I ran across an op-ed published on March 9th by the Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren on the Wall Street Journal titled “Israel and the Plight of Mideast Christians”. Below is my response.
Ambassador Oren starts his op-ed with an incident in which a church in Bethlehem was sprayed with graffiti in Arabic: “Hamas”. I can’t believe that this is how Ambassador starts his op-ed when a “price tag” graffiti was sprayed-painted on a Church in Jerusalem in February 2012. Intro is certainly leading to the old well known saying “divide and conquer”. Let’s divide between Muslims and Christians and create clear two camps amongst Palestinians. Sir, both religions are suffering, equally.
Later, Ambassador is discussing the trauma of the priests and their fear to complain about the Hamas vandalism. Ultra-Orthodox spitting attacks on Jerusalem Old City clergymen becoming daily was reported in November 2011 after a long time practice. Officials have yet been able to defeat this phenomenon, or shall I quote Ambassador saying: “too frighten to file a complaint”?
Then Ambassador Oren starts with his analysis in the wider context of the Middle East, blaming Christian-Muslim relations over the declining numbers. How about mentioning the fact that Christians are more capable to leave a war zone than their neighboring Muslims? With their family and networking in the Western world? In Egypt, the revolution played a major factor in the declining numbers but that defiantly wasn’t the Christian-Muslim relations. The extreme Islamists are not solely targeting the Christians community and their spears are directed against liberal Egyptians, women and other minorities. Muslim and Christians have joined hands and protested together for the future of Egypt numerously. In Iraq, the main factor in the decline of the population was the war with the United States and most of the Iraqis found asylum in the Arab countries of Jordan and Syria. The Hashemite Kingdom granted residence status to about half a million Iraqis and Syria was another popular destination for Assyrian Iraqis.
Back to Israel and the Jewish people. I feel more than uncomfortable with Ambassador Oren’s comparison between the fleeing Jews from Arab countries in the early 20th century and the current status of Christians. Motivation and factors are significantly different. When my close relative left Jerusalem last year, it wasn’t the relationship with his Muslim neighbors that caused him to migrate but the separation wall built in the heart of his city.
Ambassador is reminding us that Christians in Israel are flourishing by examples of individuals serving in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Supreme Court. Ambassador forgets that only 6% of the public sector’s employees are Arabs. Note that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has the official number of Christians in Israel on their website as 2% as of January 2012 while Ambassador says it has expanded more than 1,000% in his op-ed. Church official will be glad to hear that our fertility is on the rise. In a 1,000%?! And by the way, although two wrongs don’t make a right – similarly to Hamas regime refusing to allow Christmas trees in Gaza, Nazareth Illit Mayor refused to place Christmas trees in his city squares, too.
Regarding the education system, Ambassador says, rightfully, that the Christians achievements are higher than the average Israeli. Unfortunately he fails to clarify that it’s due to the private Christian schooling system, that half of its students are Muslims, as oppose to the public Arab Ministry of Education schools that are collapsing and their students achievements are below the national average, by far.
Moreover, Ambassador Oren discusses the access to the Christian holy sites, to which I don’t see any difference from access to Muslim sites. Both should be treated equally. Currently, there is age restrictions mainly for Muslims in Jerusalem by the government of Israel. In addition, Ambassador is discussing the non-Israeli Palestinians, bragging about free access permits – a quick glimpse from last Christmas and the case of the Christians in Gaza shows a totally different reality with age and marital status restrictions. Not only Israel is discriminating between Christians and Muslims in Gaza, for their own reasons, they are also discriminating between Christians in Gaza and the West Bank. Yes, I am practicing my full freedom of movement in Jaffa and Tel-Aviv but that doesn’t apply to the West Bank, Gaza or Jerusalem.
To conclude, I find it extremely difficult to hear my Ambassador to the United States, whether I like him or not, claiming that Christians are expelled from the Middle East by Muslims, especially when such accusations are directed towards Palestinian Muslims. When discussing the 1948 war with the older generation in Ramleh, I hear about Muslims and Christians hiding together in the churches – shared life goes back even further, and not just in the hard days of war. The Israeli government does not distinguish between one Arab to the other – and when there are more than 50% of Palestinian-Israelis under the poverty line, some of them are Christians just as much as some of them are Muslims.
Let’s be frank, just like any other relationship between minorities around the world, the Christian community is facing major challenges, within Israel and the occupied territories and in the wider context of the Middle East. Having said that, I find it out of place when my Ambassador is taking credit over the well-being of my community, on the expense of bashing another community, when we both share a lot in common and consider ourselves as one people. Moreover, this attack on the Muslim community is not promoting the relationship between Jews and Arab in Israel, the Middle East and around the world. The audiences that are reading this op-ed in The Wall Street Journal are getting the wrong impression by our own Ambassador. Not surprising when our Foreign Minister is Avigdor Liberman and his deputy is Danny Ayalon.