By Jehanzeb Dar
Because of modern alarmist reactions to the word “Palestine,” many non-Arabs and non-Muslims take offense when it is argued that Jesus was a Palestinian (peace be upon him).
Jesus’ ethnicity, skin color, and culture often accompany this conversation, but few people are willing to acknowledge the fact he was non-European. A simple stroll down the Christmas aisle will show you the dominant depiction of Jesus: a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white man.
Islamophobia and anti-Arab propaganda have conditioned us to view Palestinians as nothing but heartless suicide bombers, “terrorists,” and “enemies of freedom and democracy.” Perpetual media vilification and demonization of Palestinians, in contrast to the glorification of Israel, obstructs us from seeing serious issues such as the Palestinian refugee crisis, the victims of Israel’s atrocious three-week assault on Gaza during the winter of 2008-2009, the tens of thousands of homeless Palestinians, and many other struggles that are constantly addressed by human rights activists around the world.
To speak from the perspective of the Palestinians, especially in casual non-Arab and non-Muslim settings, generates controversy because of the alignment between Palestinians and violent stereotypes. So, how could Jesus belong to a group of people that we’re taught to dehumanize?
When I’ve spoken to people about this, I’ve noticed the following responses: “No, Jesus was a Jew,” or “Jesus is not Muslim.” The mistake isn’t a surprise to me, but it certainly is revealing. Being a Palestinian does not mean one is Muslim or vice versa. Prior to the brutal and unjust dispossession of indigenous Palestinians during the creation of the state of Israel, the word “Palestine” was a geographic term applied to Palestinian Muslims, Palestinian Christians, and Palestinian Jews. Although most Palestinians are Muslim today, there is a significant Palestinian Christian minority who are often overlooked, especially by the mainstream Western media.
That dominant narrative not only distorts and misrepresents the Palestinian struggle as a religious conflict between “Muslims and Jews,” but consequentially pushes the lives of Palestinian Christians into “non-existence.” That is, due to the media’s reluctance to report the experiences and stories of Palestinian Christians, it isn’t a surprise when white Americans are astonished by the fact that Palestinian and Arab Christians do, in fact, exist. One could argue that the very existence of Palestinian Christians is threatening, as it disrupts the sweeping and overly-simplistic “Muslim vs. Jew” Zionist narrative. To learn about many Palestinian Christians opposing Israeli military occupation, as well as Jews who oppose the occupation, is to reveal more voices, perspectives, and complexities to a conflict that has been immensely portrayed as one-sided, anti-Palestinian, and anti-Muslim.
Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
Yeshua (Jesus’ real Aramaic name) was born in Bethlehem, a Palestinian city in the West Bank and home to one of the largest Palestinian Christian communities. The Church of the Nativity, one of the oldest churches in the world, marks the birthplace of Jesus and is sacred to both Christians and Muslims. While tourists from the around the world visit the site, they are subject to Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks. The Israeli construction of the West Bank barrier also severely restricts travel for local Palestinians. In April of 2010, Israeli authorities barred Palestinian Christians from entering Jerusalem and visiting the Church of Holy Sepulchre during Easter. Yosef Zabaneh, a Palestinian Christian merchant in Ramallah, said: “The Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank doesn’t distinguish between us, but treats all Palestinians with contempt.”
Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem
Zabaneh’s comments allude to the persistent dehumanization of Palestinians, as well as the erasure of Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims. By constantly casting Palestinians as the villains, even the term “Palestine” becomes “evil.” There is refusal to recognize, for example, that the word “Palestine” was used as early as the 5th century BCE by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus. John Bimson, author of “The Compact Handbook of Old Testament Life,” acknowledges the objection to the use of “Palestine”:
The term ‘Palestine’ is derived from the Philistines. In the fifth century BC the Greek historian Herodotus seems to have used the term Palaistine Syria (= Philistine Syria) to refer to the whole region between Phoenicia and the Lebanon mountains in the north and Egypt in the south… Today the name “Palestine” has political overtones which many find objectionable, and for that reason some writers deliberately avoid using it. However, the alternatives are either too clumsy to be used repeatedly or else they are inaccurate when applied to certain periods, so “Palestine” remains a useful term…
Deliberately avoiding the use of the name “Palestine” not only misrepresents history, but also reinforces anti-Palestinian racism as acceptable. When one examines the argument against Jesus being a Palestinian, one detects a remarkable amount of hostility aimed at both Palestinians and Muslims. One cannot help but wonder, is there something threatening about identifying Jesus as a Palestinian? Professor Jack D. Forbes writes about Jesus’ multi-cultural and multi-ethnic environment:
When the Romans came to dominate the area, they used the name Palestine. Thus, when Yehoshu’a [Jesus] was born, he was born a Palestinian as were all of the inhabitants of the region, Jews and non-Jews. He was also a Nazarene (being born in Nazareth) and a Galilean (born in the region of Galilee)… At the time of Yehoshu’a’s birth, Palestine was inhabited by Jews-descendants of Hebrews, Canaanites, and many other Semitic peoples-and also by Phoenicians, Syrians, Greeks, and even Arabs.
