Palestinians trying to co-opt Jesus as one of their own

He is perhaps the most famous Jew of all time, yet his own people don't claim him.

If Israel is not careful, some analysts warn, the Palestinian Authority will claim him instead — appropriating the figure of Jesus to the Palestinian national cause as part of a larger effort to snatch the deed to the Holy Land from under Israel's feet.

Some Jews, who for 2,000 years have shunned the figure of Jesus because of the anti-Semitic persecution carried out in his name, slowly are coming around to an appreciation of the man as a politically aware rabbi whose message was born of the Jews' contemporary national struggle.

Yet while Jews are just beginning to make their peace with the historical Jesus, the Palestinian Authority is propagating a less historical, more mythical figure to bolster its ties to the land: "Jesus, the first Palestinian."

Some might argue that, had they been more politically savvy, the Jews long ago would have adopted Jesus as a sort of prodigal son who made good, while still rejecting the theology developed posthumously from his teachings.

Perhaps such a strategy would have mattered little in a Christian world where the Jews were vilified for deicide, yet there is a possibility that it might have helped build bridges to the Christian world and mitigated the extent of anti-Semitism.

Instead, the historical Jewish attitude toward Jesus was one of conscious neglect, if not outright revulsion, because of the persecutions carried out in his name.

Typical was the attitude of German Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig. Asked what the Jews think of Jesus, Rosenzweig is reputed to have replied, "We don't."

"It's not a new thing that Jesus is understood as a Jew," said David Flusser, a professor of Judaic studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a seminal figure in exploring the Jewish roots of Christianity, "but you didn't hear it because [Jews] believed their holy task was to hate Jesus."

Even today, according to Ron Kronish, a Reform rabbi and director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, many haredim, the ultra-religious, refuse to say Jesus' name, referring to him obliquely as "that man."

"How many Jews have ever opened the New Testament, except for a few who went to college in the West and had to read parts in a humanities class?" Kronish asked. "Many Israelis still think you can be converted just from touching the page."

Slowly, however, Jewish attitudes toward Jesus seem to be changing, and some educators hope that the visit of Pope John Paul II later this month will give such openness a boost.

"While the people who can perceive the continuity between the messages of the Bible on one side and the Gospels on the other are still very rare, it is now a general approach to respect the Jewish dimension of Jesus's identity," said Brother Marcel Dubois, a Christian history scholar and an Israel Prize winner. "There is now a more objective and mutually respectful approach."

Christian theologians and scholars began in the Middle Ages to note Jesus' Jewish roots — a process that quickened over the past 200 years, according to Flusser. A corresponding movement among Jews began only toward the turn of the 20th century among German rabbis who lectured on topics such as "our brother Jesus" or "great rabbis," including Jesus.

Recent decades have seen a flowering of Jewish scholarship into Jesus' Jewish roots, including works by scholars such as Flusser, laymen such as Aharon Liron and the exegesis of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In the case of Flusser — an Orthodox Jew who refers to Jesus as "my teacher" — the intent is less to recast Jewish understanding of Jesus than to shed light on the texture of Jewish life during Jesus' times.

In recent years, emphasis on the Jewish origins of Jesus has been most pronounced among evangelical Christians, who find in it a basis for their staunch political support of the Jewish state. Some Christian youth now come on a Christianized version of the "Israel Experience" programs popular among Jewish teens. During those tours, they walk in the footsteps of Jesus and learn about their faith in the land where it began.

Among interfaith dialogue groups, Kronish says, it now is de rigueur to compare the New Testament to Jewish texts to better understand the interplay of ancient Judaism and early Christianity.

But interfaith dialogue in Israel remains limited. For most Israelis, the figure of Jesus remains a remote curiosity, if not an outright taboo.

Rabbi David Rosen, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Israel office, and Kronish lament the educational opportunity missed this year by the failure to conduct special programs to teach Israeli schoolchildren about Christianity as a major world religion — particularly in a year in which hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims are expected to visit Israel.

