When in 1543, the typhoon-blown Portuguese schooners approached the shores of Japan, the astonished sailors could not believe their eyes: on a warm spring day, the tropical island ahoy was buried under snow. They were witness to one of the real Seven Wonders of the World, the flowers of sakura, the wild cherry of Japan. As soon as the benevolent heaven bestows this seasonal gift to earth, the Japanese forget their wives and kids, their duties, employers and bills; they just sit under the trees, and write poems, short and sharp as swords.
That is why, these days, leaving behind our man-made troubles, I sit under the white cloud of a tree and watch the beautiful white and pink blossoms of almond trees covering the hills of Galilee. These lovely blossoms are our version of the Japanese sakura, and a chance to indulge in the custom of flower viewing. A honey aroma wafts through the air; the skies are crystal blue. Yellow daisies dance on the lush green grass at the base of these almond wonders, interspersed by violet cyclamen and red anemones. The glorious backdrop is provided by the huge snow mass of Jebel al Sheikh (Mt Hermon). Palestine is a sister to Japan. These two hilly lands are home to stubborn mountain folk, devoted to their customs and ways.
For all the similarities in the landscape, there are differences. The hill we sit on, all white like Jaffa sea surf, is the ruin of a village. If we were in Japan, it would be alive and humming. The village of Birim has been dead for fifty years. It is beautiful even in death, like Ophelia floating down the stream in the pre-Raphaelite painting of Millais. It was not ruined by war. Its Christian inhabitants were expelled from their houses well after the 1948 war. They were told to leave for a week or two, for 'security' reasons. They had no option but to believe the Israeli officers and move out. Their village was dynamited, their church surrounded by barbed wire. They went to Israeli court, they went to the government, commissions were appointed and petitions signed. Nothing helped. Ever since, for 50 years, they have lived in the nearby villages and on Sundays they continue to visit their church. Their Jewish neighbors seized their lands, but they still bring their dead to be buried in the church graveyard, under the sign of the cross.
Until the arrival of the Israeli army, this ruined village with its orphaned church was the home of the rural Christians of Birim who, for centuries of Muslim rule, lived in peace with their Muslim neighbors of Nebi Yosha and with the old Sephardi Jewish community of nearby Safed. This little Guernica in the Galillee can single-handedly undermine the myth of a 'Judeo-Christian' civilization opposing a 'monstrous' Islam. This myth lays at the foundation of the Christian Zionist movement; among its fervent supporters, one can find a friend of Mark Rich and a newly minted New York citizen, W. J. Clinton.
The problems of the Middle East are ugly enough without the current Muslim-bashing. The pro-Israeli pundits of the New York Times quote the blood-curling verses on Jihad; retell the old traditions of religious wars and persecutions, to 'prove' Islam's cruelty and intolerance. They are repeated by a pleasant upper class Jewish lady from London, Barbra Amiel. In a sotto voce, she writes about 'exclusivist' Islam and Jewish 'moderation'. In order to incite hatred, Israel's lobby works all the ropes. Before the rise of Israel, Arab sheiks were depicted as romantic heroes in movies acted by Rudolf Valentino. Nowadays, the pro-Israel producers of Hollywood turn out propaganda films on ill-shaven Muslim terrorists with the subtlety of Edward D. Wood, Jr. This new prejudice is amplified a hundredfold by the Christian Zionist Congress, claiming 'protection for Christians of Palestine from the so-called Muslim persecution'. These people obviously have not walked among the ruins of Birim.
Another email comes into my laptop, this time from Gaza. An American girl, Alison Weir from San Francisco evades Israeli bullets, comforts the scared Palestinian kids, and writes: "The problem is when you know the truth, it is far too cruel, far too diametrically opposite what we used to think and what everyone still thinks to express. The lie is too big, the repression too complete, the Palestinians' lives too horrible to write about reasonably".
Well, Alison is right. We face a huge lie, an anti-Muslim blood libel, and it is time to stop it. I do not think that the problems of Middle East have anything to do with religion. But if the supporters of Israel want to wake up the sleeping ghost of religious intolerance, to incite Christians against Muslims, let us audit their balance.
If these Christian Zionists care for Christ, not only for Zion, let them learn what Jews and Muslims feel towards Christ. Rami Rozen expressed the Jewish tradition in a long feature in a major Israeli newspaper Haaretz: "Jews feel towards Jesus today what they felt in 4 c or in the Middle Ages... It is not fear, it is hatred and despise". "For centuries, Jews concealed from Christians their hate to Jesus, and this tradition continues even now". "He is revolting and repulsive", said an important modern religious Jewish thinker. Rozen writes that this "repulsion passed from the observant Jews to the general Israeli public". On Christmas Eve, according to a report in the Jerusalem local paper, Kol Ha-Ir , Hassids customarily do not read holy books, as it could save Jesus from eternal punishment (the Talmud teaches that Jesus boils in hell). This custom was dying out, but Hassids of Habad, the fervent nationalists, brought it back to life. I still remember old Jews spitting while passing by a church, and cursing the dead, while passing by a Christian cemetery. Last year in Jerusalem, a Jew decided to refresh the tradition. He spat at the Holy Cross, carried in the procession along the city. Police saved him from further trouble, but the court fined him $50, despite his claim that he just fulfilled his religious duty.
