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Jesus was Palestinian and why it matters

Because of modern alarmist reactions to the word Palestine, many non-Arabs and non-Muslims
take offense when it is argued that Jesus was a Palestinian (peace be upon him).
Jesus ethnicity, skin color, and culture often accompany this conversation, but few people are
willing to acknowledge the fact he was non-European. A simple stroll down the Christmas aisle
will show you the dominant depiction of Jesus: a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white man.
Islamophobia and anti-Arab propaganda have conditioned us to view Palestinians as nothing but
heartless suicide bombers, terrorists, and enemies of freedom and democracy. Perpetual
media vilification and demonization of Palestinians, in contrast to the glorification of Israel,
obstructs us from seeing serious issues such as the Palestinian refugee crisis, the victims of
Israels atrocious three-week assault on Gaza during the winter of 2008-2009, the tens of
thousands of homeless Palestinians, and many other struggles that are constantly addressed by
human rights activists around the world.

To speak from the perspective of the Palestinians, especially in casual non-Arab and non-Muslim
settings, generates controversy because of the alignment between Palestinians and violent
stereotypes. So, how could Jesus belong to a group of people that were taught to dehumanize?
When Ive spoken to people about this, Ive noticed the following responses: No, Jesus was a
Jew, or Jesus is not Muslim. The mistake isnt a surprise to me, but it certainly is revealing.
Being a Palestinian does not mean one is Muslim or vice versa. Prior to the brutal and unjust
dispossession of indigenous Palestinians during the creation of the state of Israel, the word
Palestine was a geographic term applied to Palestinian Muslims, Palestinian Christians, and
Palestinian Jews. Although most Palestinians are Muslim today, there is a significant Palestinian
Christian minority who are often overlooked, especially by the mainstream Western media.
That dominant narrative not only distorts and misrepresents the Palestinian struggle as a
religious conflict between Muslims and Jews, but consequentially pushes the lives of
Palestinian Christians into non-existence. That is, due to the medias reluctance to report the
experiences and stories of Palestinian Christians, it isnt a surprise when white Americans are
astonished by the fact that Palestinian and Arab Christians do, in fact, exist. One could argue that
the very existence of Palestinian Christians is threatening, as it disrupts the sweeping and overlysimplistic Muslim vs. Jew Zionist narrative. To learn about many Palestinian Christians
opposing Israeli military occupation, as well as Jews who oppose the occupation, is to reveal
more voices, perspectives, and complexities to a conflict that has been immensely portrayed as
one-sided, anti-Palestinian, and anti-Muslim.
Yeshua (Jesus real Aramaic name) was born in Bethlehem, a Palestinian city in the West Bank
and home to one of the largest Palestinian Christian communities. The Church of the Nativity, one
of the oldest churches in the world, marks the birthplace of Jesus and is sacred to both Christians
and Muslims. While tourists from the around the world visit the site, they are subject to Israeli
checkpoints and roadblocks. The Israeli construction of the West Bank barrier also severely
restricts travel for local Palestinians. In April of 2010, Israeli authorities barred Palestinian
Christians from entering Jerusalem and visiting the Church of Holy Sepulchre during Easter.
Yosef Zabaneh, a Palestinian Christian merchant in Ramallah, said: The Israeli occupation in
Gaza and the West Bank doesnt distinguish between us, but treats all Palestinians with
Zabanehs comments allude to the persistent dehumanization of Palestinians, as well as the
erasure of Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims. By constantly casting Palestinians as the
villains, even the term Palestine becomes evil. There is refusal to recognize, for example, that
the word Palestine was used as early as the 5th century BCE by the ancient Greek historian
Herodotus. John Bimson, author of The Compact Handbook of Old Testament Life,
acknowledges the objection to the use of Palestine:

