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Media Analyses

"The Stones Cry Out" Misrepresents Plight of Palestinian Christians

Italian Filmmaker Yasmine Perni tells a familiar story in her 2013 movie “The Stones Cry Out.”

According to the narrative, ever since Israel became a sovereign nation in 1948, Palestinians - both Christian and Muslim- have suffered a “Nakba,” or catastrophe of “displacement, expulsion, wars, occupation and oppression.” In the story Perni tells, all the suffering Palestinians have endured since 1948 is Israel's fault. Palestinians, and in particular their leaders, are stripped of any responsibility and moral agency for their predicament.

Perni promotes this distorted narrative with the help of prominent and well-known pro-Palestinian activists who typically misrepresent the events in the Middle East by omitting crucial historical facts. The tendency of some of these commentators to ignore or deny the role Islamist ideology plays in fomenting violence in the Middle East is well on display in this movie.

Paul-Gordon Chandler

The problems begin with the narration offered by Paul Gordon-Chandler, an Anglican priest serving in Cairo at the time of the Tahrir Square uprising. Chandler, who has spent much of his life in Muslim-majority environments, goes out of his way to portray Israel as an aggressor nation, ignoring the fact that it has been fighting for its survival against Islamists whose ideology he downplayed while writing about the Arab Spring from Egypt.

In his Christian Century article “Muslims and Copts Together,” Chandler essentially denied Islamist violence against Christians in that country. He falsely reported that “Christians were in no way threatened,” when in fact, Christians were killed, property was looted and churches were burned.

At the beginning of the movie Chandler states that when UN Resolution 181 was passed by the United Nations, “the Palestinians lost their home-land in their sleep,” because the resolution required them to “give up more than half of their land for the creation of a Jewish State.”These statements are made in the absence of any historical context, and as a result, reality is completely misrepresented.

The historical reality is that there has never been a land of Palestine governed by “Palestinians.” The land of Palestine has always been a geographic designation, not a political identity or nationality. Yes, people called “Palestinians” live in the land that is now part of the Jewish State, but they were not, and are not, a distinct people group with a distinct language, religion or culture that is different from Arabs throughout the Middle East, and in particular the nation of Jordan.

The land west of the Jordan River that is now referred to as “Palestine” is in fact a small percentage of the original Palestine. Until 1922, Palestine included the territories of present day Israel and Jordan. From 1517 to 1917 most of this area remained under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. When the Ottoman Empire was dissolved at the end of World War I, Palestine – all of present day Israel and Jordan - was put under the control of the British Empire.

In 1917 Great Britain issued the Balfour Declaration. This statement called for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." In 1917, this intended home for the Jewish people included present day Jordan. However, five years later, the League of Nations' “Mandate for Palestine” allocated nearly 80% of that land to Transjordan – all the land east of the Jordan River. As a result, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan now covers the vast majority of the land of Palestine that as of 1917, was supposed to be the national home of the Jews.

On July 24, 1922, the “Mandate for Palestine,” “laid down the Jewish legal right to settle anywhere in western Palestine, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, an entitlement unaltered in international law”. This mandate was agreed to unanimously by the fifty-one member nations as they declared:

Whereas recognition has been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.

So Chandler has it completely wrong when he says that the Palestinians gave up more than half their land for the creation of a Jewish State. The reality is that in 1922, the Jews lost 80% of the land promised to them in 1917. However, in spite of the loss, all the land between the River and the Sea was given to them as “an entitlement unaltered in international law.”

This misrepresentation of historical fact is only one of many egregious problems found in the narration offered by Chandler, all of which distort the historical record.

Archbishop Elias Chacour

The distortions continue with testimony from Archbishop Elias Chacour, who resigned his position as the Melkite Catholic Bishop of Galilee in January 2014 in the shadow of charges of sexual harassment, mismanagement and disputes with priests. He is the vice president of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, an organization founded by Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek in 1994. Sabeel's theology depicts Jewish sovereignty as an affront to Christian theology.

In the movie, Chacour tells his personal story of displacement and expulsion from his boyhood home of Kafr Bir'im in the Upper Galilee. Chacour's story is tragic and the people who lived in this town have suffered as a result of Israeli policy. This is undeniable.

