perhaps one of the problems is that religious segments of many societies tend to be intolerant, whether they are Moslem, Christian or Jewish.
Incidentally, when the Palestine-Israel Journal prepared an issue devoted to Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, we received an article from Prof. Mustapha Abu-Sway, who teaches Islamic Studies at Al-Quds University, in which he stated that Palestinians cannot be anti-Semitic because their society is made up of Moslems, Christians and Jews.  I told him I understand the Moslem and Christian part, but Jews?  He said, “of course, the Samaritans (Shomronim) are Jews”.
Roz Lacks:
well, my quick take is that Orens is most definitely sending this out as propaganda: that is Judaism (good) vs. Islam (evil).  I would have more respect for the propagandist if he would confine himself to problems facing Christians in the Middle East.  But then again that wouldn’t serve its primary us-against-them purpose.
Gil Kulick:
On the whole, most of this — unfortunately — rings true.  I’d make two exceptions:
  • The statement that “Since Israel’s founding in 1948, its Christian communities … have expanded more than 1,000%” should be fact-checked. Most of what I’ve read on the subject suggests that the Arab-Christan population in Israel has been shrinking through emigration, not increasing — at the very least as a percentage of the Israeli-Arab population.
  • His casual statement that “This does not mean that Israeli Christians do not occasionally encounter intolerance [in Israel]” glides over the recent rash of church burnings and desecrations in Jerusalem itself by Haredi or ultra-nationalist fanatics — a hitherto almost unknown phenomenon.  If you like I can send you some pictures.
Theo Pavlidis:
I got this piece earlier from….and I share your negative feelingsabout it. Sure, Israel is more tolerant than Hamas but is n’t that setting toolow a standard? Also it is hard to characterize Islam as a religion. There are just too many versions of it. Same goes for Christianity and even Judaism.
Genia sent me to the Middle East Forum, and if you really want to read propaganda on the subject, here is a link: 

By | 2012-03-15T16:04:00-04:00 March 15th, 2012|Blog|4 Comments


  1. Anonymous March 19, 2012 at 2:29 pm - Reply

    Dear Lilly,

    This post demonstrates how out of your universe Palestinians and Arabs are, including Palestinian Christians.

    Did it occur to you to ask any? None of your respondents eppear to be Palestinians or Arabs (no, Greek is neither), much less Palestinian or Arab Christians. Would it not have made sense to solicit their views, or do you and your friends and Michael Oren speak for all Palestinians and Arabs? This total blindness illustrates again the vaccuum in which Meretz operates.

    If you had solicited views you would have received responses like these that were published by the Wall Street Journal the next day in response to Oren, three from Palestinians:

    Amazing again that no one at Meretz appears to even be aware enough to have noticed these responses to Oren or to have valued Palestinian or Arab perspectives sufficiently to post them if they did notice them. Not an Arab perspective to be found on Meretz-USA, unless it’s the ATFP’s Hussein Ibish.

    Let’s see if we parroted similar myopic, Islamophobic language to that Lilly used, the response published by the Wall Street Journal “casts doubt on Judaism as a tolerant religion.”

    Let us also recall Ralph’s post a while back where he chastised a Palestinian woman who spoke in New York who had chosen to leave Meretz. How could Meretz ever lead the way towards equality when its leadership is so oblivious to and even disdainful of Palestinians?


  2. Ralph Seliger March 19, 2012 at 6:18 pm - Reply

    Ted never ceases to amaze me for his self-righteously dismissive tone. How dare we have opinions that differ from his!

    I don’t know who was on Lilly’s email list, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it included one or more people of Arab origin. I know that Lilly is friendly with Mona Eltahawy, for example. This post was transformed into a blog post on the basis of who chose to respond to her question. One of the responders, Jonah Shepp, lives & works in Jordan and was extremely critical of Israel.

  3. Anonymous March 19, 2012 at 6:47 pm - Reply

    Ah sorry Ralph, I didn’t know that Lilly knews perhaps “one or more people of Arab origin.”

    She must then be submerged in realities from Arab and Palestinian perspectives, certainly enough to understand and work effectively for equal rights. I’m confident that Mona, the representative of all female Arabs, has explained things to Lilly. And if not I’m sure Jonah Shepp will explain Arab realities to her, since he lives in Jordan. No need then to pay atention to the Palestinian responses to Oren.

    Will Mona or Jonah be serving ss Meretz’s Palestinian represenatives? I sure hope that Mona or Jonah will be easier to deal with than that troublesome Palestinian woman who quit Meretz. She sure complained a lot, and never really seemed to get how fervently Meretz was working for equal rights.


  4. Ralph Seliger March 19, 2012 at 7:22 pm - Reply

    Thanks again for your sarcasm, Ted. Since we haven’t heard from you for a while, I was concerned that something had happened to you.

    That young Israeli-Palestinian filmmaker you refer to was a delight to meet, and I enjoyed her film (http://meretzusa.blogspot.com/2011/11/slice-of-life-on-arab-jewish-relations.html). But I’m entitled to an opinion that may differ from hers and yours, even if I’m not Palestinian or Arab.

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