Since my first post on the subject of the Palestinian question, I have been checking out some of the relevant information on the Internet, including postings and comments, mostly pro-Palestinian, I can view on my Facebook. The escalation of violence in recent days in the Gaza strip and the majority of opinion being against Israel, means further consideration is needful, even if a truce were to be agreed tomorrow, although likely to be broken the day after (which sadly is precisely what happens and is happening). Two videos, one giving a Palestinian view and one a Jewish view, I found helpful, and there is more besides, seen when one does a simple Internet search.
While I am now more clued up on what is happening and the events that have led up to the current situation, compared with two weeks ago, I have still to come to a firm view. But what I would like to do in this post is to try to put myself in the shoes of a Palestinian living in Israel, realizing my attempts to do so will be feeble at best, and also to look at why many Christians, of the type I have tended to associate with in the past, are Zionist in outlook and often blinkered and non-sympathetic when it comes to unaddressed Palestinian grievances, and what they should be doing regarding this issue.
I have just re-acquainted myself with a book and, given it is timely in the light of what is happening now, is my current reading project, which I highly recommend. I began some months back “Christian Zionism” by Stephen Sizer, which has had the effect of making me think though and re-evaluate my own theological position, in particular how I view Israel and what is happening and might / will happen. I hope to reflect more on this in a future post. It is not that theology should be the overriding factor when determining how I / we should go about tackling an issue that essentially requires a humanitarian approach that needs to be primarily governed by social justice considerations, and dare I say it a political solution that all sides will accept however hard it is to imagine, but theology is one of the factors, if not by me or the majority of Christians that don’t critically think much about these matters, but is for a vociferous, Zionist leaning, minority, who purport to do so.
Thirty seven years ago, I went to live in Poole in Dorset, in order to pursue my career as a software engineer. There I joined a Baptist church and met a remarkable lady: Iris Naish. Miss Naish, as she was affectionately referred to, was a formidable spinster, with a mind as sharp as a razor and heart of gold. She had served for much of her life as a missionary in Lebanon and in the latter part she was a principle of a school that served Arabs. She came back to England to retire but, as is the case with many of her sort, she gave herself to serving others until her dying breath. I can now reflect concerning one whom I now look back upon with admiration and who had a marked influence on my own life. Among other things, we had a number of conversations about the Middle East situation and how Israel / Palestine and Jews / Arabs related or should relate, reflecting why things were as they were and what needed to happen.
I was not altogether naïve on the situation that applied at that time. I was, for example, well aware of the irony that when the then Israel Prime Minister Begin complained about terrorism, he was himself a terrorist when the British governed Palestine before the creation of the Israel state in 1948. But like many coming from my theological stable, for my roots are Plymouth Brethren, they were in the main pro-Zionist in their views on eschatology and other matters, and also practically supportive of Jewish folk, especially when they had been persecuted. I tended to look upon the State of Israel with some of the same rose tinted glasses as many of today’s exponents of Christian Zionism, which may, as a minimum, be defined as “the return of the Jews to the Holy Land, and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, is in accordance with Biblical prophecy”. I took a keen interest in the events leading up to the peace treaty Begin agreed with President Sadat of Egypt in 1979, that followed earlier wars between Israel and their Arab neighbours, and the various events going on at the time. It was shortly after that I visited Israel for my one and only time, to check things out for myself.
Around the time I met Miss Naish, I also began to referee football games. I can well recall cautioning a player for some misdemeanor, when it later transpired the person had been provoked by a member of the opposing team, who had gone unpunished. Years later, 2006, Zinedine Zindane, the greatest football player in the world at that time, was sent off in the final of the World Cup, for head butting one of his opponents. While the referee had no choice but to send the player off, one has some sympathy with Zindane when he claimed provocation by the person who he head butted, that had, he claimed, earlier insulted his mother. I use this by way of an illustration when considering my discussions with Miss Naish on the Palestinian question and like the player who retaliated, that is how she saw the Palestinian in the propaganda war. The same sort of propaganda can be used by either side. This week I saw a “funny” cartoon and video, making the point the Palestinian is the aggressor, continually provoking Israel, and Israel, after patiently taking in all this, eventually retaliated and as a result was portrayed as the baddie.
The essence of my arguments to Miss Naish were not so dissimilar from what one might expect to hear from Zionists today, but without the religion if not religious. I argued that Israel (the land) was promised to the Jews and their return was according to Bible prophecy and the land was also justifiably given to them as part of the Balfour declaration (1917): “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”, later to be enforced by the United Nations in the setting up of the state of Israel in 1948 and the various attempts, often unsuccessful, in making acceptable provision for the Palestinian people.