However, what Chacour is unable to acknowledge is that the expulsion of Palestinians from Kafr Bir'im happened in the context of a war that was initiated by surrounding Arab nations for the purpose of destroying the newly established Jewish State. In that context, Palestinians were viewed as possible allies with their fellow Arabs. Because of Kafr Bir'im's proximity to the Lebanese border, and the frequent occurrence of cross-border infiltration, the need to remove the villagers was a strategic consequence of Israel's war of self-defense. It was not, as Chacour alleges, simply the result of a Jewish desire to “get rid” of as many Palestinians as possible.

Sadly, Chacour, like Ateek, descends into ugly polemic when he comments that he finds it surprising that “they (the Jews) made others endure what they had endured”.

In so doing, Chacour is suggesting that Israelis are the new Nazis. This is inexcusable. There is absolutely no equivalency between the removal of residents from a village for strategic purposes in a war of self- defense and the annihilation of six million Jews by the Nazis simply because they were Jewish. The removal of Palestinians from Kafr Bir'im was a tragedy for those involved, but it's not the Holocaust.

Michel Sabbah

Perni also enlists the help of Michel Sabbah, the Archbishop and Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem from 1987 to 2008, in her effort to demonize Israel. Sabbah is the international president of Pax Christi, a Catholic organization that offers a distorted narrative about the Arab-Israeli conflict. (For more information, see this 2007 report by NGO-Monitor, which documents how Pax Christi downplays Palestinian violence while depicting Israeli security measures as “arbitrary.”)

In December 2009, Sabbah helped promote the Kairos Document at an international conference in Dar Annadwa in Bethlehem together with Archbishop Attalah Hanna, Rev. Mitri Raheb, Rev. Naim Ateek, and Father Jamal Khader. The Kairos Document begins with these words:

This document is the Christian Palestinians' word to the world about what is happening in Palestine. It is written at this time when we wanted to see the Glory of the grace of God in this land and in the sufferings of its people. In this spirit the document requests the international community to stand by the Palestinian people who have faced oppression, displacement, suffering and clear apartheid for more than six decades. The suffering continues while the international community silently looks on at the occupying State, Israel…

This succinct summary of the Christian Palestinian narrative places the blame on Israel by completely ignoring historical context and facts that undermine this story. The Kairos document is so egregiously dishonest and discriminatory that in 2010, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) declared the statement “supersessionist” and “anti-Semitic.”

The rabbis acknowledge that the document “paints a compelling picture of the reality of Palestinians living under Israeli rule,” but add that “it ignores the reality of Israelis forced to flee for their lives into bomb shelters, or in fear of being blown up while eating in a restaurant, celebrating a Passover Seder or dancing at a Bar Mitzvah Celebration”.

Sabbah offers a narrative similar to the one presented in the Kairos Document when he says of Israel, “They want all the land without Palestinians.”

However, historical evidence from before the founding of the State of Israel demonstrates that this statement is false.In a letter to his son Amos, written on Oct. 5, 1937, David Ben-Gurion stated:

We do not wish, we do not need to expel the Arabs and take their place. All our aspirations are built upon the assumption — proven throughout all our activity in the Land — that there is enough room in the country for ourselves and the Arabs.

A poignant example of Ben-Gurion's belief is demonstrated through the words of the British district superintendent of police in April 1948 when Arabs were leaving Haifa at the encouragement of their Arab brethren in surrounding countries. He said:

Every effort is being made by the Jews to persuade the Arab populace to stay and carry on with their normal lives, to get their shops and businesses open and to be assured that their lives and interests will be safe. (Efraim Karsh, Palestine Betrayed, Yale University Press, 2010, 124)

Sabbah's narrative ignores this historical evidence.

