The past year has been a roller coaster for Jewish communities at home and abroad. Here in the UK, the pandemic has put enormous pressure on traditional synagogue worship, which is part of the reason for the Chief Rabbi’s ‘Welcome Project’ initiative that this newspaper launched last week with a mission to recreate community excellence.
In the Middle East, the pendulum swung wildly. The ruckus over the repossession of Palestinian-occupied homes in Jerusalem in May escalated into rocket assaults on the civilian populations of Israel and a new war in Gaza. The resulting violence, chaos, and death on the streets of mixed cities in Israel have been the worst scenes of inter-communal violence since the 1948 War of Independence.
It needed a crisis of confidence to pull Israel out of its implacable political impasse. The opposition forces that ousted Benjamin Netanyahu from power were a motley coalition. But the government of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid has presented a refreshing face to the world.
More importantly, the inclusion of Islamist leader Ra’am Mansour Abbas and Israeli Arabs in the government filled a gap in Israeli democracy.
On the world stage, watching Lapid hold talks in Berlin and participate in the lighting of Hanukkah candles in Downing Street was a refreshing break from Netanyahu’s strange love with Hungarian autocrat Orban. Likewise, the highlighting of Abraham’s accords through two days of talks between Bennett and the UAE’s de facto leader, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was an inspiring scene. .
A curious one-page opinion piece in The Sunday Times by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem Hosam Naum reminded us of the deep sectarian divisions that make the Middle East so explosive. Antagonism towards Christians in Arab lands, such as the bombing of Coptic Christian sites in Egypt, has long been a scar across the Middle East.
Welby’s article was about what were called attacks on Christians across the Holy Land. The contribution was particularly lacking in detail, without any attempt to geographically describe the Holy Land, an area that partly exists within the borders of Israel’s Green Line but spans disputed West Bank territories and includes parts of Jerusalem.
The blame for the attacks on Christians has been blamed on “marginal radical groups”. Incomprehensibly, no effort has been made to define who these hostile groups might be. But there were derogatory references to settler communities and Israel’s security barriers without explaining how these might be linked to attacks on Christian communities, sites and institutions.
The two archbishops comment on the decline in the Christian population in the Holy Land from 10% under the Ottomans to 2% today. This is a significant reduction, but not surprising when you consider the influx into the region of Holocaust survivors from Europe, Jews expelled from Arab lands and escapees from Russian oppression.
Likewise, the spread of Islamic extremism has made Christians in Bethlehem much less welcome. There are probably more Palestinian Christian exiles in Detroit than in Christ’s birthplace. The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict may have made the region uncomfortable for its native Palestinian-Christians.
In this regard, successive Israeli governments must take some responsibility for the Christian diaspora in the Middle East. Nonetheless, Israel’s reverence for Christian sites and restorations, such as St Peter’s Anglican Church in Jaffa, is unmistakable.
This flies in the face of the claim that Christians are targeted and isolated by unidentified radical groups.
Alex Brummer is the city’s editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail