Activist Linda Sarsour asserted that “Jesus was Palestinian of Nazareth” over the weekend, claiming that he “is described in the Quran as being brown-copper skinned with woolly hair.” She was excoriated for her tweet, and for her subsequent attempts to double-down on it, mostly by commentators pointing out that Jesus was born in Judea and he was Jewish.
This isn’t the first “Jesus was Palestinian” controversy. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar fanned the flames of this claim in April when she promoted an article with the same assertion.
The latest attempt to push the “Jesus was Palestinian” claim is not as innocent as it appears. It is a negation of Jewish history and a modern day attempt at replacement theology: to replace historical Jewish connections to the land 2,000 years ago, recreating an imagined history of Palestinians in place of Jews.
A more honest reading of history would start by mentioning the Jewish roots of Jesus and the Jewish areas where he traveled, and then point out that places like Nazareth and Bethlehem are today Palestinian or Arab cities – and that for Palestinian Christians, Jesus is not just a religious figure, but can also be a historical one of national importance.
Sarsour’s tweet was in response to Bishop Talbert Swan as part of an exchange about race, nationality and historical figures such as Mussolini, Moses and Jesus.
Sarsour referenced Jesus in the Quran, not the New Testament. Sarsour continued tweeting about the topic on Saturday, noting that “Bethlehem is in Palestine… Jesus was born in Bethlehem which is in Palestine. Move on.” She even disputed the origin of the name Bethlehem, claiming it was written in Arabic, as if this precludes an earlier history. “Why so upset by the truth?” she tweeted. “Jesus was born in Bethlehem, aka Beit Lahm in Arabic. Bethlehem is in Palestine. It’s currently occupied by Israel.”
Sarsour began to reverse course on Sunday, retweeting a comment that Jesus was a “Palestinian Jew,” and another comment that “he was also a Jew.”
It is not surprising that for some Palestinian activists, the idea that Jesus forms part of the nationalist pantheon is natural. Palestinians, like many groups, want to feel connected to a long and ancient heritage in the land, so historical figures that might predate the current Palestinian nationalist movement are held up as heroes.
Sarsour’s attempt to embrace a Palestinian nationalist Jesus is part of a larger milieu of cultural appropriation of the history of Jesus, to deracinate him from his Jewish context and repackage him for nationalist purposes. This is not just a question of religion, saying that Jesus was born in the Jewish religion but might have been a member of the Palestinian nation. Nations and states such as Iraq or Lebanon – or even Israel and the Palestinian territories – are modern creations.
Jesus is no more Palestinian than Saladin (Salah ad-Din) is Iraqi, or Maimonides a Spaniard. That doesn’t mean that Maimonides cannot be seen as part of the history of Spain, or that people in Iraq should not see Saladin as an important historical figure.
But one can’t rebrand Byzantine Emperor Justinian as a Turkish nationalist: it’s not logical and it is ahistorical. It is as ahistorical as claiming that the Prophet Muhammad is Saudi Arabian, just because he was from an area that became part of the modern kingdom. Moses is also not Egyptian; to pretend that he is primarily Egyptian, as opposed to Jewish, would erase his identity.
This bringsus back to the “Jesus was Palestinian” claim. It is only made to erase the Jewish history of the Land of Israel. It is part of a larger argument being fought over the religious history of the Middle East, an argument primarily taking place in the West. For instance, pro-Palestinian supporters tend to emphasize Palestinian history to negate Israel’s claims. They also do so to thwart what they perceive as Evangelical Christian or Christian Zionist attempts to root more of Christian history in its Jewish origins.
This is a conflict that is at the same time about religion, ethnicity, history and modern nationhood. When the conflict gets into religion, it blends theology with nationalism. This is an unhealthy mix that many should be familiar with from the tragedies of European nationalist history. Unfortunately, in the zeal to be pro-Palestinian, this unhealthy toxic mix is being conjured.
There is no reason to repackage Jesus as Palestinian. He can be a historical figure from Bethlehem or Nazareth without being “Palestinian.” Sarsour’s attempt to reference the Quran is interesting because she seems to not mention other aspects of how Jesus is described in Islamic theology. For instance, he is seen as a messenger to the “Children of Israel” and an adherent of the laws of Moses. He is linked to the line of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes of Israel, as well as kings David and Solomon. Sometimes this is papered over or forgotten in discussions of Jesus in Islam: for instance, some websites that discuss Jesus in the Quran, such as Vox, don’t mention the Jewish references to him.
It is important that this new nationalist Jesus not be used against Jews or Israel. Even a careful change in terminology can help prevent this. Jesus was not Palestinian – but Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which is now part of the Palestinian Authority. Jesus can be seen as part of the history of the land that Palestinians claim today. But ignoring his Jewish roots – which are part of the Jewish history of the landscape – is an attempt deracinate Jesus from his history and disregard Jewish history.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Middle East Forum