That Time I Accidentally Sounded Anti-Semitic
How one poorly constructed sentence caused a ripple of misunderstanding and accusations.
“My Jewish social media friends are pissed about you calling Jesus a Palestinian.”
Such were the words I confusingly read on my phone last Sunday just before noon.
It was December 18th, the morning of the World Cup finals, which aired early at 7am. But I recorded it so I could watch it delayed at a more respectable time of 10am. Which meant I ignored my phone all morning because I didn’t want the results to get spoiled. Hence me not seeing the above text from my friend until almost twelve o’clock.
With Messi’s GOAT status firmly entrenched, I went upstairs to shower, briefly glanced at my phone, and saw the text that read,
Heads up. My Jewish social media friends are pissed about you calling Jesus a Palestinian.
I’m sorry, what? Where… who… huh?!?
I legit had no idea what she was talking about.
I logged on to Facebook to see if I could find the source of this strangeness.
Who is accusing me of calling Jesus Palestinian and why? What a bizarre thing to say.
I tapped the red notification bubble and it took me to my article from last week, Part 8 in my series on Noah’s ark. I saw this comment (which has since removed by the author):
Again I stared at my phone.
What is happening?!
Why are people saying I called Jesus “Palestinian,” and what does this person mean by “erase Jews from history?” (note: the “ahole” part was the least of my concerns. You know by now I get called way worse 🤣)
I re-read the Noah’s Ark article this comment was left under, assuming it was referring to something I wrote in the article.
But nope. No mention about Jesus, or Palestinians, or anything resembling Jewish erasure.
I text my friend back, “Where did I call Jesus a Palestinian?”
She sent me a screenshot.
Suddenly it all made sense.
As some of you may know I’ve been freelance writing articles for the Faith + Spirituality section of the Sunday edition for the San Diego Union Tribune. Twice a month the editor pays me to write 1400 words on topics such as love, forgiveness, healing, resilience, and so on.
My article for this past Sunday was about Hope, one of the central themes of the season of Advent. The main point of the article is how the Christmas story is my annual reminder that often times we put our hopes in the wrong sorts of places. God was not revealed through the powerful Empire of Rome, nor through the powerful Emperor himself, but through a lowly unwed pregnant girl from the marginalized Jewish community.
Inspired by this, my invitation to readers was to not look to our political parties, or our world leaders, or large corporations to be our hope for love and peace and joy. But rather, look to the lowly, the forgotten, the littlest the lost and the least.
So how did all that turn in to accusations of anti-semitism?
Before I get to that, two quick points for backstory.
First, the geographic area in which the events of Jesus’ life took place (Galilee, Samaria, Judea, etc) has been on and off low-key called “Palestine” since the 5th Century B.C.
It used to be called Canaan, then it went by the name Palestine, then when the Hebrew people settled there it became known as (especially to them), Judea.
After the Bar-Kochba Revolt of 132-136 AD, the Roman emperor Hadrian officially renamed the region Syria-Palaestina to punish the Jewish people for their insurrection (by naming it after their two traditional enemies, the Syrians and the Philistines). Thereby designating this region as “Palestine” in an official capacity that essentially stuck until modern day.
My point is, calling this region Palestine when referring to antiquity is fairly common practice. When I preach or write I might often say something like, “In first century Palestine,” and so on. Nothing political is meant by it. It is just one way to name the region.
The second backstory point is much simpler to make, and it is this: I love alliteration. 🤷🏻♂️ Whether speaking or writing, I gravitate toward stringing words together that start with the same letter.
Okay, with those two things in mind,
here is the paragraph from my article that contains the portion in which I allegedly called Jesus a Palestinian:
“Somehow, in some way, the Christmas story teaches that movements for change start from the bottom, by those who’s voices historically haven’t mattered. Jesus was born to a powerless family, in to a powerless Palestinian people, who’s necks were pinned by the boot of Rome, not in a mansion with unfettered access to all the world offered. Yet this is how the Light of the Divine was uniquely revealed to humankind.”
