West Bank

Struggling to keep olive-wood traditions alive in Bethlehem (But why the big crisis?)

Struggling to keep olive-wood traditions alive in Bethlehem (But why the big crisis?)

At two very different points in my life, I had a chance to talk with Christians in Bethlehem, while looking over some of the wood-carvings and other gifts in their shops.

That first visit was at Christmas in 1972, when I was a Baylor University freshman in a touring choir. The second was in 2000, when I was in Israel and Jordan at a conference on religion-news trends -- linked to Pope John Paul II and his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

There were major changes between those visits. There have been more changes since then. But the olive trees remain and artists still turn the wood into crosses, Nativity sets, rosaries and other gifts that pilgrims and tourists take home as symbols of their visits. There's an olive-wood cross (simple and Protestant) from 1972 hanging next to my computer as I write this. My other olive-wood Jerusalem cross? It's in my family's Orthodox altar corner. Turn, turn, turn.

All of this is to say that I appreciated the Religion News Service feature focusing on the many current issues and challenges that swirl around the Christians of the West Bank. The headline: "In Christ’s birthplace, olive wood artisans carry on a Holy Land tradition."

Yes, the Christians (and some Muslim artists) carry on. But trends in the Middle East keep making the lives of Christians more difficult and even dangerous. What is causing so much pain and stress? Hold that thought. There is much to praise in this RNS piece, but there is one crucial passage that I found rather stunning.

Let's start with the overture and the family at the heart of the story:

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (RNS) -- Thirty years ago Bassem Giacaman, whose large extended family has lived in this town for generations, immigrated to New Zealand with his parents and siblings in search of a life far away from the turmoil of the Middle East.
They left behind a small shop and olive wood factory, one of a few dozen olive wood enterprises in and around Bethlehem, which Christians around the world revere as the birthplace of Jesus.
Most of these businesses are owned by Christian families that have been carving religious items such as crosses, rosaries and Nativity scenes for nearly two millennia.

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Concerning Jerusalem, Donald Trump, Arab Christian anger and, yes, American evangelicals

Concerning Jerusalem, Donald Trump, Arab Christian anger and, yes, American evangelicals

Trust me when I say that I understand why so many Christians in the ancient churches of the Middle East are frustrated with America, and American evangelicals in particular, when it comes to the complex and painful status of Jerusalem.

As I have mentioned several times here at GetReligion, when I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy two decades ago my family became part of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese -- which is closely tied to the ancient Orthodox flock based in Damascus. Then, from 2001-2005 (including 9/11), we were active in a West Palm Beach, Fla., parish that was primarily made up of families with ties to Syria, Lebanon and, yes, Israel and the West Bank.

I will not try to sum up their lives and viewpoints in a few lines. Suffice it to say, they struggled to understand why so many American Christians have little or no interest in the daily lives and realities of Christians whose Holy Land roots go back to Pentecost.

Thus, I am thankful that the Washington Post international desk has updated a familiar, yet still urgent, news topic as we get closer to the Christmas season. The hook, of course, is the announcement by President Donald Trump about the status of the U.S. embassy in Israel. The headline: "Trump plan to move U.S. embassy to Jerusalem angers Middle East Christians."

The overture is familiar, yet sadly newsy:

JERUSALEM -- Some of the festive cheer was missing this weekend at a public Christmas tree lighting near the site where Christians believe an angel proclaimed Christ’s birth to local shepherds. 
“Our oppressors have decided to deprive us from the joy of Christmas,” Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the former archbishop and Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, told the crowd in the town of Beit Sahour in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. “Mr. Trump told us clearly Jerusalem is not yours.”
The Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy there has provoked widespread opposition among Christians across the Middle East. When Vice President Pence arrives next week on a trip touted as a chance to check on the region’s persecuted Christians, he will be facing an awkward backlash.

Right there, you see, is the story that has loomed in the background for decades.

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Jesus was a Palestinian and similar claims that often cloud Middle East reporting

Jesus was a Palestinian and similar claims that often cloud Middle East reporting

In 2014, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator in talks with Israel, proclaimed himself a direct descendant of the ancient Canaanites, one of the tribes believed to have inhabited what is now Israel and the Palestinian Territories prior to the Israelites’ arrival. Erekat did so while rejecting Israeli government insistence that Israel be recognized as a Jewish nation.

Erekat’s obvious point -- which he's made repeatedly, along with other Palestinian, Arab and Muslim political and religious leaders, as well as some Christian leaders who favor the Palestinian side -- is that Israel has no real claim to call itself a Jewish state. Moreover, goes this line of reasoning, Israel is, in fact, a purely colonial enterprise because the people we call Palestinians are descendants of the land’s true indigenous population.

According to this logic, it's not only today’s Jewish settlers in the West Bank, which Palestinians claim as part of their hoped-for nation state, who are colonizers. Rather it's all Jews, no matter where they live in Israel, because the Canaanite-Palestinian historical connection predates Israelite-Jewish claims on the land.

If you read Arabic, look at this piece from the Palestine Press for clarification of Erekat’s position. If not, here’s an English-language piece refuting Erekat from The Algemeiner, a right-leaning, New York-based Jewish print and web publication.

Western news media reports often pass along the Canaanite-Palestinian linkage claim unchallenged. This happens more often in opinion pieces than hard news stories. However, on occasion the claim makes its way into a bare bones, dueling assertions piece presented without clarifying context or background.

So here’s some context and background that religion-beat writers would do well to keep in mind.

To begin, biblical and archeological claims are difficult if not impossible to unequivocally substantiate historically.

