The Washington Post and The Washington Times both stumbled in their first-day coverage of Pope Francis’ canonization of two Arab nuns born in the Holy Land in the 19th century.
Like virtually all news media, the newspapers referred to the women as “Palestinians.” But it’s highly unlikely either Sister Mariam Baouardy or Sister Marie Alphonsine Ghattas thought of themselves as Palestinian Arabs, an identity claimed then by few if any Arabs in what would become British Mandatory Palestine decades later.
The Post and Washington Times also reported without qualification President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian Authority officials’ historical revisionism in claiming the two new saints as “Palestinian strugglers.”
Both papers, in quoting generalized comments by Palestinian officials, erroneously implied that Christian Arabs in Israel faced oppression similar to that causing co-religionists to flee Syria, Iraq and other ancient Middle Eastern Christian communities.
And both uncritically repeated the Vatican’s misleading use of “Palestine,” as if such an entity, with a unified government, territory and population actually existed.
Ghattas—who The Post says was born in 1843 “to a Palestinian family in Jerusalem”—died in 1927. Since 1920 was when, as Daniel Pipes has detailed, “the Arabs discovered Palestine,” Ghattas may have known of the nascent Palestinian Arab national movement very late in her life (“The Year the Arabs Discovered Palestine,” Middle East Review, Summer, 1989 ). But, as an elderly religious activist whose personality and outlook had been formed long before, it does not seem probable she identified with it, let alone could have come from a “Palestinian family” decades before the movement existed.
Both The Post and The Washington Times’ dispatches facilitated Palestinian officials’ hijacking the lives of the two nuns and imposing on them, ex post facto, a false identity as “Palestinian strugglers.”
The Post’s dispatch, by Ruth Eglash of the paper’s Jerusalem bureau and datelined Jerusalem, was illustrated by a four-column by 4½” color European Press Photo Agency picture. The cutline read “A man holds a Palestinian flag in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City at the canonization ceremony for the first Arabic-speaking Catholic saints.”
The Times article appeared at the top center of page one, with a three-column by 5 7/8” inch color Associated Press photo of the pope riding through a crowd past Palestinian flags. Embroidered in English and Italian, the banners declared “Palestine: Land of Jesus, Land of Saints.” That Jesus was a Jew and the land of the New Testament known as Judea (Latin for the Hebrew Yehuda, land of the Jews) is something Abbas and Palestinian propaganda continually to strive to erase—hence their confiscation of the new saints, with unquestioning media complicity.
To understand the chutzpah of Abbas, et. al. and Post and Times unquestioning complicity, a little background:
Ottoman Turkey, fighting alongside the other Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary, lost World War I. The Ottoman Empire collapsed, leaving British forces in charge of what became the League of Nations (later United Nations) Palestine Mandate. Mandatory lands were the first “Palestine” with defined borders since Roman times. The Mandate itself called on Britain to reestablish the Jewish national home, fulfilling its pledge in the 1917 Balfour Declaration.
From 1880 into the 1920s and ’30’s, “Palestinian” was more likely to apply to Jewish settlers, religious or Zionist returning to eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, than it was to the Arabs of the area. As CAMERA has noted in other contexts (“Who Are the Palestinians? At DePaul, Don’t Ask and Don’t Tell,” 2005), “the First Congress of Muslim-Christian Associations in Jerusalem in 1919, called to choose delegates to the Paris Peace Conference, declared:
We consider Palestine as part of Arab Syria, as it has never been separated from it at any time. We are connected with it by national, religious, linguistic, natural, economic, and geographic bonds.
“In 1947, the United Nations was considering the second partition of British Mandatory Palestine (Transjordan, now Jordan and 77.5 percent of the total area, had been separated in 1921 and Jews forbidden to settle there). The Arab Higher Committee informed the General Assembly that ‘Palestine was part of the province of Syria’ and ‘politically, the Arabs of Palestine were not independent in the sense of forming a separate political identity.’ ”
In 1977, Zahir Muhsein, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee, told the Dutch newspaper Trau (March 31):
The Palestinian people does not exist . . . . The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity.
In reality today there is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people, since Arab national interests demand that we posit the existence of a distinct “Palestinian people” to oppose Zionism.