Ahhhhh… well, okay then.
I guess it could be argued that I did semi-sorta-kinda call Jesus “Palestinian,” because I said he was born to a family from a “powerless Palestinian people.”
Now hopefully, with the two points of backstory from above you can already see what happened.
On the one hand, it is kinda technically true that since that region of the world was (perhaps unofficially) referred to as “Palestine,” then the people living in it were “Palestinians.”
But obviously, Jesus was Jewish.
And obviously the Jewish people living there were Jewish.
So me choosing to describe them as “powerless Palestinian people” was not AT ALL an effort to remove their Jewishness from them. It was, you could say, a synonymous way to articulate the community in to which Jesus was born, and one that happened to start with a P (my alliterative heart leapt!).
So that sentence just kinda rolled off my brain and on to the page. And even when I edited the article, it didn’t really jump out at me because as I said, it’s not uncommon to refer to that area, during that time, as Palestine.
that being said, I can certainly understand how
Given the longstanding tension between the Jewish people and Palestinian people living in the area today, and
Given the heightened climate of antisemitism flooding our society right now,
I can understand how that sentence would be jarring for some people.
Especially considering that, in the print edition at least,
THAT’S THE SENTENCE THEY CHOSE TO HIGHLIGHT FOR THE PULL QUOTE ON THE GRAPHIC! 🤦🏻♂️🤦🏻♂️🤦🏻♂️
(BTW, quick note, for those who don’t already know this, authors don’t get to choose the headline, or the article title, or the graphic, or the pull quote.)
Eventually I found the place on Facebook that my friend was referencing when said her “Jewish social media friends” were pissed. It was on the page of the person who came over to my FB page and left the above comment calling me an “ahole” who’s erasing Jews from history.
Now, to be clear, I don’t begrudge people their emotions and feelings and reactions. Again, the climate right now for many (most? all?) Jews is increasingly hostile. So when I read that person’s comment, and then when I went to their page to see the thread (that now has over 80 comments) full of people blasting me, I can understand it.
Especially because this is the world we live in now. People don’t suspend judgment until further data is compiled. They do what most of us do nowadays. We quickly decide who a person is based on the tiniest of information. We label them. We judge them. We refuse to accept that people are humans who make mistakes. We forget that people are complex beings. We reduce others down to one thing we think we know about them, find the box to squish them in, and if it’s a box we don’t like then we kick it (and them) to the curb.
My reference to Jesus being born to a Palestinian people was enough for some readers. They quickly tossed me into the pile along with other antisemitic folk accused of trying to erase Jews.
Someone even shared a screenshot of my profile pic and said, “The guy who wrote this looks exactly how you’d think he’d look.” So I guess I look like an anti-semite?
Many folks have or plan to write to the paper to complain about publishing such antisemitism.
One person even said they’re writing to the ADL to turn me in.
So where does all this stand now?
As you can imagine, multiple people not only emailed me but also emailed my editor at the Tribune, demanding something be done.
I immediately wrote up a correction/retraction that the Tribune will be running this Sunday.
And they’ve already edited the online version of the article by simply removing the word “Palestinian.” Such an easy fix, right? Right. Because the article is not anti-Jewish, nor its author. (They also put the note: UPDATE: A sentence in this story has been re-edited since it was originally published.)
I’ll paste my full correction/retraction below if you want to read it. The Tribune will end up editing it down quite a bit because of space, so we’ll see how the final version reads on Sunday.
But yeah, if there’s anyone out there still curious where I stand,
JESUS WAS JEWISH. Of course he was. Of course.
I have zero interest in erasing that or any other Jews from history.
I have zero interest in stoking the Jewish/Palestinian fires.
There’s no part of me that secretly is antisemitic (as several readers accused me of being. They even went so far as to find other lines from my article and grossly misinterpreted them to suggest that I was slipping in anti-semitic tropes. Ooof.)
It is utterly bizarre to me that I’m having to write this out, but here we are.
I hope people who were negatively impacted by my poorly constructed sentence on Sunday will somehow find, read, and accept my attempt to correct and retract.