The term Palestine is derived from the Philistines. In the fifth century BC the Greek historian
Herodotus seems to have used the term Palaistine Syria (= Philistine Syria) to refer to the whole
region between Phoenicia and the Lebanon mountains in the north and Egypt in the south
Today the name Palestine has political overtones which many find objectionable, and for that
reason some writers deliberately avoid using it. However, the alternatives are either too clumsy to
be used repeatedly or else they are inaccurate when applied to certain periods, so Palestine
remains a useful term
Deliberately avoiding the use of the name Palestine not only misrepresents history, but also
reinforces anti-Palestinian racism as acceptable. When one examines the argument against Jesus
being a Palestinian, one detects a remarkable amount of hostility aimed at both Palestinians and
Muslims. One cannot help but wonder, is there something threatening about identifying Jesus as
a Palestinian? Professor Jack D. Forbes writes about Jesus multi-cultural and multi-ethnic
When the Romans came to dominate the area, they used the name Palestine. Thus, when
Yehoshua [Jesus] was born, he was born a Palestinian as were all of the inhabitants of the
region, Jews and non-Jews. He was also a Nazarene (being born in Nazareth) and a Galilean (born
in the region of Galilee) At the time of Yehoshuas birth, Palestine was inhabited by Jewsdescendants of Hebrews, Canaanites, and many other Semitic peoples-and also by Phoenicians,
Syrians, Greeks, and even Arabs.
Despite these facts, there are those who use the color-blind argument: It does not matter what
Jesus ethnicity or skin color was. It does not matter what language he spoke. Jesus is for all
people, whether youre black, white, brown, yellow, etc. While this is a well-intentioned
expression of inclusiveness and universalism, it misses the point.
When we see so many depictions of Jesus as a Euro-American white man, the ethnocentrism and
race-bending needs to be called out. In respect to language, for instance, Neil Douglas-Klotz,
author of The Hidden Gospel: Decoding the Spiritual Message of the Aramaic Jesus,
emphasizes the importance of understanding that Jesus spoke Aramaic, not English, and that his
words, as well as his worldview, must be understood in light of Middle Eastern language and
spirituality. Douglas-Klotz provides an interesting example which reminds me of the rich depth
and meaning of Arabic, Urdu, and Farsi words, especially the word for spirit:
Whenever a saying of Jesus refers to spirit, we must remember that he would have used an
Aramaic or Hebrew word. In both of these languages, the same word stands for spirit, breath, air,
and wind. So Holy Spirit must also be Holy Breath. The duality between spirit and body, which
we often take for granted in our Western languages falls away. If Jesus made the famous
statement about speaking or sinning against the Holy Spirit (for instance, in Luke 12:10), then
somehow the Middle Eastern concept of breath is also involved.

Certainly, no person is superior to another based on culture, language, or skin color, but to ignore
the way Jesus whiteness has been used to subjugate and discriminate against racial minorities in
the West and many other countries is to overlook another important aspect of Jesus teachings:
Love thy neighbor as thyself. Malcolm X wrote about white supremacists and slave-owners using
Christianity to justify their moral and racial superiority over blacks. In Malcolms own words,
The Holy Bible in the White mans hands and its interpretations of it have been the greatest
single ideological weapon for enslaving millions of non-white human beings. Throughout history,
whether it was in Jerusalem, Spain, India, Africa, or in the Americas, white so-called Christians
cultivated a distorted interpretation of religion that was compatible with their racist, colonialist
And here we are in the 21st century where Islamophobia (also stemming from racism because the
religion of Islam gets racialized) is on the rise; where people calling themselves Christian fear to
have a black president; where members of the KKK and anti-immigration movements behave as if
Jesus were an intolerant white American racist who only spoke English despite being born in the
Middle East. It is astonishing how so-called Christians like Ann Coulter call Muslims ragheads when in actuality, Jesus himself would fit the profile of a rag-head, too. As would Moses,
Joseph, Abraham, and the rest of the Prophets (peace be upon them all). As William Rivers Pitt
The ugly truth which never even occurs to most Americans is that Jesus looked a lot more like an
Iraqi, like an Afghani, like a Palestinian, like an Arab, than any of the paintings which grace the
walls of American churches from sea to shining sea. This was an uncomfortable fact before
September 11. After the attack, it became almost a moral imperative to put as much distance
between Americans and people from the Middle East as possible. Now, to suggest that Jesus
shared a genealogical heritage and physical similarity to the people sitting in dog cages down in
Guantanamo is to dance along the edge of treason.
Without acknowledging Jesus as a native Middle Eastern person a Palestinian who spoke
Aramaic a Semitic language that is ancestral to Arabic and Hebrew the West will continue to
view Islam as a foreign religion. Hate crimes and discriminatory acts against Muslims, Arabs,
and others who are perceived to be Muslim will persist. They will still be treated as cultural
outsiders. Interesting enough, Christianity and Judaism are never considered foreign religions,
despite having Middle Eastern origins, like Islam. As Douglas-Klotz insists, affirming Jesus as a
native Middle Eastern person enables Christians to understand that the mind and message of
Jesus arises from the same earth as have the traditions of their Jewish and Muslim sisters and
Jesus would not prefer one race or group of people over another. I believe he would condemn
todays demonization and dehumanization of the Palestinian people, as well as the

misrepresentations of him that only fuel ignorance and ethnocentrism. As a Muslim, I believe
Jesus was a prophet of God, and if I were to have any say about the Christmas spirit, it would be
based on Jesus character: humility, compassion, and Love. A love in which all people, regardless
of ethnicity, race, culture, religion, gender, and sexual orientation are respected and appreciated.