In fact, by accusing Israel of wanting all the land without Palestinians, Sabbah is reversing reality. Palestinian leaders, such as Mahmoud Abbas, have stated repeatedly that Jews will not be welcome in any future Palestinian state. For example, following a meeting with Egyptian interim President Adly Mansour at the Presidential Palace in Cairo, Egypt, on Monday, July 29, 2013, Abbas told reporters: “In a final resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli — civilian or soldier — on our lands.”
In contrast to the Palestinian intent to have their lands free of Jews, the Israeli population is made up of approximately 20 percent Arab citizens who have the same rights as Jews. Moreover, most of the Middle East is effectively Judenrein, with more than 800,000 Jews having been forced from their homes in Muslim-majority countries. In “The Middle East's Greatest Untold Story”, the Huffington Post July 2012, Israel's ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, points out that:
At the end of World War II, 850,000 Jews lived in Arab countries. Just 8,500 remain today. Their departure was no accident. After Arab leaders failed to annihilate Israel militarily in 1948, they launched a war of terror, incitement, and expulsion to decimate their own ancient Jewish communities… from Egypt to Syria to Libya to Yemen...State-sanctioned pogroms descended on Jewish neighborhoods, killing innocents and destroying ancient synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. New, draconian laws prevented Jews from public worship, forced them to carry Jewish identity cards, and seized billions of dollars in their property and assets. The total area of land confiscated from Jews in Arab countries amounts to nearly 40,000 square miles -- about five times the size of Israel's entire land mass.
It is Muslim extremists who want the land without Jews (or Christians), not Israeli Jews who want the land without Arabs, as Sabbah suggests.
Mitri Raheb
Mitri Raheb, the pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, also makes an appearance in Perni's movie. Rabeb, founder and president of the DIYAR Consortium, a group of Lutheran-based, ecumenically oriented institutions, has a long history.He has written 13 books and numerous articles on issues relating to interfaith dialogue, social transformation, and contextual theology.

In his contextual theology, which is explained in his recent book “Sailing Through Troubled Waters: Christianity in the Middle East” (Diyar, 2013), Raheb promotes a very unrealistic view of Islam. He describes the Koran as “an Arab Judeo-Christian liturgy” that includes a “positive view of Jewish and Christian scriptures.”

History, and current events, do not bear this analysis out. Christians and Jews have been, and are currently being, ethnically cleansed throughout the Middle East.

In the movie, Raheb accuses the Jewish state of ethnic cleansing, stating that “Israel would like to have a Holy Land without Christians.” He makes an emotional appeal for churches in the West to “have the courage to speak the truth about Israel” because, he alleges, “when it comes to Israel, all the rules change.” Does Raheb have the courage to speak the truth about Islam and its teachings about how non-Muslims should be treated?

His writings suggest not.

Raheb's claim that Israel would like to have a Holy Land without Christians is negated by facts. First of all, Israeli acceptance of Christians in Israel is demonstrated by the fact that Christian holy sites have always been respected and protected.Following a recent wave of vandalism at various holy sites, both President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu issued statements condemning those attacks and promising increased security. See the Israel Ministy of Foreign Affairs site for the text of their statements.

Secondly, Father Gabriel Nadaf, a Greek Orthodox priest from Nazareth, has recently been recognized by Prime Minister Netanyahu for his support of Israel. In December 2013, the Jerusaelm Post published an article that provides a good discussion of Arab Christian support of Israel and the prime minister's recognition of that support.

Moreover, Christians are welcomed into the IDF. A recent article on the IDF blog site details the growth of Christian enlistment and the Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum. Prime Minister Netanyahu made the following comments to those gathered for a Forum meeting in December:

I salute and support all of you. I know that the mission is not always easy. But we will be with you along the way. All of Israel is proud and thanks you.

None of these actions on the part of President Peres, Prime Minister Netanyahu, or the IDF are the actions of a State that does not want Christians.

Hanan Ashrawi

Perni makes extensive use of testimony from Hanan Ashrawi. Ashrawi is a member of the PLO Executive Committee and the daughter of Daoud Mikhail, one of the founders of the PLO. She was an important leader during the First Intifada, served as the official spokesperson for the Palestinian Delegation to the Middle East peace process, has been elected numerous times to the Palestinian Legislative Council, and is a member of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's Third Way Party.

Ashrawi is considered a peacemaker and a brilliant spokeswoman for her cause by people such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Madeline Albright. However, in order to do what she does, she rewrites history.

In September 2012 on, Khaled Abu Toameh documented her revisionist version of history. In an article originally published in Arab media outlets, Ashrawi stated that the “claim that Jews who migrated to Israel, which is supposed to be their homeland, are ‘refugees' who were uprooted from their homelands... is a form of deception and delusion.”