And, I hope the Union Tribune will not stop hiring and publishing me over this.
While I feel bad about the blowback they’ve had to deal with, hopefully they (and the readers) will be able to move on from this and see it for what it is: a sloppily worded sentence that could have and should have been said differently. But that definitely does not mean what some people took it to mean.
My Full Correction and Retraction
Let’s cut straight to the chase, shall we? Jesus was Jewish. Of the many things people contest about the life and identify of Jesus, that he was Jewish ought not be one. Any suggestion that Jesus was not Jewish is at best silly, and at worse insidious.
Seriously, though, who would say otherwise?
Oh wait… me? I did? No I didn’t, that’s absurd… why would you say that I sa… oh, wait, shoot, I kind of did say that, didn’t I?! 🤦🏻♂️
Well that’s embarrassing.
Mind if I offer a brief explanation, correction, and retraction?
Last Sunday a friend of mine text me to give me a heads up that some of her Jewish contacts online were none too happy about me calling Jesus “Palestinian.” I had no idea what she was talking about.
Then I logged on to Facebook and had a notification of someone calling me the a-hole who is erasing Jewish history and calling Jesus “Palestinian.” Again, I was thoroughly confused.
Finally someone pointed out the source of the problem: my article in the Sunday, Dec 18 edition of the San Diego Union Tribune.
Now, the point of the article was to show how the Christmas story, for me, is an annual reminder to not invest our hopes into powerful people, corporations, or political parties. Instead, may we find hope in the places we least likely look. I wrote the following, “The story of Emmanuel (with means “God with us”), the story of a child being born to an unwed teenager, the story of a Messiah coming from a backwater town of an oppressed people group, is the powerful reminder that Empires don’t save the world, marginalized and powerless people groups do. Emperors don’t save the world, shunned pregnant teenagers and immigrant babies do. Loud extraordinary shows of power don’t save the world, quiet and ordinary acts of love do.”
And then, in my hope to drive the point home further, I wanted to say that this powerful story of the birth of Jesus helps teach that movements for change often start from the bottom, by those who’s voices historically haven’t mattered. That’s when the fateful sentence in question emerged, and I wrote, “Jesus was born to a powerless family in a powerless Palestinian people who’s necks were pinned by the boot of Rome, not in a mansion with unfettered access to all the world offered.”
Oops. I guess I did kinda say that Jesus was born to Palestinian people, didn’t I? Why did I do that? Great question. Two thoughts on what I think happened.
First, the area including and surrounding where Jesus was born into was referred to as Palestine. Exactly when that began, and by whom, and what areas it included, all of that is debatable. But in short, it’s not uncommon to refer to that geographic area—in the context of antiquity—as “Palestine.” So I’m sure that’s why it was in my head when I wrote that sentence.
And then second, as a preacher for 20 years, in addition to obnoxiously long run-on sentences, I have a penchant for alliteration. I’m sure I wrote that sentence as I did because I enjoyed the way the p’s all flowed together.
So that’s my guess as to how and why the sentence came out as it did. To the extent that calling the people who lived in and around the areas of Galilee, Nazareth, and Jerusalem “Palestinians” is a mistake (because they are first and foremost Jewish), then please consider my sentence last week an honest mistake.
I did not at all intend to convey that Jesus was Palestinian, and especially not in a way that denies or tries to forget or erase his (or any) Jewish history (see the aforementioned absurdity of such a claim). Furthermore, knowing the current climate of increased anti-semitism in society right now, I regret how my ill-written sentence last week poked at the tender spots for those in the Jewish community. Suggesting that Jesus was not Jewish certainly was not and could not have been my intent, nor do I harbor any desire or inclination to erase Jewish history or identity. Since the point of my article last week was “hope,” I can only hope that anyone who was offended or angered or wounded by my oversight might see this correction and trust that neither myself (nor the editors at the Tribune, nor the Tribune itself) meant any harm or ill-intent. May this Holiday season (Advent, Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanza) be filled with hope and peace for all.