Recently reignited arguments over the nationality of Jesus of Nazareth are reminiscent of previous attempts by both sides of the Israel-Palestine to weaponize history.
Rabat – The line between theological and nationalist sentiments has often become blurred throughout the ongoing Israel-Palestine crisis. However, recent comments calling into question the nationality of Jesus of Nazareth have stood out, sparking widespread controversy and debate.
Over the weekend, on July 6, American political activist Linda Sarsour — a Muslim and outspoken supporter of Palestine— reignited debate over the nationality of Jesus by claiming that the religious figure was Palestinian.
The comment received subsequent backlash from hundreds of critics, many of whom accused Sarsour of making historically inaccurate and politically-driven claims.
Despite the heavily targeted criticism against Sarsour, the activist’s argument is by no means new. Her comments echo those previously made by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“We celebrate the birth of Jesus, a Palestinian messenger of love, justice and peace, which has guided millions from the moment that his message came out from a small grotto in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago,” Abbas said during a Christmas speech in 2014.
The comments match a statement from earlier this year made by the Somali-American Representative Ilhan Omar. In April, Omar retweeted a New York Times op-ed claiming that “Jesus, born in Bethlehem, was most likely a Palestinian man with dark skin.”
Though Sarsour’s comments attracted hundreds of critics, one of her more prominent detractors was Yair Netanyahu, a right-wing activist and the son of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Are you that stupid? On the cross above Jesus’ head was the sign ‘INRI’ – ‘Iesvs Nazarenvs Rex Ivdaeorvm,’” the young Netanyahu replied, “Which means in Latin – Jesus of Nazareth king of the Jews! The Bible say that Jesus was born and raised in Judea!”
The prime minister’s son was joined by many disparagers who pointed out that Jesus is widely considered to have been Jewish; however, Sarsour argued that to be Jewish or Palestinian is not mutually exclusive.
“Palestinian is a nationality not a religion,” Sarsour wrote. “Your point is not negated. Jews lived with Palestinians in peaceful co-existence before there was a state of Israel.”
During the brief twitter war sparked by Sarsour’s comments, the activist turned to political discussion. She condemned the “military occupation” of Bethlehem, the scriptural birthplace of Jesus.
“Why so upset by the truth. Jesus was born in Bethlehem aka بيت لحم in Arabic,” Sarsour tweeted. “Bethlehem is in Palestine. It’s currently militarily occupied by Israel and home to a predominately beautiful Palestinian Christian community. Yes, the birthplace of Jesus is under military occupation.”
Although this instance was not the first time debate has erupted over this issue, many within the pro-Israel camp have seen the comments as an attempt to politicize history and erase Jewish ties to the Israeli territory.
Despite this criticism, the Israeli side has certainly never hesitated to weaponize history as a tool for furthering its own political goals, especially through its efforts to conceal war crimes committed during the Nakba.
Meanwhile, as both Israel and Palestine’s fervent commitment towards proving ties with Jesus of Nazareth fuels further conflict, the same prophet’s message of peace and universal brotherhood seemingly eludes them.