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December 10, 2001
Continuation of Herod's legacy



SEVENTEEN-YEAR-old Johnny Thalgieh, a Palestinian Christian who harboured dreams of priesthood, was standing in Bethlehem's famous Manger Square when he was shot. He was playing with his 4-year-old cousin when a large-calibre bullet fired from a nearby Israeli military installation struck him in the chest. According to Lee Hockstader of the Washington Post, he fell, rolled three times and died on the spot. There were no clashes or gunbattles at the time. Cold-blooded murder is the only proper way to describe Thalgieh's death. Through no fault of his own, Thalgieh was a fatal mistake in the eyes of the Israeli military machinery. He was Palestinian.

Israel's incursion into the Palestinian-controlled area of Bethlehem last month occasioned the death of over fifteen Palestinians in less than two weeks. Bethlehemites have not suffered so much horror since the days of Herod.

Thalgieh's murder highlights an important aspect of this conflict, often overlooked by columnists and policy analysts: a sizeable portion of the Palestinian populace is Christian, yet those in support of Palestinian rights have largely failed to parlay this fact into a rhetorical advantage when communicating with the American people.

Popular American support for Israel finds great expression in the ideology of Christian fundamentalism, whose influence on American policy makers cannot be underestimated. It can be posited reasonably that strategic and security concerns, however ostensible, certainly affect America's proclivity towards Israel, but do not fully account for it. Nor does the American Jewish lobby, despite its wealth and organisational strength. The fundamentalist religious establishment, a formidable force in the American political landscape, also plays a prominent role in the formation of Middle East protocol. Furthermore, it successfully conditions popular support for Israel based on a peculiar biblical interpretation that views Israel as a necessary precursor to the Armageddon.

More important, much of this financial and political support is generated under the impression that the Holy Land is being wrested from unwanted Muslim occupiers. Although this attitude is in itself regrettable and unacceptable, American Christians who advocate the transfer of Arabs should be made aware that fellow Christians are part of the equation. The Christian element of Palestinian society, in other words, has an important role to play in mitigating anti-Arab racism in thousands of America's churches.

Israel's long-standing occupation, in fact, has already driven the Palestinian Christian population to record lows; tens of thousands have been expelled or have emigrated in the past 34 years. It is truly a tragedy that the world's original Christian community is leaving its ancestral land, in large part because of other Christians who happen to revere that land as sacred. The situation defines the phrase bitter irony.

Incidentally, around the time of Thalgieh's death, Israeli soldiers riddled Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity with bullets when mass was in session. This occurred just before the Bethlehem Municipality announced for the second year in a row the cancellation of all Christmas festivities.

Rather than outrage, however, these crimes were met with resonant silence in the United States. While much of this silence can be attributed to a lack of reportage by American media, responsibility also belongs to advocates of Palestinian rights who fail to publicly decry such incidents by focusing instead on the strategic-political complex at the expense of human narratives. That is to say, focusing solely on policy and strategy in any denunciation of Israel's behaviour has limitations in the American polity. American opinion is predicated on a set of assumptions bound to America's own history as a colonial power that forcibly removed an indigenous population. Americans, then, tend to identify with Israelis rather than Palestinians not only because of the Israelis' European mannerisms and aspirations, but also because the historical parallels between the United States and Israel have remained unchallenged in strategic assessments of the region, even when those assessments are offered by authors in support of Palestinians.

It has become clear by now that new approaches are needed to more effectively galvanise popular American sentiment in favour of the Palestinian national struggle. The Christian demographic is one area that merits attention. If writers and activists are able to relay stories about the suffering of Christians and the desecration of Christian holy sites, then a powerful dimension might be added to a public discourse largely sympathetic with Israel strictly on religious grounds.

In any case, imaginative and historically nuanced analyses might shift the debate into more fruitful territory. We can, for instance, invoke Christmas as an historical metaphor for the oppression of people in Christianity's holiest cities. The murder of children in modern Palestine and in the New Testament shows that history can indeed repeat itself with startling accuracy.

We can also ameliorate pervasive anti-Muslim feelings by pointing out that those who have entrusted the maintenance of religious shrines to Israel lest Muslims cause damage would do well to remember that a large Muslim population has surrounded the Nativity Church for over fourteen centuries without displacing even one stone from it, while it took Israel less than a month during its latest incursion to fill it with machinegun holes.

Ultimately, in construing Israel as a mythical nation of the Book rather than a modern garrison state, American Christians have become complicit in the suffering of an entire people, many of whom share their religion. This angle cannot be allowed to continue unmentioned. These suggestions are not meant to be universal; no one dimension of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination deserves to be privileged over any other. Rather, I believe that when speaking to Americans, it sometimes helps to be trained to American sensibilities. This is especially crucial for those in the Middle East who come into contact with Americans either in person or through their writing.

It is a great calamity that during this month Americans will celebrate Christmas with typical splendour while the Holy Land fills with blood, its Palestinian inhabitants celebrating Ramadan and Christmas with constant fear and worry. It is time we educate Americans infatuated with the Bible about the continuation of Herod's legacy.

The writer, Steven Salaita, is a Jordanian American activist, writes frequently about the Middle East. This article was originally published in The Jordan Times. You can contact Steven by email ssalaita@hotmail.com