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Thursday, May 26, 2005

Two Children of Bethlehem

Christian Aid News No. 26 (Autumn 2004)

Proportion again…

Coverage of Israel and Palestine: the front cover; a half-page news item; a three-page feature on the “Child of Bethlehem” Christmas appeal; half of the letters page; a full-page advertisement for the Child of Bethlehem appeal on the back cover. Total six pages.

Coverage of Sudan: one news item covering a third of a page.

Coverage of Democratic Republic of the Congo: nil.

Having dealt with the bare statistics, let us examine the Child of Bethlehem Christmas Appeal.

The child is Jessica Safar, a seven-year-old Palestinian Christian living in Bethlehem. When she was four she was caught in a gunfight between Israeli soldiers and local youths, and hit by a piece of shrapnel which shattered her right eye. A shocking image of a doll with its eye gouged out brings home the violence she has suffered (see it here with another Christian blogger's comments). Plainly this is a terrible tragedy, and it is good to learn that counsellors funded by Christian Aid have helped Jessica cope with her situation. However, I believe some hard questions can and should be asked about the uses to which this tragedy is being put.

Consider the choices that have been made in designing the appeal:

1. To focus on the conflict in Israel and Palestine.

2. To focus on a Palestinian child who has suffered violence, directly or indirectly, from the Israeli state.

3. To focus on a Christian child living in Bethlehem.

At each step I want simply to ask: Why?

Why single out this conflict when others (several could be named in Africa alone) are having a far worse impact on children?

Why ignore the Israeli children who have been murdered in this conflict? Why dwell at length on the misery that the separation barrier is causing for Palestinians without even mentioning the possibility that it is saving Israeli lives – children included? Mahmoud Abbas, elected with a huge majority as President of the Palestinian Authority, has said openly that the Intifada has been a disaster for the Palestinians. Why can’t Christian Aid bring itself to say so?

Why this child? It’s pretty obvious which other “child of Bethlehem” readers are meant to identify Jessica with. One born in poverty under foreign occupation. One threatened with arbitrary state brutality. And now as then, the persecutors are Jewish. But there is one difference: the victim is no longer Jewish, but a Gentile Christian. What a Pandora’s box of associations with the dark corners of Christian history we open up when we make this conjunction of Jewish violence and a Christian child victim!

In Matthew’s Gospel the Massacre of the Innocents on the orders of the Jewish king Herod (2:16-18) prefigures the Jewish crowd’s claiming of the “blood guilt” for the crucifixion of Christ: “His blood be on us and on our children!”(27:24). In both cases, of course, God’s intervention prevails over violent Jewish intent. A further parallel is that Gentiles acknowledge Christ where Jews reject him: the Magi at the Nativity (2:1-12) and the Roman centurion who declares “Truly this man was God’s Son!” at Christ’s death (27:54).

So here we have arrived at the traditional basis of Christian anti-Semitism: the accusation that the Jews killed Christ. In the Middle Ages this developed into the “blood libel” – the belief that Jews ritually sacrificed Christian children in commemoration of the Crucifixion. This is a belief that lives on among some in the Middle East (including the Syrian defence minister).

The playing down or outright denial of Jesus’ Jewishness forms part of the same syndrome. In old paintings of the Last Supper you will often see just one obviously Jewish face – that of Judas Iscariot. The logic was carried to its conclusion in 1930s Germany, when the so-called “German Christian” movement (Deutsche Christen) sought to reconcile Christianity and Nazism by claiming that Jesus was an Aryan.

So am I accusing Christian Aid of anti-Semitism here? The answer is not so simple. They would undoubtedly protest that far from being anti-Semites they are impeccably anti-racist. And I don’t believe there is necessarily any anti-Semitism involved at a conscious level. But what I think is crucially demonstrated by this campaign is that for Christians anti-Semitism is not just one form of racism among many, but is something with deep roots in the collective historical unconscious of our faith. Looking for a hard-hitting symbol for a contemporary problem, Christian Aid draw on this poisonous heritage and “know not what they do”.

A glance at the letters page reveals what kind of attitudes are being reinforced among at least some Christian Aid supporters. One pro-Israel letter is published as a gesture towards even-handedness, but in three other letters we read that Israel is a “proud and highly armed state” which has “thrown over all the principles of justice”; that the Americans’ “inexcusable support for Israel is the main cause of our troubles in the Middle East and beyond”; that Israel is responsible for “blatant persecution and oppression of the Palestinian people”. There is not a hint from any of these correspondents that there might be wrongs on both sides, and one wonders what stronger language they would find to use about Israel if it were committing systematic genocide against the Palestinians.

Unless we bring those ancient bigotries into consciousness and confront them it is all too likely that they will determine our attitudes without us even being aware of it.


ModernityBlog said...

a thoughtful blog, you are a credit to your Church just a shame that the ACC, etc choose to posture, instead of looking at ways of enhancing peace efforts in the region

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