Ironically, despite the historical anti-Semitism of the Catholic Church, the current pope is among the greatest adherents of the view of Jesus as an Orthodox Jew.

"Although he has to be a politician, in his heart [Pope John Paul II] believes in his own Jewishness and the Jewishness of his religion," Flusser said.

"Jews, too, should have made this connection but they had to overcome the prejudices of their grandfathers who identified Jesus with Christian anti-Semitism. But Jesus surely would have been the greatest opponent of anti-Semitism, because he died at the hands of anti-Semites, not Jews."

In fact, says Chana Safrai, a professor of Jewish thought at the Hebrew University and Jerusalem's Shalom Hartman Institute, nearly every reputable university or theology school today has a division of Jewish studies, and it is only the worst anti-Semites who still refuse to consider Jesus a Jew.

"Almost all good Christians today are trying to reroot or channel themselves to Judaism in one way or another," Safrai said.

The issue might be considered academic were it not for the political implications of religious disputes in Israel and the inevitable political fallout of the pope's March 20 to 26 visit, which both Israel and the Palestinians hope will strengthen their own claims to the land, especially to Jerusalem.

Israel is still reeling from the recent Vatican-PLO agreement that puts the Palestinians on a footing equal with Israel regarding holy sites in Jerusalem. After centuries in which the Catholic Church pressed Christian claims to Jerusalem, a Jewish reappropriation of Jesus might serve to strengthen the Jewish claim to the city in Christian eyes.

Yet the Jews' lingering discomfort with Christianity has resulted in a half-hearted, arms-length approach to the pope's visit and the millennial year in general, says political commentator and former Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Meron Benvenisti.

The vacuum, he says, is being exploited by the Palestinian Authority, which is quietly snatching the title to the Holy Land from an Israeli government unwilling or unable to contest on the battlefield of world opinion.

Palestinian Authority Chairman "Yasser Arafat has succeeded in establishing at least dual ownership of the Holy Land," said Benvenisti. "He's now considered at least equal to us in this respect."

And even Muslim fundamentalists, who count Jesus in their pantheon of prophets, have expressed little opposition to the pope's visit, Palestinian sources say, in contrast to some haredi Jews who have called on Israel to bar the pontiff.

Arafat's most ingenious move thus far may be his attempt to appropriate Jesus, an observant Jew, as a Palestinian national figure.

Each year in Bethlehem, during Christmas festivities dominated not by Christian pilgrims but by Muslim villagers who pour into the city for a good party, Arafat has extolled Jesus as "the first Palestinian," an epithet he is likely to repeat when the pope visits later this month.

Some Israelis react to the misnomer with incredulity or mirth, others with outrage. Safrai says it is reminiscent of the "most blatant and ugly form of anti-Semitism" from the Middle Ages, an attempt to go to any lengths to deny Jewish roots. Dubois calls it "a great historical mistake."

The appropriation of Jesus seemingly creates logistical difficulties for a Palestinian Authority that at other times seeks to deny biblical events that could support historical Jewish rights to the land.

Others, however, put the move in the context of recent Palestinian attempts to trace descent from the ancient Canaanites, creating a link to the land that predates the Jewish one.

"If they want to be descendants of Melchizedek, king of Jebus, that's all right because he came before David and therefore David took [Jerusalem] from them. That's not a bad argument if they want. But Jesus is a descendant of David, so they have to make up their minds," Benvenisti said. "What they're doing is looking for any way to claim legitimacy and refute the Israeli biblical heritage."

However, few Jews appear ready to reconcile with their most famous son.

"I don't know how politic it would be for Israeli leaders to get into that kind of competition over the 'rights' to Jesus," said Rosen.

"Because of Israeli political life, it would just mean courting the ire of haredi quarters. The more people are exposed to a healing atmosphere, the more they can leave behind the wounds of the past. But when memory blinds you to a changed reality, it becomes pathology. The wounds of our history are still very deep."

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