Was Jesus a Palestinian?

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Reports that the textbook The World: Social Studies asserts that: "Christianity was started by a young Palestinian named Jesus." have triggered considerable controversy. Some maintain that this is a gross inaccuracy reflecting the intrusion of anti-Semitism, to which others respond that it is correct and so unexceptionable. The former are correct: the description of Jesus as a Palestinian is both inaccurate and offensive.

The argument that it is correct to describe Jesus as a Palestinian is based on the claim that what it means is that Jesus was an inhabitant of "Palestine". In this sense the statement is indeed correct, in that the historical Jesus lived in an area that has sometimes been called "Palestine", but there is much more to it. In current usage, when referring to people, "Palestinian" virtually always means "Palestinian Arab". It almost always excludes Jews, and usually excludes other ethnic groups, such as Armenians and Greeks, even if they have lived for centuries in "Palestine". To current readers, the characterization of Jesus as a "Palestinian" is very likely to be interpreted as meaning that Jesus was an Arab.

The ambiguity of "Palestinian" is rather like that of "American". In theory "American" can mean either "inhabitant of the Americas" or "citizen of the United States of America", but in practice it almost always means the latter. One would be very surprised to see Gabriel Garcia Márquez, the famous Colombian author, described as a "famous American author".

The reason that this is not merely a misleading factlet but offensive is that the claim that Jesus was an Arab is part of the broader Arab propaganda effort against Israel, which denies the historical connection between Israel and the Jews. For illustrations of this aspect of anti-Semitic pseudohistory, with quotations from Arabic publications and copies of cartoons, see the article "Jesus the Palestinian In Palestinian Authority Ideology" in the July 2006 Palestinian Media Watch Bulletin. (Muslims are not alone in downplaying the Jewishness of Jesus. There is also such a tradition in Christianity, but it is not currently very prominent.)

Describing Jesus as a Palestinian is rather like describing Yasser Arafat as an Egyptian. This is technically true. Arafat was born in Cairo and spent all but four years of his youth in Egypt. With the exception of the first few years of primary school, he received all of his education, through his university degree, in Egypt. He held Egyptian citizenship and served in the Egyptian army. Nonetheless, he did not identify as an Egyptian, and what he is known for is his role in the PLO, not for his contributions to Egypt. Describing him as an Egyptian would be quite misleading and would be regarded as offensive by his followers.

Some people think that it is accurate to describe Jesus as a Palestinian because he lived in what was then called "Palestine". This fails to address the problem that I have already mentioned, that this is not the likely interpretation, but in any case, it is not true. The historical Jesus lived from roughly 4 BCE until 30 CE. His home region was the Galilee. Had he been asked, and had he identified himself in geographic rather than ethnic or religious terms, he would most likely have called himself a Galileean. He might also have identified himself as a Judean since his father's family came from Judea and he himself was born in Judea. He would not have identified himself as a Palestinian both because he would not have been likely to identify with such a large region defined only for the administrative purposes of foreign conquerors and because this term would not come into use until a century after his death.

The antecedant of the term "Palestine" was first used by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who in 135 CE, on suppressing the Bar Kokhba revolt, merged the Galilee with what had previously been called "Iudaea" (consisting of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea) and gave the name "Syria Palaestina" to the new province. Palaestina refers to the Phillistines, the one-time inhabitants of the southern coast of Canaan, who had been deadly enemies of the Jews. (Goliath, the warrior defeated in single combat by the young David, before he became King, was a Philistine.) Hadrian's purpose was to eliminate the association between Israel and the Jews and to humiliate the Jews by giving the name of their enemies to their land. A modern analogy would be if the Soviet Union had conquered Iran and the Arabian Peninsula, killed or exiled most of the Arabs, and named its new colony "Persia".

The characterization of Jesus as a Palestinian is likely to be interpreted in a way that is both false and associated with anti-Semitism. It is all the more offensive because it gratuitously uses a term associated with colonialism and genocide.

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