Instead, according to Ashrawi, “There were only ‘emigrants,' who left their ancestral homes voluntarily. Jews were not singled out for persecution, and if they were, it was, in reality, a plot by ‘Zionists.'” But as David Harris says in his September 2012 article “Hanan Ashrawi is to Truth what Smoking is to Health” in the Huffington Post:

This line of Palestinian argumentation is of a piece with other efforts to delegitimize Jewish history. In other words, the Palestinian strategy, of which Ashrawi has been an integral part, is essentially to try to eliminate any grounds for Jewish self-determination and nationhood.

In the movie, she expressed what appeared to be a genuine concern that “Christians are leaving the Holy Land”; that it would be a tragedy if some day, there may not be any Christians left in the birthplace of Christianity. However, the facts reveal that this is a disingenuous concern. According to Dexter Van Zile in his June 20, 2013 CAMERA article, “Sojourners Portrays Israel at Center of Christian Crisis in Middle East”:

The Statistical Abstract of Israel reports that in 1949, there were approximately 34,000 Christians living in Israel. This figure was not broken down by ethnicity, but the vast majority of these people were Arab Christians. At the end of 2011, there were approximately, 125,000Arab Christians living in Israel.

In other words, “The population of Arab Christians in Israel has increased 268 percent since 1949.”

This remarkable growth in the Israeli Christian population stands in stark contrast to many other countries in the Middle East, where Christians are fleeing due to pogroms, forced marriages and conversions, destruction of property, and death.

Gabi Baramki

Perni also relies on Gabi Baramki for help in delivering her Nakba narrative. Baramki is the late acting president of Birzeit University in the West Bank and was on the Steering Committee of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). Through this position, he made a significant contribution to building the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.His book, “Building a Palestinian University under Occupation”, was endorsed by Jimmy Carter and Hanan Ashrawi.

Baramki's comments support Perni's thesis – that all Palestinians, Christians and Muslims, “have suffered displacement, expulsion, wars, occupation and oppression.” For example, in reflecting on the Six Day War of 1967 as an inhabitant of the West Bank, he says, “We were not in a war mood…we thought we would be safe.” With the help of narrator Paul-Gordon Chandler, who describes the 1967 war as a “surprise attack by Israel” on her neighbors, the impression is given that the Arab Palestinians were the victims of unexpected “wars, occupation and oppression” at the hands of the Israelis.

Again, all historic context is omitted in order to create this false impression. The Six Day War did not come as a surprise and the attack against Jordan was not initiated by Israel, but was precipitated by Jordanian artillery shells landing in Jerusalem.

What the Israelis did was make a pre-emptive strike against Egypt who had already been attacking for years, and whose stated purpose according to its president Gabdel Nassar, was the destruction of Israel. On May 27, 1967, he said: "Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight."

Once Israel attacked Egypt, Jordan started shelling Israel, prompting it to take possession of the West Bank. Perni, with the help of both Baramki and Paul-Gordon Chandler, deprives her audience of important context.

Claire Anastas

The testimonies of these prominent and well-known pro-Palestinian activists is made complete by including the story of Claire Anastas, whose account of how the wall has ruined her family's life was also featured on the Friends of Bethlehem website in December 2011 and the now infamous segment of 60 Minutes that aired on April 22, 2012.

She described her reaction when the wall was built near her house and she saw her children crying. She said, “I thought to go down and kill the soldiers. That's what I felt. We are Christians, we should love our enemy…”

A Dhimmi Narrative

What is remarkable about Perni's movie is that all of the people who provide testimony about the evils of Israel are Christians, a religion that has suffered significant declines in Muslim-majority countries throughout the Middle East, but whose population has increased in Israel. Why is it that these Christians are demonizing Israel and are not highlighting the mistreatment their co-religionists have endured at the hands of Islamists in the rest of the region?

With their anti-Israel testimony, they are exhibiting the effects of a centuries-old mentality adopted by minorities living in Muslim-dominated lands under the dhimma pact, which imposed a number of conditions on non-Muslims living under Muslim rulers.

Jews and Christians who lived under these conditions, known as “dhimmitude,” could not criticize Islam, the Koran, or Mohammed under the penalty of death. The treatment they received as dhimmis was humiliating and psychologically damaging. The impact of this damaged mentality can be seen in Perni's movie.

