Talking about Israel, Palestine, and a Land called “Holy”
When we read the news, or listen to TV reports, or engage in occasional conversation about the land of the prophets, of Jesus and the Jewish people of the first century, and the nation of Israel today, we may feel bewildered. Terms, descriptions, and assumptions intermingle in often confusing ways.
A very recent Jewish visitor to the land wrote in her blog:
Judaism and Zionism are not the same thing. They are related, yes. But not all Zionists are Jews (just ask the conservative Evangelical Christian movement in America) and not all Jews are Zionists and … non-Zionism is not the same as anti-Semitism. Every Palestinian we talked to understood that already; they understood that we were ethnically, culturally and religiously Jewish but that we opposed the mass oppression and injustice that is Zionism. Our good friend Hamde, a prominent Palestinian photojournalist, constantly reiterates that Judaism is not the problem for the Palestinian people; Zionism is. The Occupation is. (Katya W. in a blog post shared with her friend, Ariel G., January 14, 2015)
Let’s ponder what we know about Judaism. We know it developed over centuries as the religion of the Hebrew people. That religion of prophets and people became ritualized at the temple in Jerusalem, built during King Solomon’s reign, almost a thousand years before the birth of Jesus. That first temple was destroyed by foreign invaders around 563 B.C. and was eventually rebuilt after a 40-year exile of Jewish leaders and people. The Second Temple was functioning as a place of sacrifice and national identity during the life of Jesus, attended to by priests and functionaries who maintained its traditions even while under Roman occupation. Alongside the temple was the Pharisee tradition of local synagogues where people (especially men) gathered to study and reflect on Torah. In the year 70 A.D., Jerusalem was sacked and the Temple destroyed by soldiers of Roman Emperor Titus. The western wall (“Wailing Wall”) is all that remains today.
The earliest Christians were Jews whose “synagogue” eventually expanded beyond walls to include all (even Gentiles) who found meaning in the remembrance of Jesus: his life– teaching, healing, and welcoming; his death; and in the conviction that Jesus’ spiritual presence was alive in a new way in the body of his followers.
After 70 A.D., the Temple no longer standing, traditional Jews found continued meaning in the Torah and rabbinic commentary on the Torah (which kept evolving as Talmud and Mishnah.) The canonized Prophets and Writings were also preserved and taught.
Islam came into existence in the early seventh century A.D. (C.E.) through the leadership of the Prophet Muhammad, to whom (according to Muslim belief) the Quran was dictated. Islam means “submission to God.” This emerging faith inspired warring Arabian tribes to unite, replacing polytheistic traditions with a strong emphasis on Divine unity. Islam spread rapidly—in spite of division over leadership succession after Muhammad’s death. Islam established centers of worship not only in Mecca and Medina, but also in Jerusalem, on the “Temple Mount” (where the first and second Jewish temples had stood.) That site is also revered by Muslims as the place of Muhammad’s visit during a mystical night flight that also carried him to heaven. Ancient tradition claimed this spot as the mountain of sacrifice, where Abraham had taken his first-born son to make him an offering to God. Islam believes that son was Ishmael, the child born to Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid. The Torah, followed by Jews and Christians, identifies the son as Isaac, child of Sarah. To commemorate these signal events, a mosque was built on the Temple Mount, and—after earthquakes—restored. Some Jews today long to see it replaced with a Third Jewish Temple.
Just as some Jewish Zionists envision a new Temple on old foundations, some Christian Zionists interpret scripture as requiring that restoration, to make ready Christ’s return to establish the Kingdom of God.
Most Christians are not Zionists, though some are. Many Jews are not Zionists, though some are.
Some Jewish Zionists are not traditionally religious. Some, in fact, are atheists. From the nineteenth century onward, a Jewish Zionist political movement has been active in Europe and elsewhere, seeking a homeland for Jews. For centuries, the Jewish Diaspora survived wherever Jews were tolerated or welcomed. When Christians in Spain became coercive in matters of faith, Jews became prominent targets of the Inquisition. Many of them were welcomed in Muslim lands like Turkey. Jews and Muslims have not always been antagonistic toward one another. During Europe’s early Middle Ages, Muslim cultures flourished, preserving and teaching the wisdom of ancient Greece and other Mediterranean cultures. Tolerance was a key value taught by many imams.
