It happens every Christmas.
Christians living in Jerusalem and Bethlehem promote a story of Christians suffering under Jewish sovereignty and connect this narrative to Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem. In their narrative, Christians put Israelis in the same slot as King Herod of Judea, who, according to the Gospel of Matthew, murdered all infants under the age of two in the city of Bethlehem to stop the arrival of the messiah, who was a challenge to Herod’s earthly rule.
We can call this Christmas-season tendency to depict Jewish power as an obstacle to God’s purposes in the Holy Land “the Bethlehem Formula.” Historically, this formula has manifested in late November when anti-Israel propagandists produce cartoons of Joseph leading a donkey carrying pregnant Mary into Bethlehem where they are blocked by the security barrier and gun-toting IDF soldiers.
We don’t see this imagery as much as we used to in the early 2000s, but the Bethlehem Formula reared its ugly head on December 13, when the Patriarchs and Heads of Local Churches issued a statement declaring that since 2012, Christian priests and clergy have been the targets of countless acts of physical and verbal abuse and that numerous churches and holy sites have been vandalized as part of a campaign of intimidation intended to “drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land.”
The patriarchs were careful to thank the Israeli government for its “declared commitment” to providing a safe and secure home for Christians in the Holy Land, but said this commitment was “betrayed” by local politicians and law enforcement agencies that failed to stop radicals who “regularly intimidate local Christians, assault priests and clergy, and desecrate Holy sites and church properties.”
The church leaders didn’t say exactly who was responsible for these acts, but it was pretty clear that it was Jews they were talking about. Radical Jews have been in the news these days, and the patriarchs were counting on readers to draw the necessary inference.
YOU KNOW the thing. It’s much safer for Christians in Israel, and the rest of the Middle East, to complain about bad acts perpetrated by Jews than it is to speak openly about far worse acts of violence perpetrated by Muslim extremists. The fact remains, however, that a small number of Jews abuse Christians in Jerusalem to the shame of their fellow Israelis. Faydra Shapiro, an expert on Jewish-Christian relations, recently declared, “Their actions are criminal and inexcusable,” and called on the Israeli government “to vigorously pursue the identification and sentencing of those responsible for attacks on Christian persons, property and holy sites.”
In 2009, the leaders of the Haredi Community Tribunal of Justice responded to numerous complaints of harassment and insults directed at Christians “by irresponsible youths” in Jerusalem. The tribunal stated that these forbidden acts desecrate the Holy Name. Such acts, the rabbis declared, are “liable to bring tragic consequences upon our own community, may God have mercy.” The rabbis called upon “anyone who has the power to end these shameful incidents through persuasion, to take action as soon as possible to remove these hazards, so that our community may live in peace.”
Predictably enough, an article about this act of Jewish self-criticism published by the National Catholic Reporter in early 2010 provoked a huge amount of anti-Israel and, in some instances, anti-Jewish invective in the comments section, providing yet another demonstration of the dangers of Jews speaking publicly about their failures. (“Look, they even admit their evil ways!”)
In the antisemitic imagination, which afflicts its victims like an unseen virus, Jews spitting on Christians and vandalizing churches in Jerusalem generates stronger feelings of outrage than jihadists decapitating, dismembering, or immolating Christians and blowing up their churches in places like Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, or Pakistan. That’s just how it is. You know it. I know it. Christian peace activists just don’t know it. They bank on this reality.
After the Christian leaders in Jerusalem issued their statement on December 13 the usual suspects piled on. Ioan Sauca, acting general secretary of the World Council of Churches, issued a statement the following day, declaring that the problem is “accelerating the already tragically steep decline in the Christian presence.”
Sauca, the leader of the WCC, an organization that previously lionized former president of the Palestinian Authority Yasser Arafat, a man responsible for the murders of hundreds of Christians in Lebanon in the 1970s, didn’t say exactly where this “tragically steep decline” is taking place, but one place where it isn’t happening is in Israel.
ISRAEL’S CENTRAL Bureau of Statistics reports that in 1949, there were approximately 34,000 Christians living in Israel. The vast majority of these Christians were Arabs. Today, there are almost 140,000 Arab Christians living in Israel. The upshot is that between 1949 and 2021, Israel’s indigenous population of Christians has increased by approximately 311%. No other country in the Middle East has experienced a similar increase in its indigenous population of Christians. Some countries have suffered catastrophic losses over the same timeframe.
Responsible church leaders would affirm, celebrate, and highlight this increase, which has no analog in any other country in the Middle East, but not Sauca, who apparently enjoys a dash of Israel-baiting with his Christmas porridge.
It didn’t stop with Sauca. Another Christian leader who added on was Father Francesco Patton, the leader of the Francisco Friars in Jerusalem, which administers Catholic property in the region. In a piece published in The Telegraph on December 18, Patton engaged in the same obfuscation that Sauca did, asserting that the Christian population in the Holy Land has decreased from a historic high of 20% of the total population to only 2% today.
While the Christian population in Israel has declined as an overall percentage of the total population in Israel (which makes sense given the increase in Jewish and Muslim populations), the number of Christians in the Jewish state has increased substantially since 1949, the year after Israel was established.
Patton then goes on to assert that “radical groups” are engaged in a war of attrition against his fellow Christians and stated that his order remains dedicated to the defense of the Catholic Church’s holy places.
Interesting. In 2016, I reached out to Father Patton to ask him about the occupation of the Dominus Flevit Church in eastern Jerusalem by a group of Arabs. Details were sketchy, but the occupation, or more appropriately, the church invasion, was serious enough to force the Custos to hire security guards to protect the property. Patton never got back to me, and he maintained silence even after I wrote about the “occupation” of Dominus Flevit in 2019. Why is Patton speaking today after remaining silent a few years ago? Is it because of the identity of the attackers?
Another question that needs to be directed at Christian leaders in the Holy Land and in the rest of the world is a simple one: can they celebrate the incarnation of Jesus Christ without dumping on the Jewish state, or is anti-Zionism a central element of their Christmas celebrations?
The writer is Shillman Research Fellow for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.