The former is often a matter of interpretation rooted in faith, reason, culture -- or the rejection of all or any of them. This is true no matter whose faith claims are at issue.

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One-sided Washington Post special section ignores Palestinian failures contributing to West Bank occupation

One-sided Washington Post special section ignores Palestinian failures contributing to West Bank occupation

Allow me to stipulate upfront that I support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the only conceivable outcome that has any chance of succeeding.

Let me also stipulate that I agree -- with some reservations that I'll explain below -- with the general international consensus that continued Israeli settlement activities in Palestinian areas is a serious hinderance to achieving that two-state goal.

Also, that Israeli policies toward the Palestinians are too often heavy handed and, thus, are easily interpreted as being unjust. In short, while I'm a strong Zionist, I do not believe that Israeli government policies are above reproach -- not by a long shot.

However, I also subscribe to the notion that quality journalism acknowledges there are at least two sides to every conflict, and that historical context is exceedingly important to understanding why any conflict, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, keeps dragging on. It's important for journalists, when covering a heated debate, to treat people on both sides with respect, while striving for accuracy and fairness.

Which is why I believe that The Washington Post's three-story special section published Sunday to mark the 50th anniversary of the June 1967 war in which Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is an exercise in one-sided, blatantly anti-Israel journalism.

All three stories featured the problems, and the suffering, that Palestinians endure under Israeli control without any -- not any -- input from Israeli sources defending or at least explaining their side's actions.

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Washington Post covers first of Bethlehem's two (yes, two) Christmas celebrations

Washington Post covers first of Bethlehem's two (yes, two) Christmas celebrations

Let's settle one issue first. I am well aware that for most of the world's Christians, Christmas is celebrated on the 25th day of December. The season then continues for the next 12 days, but that's another story (as the one and only M.Z. Hemingway reminds us).

However, there are millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians located in strategic places -- think Egypt, Russia, the Slavic countries -- who celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January. Click here to see a helpful map at The Telegraph offering the details. (Clarification from a reader: Most parishes in Greece now use the 25th of December, but there are old-calendar parishes there, too. The map is inaccurate on that point.)

Why is this? Well churches in the West use the calendar proposed by Pope Gregory in 1582. Most of the world's Orthodox churches remain on the Julian calendar, which dates back to 45 B.C. (It does confuse things a bit that, in the United States, most Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on December 25 -- but stay on the old calendar for Pascha, which is the Orthodox name for Easter).

I needed to remind readers about these basic facts -- which are known to all experienced religion-beat writers -- because this is the time when news organizations start covering one of the season's basic stories, which is the sad state of Christmas in the city of Bethlehem itself, located on the tense West Bank.

The headline on the Washington Post piece is typical: "Violence makes for a somber Christmas in Bethlehem this year." Tragically, you could use that headline almost every year and it would be accurate.

The story gets the politics of this story right, of course. The problem -- surprise -- is that key religious facts are missing or are messed up. Here is how the story starts out:

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- The city celebrated as the birthplace of Jesus is usually filled with parades and parties this time of year. There are fireworks, carolers, feasts. Revelers drink a little wine. They dance.
This year? It’s not exactly like Christmas was canceled, but it is a somber, dutiful affair.

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Adding to the Middle East mix; this time we're talking about Jewish terrorism

Adding to the Middle East mix; this time we're talking about Jewish terrorism

Despicable Jew-on-Jew and suspected Jew-on-Palestinian acts of violence were committed in Israel last week, producing much agonized soul-searching among Israeli and Diaspora Jews over how this could happen. Not surprisingly, the international media has been all over the story, supplying enough answers to the question of "how" to satisfy every taste.

Here's a quick summation of events: 

Within the span of just a few days, right wing religious settlers clashed with government forces seeking to remove illegally built West Bank settler homes, an ultra-Orthodox man attacked a Jerusalem gay pride parade, knifing six and killing a teenaged Jewish girl, and suspected extremist religious settlers set fire to a Palestinian home, killing a toddler. (I say suspected because, as of this writing, no one's actually been charged with the crime, though all signs point to the involvement of radical Jews.) 

Want more detail, including how the Israeli government has reacted to these events? Read this solid Washington Post piece published earlier this week.

Israeli Jewish civilian violence rooted in religious or political extremism -- or an unfortunate mix of the two -- is not quite the man-bites-dog story it's generally portrayed to be. Sadly, it happens too often for that to be the case. Jews, Israeli or otherwise, are no less immune to the darker human impulses than anyone else. 

Still, the anguished "How could Jews do this?" trope carried the day.

My reading of the media landscape tells me that this is the case for several reasons.

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WPost probes hot debate on the banks of River Jordan

I have crossed the Jordan River twice in my life and both times the experience was quite memorable. The river itself isn’t much to look at, but the social dynamics surrounding the location are fascinating. The first trip was a singer in a choral music tour, done with the cooperation of the U.S. government, to perform “The Messiah” for cultural and political leaders in both Israel and Jordan. No big deal, right? However, this effort took place in late December, 1972. Look that up in the history of the Middle East. The second trip was linked to the 2000 pilgrimage that St. John Paul II made to the region. Look that one up, too.

Do the math and I am automatically going to be interested in the Washington Post news feature that ran under the following headline: “Pope picks one of dueling baptism sites in visit to Holy Land.”

This is a solid story and, first things first, I want to praise the wide variety of images and information contained in it. However, at the same time, I want to challenge the Post assumption that most readers would be most interested in the financial and political angles of this story, as opposed to the religions questions that it raises. You can get to both of those subjects from the material at the top of the report:

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