Despite these facts, there are those who use the color-blind argument: “It does not matter what Jesus’ ethnicity or skin color was. It does not matter what language he spoke. Jesus is for all people, whether you’re black, white, brown, yellow, etc.” While this is a well-intentioned expression of inclusiveness and universalism, it misses the point.
When we see so many depictions of Jesus as a Euro-American white man, the ethnocentrism and race-bending needs to be called out. In respect to language, for instance, Neil Douglas-Klotz, author of “The Hidden Gospel: Decoding the Spiritual Message of the Aramaic Jesus,” emphasizes the importance of understanding that Jesus spoke Aramaic, not English, and that his words, as well as his worldview, must be understood in light of Middle Eastern language and spirituality. Douglas-Klotz provides an interesting example which reminds me of the rich depth and meaning of Arabic, Urdu, and Farsi words, especially the word for “spirit”:
Whenever a saying of Jesus refers to spirit, we must remember that he would have used an Aramaic or Hebrew word. In both of these languages, the same word stands for spirit, breath, air, and wind. So ‘Holy Spirit’ must also be ‘Holy Breath.’ The duality between spirit and body, which we often take for granted in our Western languages falls away. If Jesus made the famous statement about speaking or sinning against the Holy Spirit (for instance, in Luke 12:10), then somehow the Middle Eastern concept of breath is also involved.
Certainly, no person is superior to another based on culture, language, or skin color, but to ignore the way Jesus’ whiteness has been used to subjugate and discriminate against racial minorities in the West and many other countries is to overlook another important aspect of Jesus’ teachings: Love thy neighbor as thyself. Malcolm X wrote about white supremacists and slave-owners using Christianity to justify their “moral” and “racial superiority” over blacks. In Malcolm’s own words, “The Holy Bible in the White man’s hands and its interpretations of it have been the greatest single ideological weapon for enslaving millions of non-white human beings.” Throughout history, whether it was in Jerusalem, Spain, India, Africa, or in the Americas, white so-called “Christians” cultivated a distorted interpretation of religion that was compatible with their racist, colonialist agenda.
And here we are in the 21st century where Islamophobia (also stemming from racism because the religion of Islam gets racialized) is on the rise; where people calling themselves “Christian” fear to have a black president; where members of the KKK and anti-immigration movements behave as if Jesus were an intolerant white American racist who only spoke English despite being born in the Middle East. It is astonishing how so-called “Christians” like Ann Coulter call Muslims “rag-heads” when in actuality, Jesus himself would fit the profile of a “rag-head,” too. As would Moses, Joseph, Abraham, and the rest of the Prophets (peace be upon them all). As William Rivers Pitt writes:
The ugly truth which never even occurs to most Americans is that Jesus looked a lot more like an Iraqi, like an Afghani, like a Palestinian, like an Arab, than any of the paintings which grace the walls of American churches from sea to shining sea. This was an uncomfortable fact before September 11. After the attack, it became almost a moral imperative to put as much distance between Americans and people from the Middle East as possible. Now, to suggest that Jesus shared a genealogical heritage and physical similarity to the people sitting in dog cages down in Guantanamo is to dance along the edge of treason.
Without acknowledging Jesus as a native Middle Eastern person — a Palestinian — who spoke Aramaic — a Semitic language that is ancestral to Arabic and Hebrew — the West will continue to view Islam as a “foreign religion.” Hate crimes and discriminatory acts against Muslims, Arabs, and others who are perceived to be Muslim will persist. They will still be treated as “cultural outsiders.” Interesting enough, Christianity and Judaism are never considered “foreign religions,” despite having Middle Eastern origins, like Islam. As Douglas-Klotz insists, affirming Jesus as a native Middle Eastern person “enables Christians to understand that the mind and message” of Jesus arises from “the same earth as have the traditions of their Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers.”
Jesus would not prefer one race or group of people over another. I believe he would condemn today’s demonization and dehumanization of the Palestinian people, as well as the misrepresentations of him that only fuel ignorance and ethnocentrism. As a Muslim, I believe Jesus was a prophet of God, and if I were to have any say about the Christmas spirit, it would be based on Jesus’ character: humility, compassion, and Love. A love in which all people, regardless of ethnicity, race, culture, religion, gender, and sexual orientation are respected and appreciated.
And in that spirit, I wish you a merry Christmas. Alaha Natarak (Aramaic: God be with you).
The author blogs at Muslim Reverie. He recently wrote a chapter in “Teaching Against Islamophobia” on the demonization of Muslims and Arabs in mainstream American comics.