The storm over Jerusalem


A picture taken on December 19, 2017 shows a partial view of the Jerusalem's Old City with the Dome of the Rock on the right. -AFP

A picture taken on December 19, 2017 shows a partial view of the Jerusalem's Old City with the Dome of the Rock on the right. -AFP

THERE’S nothing more dangerous than a powerful but ignorant leader who spews a combination of toxic religious and political plans on the advice of a group of people who think they are acting on God’s instructions.

I am talking about US president Donald Trump, who has threatened the world by pressing leaders to align themselves with his decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The leaders were about to vote on a United Nations General Assembly resolution, calling for the superpower to drop this controversial move last week.

US representative Nikki Haley wrote to her fellow ambassadors, warning them that she and Trump would be “watching as the ballots are cast” and that the president “will be taking their votes personally.”

She went on to say that she had been directed by Trump to “report back on those countries who voted against us”, adding that “we will take note of each and every vote on this issue”.

Now, that’s not even a threat – it’s outright blackmail. Trump is in danger of letting the US lose its place as a world leader at the rate he is dragging the country down with his irrational thinking. In fact, to some, China has already overtaken the US in terms of world leadership.

But Trump’s strong words didn’t instil the kind of fear expected, with more than 100 countries overwhelmingly voting against his plan, despite his threats to cut aid to those who did precisely that. A total of 128 countries voted in support of the resolution, nine voted “no” while 35 others abstained, including Canada, the Philippines, Mexico, Bhutan, Croatia and Australia.

The nine countries which voted against the resolution include Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Togo and the US. These are mostly tiny island countries which depend heavily on the US to survive. Likewise, the two Central American nations.

But like a spoilt brat, Haley sulked following the UN voting and said, “the US will remember this day in which it was singled out for attack in this assembly” and that the US will place its embassy in Jerusalem, regardless. The US Embassy is currently in Tel Aviv.

Trump has painted himself into a corner. He now looks like a bully who is at odds with what the world thinks.

It doesn’t help that his bunch of evangelical Christian advisers from the rural Bible Belt seem convinced that Jerusalem is the right of the Jews.

But try talking to the Christians who live in the West Bank city of Palestine. Two weeks ago, Christians staged a protest outside the legendary Church of the Nativity, the site thought to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

The Christians also turned off tree lights in Bethlehem to protest the White House announcement.

The evangelical voters in the US who backed Trump unequivocally in last year’s presidential elections are obviously ignorant of the rights and needs of Christians in the homeland of their religion.

There are plenty of other ill-informed people elsewhere, too. Many, including some Malaysians, see the current controversy as a case of Palestinian Muslims being further oppressed. In truth though, it is much more complex than that.

The minority Christians also share the same anger as the Muslims because the issue isn’t about religion, but land and resources. Christians from Palestine suffer the same injustices as their Muslim brethren.

Palestinian Christians have seen their lands robbed from them and they get the same treatment as their Muslim brothers when they enter Israeli-occupied areas.

And Jews are not Christians, and not all Israelis or Jews are Zionists as many are secular Jews who don’t practise Judaism and detest the way their country is being run.

The danger here is that many Malaysians lump all Israelis under the category of the “hated orang Yahudi”, like how some evangelical Christians typecast all Israelis as God-fearing and righteous “God’s chosen people.” But welcome to the 21st century – the situation isn’t that straightforward.

Rev Mitzi Raheb, a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem reportedly said: “The Bible originated in Palestine, not in the Bible Belt, but people in the Bible Belt read the Bible in a way that really makes our lives difficult.”

Other prominent Christian leaders have questioned Trump’s decision, including Pope Francis; the Archbishop of Canterbury, who heads the Church of England and is the leader for Anglicans worldwide; and the heads and patriarchs of the various churches in Jerusalem. Egypt’s Coptic Church opines that the decision had disregarded the feelings of millions of Arabs.

As anger festers and grows, memories of my pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 2005 came flooding back.

Malaysians are not allowed to travel to Israel since we have no diplomatic ties with the country, but thanks to the flexibility and tolerance of the Malaysian government, restricted trips to Jerusalem are allowed for religious purposes.

