Last night, Ted Cruz made headlines when he confronted a group of Middle East Christians at an “In Defense of Christians” conference with the bizarre claim that “Christians in the Middle East have no greater ally than Israel.” This led to protests from the crowd, triggering an escalation of more egregious statements from Cruz and more adamant protests from the audience. Cruz said “those who hate Israel hate America,” and followed it up with, “If you will not stand with Israel and Jews, then I will not stand with you,” before walking offstage. Cruz’s statements even led to the angry withdrawal of the Lebanese Ambassador Antoine Chedid from the conference.
Instead of reflecting on whether he may have said something stupid, Cruz determined he was just confronting the “corrosive evil [of…] anti-Semitism.” Many outlets uncritically carried Cruz’s narrative, with the Washington Free Beacon even running with the headline “Ted Cruz Stands Up to ‘Hatred and Bigotry’ at Conference of Middle Eastern Christians.” But here are the colossal errors Cruz made in those statements, which he and his supporters clearly don’t get:
Conflating Israel and the Jewish People
When the crowd booed Cruz for praising Israel as an ally of Christians, he responded by saying “those who hate Jews hate Christians.” That would be an interesting argument, except no one in the crowd was booing Jews. In fact, the transcript and audio recording of the speech clearly show that when Cruz said, “Tonight we are all united in defense of Jews,” the crowd was united in applause. And Cruz’s ending statement of “if you will not stand with Israel and the Jews” demonstrates an inexcusable conflation of the Jewish people, on the one hand, and Israel on the other. The former is an ethno-religious group, and hostility toward them is indeed hateful bigotry, which should be opposed by all people of conscience. The latter, however, is a state with an egregious record of violations of human rights and international law.
The State of Israel has been illegally occupying Palestinian lands for many decades, and has systematically solidified that illegal occupation through incessant settlement expansion, leading to U.N. Security Council condemnations and protests from its Western allies, including the United States. In conflicts, Israel regularly engages in mass violence against civilians, as it did when it dropped “more than a million cluster bombs” in Lebanon in 2006, leading one of its military commanders to say, “What we did was insane and monstrous, we covered entire towns in cluster bombs.” Human Rights Watch recently said it has documented “numerous serious violations of the laws of war by Israeli forces in the past decade, particularly indiscriminate attacks on civilians.” Similar reports were issued by Amnesty International and U.N. human rights investigations.
When Cruz insists on conflating Israel and “the Jews,” it is he who is effectively promoting anti-Semitism by holding the Jewish people responsible for Israel’s crimes. Thankfully, there is no shortage of Jewish groups and Israeli conscientious objectors who oppose Israel’s crimes, and they are the best antidote to the inadvertent bigotry Cruz and people like him spread through their ignorance.
Christians and Israel
The claim that Israel is a great ally for the region’s Christians could not be uttered by anyone who has a basic understanding for how Palestinian Christians live under Israeli occupation. Palestinian Christians aren’t exempt from any of the violations Palestinians generally experience under occupation, including restrictions on movement and access to holy sites. These restrictions undermine the ability of the holy land’s Christians to celebrate Easter and Christmas in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Bernard Sabella, an expert on Palestinian Christian history, surveyed Palestinian Christians and found that 81 percent “believed the occupation was the biggest challenge they faced.” And leading Palestinian Christian figures like Hanan Ashrawi and the late Edward Said have long spoken against Israeli atrocities.
Apart from systemic restrictions and discrimination, there is also the abuse of Israeli extremists, which all too often is committed with impunity. These attacks include beating of members of the Christian Peacemaker Team with wooden clubs, shouts of anti-Christian abuse at Westerners on camera, beating Western activists while chanting, “We killed Jesus, we’ll kill you too,” and the defacing of churches with hateful graffiti. A rise in vandalism by Jewish extremists directed at Christians ahead of the pope’s visit to the Holy Land earlier this year prompted the Vatican to express concern over how little was being done to curb them.
Ted Cruz can get away with pandering on Israel with a base that is as uninformed as he is about how Israel behaves in Palestine, but certainly not with a group of Christians from the region who know Israeli policies all too well, and who may have even directly suffered because of them.