In recent decades, the quest to revive Jesus’ Jewish identity has yielded many excellent books and articles. Geza Vermes, Robert Eisenman, E.P Sanders, James Tabor, R. T. Herford, George Foot Moor and Hyam Maccoby are among those who have highlighted Jesus’ Jewish heritage and teachings. But there are some Christians (and Muslims) who want to kill Jesus the Jew and resurrect him as a Palestinian martyr in an attempt to delegitimise both Judaism and Israel. These people are Christian Palestinianists.
Jesus was not a Palestinian. There is no reference to Palestine in the New Testament for the simple reason that the land of Israel was generally known as Judea and Galilee until 135 CE. The Gospel of Matthew, which was written around 80 CE does, however, mention “the land of Israel” and the “cities of Israel.” The term Palestine is rarely used in the Tanakh, and when it is, it refers to the southwestern coastal area of Israel occupied by the Philistines who had disappeared as a people by the time of the Babylonian Captivity.
The concept of Jesus the Palestinian is symbolic of a growing religious trend, which is sometimes called Palestinian replacement theology. Christian Palestinianists, according to Egyptian Jewish writer Bat Ye’or, interpret the Bible from an Islamic point of view and “do not admit to any historical or theological link between the biblical Israel, the Jewish people and the modern State of Israel.”
Ye’or also points to the similarity between Palestinian replacement theology and Marcion gnosticism, which was a second century Christian heresy. Marcion gnostics rejected the Hebrew Bible and believed that the God of Israel was inferior to the God of the New Testament. Likewise, modern-day Christian Palestinianists depict Jews as a cruel and oppressive people who merit everlasting exile. They claim the Tanakh is guilty of Jewish “exclusivity” and must be “de-Zionised.” The words “Zion” and “Israel” are sometimes removed from the Psalms, for example.
The founding document of Christian Palestinianism is the 1967 Arab-Christian memorandum entitled “What is Required of the Christian Faith Concerning the Palestine Problem.” The document, which had the blessing of Catholic and Orthodox clergy, declares that it is “a total misunderstanding of the story of salvation and a perversion of God’s plan for a Christian to want to re-establish a Jewish nation as a political entity.”
In one of its most audacious passages, the memorandum reads: “The Christian conscience should always discern what is the authentic vocation of the Jewish people and what is the other side of the coin, that is, the racist State of Israel.” The memorandum calls for a permanent exile of the Jews on the grounds that “the Jewish race was chosen to serve the salvation of humanity and not to establish itself in any particular religious or racial way.”
The Christian Palestinianist movement was injected with fresh blood in 2009 with the publication of the Kairos Palestine Document, which claimed to speak on behalf of Christian and Muslim Palestinians, who apparently share a “deeply rooted” history and a “natural right” to the land.
In contrast, the State of Israel is depicted as an alien entity, and only exists because of Western guilt over the Holocaust. The Jewish state is even associated with the words “evil” and “sin.” According to the text, the so-called Israeli occupation “distorts the image of God in the Israeli who has become an occupier.”
One of the most vocal Christian Palestinianists is Naim Ateek, who was born in Beth She’an in what is now northern Israel. He was ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church in 1967 and was (until recently) a cleric in St. George's Cathedral, Jerusalem.
In 1989, Ateek published Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, which drew much of its strength from South American liberation theology. Five years later, Ateek founded an organisation called Sabeel – the Palestinian Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center.
Ateek, who believes the Torah is a “Zionist text,” uses the account of King Ahab and Naboth in 1 Kings 21 to underpin his replacement theology. Ateek teaches how Israel’s King Ahab and his Jezebel murdered Naboth for his land and how the Lord sent Elijah the prophet to pronounce judgment..
Ateek’s interpretation of 1 Kings 21 portrays King Ahab as the State of Israel and Naboth as the Palestinians. According to Ateek, the day is coming when God will judge and punish Israel.
The version of liberation theology espoused by Ateek is that of Jesus as “a Palestinian living under an occupation.” In his 2001 Easter message, Ateek spoke of Jesus as “the powerless Palestinian humiliated at a checkpoint” and the “crucifixion” of Palestinians by the “Israeli government crucifixion system.”
Of all the anti-Israel discourses that exist today, Christian Palestinianism is one of the most disturbing because it resurrects the notion of Jews as Christ-killers who deserve permanent exile. As with all anti-Semitic ideas, Christian Palestinianism is about resentment. It is a projection of a sense of inferiority onto an external scapegoat –the Jews.
As well as being politically motivated, Christian Palestinianism is a religious assault on Judaism and should be seen in the context of centuries of anti-Jewish persecution and ridicule by both Christians and Muslims who are embarrassed and frustrated by the continued existence of the Jewish people.
Make no mistake. The cultural and economic boycott of the Jewish state draws much strength from Christianity. A lot of the anti-Zionist rhetoric emanating from the West can be traced back to faith-based organisations who are either ambivalent about Israel or downright hostile. Christian Aid, the Quakers, the Church of England, the Church of Scotland and the Presbyterians are among those who are guilty of delegitimising Jewish statehood.
And then there are individuals such as Reverend Dr. Stephen Sizer (a prominent Anglican vicar and author based in England) who believes that Jerusalem and the land of Israel “have been made irrelevant to God’s redemptive purposes,” and that Jews were expelled from the land because “they were more interested in money and power.”
In other words, it is not just Islamists and the Left who are responsible for the ostracism and demonisation of the Jewish state. Christians who have embraced the new anti-Semitic replacement theology should be held to account for rekindling the same prejudices and hatreds that underpinned centuries of anti-Jewish persecution, culminating in the Shoah.