The misuse of the Christmas story, and why it matters for international relations

27 December 2023, 0930 EST

A controversy broke out the weekend before Christmas, when Fr. Edward Beck, a Roman Catholic priest, claimed Jesus was a “Palestinian Jew” while discussing the current war between Israel and Hamas. Some may dismiss this as a disingenuous conservative freak-out; for example, the article I linked to was in the New York Post and figures such as Stephen Miller and Erick Erickson were among the outraged.

This would be a mistake. Fr. Beck was inaccurate, and such inaccuracies actually make it harder to build peace in the region.

History and Christmas

Americans are used to fights over the “true meaning of Christmas.” We see it played out whenever we watch a Hallmark Channel movie (with which I am obsessed). And many remember Bill O’Reilly’s anger over a supposed “war on Christmas,” prompted by stores using the generic term “holidays” instead of Christmas. As some noted, this predated modern culture wars, extending back to the 1950s John Birch society.

The “war on Christmas” claim was always dumb. Some generic usage was ridiculous; I once heard a radio DJ refer to It’s a cool, cool Christmas–an indie rock Christmas album–as “it’s a cool, cool holiday.” But the entire month of December is not Christmas, and there are, literally, several holidays then.

The area currently including Israel and the Palestinian territories was not called Palestine when Jesus was born

There were also historic issues. Much of the modern US understanding of Christmas comes from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Clement Clark Moore’s “A visit from St. Nicholas” (popularly known as “’twas the night before Christmas”). Dickens’ story was vaguely religious, while Moore’s was completely secular. And most contemporary US Christmas practices come out of post-World War II consumerism.

If you really want to get particular, December isn’t even the Christmas season; it’s Advent, when Christians traditionally waited in somber expectation for Christmas. Christmas runs from Christmas day to Epiphany (the twelve days of Christmas). I once had an evangelical Christian complain that liturgical churches don’t take Christmas seriously because we don’t sing Christmas carols in December; I smugly explained the traditional church calendar to him.

These fights sometimes affect US foreign policy. Current Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, when he was running for President in the 2020 elections, released a plan calling for greater refugee admissions. This is admirable, and is something I care about. But he, or his social media team, tied it to Christmas, claiming Jesus “came into this world…as a refugee.”

This is inaccurate. Jesus was born in a manger because of a tax-related census. He did later become a refugee when his family had to flee to Egypt to escape persecution. But by mixing up the details, Buttigieg undercut his credibility and hope of gaining broad Christian support for his policy.

What was wrong with Fr. Beck’s statement?

This brings us to the current controversy.

Fr. Beck’s full statement was:

I think the message of Christmas is that God enters into it with us and we’re not alone in it,” Beck responded. “What I’m so struck by is that the story of Christmas is about a Palestinian Jew- how often do you find those words put together? A Palestinian Jew born into a time when his country was occupied, right? They can’t find a place for her to even give birth, his mother. They’re homeless. They eventually have to flee as refugees into Egypt, no less. I mean, you can’t make up the parallels to our current world situation right now.” 

He admirably tied Christmas celebrations to the current conflict by pointing out the desperate situation of Jesus and his family. He got the refugee status right. But he weirdly threw in that Jesus was Palestinian. I guess he was trying to point out that people were united in ancient days, so they can be again; it obviously backfired.

To be fair, Fr. Beck isn’t the only person to refer to ancient Israel as Palestine. He shared a article entitled “Jewish Palestine in the time of Jesus.” And I have heard a classicist refer to pre-Roman Israel as Palestine.

There were other, more historically accurate, early models for Jewish-Muslim relations in the Holy Lands that we could aspire to.

Now, it is true that the area currently including Israel and the Palestinian territories was called Palestine by the Romans. However, it was not Palestine when Jesus was born. The modern day region was called Judaea when it fell under Roman rule, after the ancient Jewish kingdom of Judah (based on what date you accept for Jesus’ birth, he was either born in this province or in the last years of the Herodian Kingdom of Judah, a client state of Rome). It was only after a series of Jewish revolts in the 2nd century that Rome renamed the province Syria Palaestina. Benny Morris argued this was done to erase the Jewish connection from the land in punishment.

What to call the region before the Romans is a little trickier. It contained the ancient Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judah, which for a time were united. However, it also included other peoples, such as the Canaanites and Philistines (an Aegean people who settled in Gaza). Some contemporaries did refer to this area as Palestine, but, ironically, it tended to be pseudo-colonial powers like the Greeks.

So Fr. Beck could make the case the Jesus was Palestinian, but clearly the “Palestine” of the time was very different than the Palestine of today and I’d hope a Roman Catholic priest would understand that.

Why is this a problem?

I’m not being pedantic. Ok, I kind of am. But I’m not completely being pedantic. For those who want to stop the current fighting between Israel and Hamas and find peace in the region, statements like Fr. Beck’s are not helpful.

First, given current fights over terms like “from the river to the sea,” calling ancient Israel–and its Roman-era successor Judaea–Palestine strikes a nerve. In a daily email newsletter from Mosaic magazine, Andrew Koss expressed concern about this formulation, tying it to broader antisemitic tropes and arguing “dishonest attempts to enlist the New Testament in the anti-Israel cause look a lot like classical European anti-Semitism.” Whatever you think of Koss’ argument, clearly Fr. Beck’s statement isn’t having the unifying effect he hoped.

Second, there are so many other historical examples he could have pointed to. He could have argued that in the ancient world, the biggest threat to the Holy Land came from outside powers, such as the Romans or the Crusaders. He could have pointed to peaceful Muslim/Jewish co-existence in the medieval era. He could have pointed out that early partition plans for British Palestine included maintaining Jerusalem as a shared international zone. Basically, there were other, more historically accurate, early models for Jewish-Muslim relations in the Holy Lands to which we could aspire.

Again, I get what Fr. Beck was trying to do. He was appealing to something holy to US Christians–who tend to support Israel–to make the case for compassion for Palestinians and peace. But by misrepresenting the historical facts he embarrassed himself, undercutting any potential support from conservative US Christians. And he increased suspicions among Israelis and supporters of Israel that Israel’s critics are trying to twist history and erase the reality of Jewish presence in the Middle East.

Merry Christmas.