Irresponsible church leaders regularly deploy the Christian liturgical calendar in an ongoing effort to portray Israel as an obstacle to Christianity’s salvation narrative. Such a strategy is contrary to the cause of peace and a fair understanding of the conflict.
It happens twice a year, during Advent and Lent. Christian churches use the stories of Jesus’s birth and crucifixion to broadcast propaganda about Israel to their own members and to the ecumenical community at large.
The strategy is pretty simple.
During Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas, Israel is portrayed as an obstacle to the birth of Jesus.
During Lent, the 40 days before Good Friday, Israel is portrayed as a source of Christian suffering in the Holy Land, similar to the Roman and Jewish elites who oppressed Jesus and His followers in first century Jerusalem.
Using the stories of Advent and Lent as hermeneutics to interpret the Israel-Palestinian conflict turns it into a cosmological affront in which Israel, the Jewish state, is always guilty and the Palestinians are always innocent.
The use of these narratives to frame the Israel-Palestinian conflict also appeals to a deep-seated tendency on the part of Christians to view Jews as villains who obstruct God’s purposes for humanity. It casts Palestinians as innocent Christ-like sufferers who are in no way responsible for the conflict and the suffering it causes to themselves or the Israelis.
With this strategy, so-called Christian peacemakers condone, reward and encourage more bad behavior from the Palestinians who have learned to rely on human rights activists in both secular and religious communities to broadcast their propaganda to Westerners.
This behavior also engenders mistrust on the part of Israelis who have grown tired of hearing one-sided complaints from Christians in the United States who do not have to live with the consequences of the conflict they help inflame with their distorted narrative.
Global Ministries of UCC and Disciples
Despite repeated complaints and controversies, one Christian institution, the Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ, has produced an Advent study guide – for use in Sunday schools, no less — that portrays Israel as the villain and makes no mention of the misdeeds of Arab and Muslim misdeeds.
The study guide is titled Ahlan Wa Sahlan! Welcome Christmas Through the Eyes of Children from Palestine and Israel. The stated purpose of the Advent curriculum is “to help children connect the Christmas stories in the Bible to real children who live in those places today” and to “find meaning in the stories from the Bible” that happened in the hometowns of the children profiled. The four towns are Nazareth, Ein Karem, Bethlehem, and Beit Sahour.
Each of the four lessons includes a lesson for the Sunday school teacher to present to the children, and an activity for them to engage in. The centerpiece for each lesson is a letter from a child who describes what their daily life is like in the city or town in which they live. (Sadly enough, it is these letters from children that include some of the most propagandistic messaging in the curriculum.)
In the introduction to the curriculum, the authors state that it is “designed with children in mind, but the facts and information included are for parents and teachers too.” The text continues: “The modern Holy Land with its complexities comes to life as the children describe some of their fears and hopes along with the realities of separation walls, curfews, and isolation that they experience every day.”
Here the authors reveal that their goal is not merely to affect the opinions of the children in UCC and Disciples’ Sunday school classes but also to influence the opinion and thinking of the teachers who use the curriculum as a teaching tool.
By mentioning the separation walls and curfews and omitting any reference to the violence that caused the barrier to be constructed and curfews to be imposed, the authors of the Advent curriculum have provided another clue to what they hope to do: Encourage students to focus intensely on Israeli policies toward the Palestinians without offering any of the context people need to understand why these policies were enacted. (For example, the text makes no mention of Hamas, an organization dedicated to Israel’s destruction and responsible for suicide attacks that have killed hundreds of Israeli citizens and thousands of rocket attacks that have driven people from their homes during numerous conflicts over the past decade.)
Coupling such a dishonest narrative with the season of Advent, a time when religious feelings are more intense, is a profoundly deceptive act.
Security Barrier Omissions and Distortions out of the Mouths of Babes
The shameless manner in which the document uses the distorted testimony of children to demonize Israel is particularly evident in its discussion of the security measures as they are described by the children who live in and around Bethlehem, the city where Jesus was born. A letter from a nine-year-old Christian boy from Beit Jala, a town near Bethlehem, reports the following:
On Sundays, after church I go to Sunday school. We sing hymns and do drawings. Sometimes when the army came, there was a curfew and we could not go out from our houses or even come to school. Time was wasted and now we have to make up for the lost classes.
Later in the letter, the nine-year-old states that life is not easy in Bethlehem. He continues: “People cannot travel and visit families in other towns because of the checkpoints. I would like us to travel freely and feel secure.”
Another letter, this one from a nine-year-old girl from Beit Sahour includes the following passages:
How can we not be afraid with all the Israeli tanks around us? We cannot move or travel we have to stay at home.…Even though I am nine years old, I have not seen the church of the Resurrection (Holy Sepulchre) in Jerusalem. The restriction of movement is so bad.…Because of the occupation, we are not like normal children nor can we live a normal childhood. Our country is beautiful, but the Israelis have occupied
it, and they want to keep us uneducated, but we will keep learning and living. (Emphasis added.)
