16 MARCH 2002, Page 38

Christians in Israel

From Mr Bret Stephens Sir: What an astonishing piece of writing you have published in the form of a letter (23 February) from Israel Shamir, Israel's very own Noam Chomsky.

In Mr Shamir's telling, Israel is a country in which Christians suffer routine and vicious persecution at the hands of Jews. For this, he cites as evidence the recent burning of a Hebrew-language version of the New Testament, the reissue of a mediaeval antiChristian Jewish tract, the naming of a beach resort after King Herod, and so on. All this is true enough: Israel has its share of kooks, quacks, bigots and other politically incorrect folk. Yet the plural of anecdote is not data; to draw the conclusions Mr Shamir does from these incidents is akin to suggesting that the US is a country where every homosexual lives in mortal peril because one gay man was murdered two years back in the Wyoming hinterland.

What Mr Shamir fails to mention is that during the past five years there have been no more than five violent anti-Christian incidents, all carried out by fringe elements within the ultra-Orthodox community. Mr Shamir also neglects the phenomenal popularity of Israel as a tourist destination among Christians. Last year, almost twice as many Christians as Jews visited Israel —not the statistic one would expect if Israel were the Middle East's version of, say, Sudan.

The fact is that, by and large, Israel treats its 138,000-strong Christian minority tolerantly and equitably. No restrictions on freedom of worship are placed on the 30 or so Christian denominations represented here; Christian worship services are advertised in the Israeli press; US televangelist Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcast Network is piped in via satellite. True, as a small minority, Christians have little political clout in an ultra-political country, and those Israeli Christians who are also Arab have suffered discrimination on account of their ethnic identity. But this only puts Israel on a par with most other Western countries in its treatment of ethnic and religious minorities.

Contrast that with the status of Christians who live in Palestinian areas. Missionary activity is unheard of. There have been anti-Christian riots in Nazareth and quite recently in Ramallah. And the increasingly anti-secularist, pro-Islamic tone of Palestinian politics only makes matters more dangerous for Palestinian Christians. For Mr Shamir to suggest that 'the iron grip of Sharon' is what is causing Palestinian Christians to flee the Holy Land ignores the little elephant in the room known as Islamic Jihad.

To judge by the piece of puffery that is his website (wwwisraelshaminnet), Mr Shamir has made a fine career for himself as Israel's most vitriolic critic this side of Baghdad. That Israel tolerates him is evidence enough of the country's liberal credentials.

Bret Stephens

Jerusalem, Israel Mr Stephens will be editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post from 1 April.