The New Myth of Christmas

From 2006 but still relevant in 2018

This Christmas [2006], the international charity War on Want saw fit to print a seasonal greetings card on which Mary, Joseph and the Christ child were depicted as Palestinians subjected to oppressive treatment by Israeli soldiers beneath the shadow of the security ‘wall’. I wrote to them, and then submitted a complaint to the Charities Commission, who will respond in due course. Here is the text of my covering letter to the CC, followed by the longish letter that went to War on Want.

Covering message:

I’m writing to ask whether the Commission does not agree that a Christmas card produced by the charity War on Want contravenes the Charities Act in respect of politicization. The card shows Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus being subjected to a security check by Israeli soldiers, and seeks to draw some sort of parallel between their plight and that of Palestinians in the West Bank. That such a link can be made I would not quite deny, but I am profoundly conscious of the imbalance such a linkage may create (and doubtless has created) in the minds of the uninformed, in that no context whatsoever is given for the security check. Inasmuch as IDF security checks are aimed at preventing terrorism and, in particular, suicide bombings, it is unlikely that a reasonable person would object to them, even though they do cause hardship to some.

The UK has used similar checks for the same purpose, notably in Northern Ireland (where I have experienced them at first hand), but War on Want directs its message against Israel only, without regard for the actions of other countries and without reference to the homicidal nature of Palestinian terror attacks. Nor does the card even hint at the fact that much Palestinian poverty has come from high levels of corruption within the Fatah party when it was in control, or the blockage of funds by the US and EU because the current government of Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, cease violence, or enter peace negotiations.

All this and more seem to me to make the political message conveyed by the War on Want card highly controversial and unbalanced. I have covered these and several other points in a letter to Paul Collins at War on Want, a copy of which is attached to this email. Assuming that War on Want still seeks to combat poverty worldwide, their adoption of a biased political agenda rooted in one side of the political spectrum must surely be questioned. It fits, I fear, with War on Want’s recent report on the 2006 war in Lebanon, where it is stated that they found no evidence that Hizbullah placed rocket launchers, redoubts, or other military positions within civilian areas — a conceit that has since been exposed as a serious falsehood and one that flies in the face of overwhelming pictorial and testimonial evidence.

It seems that War on Want has a political agenda, and that that agenda is to condemn Israel while lending support to a notorious terrorist organization. I trust this troubles you as much as it does me.

Thank You

IIA blog - The New Myth of Christmas

Letter to Paul Collins at War on Want:

Dear Mr Collins,

I realize you will by now have seen more emails on the subject of

your Christmas card than you would like. I don’t know whether you

have any intention of replying to them, or even of reflecting on what many of them say, but I do hope you will try to take them into consideration for your future policy in this matter.

I have always admired War on Want and its work, but in recent years have been disturbed by the growing politicization of the organization. This is not because I do not make the link between poverty and politics, but because I think you have in many cases become one-sided in a way that is not helpful. This refers, in particular, to your treatment and portrayal of Israel, and is exemplified in the card you have produced showing the Holy Family being searched by IDF soldiers. While I do understand what you meant to convey by this, I cannot be persuaded that the parallel you draw is anything but factitious and, in the end, meaningless.

The correct parallel is this: Christians, Muslims, Druze, and the followers of other religions are treated better in Israel than in any other country in the Middle East. That is a fact (and I say that as an Arabist/Persianist who has spent some forty years studying the region). 

Let me give you a very simple example of what I mean when I speak of Israeli tolerance.

The largest religious minority in Iran is that of the Baha’is. As you may very well know, they have never been liked in that country, but since the Islamic Revolution they have been subjected to severe forms of persecution: some 200 members have been executed and many others imprisoned and tortured, while their most sacred shrines have been bulldozed to the ground. They are forbidden to meet for worship, to hold jobs in teaching or the civil service, to attend university, and much else besides (receiving pensions, for example). 

This same religion is banned in every Muslim state, and the punishment for membership is, strictly speaking, execution. Hatred of Baha’is reaches levels that are only surpassed by hatred of Jews. 

In Israel, however, not only do Baha’is have full rights, they have been permitted to build their two holiest shrines and a string of gardens, terraces, and highly visible religious buildings right along the front of Mount Carmel, in Haifa. Their supreme body has its centre there, and pilgrims from all round the world visit the holy places on a regular basis.

