Well, it’s that time of year again, when people indulge in a riot of shopping and stock up on food and drink. Yes, the Festive Season is in full swing, and this year Chanukah and Christmas coincide, so Jews will be joining the shopping frenzy.
I love the Christmas season, with all the beautiful decorations in the shops and brightly lit Christmas trees. Perhaps it’s a legacy of being deprived of this in my youth, having been brought up in an Orthodox Jewish home where such things were forbidden. At my state school in England, I always felt sad to miss out on all the presents and fun.
There are many poems about Christmas, but the one I remember most from school was John Betjeman’s “Christmas”. Below are some verses:
The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.
And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.
And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?
And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
When I read this poem as a teenager, I pondered whether Betjeman was expressing doubts about his religion.
Today, I’m fascinated by one line
“That God was man in Palestine”.
What was his conception of Palestine; did he consider that Jesus was a Jew born in Judea?
Betjeman was born in 1906 in London. His father was Ernest Betjemann, but John dropped the second ‘n’ during the First World War, to make the name less German.
Interestingly, his first book of poems published in 1931 was called Mount Zion. He had a long and distinguished career, writing and making documentaries. In 1969, he was knighted, and in 1972 was made Poet Laureate. He died in 1984.
So back then, what were the feelings about Palestine and Mount Zion; were there concepts of them being Islamic, as there are today in some circles? From Wikipedia, we learn:
The Temple Mount (Hebrew: הַר הַבַּיִת, Har HaBáyit, “Mount of the House [of God, i.e. the Temple]”), known to Muslims as the Haram esh-Sharif, “the Noble Sanctuary”, or “the Noble Sanctuary of Jerusalem”), a hill located in the Old City of Jerusalem, is one of the most important religious sites in the world.
It has been venerated as a holy site for thousands of years by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The present site is dominated by three monumental structures from the early Umayyad period: the al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock and the Dome of the Chain, as well as four minarets. Herodian walls and gates with additions dating back to the late Byzantine and early Islamic periods cut through the flanks of the Mount. Currently it can be reached through eleven gates, ten reserved for Muslims and one for non-Muslims, with guard posts of Israeli police in the vicinity of each.
The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism, which regards it as the place where God’s divine presence is manifested ..Since at least the first century CE, the site has been associated in Judaism with Mount Moriah, the name given by the Hebrew Bible to the location of Abraham’s binding of Isaac, this identification being perpetuated by Jewish and Christian tradition.
Several passages in the Hebrew Bible indicate that…the Temple Mount was identified as Mount Zion.
According to the Bible, both Jewish Temples stood at the Temple Mount, though archaeological evidence only exists for the Second Temple. However, the identification of Solomon’s Temple with the area of the Temple Mount is widespread… the First Temple was built by King Solomon the son of King David in 957 BCE and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The second was constructed under the auspices of Zerubbabel in 516 BCE and destroyed by the Roman Empire in 70 CE. In the 2nd century, the site was used for a temple to Jupiter Capitolinus. It was redeveloped following the Arab conquest. Jewish tradition maintains it is here a Third and final Temple will also be built. The location is the holiest site in Judaism and is the place Jews turn towards during prayer.
The Temple was of central importance in Jewish worship, in the Tanakh and the Christian Old Testament. In the New Testament it remains the site of several events in the life of Jesus, and Christian loyalty to it as a focal point remained long after his death. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, which came to be regarded by early Christians, as it was by Josephus and the sages of the Jerusalem Talmud, to be a divine act of punishment for the sins of the Jewish people, the Temple Mount lost its significance for Christian worship with the Christians considering it a fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy at, for example, Matthew 23:28 and 24:2. It was to this end, proof of a biblical prophecy fulfilled and of Christianity’s victory over Judaism with the New Covenant, that early Christian pilgrims also visited the site. Byzantine Christians… generally neglected the Temple Mount, especially when a Jewish attempt to rebuilt the Temple was destroyed by the earthquake in 363. and it became a desolate local rubbish dump, as Christian worship in Jerusalem shifted to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and Jerusalem’s centrality was replaced by Rome.
Almost immediately after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in 638 CE, Caliph ‘Omar ibn al Khatab, disgusted by the filth covering the site, had it thoroughly cleaned, and granted Jews access to the site. Among Sunni Muslims, the Mount is widely considered the third holiest site in Islam. Revered as the Noble Sanctuary, the location of Muhammad’s journey to Jerusalem and ascent to heaven, the site is also associated with Jewish biblical prophets who are also venerated in Islam…Umayyad Caliphs commissioned the construction of the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock…
In light of the dual claims of both Judaism and Islam, it is one of the most contested religious sites in the world. Since the Crusades, the Muslim community of Jerusalem has managed the site as a Waqf, without interruption. As the site is part of the Old City, controlled by Israel since 1967, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority claim sovereignty over it, and it remains a major focal point of the Arab–Israeli conflict. In an attempt to keep the status quo, the Israeli government enforces a controversial ban on prayer by non-Muslims.
