From Bill Poser at Language Log:
Reports that the textbook The World: Social Studies asserts that: “Christianity was started by a young Palestinian named Jesus.” have triggered considerable controversy. Some maintain that this is a gross inaccuracy reflecting the intrusion of anti-Semitism, to which others respond that it is correct and so unexceptionable. The former are correct: the description of Jesus as a Palestinian is both inaccurate and offensive.
And of course Professor Poser is right. Saying that “Jesus was a Palestinian because he live in Palestine” is akin to one of Jesse Jackson’s attempts to weasel out of his “Hymietown” troubles: that he couldn’t possibly be anti-Semitic, because he was on such good terms with Semitic Arabs. “Palestinian” in modern usage never means “one who lives in Palestine,” just as “anti-Semitic” never means “hatred of speakers of Semitic languages.” It’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise, whatever the superficial etymology.1 Humpty Dumpty may say, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less,” but those of us not in Wonderland shouldn’t expect to get away with that.
Having said that, I should mention that I haven’t seen the textbook in question, and I don’t really trust any of the commentary I’ve googled (other than Professor Poser’s, and he doesn’t claim to have seen the textbook, only the secondary commentary). The commentators strike me as social conservatives with axes to grind, but really I don’t know. Maybe there is context in the textbook that matters. My guess is not, but still. My further guess is that the textbook authors are more sloppy than biased, and certainly not overtly anti-Semitic. Gosh knows there are plenty of sloppy textbooks.
One more point, illustrative of the dangers of textbooks trying to talk about religion: one could easily argue that Christianity was not started by Jesus, but rather by Paul and/or others of Jesus’s followers. I’d happily take either side of that debate, just for fun.
1 Not to mention that, as Poser points out, in the case of “Palestinian” even the etymological pseudo-definition is iffy: Jesus would have called himself a Galilean, and he lived a century before the term “Palestine” was applied to the region.