That is, in a nutshell, the difference between Israel and the countries surrounding her. Complete tolerance in one, total absence of tolerance in the others.

Why, then, would you choose to portray an intolerant Israel through the images you chose to put on your Christmas cards? No doubt, you will say, because IDF soldiers search peace-loving Palestinians at check-points throughout the year. But your use of Christmas iconography to make that point is inflammatory and profoundly misleading in more ways than one. 

Perhaps there is a message to be conveyed here, but I find it troubling that, of the messages that might have been communicated, you have chosen one that lacks context and uses a deliberately emotive imagery.

Why is it more important for you to tell recipients of your card that IDF soldiers search Palestinians than to tell the story of Palestinian suicide bombings that prompt such searches? Bombers have been carried to their destinations in ambulances, or have dressed as pregnant or veiled women, or have tried to pass security checks as children. Given that each successful attempt at penetration by terrorists brings in its wake death and injury, often on a massive scale, can you please suggest why the Israel Defence Force should not attempt to police their borders? 

Perhaps you would be willing to go on television here in the UK and announce that you regard all attempts to prevent acts of terror as something despicable, that you mock the work of our security forces, that harassing would-be terrorists is somehow equivalent to maltreating the Mother of God?

There are so many stories you might have chosen, but you chose this one, distorted and decontextualized fable. You might have told the story on your card of the abuse of Palestinian children, children taught in school to hate Jews, children trained to become suicide bombers and to aspire to the status of martyr from an early age, children given Kalashnikovs instead of bicycles. Or perhaps you think that is all something to admire, plucky kids trained by plucky parents. 

You might have told the story of how innocent young women are murdered in the PA territories in honour killings, by their own mothers, fathers, brothers, and cousins: just holding hands with her fiancé was enough to end the life of a young Palestinian woman shot by a Hamas morality patrol earlier this year. Or do you just dismiss all that as ‘tough love’? No doubt passing through an Israeli checkpoint is many times worse than having to watch every moment in case you look at the wrong young man in the wrong way and are caught doing it. 

You might have told the story about how gay Palestinian men and women face death and beatings on a regular basis. Or that those who can flee to Israel, where they are taken in and given protection.

Instead, you chose to say that instituting checkpoints to prevent terrorist activity is a foul and dishonourable thing. 

I was born and brought up in Belfast, and I can still remember having to pass through military checkpoints just to go shopping. On the other hand, I remember how my entire family came within inches of being slaughtered when a bomb exploded beneath a train they were travelling

  1. I never once complained about the checkpoints, because, like

everyone else, I didn’t want to be in a shop when a bomb went off.

You might, indeed, have told the many stories of Israelis of all ages, from all walks of life blown to shreds while out shopping, eating in restaurants, attending bar mitzvahs, having lunch in their university cafeteria, taking the bus home. The people who planted those bombs or who turned themselves into bombs were motivated by hatred, not a love of peace and justice and tolerance. I take it War on Want condemns killings such as those. Why, then, does it hold up for contempt an image of peace-keeping soldiers doing their best to save lives?

There are many other stories you might have told: anti-Semitism straight from the Third Reich on Arab and Iranian TV screens, calls for the slaughter of Jews in Friday sermons from PA mosques, the clauses from Hamas’s Charter that describe all efforts at peace-making, all international conferences, all negotiations, all attempts to compromise as ‘a waste of time’…. Or the story of how Israel is one of the most racially mixed countries in the world (whereas most Arab countries are not), or how Israel is one of the most economically successful countries on the planet, helping the Third World (remember the Third World) with its technology and medicine….You need to do some hard thinking, and you need to start by examining your own heart. I am a liberal, probably very like you, and, also probably like you, I believe in taking a moral stance in public matters. We probably want the same things, including a prosperous future for the Palestinian people. You seem to think that this will happen if we support Palestinian intransigence, force Israel to abandon her defences, and maybe even allow Hamas and Hizbullah to fire rockets onto Israeli towns without hindrance. Maybe you don’t think that, maybe you really would like to see both sides make peace and live together. If that’s so, then please think twice before you make another card that condemns Israeli security measures and says nothing about the reasons why they have been put there in the first Place.

Thank you for reading this.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Denis MacEoin

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