In a hotel ballroom in Jerusalem jammed with journalists from all over the Jewish world, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a rambling speech that covered everything from Iran’s nuclear ambitions to an Israeli cow that he claims produces more milk than any other cow in the world. Really.
But I want to focus on his riff about the Presbyterians.
This was June 22, the day after the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to sell off its stock in three American companies who manufacture products they claim are used to further Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Netanyahu mentioned the vote in the context of global anti-Semitism. Then you could sense he was extemporizing.
He invited the Presbyterians to come to the Middle East and look around. He’ll arrange a bus tour through Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq. But the bus will need armored plates, he suggested. And the visitors should not announce that they are Christians. Then they should compare what they see to Israel, the “only beacon of freedom” in the region.
This was said in the snide tone Netanyahu employs when you are not sure he is trying to be funny or just being mean. I thought he verged on the obnoxious.
But, dammit, he had a point.
The fate of Christians in the Middle East in the last decade has ranged from precarious to tragic. Since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, as many as two-thirds of that country’s Christians have fled their homes, according to a report published in May in the Huffington Post. Since March 2011, 450,000 Christians have been displaced by Syria’s civil war.
And in Egypt, attacks on Coptic Christians prompted 93,000 of them to leave the country in 2011 alone.
Meantime, Arab Christians in Israel are not only safe to practice their religion but, as one top government official told me, they are believed to have an even higher standard of living than the average Jewish Israeli.