The modern struggle in the Holy Land took shape after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. Britain and France were given a mandate to govern the region known as Palestine. Having been urged by Zionist leaders to create a homeland for Europe’s oppressed Jewish population, the mandate authorities determined to do so. Following the tragedies of Holocaust and World War II, political pressure on member nations of the U.N. was sufficient for a plan to be drawn. Though the Jewish population in Palestine was much smaller than that of Palestinian Arabs, whose roots in the land were deep, Jews were to be given control of about 60% of the land. Palestinians objected.
Zionists did not wait to organize. Jewish forces were already armed and present in the land in 1947. Palestinians organized to resist. What Jews called a “War of Liberation” was experienced by Palestinian communities as Nakba (“disaster” or “calamity”—in English.) In May of 1948, Jewish leaders proclaimed the birth of Israel as a modern nation. That year, many Palestinians fled their communities in the wake of attacks—particularly after the massacre of Deir Yassin on April 9, 1948. According to Jewish historian Ilan Pappé, “In a matter of seven months, five hundred and thirty-one villages were destroyed and eleven urban neighborhoods emptied […] The mass expulsion was accompanied by massacres, rape and [the] imprisonment of men […] in labor camps for periods [of] over a year.” (Pappe, Ilan –Spring 2006. “Calling a Spade a Spade: The 1948 Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine”)
Palestinians who fled Palestine, expecting to return in a few weeks or months, were not allowed by Israel to return. The Palestinian diaspora remains today—after three generations—the world’s largest refugee population. Palestinians who were not expelled, and did not voluntarily leave the new nation, have been incorporated as citizens of Israel, with minority representation in the legislature (Knesset.)
During the 1967 “Six Days War,” Israel repelled neighboring forces and occupied the West Bank (formerly ruled by Jordan,) the Gaza Strip (formerly governed by Egypt,) and strategic positions in the Golan Heights in the north (formerly part of Syria.) Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories (including East Jerusalem) continue to resent the intrusive, harassing control of their lives by Israeli soldiers. For Palestinians, the security walls and checkpoints inhibit free access to work, family, education, and medical facilities. Walls separate many farmers from their orchards and fields, and have resulted in painful destruction of these resources.
The conflict between Israel and Palestinians is not a religious conflict. The conflict is about having control over land and property, and the right of Palestinians to the dignity of self-governance. Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, are united in seeking dignity and a secure, productive future for themselves and their children. Israelis have suffered in turn, as frustrated Palestinians have occasionally launched violent attacks on Jews.
Many American Jews have supported the dream of a Jewish homeland and state, before and since 1948. Many Zionists, including Christians, have seen Israel’s existence and security as paramount, and have given unequivocal (and virtually unlimited) support to the state of Israel. Some Jews—Israelis, Americans, and Europeans—while respecting the dream of Israel as a land of justice and hope for Jews, believe also in justice for Palestinians. Many have taken personal risks for their ideals of friendship and justice, and have endured imprisonment (as young men and women refusing mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Force) or ridicule and rejection by other Jews. When Israelis speak out for justice, oftentimes taking risks, they act as true patriots, calling for loyalty to the prophetic ideals of Amos, Micah, and Isaiah, and therefore loyalty to “God and neighbor.”
Both Jews and Arabs are Semitic peoples. Hebrew and Arabic are Semitic languages, with common roots. If that is agreed, then by definition, being anti-Jewish or anti-Palestinian makes a person “anti-Semitic.” On the other hand, being anti-Zionist does not make one anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic, any more than being anti-aggressive makes one anti-American.
Following in the tradition of the biblical prophets, Jews, Christians, and Muslims can unite in the cause of justice for all people—without compromising in the least any tenet of their faith traditions—and thereby fulfill through mutual hospitality their claim to be children of Abraham, daughters and sons of promise and blessing.