It is of particular relevance that the movie makes no mention of the persecution of Christians by Muslims in Palestinian controlled territories. To the contrary, Michel Sabbah strongly identifies with Muslim Palestinians when he says, “There is no distinction between Muslim and Christian Palestinians. We are all in the same boat.” His claim that Palestinian Christian emigration is solely due to the problems caused by the Israeli “occupation,” ignores the fact that Christians are fleeing Muslim persecution not only in Palestinian controlled areas, but throughout the Middle East.

In contrast to the comments of the participants in this movie, there are Palestinian Christians who are willing to testify concerning the difficulties for Christians living under Muslim control. Pastor Nihad Salman, a pastor in Beit Jala, spoke about the impact of high unemployment on Christians in the West Bank. He said that because Christians comprise only one or two percent of the population in the territory, they are affected psychologically.

You are afraid. And we have many times when people are afraid of what is happening in the Arabic Spring. Will the Muslims you know, take over? If it is true or not true. Whatever the outcome of that... what will happen? Will after Saturday come Sunday? So this is the type of thing that makes Christians want to run away.
Van Zile continues:
The reference to Saturday and Sunday is to a well-known proverb in the Middle East about Muslim hostility toward Jews (whose day of rest is on Saturday) and Christians (whose day of rest is on Sunday). The question Pastor Salman is asking is, given that Islamist groups are coming to power across the region ("Arabic Spring") and having already persecuted and expelled their Jews ("Saturday"), will these Arab countries now increase their persecution of Christians ("Sunday")?

Palestinian pastor, Labeeb Madanat, who works for the Bible Societies in Israel and Palestine said, "There are pressures. There is discrimination. Thedhimmasystem is a system of discrimination. We do not deny that."

Another Arab/Palestinian Christian who is not afraid to take a position in opposition to the narrative presented by Yasmine Perni is Father Gabriel Nadaf, a Greek Orthodox priest from Nazareth. He speaks publicly about how proud he is to live in Israel, “insisting that “Israel is a shining example of human rights in the Middle East.” He has also made a public call to fellow Arabic-speaking Christians to fully integrate into Israel's Jewish society and to join the Israeli army.

As a result of his stand, Father Nadaf has been slandered in social media, censored by his church, and threatened physically. At the end of 2012, hechallenged a boycott against him and attempted to enter the church there to recite a prayer and light a candle. He was accompanied by Israeli Border Police officers and supporters, who came to ensure his safe passage into the church. In December 2013, his son was severely beaten by a member of the Hadash party, which is made up of Jewish and Arab members, led by MK Mohammad Barakeh.

In addition to the slander and physical danger, Nadaf's job has been threatened by the Jerusalem Patriarchate. The fact that Nadaf has not lost his job is due to the intervention of Israeli politicians. This reality, combined with the fact that Israeli border police protected him when he challenged the boycott, presents quite an inconvenient truth for those who want to maintain that there is no respect for other religions in Israel, and/or that Israelis desire to “get rid” of as many Palestinians (Arabs) as possible.

The beating of Father Nadaf's son is not an isolated case. In fact, it is typical of the tactics used by Muslims to intimidate minority populations. According to prolific writer Lela Gilbert, author of Saturday People Sunday People: Israel Through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner, speaking to United with Israel on 12/8/13:

Christians are fleeing Muslim lands in record numbers; in fact there are predictions that, in the years to come, there may be none left in the Middle East. And since terrorist threats against ‘Zionists and Crusaders' never cease, even the safety of Israel's thriving and growing Christian community can no longer being taken for granted. For these reasons and more, a number of Israel's Christians have chosen to take action. Not only do they want to serve in the IDF, but they also are forming a political party and seeking reforms in Israel's educational system, insisting that its curriculum include Christian history alongside that of Judaism and Islam. Their courageous leader, Father Gabriel Nadaf, is an articulate Greek Orthodox priest who has lived with death threats since the beginning of his mission. The cowardly attack on his son isn't surprising and embodies the dangers faced by these brave believers. Their oppressors can't bear to see them shake off the age-old habits of ‘dhimmitude' and step out into their true heritage as empowered Israeli Christians.

Israeli Christians live in a democracy and enjoy the benefits of religious freedom and a government that offers them security. Even so, these Christians are not safe because of Islamist efforts to silence them through intimidation, threats and violence.

Sadly, Perni does not address any of this. As a result, “The Stones Cry Out” reflects the centuries-old dhimmi mentality that only strengthens the hand of Islamic oppressors of Christians in the Middle East..

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