Last year, Haaretz published an article highlighting a dispute between the Australian Uniting church and ECAJ:
Jesus was not Palestinian, a major church denomination in Australia said after the Executive Council of Australian Jewry challenged an article in a political publication in which the birthplace of Jesus Christ was named as Palestine.
The article was written by two Palestinian members of Australia Palestine Advocacy Network which has links with the Uniting Church of Australia and appeared in the online publication New Matilda.
The Australia Palestine Advocacy Network has a relationship with the Uniting Church of Australia… through the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Network.
In the article, Samah Sabawi and Bassam Dally wrote:
“An official delegation representing our country in Israel has added fuel to the flames of extremism abroad by applauding proven human rights violators and insulting the living descendants of Christ in his home of birth in Palestine.”
In his letter to the president of the Uniting Church of Australia Stuart McMillan, the executive director of the ECAJ, Peter Wertheim, wrote:
“The proposition that Jesus was a Palestinian and that the Palestinian Arab population of today are his “living descendants” is so absurd and offensive that it deserves an immediate and substantive rebuttal. “
Wertheim referred to continuing attempts to
“to erase the Jewishness of Jesus and the common origins of Christianity and Judaism, and to pretend that the Holy Land has no Jewish national or religious history.”
Responding, McMillan wrote:
“I would like to assure you and the Jewish community that the Uniting Church does not accept the view that Jesus was Palestinian. We affirm that Jesus and most of his early followers were Jewish. We note that Jesus was born neither in Israel nor in Palestine, but in the Roman-occupied province of Judea, and that it is entirely inappropriate for anybody to attempt to claim political capital from the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem to bolster claims of either ‘side’ of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.” :
The Uniting Church seems to be striking a conciliatory tone, considering their usual pro-Palestinian stance. This contrasts starkly with that of members of the Palestinian Authority, who invariably claim that Jesus was a Palestinian “martyr”, ie a Muslim:
Just as he does every December, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, along with other PA officials, made the Christmastime claim that Jesus Christ was a Palestinian, rather than a Judaean.
“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 2000 years ago,” Abbas said. “His message resonates among all of those who are seeking justice and among our people who have been the guardians of the holy sites for generations. It resonates in our prayers for our people in Gaza.”
Abbas cited Jesus’s peaceful message as an example to follow, especially in terms of Israeli-Palestinian relations, and many Arab Christians used the holiday to promote the message of peace. The theme of the Christmas Eve celebration in the West Bank this year was
“All I Want for Christmas in Justice. “Jesus’ message resonates in our prayers for our people in our capital Jerusalem, who continue to resist the Israeli attempts to turn the city into an exclusive Jewish place,”
“The mosques and the churches of Jerusalem will continue to remind the world of the Palestinian, Arab, and Christian and Muslim identity of the city. Justice means ending the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, an integral part of the State of Palestine on the basis of the 1967 border.”
Mahmoud Al-Habbash, the Supreme Shari’ah Judge and Mahmoud Abbas’ Adviser on Religious and Islamic Affairs joined the conversation, expressing the close ties between Palestine and the birth of Jesus Christ.
“Christmas is also a Palestinian holiday, because Jesus, peace be upon him, was Palestinian. He was born in Palestine; lived and was sent [as prophet] to Palestine,”
“Therefore, Christmas has a special Palestinian flavor.'”
During the Christmas period, numerous other Palestinian officials also referred to Jesus as “the first Palestinian” and “the first Palestinian Martyr,” including PA Security spokesperson Adnan Al-Damiri, Fatah official Tawfiq Tirawi and Ramallah Governor El-Bireh Laila Ghannam.
In the new testament, text defines Jesus as a Jewish resident of Judea. The Roman Empire changed the name of “Judea” to “Palestine” one hundred years after Jesus’s death.
There is a constant attempt to de-Judaise Jerusalem, from organizations like the UN, UNESCO and various NGOs and to claim ancient Jewish sites belong to Islam.
Returning to Betjeman, I don’t know how he felt when he talked about Palestine, but I’m pretty sure that back then, few Christians would have considered Jesus was a Muslim.
At any rate, I wish readers joy in this holiday season, whether they celebrate Christmas, Chanukah or just having a good time!