My guides were a Muslim driver, Ahmad Badawi, and Arab Christian, Jeries Farra. The latter spoke excellent Bahasa Indonesia as he often had to chaperone Indonesian pilgrims, the largest number of visitors from South-East Asia to Jerusalem. Obviously, Farra also knows the Bible well, quoting verses in Bahasa Indonesia.

For the Malaysians, the trip was an eye-opener as it allowed us to draw a clearer distinction between Judaism-practising Jews and Christians.

Despite certain similarities, the Jews do not accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah. In fact, ultra-Orthodox Jews openly dismiss Christ.

My guides became emotional when Farra spoke about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territories as he shared his personal experiences. When I was there, the wall separating West Bank and Israel was being built.

But what we saw broke our hearts. At checkpoints, I saw how many Palestinians, including those with babies, were sometimes made to wait for hours under the scorching sun while their documents were checked. Most of the time, they were humiliated. Hence, the simple act of entering their hometowns can become a six-hour ordeal, affecting their productivity and hampering their movement.

And in a strange way, most of the Biblical sites in the towns of Bethlehem, Jericho and Nazareth, all important names in the Bible, are in predominantly Muslim areas.

A Muslim family holds the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried.

The key is about 800 years old, and having Muslims in charge of the key has kept the peace between the different Christian denominations over the control of the church.

The Greek Orthodox, Armenian and the Roman Catholic denominations share custody of the site, where tensions often run high over governance of its various sectors.

This is how Christians and Muslims have co-existed for centuries in Jerusalem.

Our tour leader, Inbam Solomon from World Discovery Travel (M) Sdn Bhd, repeatedly appealed to us to purchase the wares of these Palestinians, stressing that they need our help. Many of us bought more than we needed to lend support to the Palestinian cause.

Many of them were Muslims selling Christian religious items. It is also not unusual to see Muslims entering churches.

The last thing these Palestinians want is disruption to their daily lives – each time political unrest surfaces in the West Bank, the pilgrims stay away, which affects their livelihood.

And with Malaysia, the Immigration Department sometimes even stops issuing permits.

For the Palestinians, their plight is not an Islamic or Muslim issue, as widely assumed by many Malaysians, but a case of injustice and violation of human rights, including being stripped of the land belonging to them.

They also find their homes raided almost nightly, on the pretext of the intrusions being security checks. It is pure intimidation and harassment, and such humiliation can only brew ire and consequently, lead to retaliation. Over 600,000 Israelis are now living on land that has been illegally taken away from the Palestinians.

Trump’s actions of playing with a highly sensitive and volatile issue is complicating the resolve for peace in that area. He has set back all efforts made by his predecessors. In fact, the peace process is just about dead now.

Wanting to move the US embassy to Jerusalem is as good as declaring that the entire city of Jerusalem an eternal part of Israel, including the eastern portion, where many Palestinians – both Muslims and Christians – live, and where the Palestinian Authority hopes to set up a capital once a Palestinian state is up and running.

Trump has played into the hands of radical Islamic groups which are constantly looking for reasons to strike in the name of religion.

To put it simply – this move is hardly worth it. He has alienated almost the entire UN, the world, both Muslims and Christians, and especially the Palestinians, who are most affected.

And to do this at a time when we think of Bethlehem the most – as we celebrate the birth of Christ tomorrow – hardly makes sense.

After all, Christmas isn’t Christmas ‘till it happens in your heart, as the song goes.

Wong Chun Wai

Wong Chun Wai

Wong Chun Wai began his career as a journalist in Penang, and has served The Star for over 27 years in various capacities and roles. He is now editorial and corporate affairs adviser to the group, after having served as group managing director/chief executive officer.

On The Beat made its debut on Feb 23 1997 and Chun Wai has penned the column weekly without a break, except for the occasional press holiday when the paper was not published. In May 2011, a compilation of selected articles of On The Beat was published as a book and launched in conjunction with his 50th birthday. Chun Wai also comments on current issues in The Star.