Palestinian anachronisms prop up ‘the narrative’
Now, Palestinian Arabs insist they are just that, Palestinians. If so, it is a national identify formed largely from a negative, opposition to Jewish nationalism as manifested by Zionism. As for Sisters Baouardy and Ghattas, they were Christian Arabs, are now Roman Catholic saints, but not ex post facto “Palestinians.”
Never the less, media seem unable to recognize, let alone highlight, Palestinian anachronisms. The Post quotes Abbas as declaring that the “two Palestinian saints add a very distincti
ve dimension to our national struggle, namely the moving humanitarian and spiritual principles that our land inspires us with.” The paper also refers to an article from Maan, a Palestinian news agency, by Issa Kassissieh, the PA’s “ambassador” to the Vatican. Kassissieh “said the two women were intrinsically linked to the ‘struggle of the Palestinian people to be on its own land.’ ”
No, the two nuns’ notable struggles were within the context of minority Christianity under Ottoman imperial, Islamic rule.
Glaringly, The Post refers to Arab Christians who said elevation of the pair to sainthood “brought a ray of hope to the shrinking Christian community here, which has lived for centuries in the land of Jesus’ birth.” In an article with a Jerusalem dateline, referring to 19th century nuns from the Galilee and Jerusalem, respectively, such wording misleadingly conflates Israel with the Palestinian Authority.
The Christian Arab community of Israel is not shrinking. The Jewish state hosts the only growing Christian population in the surrounding Muslim-dominated Middle East. (See, for example, CAMERA’s “Chris Cuomo’s Terrible Gaffe on Christians in Jerusalem,” Aug. 8, 2014 .)
But Christians Arabs have been leaving the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as they have been the Middle East in general, for a century and more. Their departure from the West Bank accelerated after the establishment of the PA in 1993 and from Gaza even more so after Hamas seized control in 2006. What amounts to attempted ethnic cleansing of ancient Christian Arab communities in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, the oppression of Egypt’s large Coptic Christian minority and similar outrages have been reported frequently.
What are you calling ‘Palestine’?
The Washington Times prematurely uses “Palestine” in its page one headline and in the text. But where is “Palestine,” what are its borders, who constitutes its government, who comprises its population? A second Arab state in the boundaries of the original Palestine Mandate lands might be established according to negotiations envisioned by U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 and related agreements, like the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Accords. Such a country would comply with the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, but it does not exist now. “Recognition” by the Vatican, U.N. General Assembly or other bodies may be political, but it would not be according to relevant law.
The Times also implicitly conflated Christian Arab flight from “the Palestinian lands” and Arab countries with the status of Arab Christian Israelis.
Reporter Nate Madden, apparently working from Washington, D.C., quoted Fouad Twal, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, as writing “the canonization will be a ‘blessing from heaven on our land, devastated by violence yet persevering in our longing for peace and justice.’ ” Violent devastation in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel has been instigated repeatedly in recent decades by Hamas (the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement), Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades of Fatah (Abbas’ movement), all U.S.-designated Palestinian terrorist organizations. Compared to Palestinian Christians, Israeli Christians protected by Israeli security forces have been relatively safe, though The Times’ blurs this reality.
The Times does give readers some regional context, noting “the sectarian civil wars in Iraq and Syria, coupled with the rise of the jihadi Islamic State movement, have sharpened fears about the future of ancient Christian minority communities across the region.” But it fails to distinguish the status of Israeli Christians from their co-religionists elsewhere in the Middle East.
The Vatican may have its diplomatic reasons for describing the new saints as “Palestinian.” Any potential leverage on behalf of the Middle East’s beleaguered Christians might appear worth grasping.
Palestinian leaders always seek plausible-sounding pretexts—like their annual “al-Nakba day” hoopla, the weekend just before the nuns’ canonization and likewise covered with paper-thin two dimensionality—to support their unfounded narrative. That narrative, a contradiction of Jewish identity and rights and an inversion of Middle Eastern history, essentially amounts to an eviction notice constantly lodged against Israel.
There is no reason, at least, no journalistic reason, the news media—if it is to live up to its name—should play along.