- Green Crescent over Nazareth: The Displacement of Christians by Muslims in the Holy Land
Certainly some of the slipperiest slopes facing scholars of the Middle East are the roles played by ethnicity and religion in the region’s modern history and politics. Raphael Israeli (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem) has produced a work detailing what he portrays as Muslim-Christian discord among the Palestinian citizens of Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab city. Basing himself partly on his service on a government commission investigating the friction in Nazareth, Israeli portrays the town’s problems as an example of Muslims edging out the town’s Christians and, as the title suggests, of the “Holy [End Page 192] Land” in general. Unfortunately, his analysis is characterized by hyperbole, strong personal opinions, and an imprecise reading of local and regional trends affecting the Palestinian community in Israel.
Israeli approaches his topic in well-organized fashion. He begins with an examination of Nazareth’s history, especially the modern era, and takes care to detail the traditionally important Christian presence in the town. Israeli also notes how the Christian population grew and prospered under the British mandate for Palestine (1920–48) and analyzes the city’s lively political scene under Israeli rule. This includes the strength of the communists from the 1950s to the 80s, the recent rise of Islamic revivalism, and the tense drama he calls the Shihab al-Din controversy. This involved local Islamists seizing and occupying land directly in front of the town’s largest church, claiming it as Islamic endowment land (waqf) associated with the tomb of the medieval Islamic warrior Shihab al-Din, and demanding the right to build a huge mosque there. The brouhaha pitted Islamists on the city council against the communist mayor, and eventually drew in the Israeli government, which Israeli believes abdicated its responsibility to stop the illegal Muslim encroachment. He argues that the national government thus unwittingly contributed to the marginalization of the town’s Christian mayor and the Christian population of Israel more generally, and to the rise of a forceful Islamic movement. Israeli believes that the episode serves as a warning not just to Israel’s Christians but the Israeli body politic in general.
The problem with this book is that politics in Nazareth are much more complicated than Israeli portrays. His analysis of the situation primarily on the basis of communal conflict is overly simplistic. It is a mistake to extrapolate from the Shihab al-Din controversy a wider thesis that communal conflict is the real core issue, and that Muslims are “displacing” Christians in Nazareth and Israel. Israeli reads too much into the confessional bases of politics in Nazareth, such as in his portrayal of the “Christian-ness” of Rakah, the Arab offshoot of the Israeli Community Party. It is true that a disproportionately large number of “Christians” (in the cultural sense, not the level of personal belief) have been found in Rakah’s leadership. The same is true, however, for other secular organizations in the Arab east such as the Ba’th, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), where “Christians” could espouse a worldview that went beyond religious cohesion. Similarly, the decline of Rakah’s influence and the rise of the Islamist movement in Nazareth had much to do with local, national, regional, even international trends and events (including the rise of Hamas in the occupied territories, the collapse of the USSR, international Christian millennial preparations, and the political deals made with the Islamists by Jewish parties like Shas).
Israeli is also wrong to claim that the Islamists are unique in Israel in terms of their tactics of bluster and encroachment, their lack of compromise, and their resort to religious incitement against other communities. For example, boisterous Haredi demands [End Page 193] and sometimes violent shows of force have long been a staple of Israeli life. In this light, Israeli is also wrong to state that Islamic extremists are unique...