Last year, the biggest Israeli tabloid Yedioth Aharonoth reprinted in its library the Jewish anti-Gospel, Toledoth Eshu, compiled in the Middle Ages. It is the third recent reprint, including one in a newspaper. If the Gospel is the book of love, Toledoth is the book of hate for Christ. The hero of the book is Judas. He captures Jesus by polluting his purity. According to Toledoth, the conception of Christ was in sin, the miracles of Jesus were witchcraft, his resurrection but a trick.
Joseph Dan, a Professor of Jewish mysticism in Hebrew University in Jerusalem, writing on the death of Jesus stated: "The modern Jewish apologists, hesitantly adopted by the church, preferred to put the blame on Romans. But the medieval Jew did not wish to pass the buck. He tried to prove that Jesus had to be killed, and he was proud of killing Him. The Jews hated and despised Christ and Christians". Actually, adds Prof. Dan, there is little place to doubt that the Jewish enemies of Jesus caused his execution.
Even today, Jews in Israel refer to Jesus by the demeaning word Yeshu (instead of Yeshua), meaning 'Perish his name'. There is an ongoing argument, whether His name was turned into a swear word, or other way around. In a similar pun, the Gospel is called 'Avon Gilaion', the booklet of Sin. These are the endearing feeling of the friends of Christian Zionists towards Christ.
What about Muslims? The Muslims venerate Christ. He is called 'The Word of God", "Logos", Messiah, the Prophet and is considered "a Messenger of God", along with Abraham, Moses and Muhammad. Many chapters of the Quran tell the story of Christ, his virgin birth and his persecution by Jews. His saintly mother is admired, and the Immaculate Conception is one of the tenets of Islam.
The name of Christ glorifies the golden edifice of Haram a-Sharif. According to the Muslim faith,, it was there that the founder of Islam met Jesus, and they prayed together. The Hadith, the Muslim tradition, says in the name of the prophet, 'We do not forbid you to believe in Christ, we order you to". Muslims identify their prophet with Paracletes, the Helper (Jn 14:16) whose coming was predicted by Jesus. They venerate places associated with the life of Jesus: the place of Ascension, the Tomb of Lazarus, and the Holy Sepulcher are adjacent to a mosque and perfectly accessible by Christians.
While Muslims do not consider Jesus - God, they proclaim him as the Messiah, the Anointed one, the Paradise Dweller. This religious idea, familiar to Nestorians and other early churches, but rejected by mainstream Christianity, opened the gates for those Jews, who could not part with the notion of strict monotheism. That is why many Palestinian Jews and Christians of the 7th century accepted Islam and became Palestinian Muslims. They remained in their villages, they did not depart for Poland or England, they did not learn Yiddish, they did not study the Talmud, but they continued to shepherd their flocks and plant almond trees, they remained faithful to their land and to the great idea of the fraternity of men.
In the south of Hebron, in the ruins of Susiah, one can see how in the course of two centuries a synagogue slowly evolved into a mosque, as the population of nearby caves abandoned the exclusionary faith of Babylonian wizards and adopted Islam. These shepherds still live there, in the same caves. In the last year, the Israeli army has twice tried to expel them to provide more room for new settlers from Brooklyn. Why, in this season of blossoming almond trees, do I brood on the sensitive subject of Jewish and Muslim attitudes towards Christ? Because one has to stop the mills of hatred operated by Israel's supporters. Because the "Judeo-Christian" code language is being used to justify the barbed wire around Birim's Church and the tanks around Bethlehem, because there is a duty to remove an obstacle from the path of the blind.
The majority of the Christian Zionists are simple misled souls, people of good intentions but little knowledge. They think they 'support Jews', but they promote the Christ-hating spirit among the Jews. It was not in vein that a hero of the Zionist Bible, Exodus by Leon Uris, kept a poster in his room saying 'We crucified Christ'. It was not in vein that an Israeli soldier on the roadblock of Bethlehem told me yesterday, 'We starve the beasts', referring to the native Christians of the city of Nativity. It was not in vain that the Gospel was burned on a stake in Israel, while anti-Gospel literature is widely spread; that new immigrant Jews embracing Christianity are persecuted and deported; that every preacher of the Christian faith in Israel can be sent to jail according to new anti-Christian laws; that Israeli archaeologists erase the Christian holy sites and memories off the face of the Holy Land.
To the leaders of the Christian Zionists, who surely know these facts, but lead their innocent flock on the path of the Anti-Christ, I say, "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Christ to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone tied round his neck and be drowned in the deep sea" (Mt 18:6). To my Jewish brothers I say: the opinions of medieval Jews do not bind us. Every Jew can decide for himself, whether to pray for the destruction of the Gentiles or to share the blessing of the Holy Land with the villagers of Birim and Bethlehem. Within the Jewish people, there were always spiritual descendants of the prophets who wished to bring peace and blessing to all the children of Adam. As true as this almond blossom, in you the prophecy will be fulfilled: 'All the nations of the earth will bless you' (Deut. 7).
Israel Shamir is one of the best-known and respected Russian Israeli writers and journalists., He wrote for Haaretz, BBC, Pravda and translated Agnon, Joyce and Chandler into Russian. He lives in Tel Aviv and writes a weekly column in the Vesti, the biggest Russian-language paper in Israel.