Elsewhere in the document, the authors ask teachers and students to ponder what the author of the letter means when she writes “The restriction of movement is so bad.” The text continues:
Walls are something that people build around their property to show what belongs to them and sometimes to keep other people out. Israel has decided to build a large wall between the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Israel. This wall makes it nearly impossible for Palestinians to come into Israel, even though many Palestinians work inside Israel and have relatives inside Israel. Israel decided to build the wall not on their own land, but inside the West Bank on Palestinian land, often putting the farms of the Palestinians inside Israel but keeping the people out. Israel says that it will let the farmers come across to work their land but that is not working well because there are few entrances to the wall, open only for short periods and they are far away from the farms. In some places, the wall separates villages into two parts and then families are not able to visit each other anymore. Sometimes the wall separates a village from the town where the hospital is located. If Jesus were born in Bethlehem today, the shepherds would be unable to visit him because of the wall. (Emphasis added.)
With that last sentence, we witness an ugly attempt to portray Israel’s security barrier as an obstacle to God’s efforts to bring salvation to the Holy Land. Interestingly enough, curriculum makes no mention of the suicide bombings and other terror attacks that took place prior to the construction of the barrier. It was these attacks, which killed more than 1,000 Israelis during the Second Intifada that prompted Israel to build the security barrier in the first place. All the document says is that “Israel has decided to build a large wall…” without explaining why it made this decision. Yes, the security barrier, does have undeniable impacts on Palestinians, but why omit crucial information as to why it was built (unless of course, the goal is to portray Israel in an evil light)?
The shamelessness with which Global Ministries pursues its anti-Israel agenda is manifested in the accusation leveled by the nine-year-old boy from Beit Jala who states Israelis wants to keep Palestinian children “uneducated.”
To be sure, there are problems in the Palestinian educational system, but the literacy rate in Palestinian society exceeds 90 percent. Moreover, virtually all of the institutions of higher learning in the West Bank were built after the Six Day War in 1967. This accusation is simply defamatory.
The complaint from the nine-year-old girl who has not been to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is also problematic. In February 2016, the Times of Israel reported that 58,000 Palestinians have permits allowing them to work in Israel. Israel regularly allows Palestinian Christians into Jerusalem to celebrate Easter and Palestinian Muslims into the city to celebrate Islamic holidays such as Ramadan.
During times of violence, such as the Knife or “Stabbing” Intifada (during which Palestinians stabbed Israelis in the streets of Jerusalem, Hebron and numerous other cities) Israel imposes travel restrictions. For example, last June, Israel revoked 83,000 travel permits issued to Palestinian Muslims allowing them to celebrate Ramadan in Jerusalem. It revoked these permits after the murder of four Israelis at a restaurant in Tel Aviv by two Palestinian terrorists.
Still, Israel does make an effort to allow Christians to visit their holy sites. In 2016, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem told Catholic News Service that 95 percent of the Christians from Gaza who applied for permits to celebrate Easter in Jerusalem and the West Bank were given these permits.
Problems With Christian-Muslim Relations Downplayed
Another obvious distortion in the curriculum is the manner in which it downplays problems with Christian-Muslim relations in the Holy Land.
In the first Sunday’s discussion of Nazareth, where according to Scripture Mary received a visitation from the angel Gabriel who told her of Jesus impending birth, the text omits some troubling aspects about modern life in the city. The letter, written by a 12-year-old girl who attends a Catholic school in the city states the following:
There are 40 children in my class out of whom seven are Muslims. Our relations are very friendly, like brothers and sisters. We have a common link that is based on human bonds and not our religion or faith.
In the same letter she states that “Once there were many Christians in Nazareth. Now there are more Muslims. The role of the Christians is small but I am sure that is important. People do not understand Islam properly God is one, and we are all one people.”
The girl’s letter casts Christian-Muslim relations in the city in a condign light, omitting any reference to numerous expressions of anti-Christian hostility toward Muslims in the city of Nazareth, a stronghold of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, an Islamist organization banned by Israel in 2015.
Between 1997-2000, Nazareth was the scene of a confrontation between Islamists who wanted to build a mosque on the plaza in front of the Basilica of the Annunciation and Christians from the city who join the IDF have been attacked and their sisters threatened with rape by their Muslim neighbors. In sum, Christian-Muslim relations are not as good as the letter from Nazareth suggests.
In their defense, the authors of the curriculum can argue that highlighting difficult relations between Christians and Muslims in the city of Nazareth would detract from the message of hope that Christians are called to embrace during the season of Advent. But the authors themselves stated that their goal was to bring the complexities of t
he Holy Land to life. Clearly, life in Nazareth is a lot more complex than the authors want to admit.
So what if Jesus were to be born today in Bethlehem? If Jesus were to be born this year, he would not be born in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph would not be allowed to enter from the Israeli checkpoint, and so too the Magi. The shepherds would be stuck inside the walls, unable to leave their little town. Jesus might have been born at the checkpoint like so many Palestinian children while having the Magi and shepherds on both sides of the wall.
Parents in these denominations expect Sunday school teachers to instruct their classes about the tenets of the Christian faith. But the people at Global Ministries would rather have them broadcast anti-Israel propaganda to their children in the guise of religious instruction.
Do the people at Global Ministries really think it is OK to use distorted testimony from children to indoctrinate kids about the evils of the Jewish state? Is this what is being taught in UCC and Disciples’ Sunday schools in the weeks before Christmas?