How Jesus’ home became ‘occupied territory’

There is nothing reasonable about churches discarding their own history and branding as pariahs those whose only crime is to live in the same territories where Jesus lived.

January 31, 2016 21:33
4 minute read.
Palestinian security forces stand guard on the roof of the Church of the Nativity

Palestinian security forces stand guard on the roof of the Church of the Nativity as Christians gather for Christmas celebrations in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)

• By RAFAEL MEDOFF This week’s decision by the United Methodist Church to divest from Israeli companies that do business with Jewish settlers in the West Bank territories follows similar moves in recent years by the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, and the Quakers. But one wonders what the most famous “Jewish settler” of all would say about his modern- day followers boycotting the very lands where he lived, preached and was crucified.

According to the New Testament, many of the key events in the life and ministry of Jesus took place in areas that these Israel-divesting churches say are occupied Arab territories where Jews should not be permitted to settle.

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One might say Joseph and Mary were “Jewish settlers,” residing as they did in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Mary had relatives in another major West Bank city, Hebron, and her three-month-long visit there is recounted in Luke 1:39-55.

The Presentation of Jesus, as it is known, also took place in what the Methodist leadership would call “occupied Arab territory.”

Joseph and Mary brought baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem for a Jewish religious ceremony. The temple was situated on the elevated Temple Mount area, where the Muslims’ Al Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock today stand. (There were no Muslims at the time of Jesus; Islam would not be founded until some 600 years later.) Many of the key events of Jesus’ ministry and final years took place in areas from which the Methodists are now dissociating themselves. The “40 days of temptation” took place in the Judean desert, much of which is in the West Bank. The southern part of what is called the West Bank today was known as Judea long before the Romans, in the second century CE, renamed it “Palestine.”

The Confession of Peter, in which the Apostle Peter proclaimed Jesus to be the messiah, occurred in the area of Banyas, in the Golan Heights. That area was ruled by Syria in the 1950s and 1960s, until Israel won it in the 1967 war. For divestment advocates, the Golan, too, is an area whose Jewish residents should be boycotted – even if Jews such as Jesus once walked there.

The exact spot at the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized is not known. Some sources place it on the eastern bank, some on the western. In those days, “West Bank” was a geographical rather than a political designation. In our own times, a city such as Kalkilya, which is over 60 km west of the Jordan but less than 16 km east of the Mediterranean, is always referred to as being on the west bank of the former rather than the east bank of the latter.

In any event, Jesus again traversed the Judea region to reach Jerusalem in the spring of 30 (some say 33) CE for what would be his final ministry.

Jerusalem in the time of Jesus consisted of the area now known as the Old City – the walled area which Israel won in the 1967 war, and which divestment advocates boycott. When Jesus undertook his “Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem,” he was entering what the Methodists claim belongs to the Palestinians, not the Jews.

Except that there were no Palestinians in those days.

The raising of Lazarus is described in the Gospels as having taken place in Bethany, which was another “Jewish settlement.”

The healing of the man’s ear occurred on the Mount of Olives, a site the Methodists are now boycotting. The participants in the Final Supper were, in effect, “Jewish settlers,” since that event took place in the “occupied” Old City. The Via Dolorosa, with its nine Stations of the Cross, is situated there as well. And so is the traditional site of the crucifixion, where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands.

In defiance of this historical record, the Methodists and like-minded churches are now in effect declaring that those areas belong exclusively to the Palestinians and not to the Jews. This, despite the fact that the very presence of Jews in those territories at the time of Christianity’s founding demonstrates an ancient Jewish connection to that land. And despite the fact that the absence of Arabs or Palestinians at the time Christianity was born illustrates who was there first.

That is not to say that “who got here first” is automatically the solution to any international conflict. Reasonable people can disagree regarding the policies of Israel or the Palestinian Authority in the respective portions of the West Bank that each administers. Reasonable people can debate the future disposition of those regions. But there is nothing reasonable about churches discarding their own history and branding as pariahs those whose only crime is to live in the same territories where Jesus lived.

The author, a Washington, DC-based historian, is the author of 16 books about Jewish history, Zionism and the Holocaust.

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