The members of the American Studies Association care deeply about historical truth, which is why they protested so strenuously when, over Christmas, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas called Jesus “a Palestinian messenger.”
Actually, they didn’t. Why not? Perhaps the 5,000 members of the ASA — an old if not venerable “academic organization” — are so busy boycotting Israeli educational institutions that they have no time to object to propagandistic falsifications of history — in this case, the denial of the Jewish past in the Middle East as a not-so-subtle way of threatening the Jewish future in the region.
As war is too important to leave to generals, so scholarship is too important to leave to professors — or at least to the sizeable cohort that prioritizes moral posturing and trendy political activism over such mundane concerns as research, learning, and teaching. So let’s quickly review the historical record, with which ASA members may be unfamiliar — and which, we may assume, Abbas distorts out of enmity rather than ignorance.
In 130 A.D., about a century after the crucifixion of Jesus, there was a Jewish rebellion against Roman imperialism. Successful it was not. Simon Sebag Montefiore, in his masterful tome Jerusalem: The Biography writes that hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed in battles with Roman forces and “so many Jews were enslaved that at the Hebron slave market they fetched less than a horse.”
The Roman emperor, Hadrian, was not satisfied. He determined to wipe “Judaea off the map, deliberately renaming it Palaestina, after the Jews’ ancient enemies, the Philistines.” And who were the Philistines? They were “Sea People, who originated in the Aegean” and sailed to the eastern Mediterranean, where they “conquered the coast of Canaan.”
In other words, Jesus was born a century before the region was renamed Palestine. That makes calling him a Palestinian akin to calling a 15th-century Algonquin a New Englander. And Jesus was certainly no Philistine. Based on all the evidence, he was a Jew born into an already ancient Jewish community.
It was not until the seventh century that warriors from the Arabian Peninsula, adherents of a new religion known as Islam, conquered Palestine and many other lands — creating an empire as large as Rome’s had been at its height.
Over the centuries that followed, one foreign conqueror after another — e.g. Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids, Crusaders, Mamluks — ruled Palestine. The territory never became an independent country. Nor did it even become a separate province under the centuries of Ottoman rule that ended with the collapse of that empire/caliphate after World War I. In 1922, the League of Nations confirmed the Mandate for Palestine, authorizing Britain to rule the territories that would later be known as Jordan, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank.
For years after that, the term “Palestinian” was more frequently used to refer to the region’s Jews than its Arabs. For example, the Palestine Post was founded in 1932 by a former editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. (The newspaper became the Jerusalem Post in 1950.) Jewish musicians organized the Palestine Symphony Orchestra in 1936. (Its name was changed to the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra twelve years later.) During World War II, the “Palestine Regiment” of the British Army had both Jewish and Arab battalions, with more of the former than the latter. Perhaps most significantly, U.N. Resolution 181, passed in 1947, referred to the founding of a “Jewish State” and an “Arab State” — and looked forward to peace and amicable relations “between the two Palestinian peoples.”
Only in the 1960s, with the rise of Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization, did the term “Palestinian” begin to exclude Palestinian Jews. Many who employ the term also exclude those Palestinian Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship — about 20 percent of Israel’s current population.
How large, by comparison, will the Jewish minority be in the Palestinian state that Abbas envisions? Zero percent — Jews will not be tolerated. The PA president has made that quite clear. And Hamas, which rules Gaza, has intentions toward Israelis that can only be described as genocidal.
The ASA has objected to none of this. Nor are they fretting about the fact that the Christian population of the West Bank and Gaza has been plummeting. Indeed, Christians are being persecuted and “cleansed” throughout much of the Muslim world. Meanwhile, by stark contrast, Israel’s Christian community continues to grow and strengthen.
It is within this context that Abbas has been negotiating with Israel — doing so, apparently, only because President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry insist, and in exchange for tangible benefits — e.g., the release of scores of terrorists imprisoned in Israel.
To be fair, Abbas must wonder how anyone could seriously expect him to make peace with Israel at this moment. He knows that Iran intends to have a nuclear-weapons capability. He almost certainly doubts Obama’s determination to prevent that. He understands that if sanctions are lifted and Iran can again sell oil at world-market prices, its economy is likely to boom. Iran’s rulers will then use their new weapons and wealth to establish hegemony over the region.
They would not look kindly on any Muslim leader who had recently grasped an Israeli hand. They would, however, find common ground with a Palestinian leader who had attempted to erase Israel from history. That would be consistent with their more ambitious goal: to follow Hadrian’s example and erase Israel from the map.
Let me end on a more encouraging note. In recent days, the Association of American Universities, the umbrella organization for 62 major universities and university-systems, and the Association of American University Professors have rejected the ASA’s boycott, as have Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Chicago — a growing list of America’s most prestigious schools. Action item for philanthropists considering giving gifts to educational institutions in the New Year: Those not on that list should not be on yours.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.