I was acutely aware of the anti-Semitism Jews had faced, especially from the hands of so-called Christians, and recently as the result of the Nazi Holocaust. Returning them to their natural homeland seemed the right thing to do. When the British took over Palestine from the Ottoman empire, the Palestinian occupants had few rights. While aware of Palestinian objections (I recall for example being a lone voice when the issue had been debated in college) I felt Israel had been more on the receiving end of than handing out wrong. I was concerned over the attacks on Israel by its Arab neighbours, notably the 1948, 1967 and 1973 wars, and where I felt it was Israel being provoked rather than the other way round. I regretted the Palestinian leadership for not suing for peace and when offered their homeland rejecting it outright. I felt the Palestinian refugees were often treated as political pawns, who could well be accommodated by their wealthy Arab cousins, but who cynically refused to do so.
All this I pointed out to Miss Naish, who graciously listened before replying, although all these years on I can only now recount the essence of that response. Miss Naish pointed out there was a propaganda war going on and while my point was there was an anti-Israel bias in media reporting may have been conceded it was one that Israel were winning, at least among those who held power and influence, by claiming self defense against its enemies and the necessity to live securely. But it was they who had provoked the Palestinians, who felt and were the oppressed people, being treated as second class citizens, and when they retaliated, just like the footballers I mentioned earlier, it was easy for Israel to argue they were the ones under attack. Even now, fast forwarding to the exchange of missiles between Israel and Palestinians living on the Gaza strip, one notes the claims and counter-claims, although as in most conflicts most victims on either side have been the innocent.
I do have my work cut out trying to understand the Israel position, although I can quite accept it when well meaning Zionist friends say they wish merely to live in peace, but then again I cannot defend the indefensible. For example, building Jewish settlements in areas where Palestinians live I find difficult to defend under any circumstances, and see it as provocative, as I do the sense of avoidable hopelessness, absence of civil rights and feelings of oppression by most Palestinians living in Israel. I can hardly imagine what it is like for a Palestinian living in Gaza these days. It could be likened to living in a prison camp, and worse given basic needs are often not met, not helped of course by a leadership, albeit one that was democratically elected, intent on an ideological struggle and willfully sacrificing the Palestinian people in doing so.
What is being cried out for now is a truce, ideally permanent, and a humanitarian intervention overseen by a third party that has the power to deliver, and a political solution, ideally involving all the stakeholders, granting Palestinians some degree of autonomy and independence, although my confidence in each of the key leaderships: United States, Israel and Palestine, is limited, and my sense is that many of Israel’s neighbours will be satisfied with nothing less than the dismantling of the state of Israel, with some wanting it to be replaced by an Islamist one. While history has shown that political solutions can be arrived at in places of conflict, e.g. Ireland, the Palestine situation is by far the most challenging. When millions of Christians around the world pray “Thy Kingdom come”, each day, I have no doubt this will happen. For the people I especially regard are the peacemakers and those who pray for peace.
Regarding theology, according to my minimal definition, I am Zionist, but do bear in mind there are many flavours, as Sizer’s book points out, but I also follow a God of justice. I don’t believe being anti-Semitic is the same as anti-Zionist. While I won’t yield on my opposition to anti-Semiticism, I can accept well meaning Christians opposing Zionism. Looking back at history, sadly many Christians have been both anti-Semite and anti-Zionist. While the Zionist debate will no doubt continue among Christians, it is also beholden upon them to respond to the call for truth, righteousness and justice. The Torah is clear in declaring that Israel must treat justly foreigners living in their land and the prophets affirm: “he hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?“ Micah 6:8, and not doing so mustn’t be excused
Back to my being a Zionist, while I see the promise God gave to Abraham still being applicable and not being nullified because of the Jewish rejection of its Messiah, despite what many Christians have believed down the ages, their peaceful occupation of some of the land that was promised to Abraham, and God’s blessing upon them, does depend on their obedience to God. The reason why the inhabitants of Judah (the other ten tribes had before then already been dispersed) 2600 years ago were sent into Babylonian exile, not to regain autonomy in the region until 1948, was because they had disobeyed God, and it was God’s judgement. And God doesn’t change. Putting the matter of rejecting Jesus, Israel’s true Messiah, aside, practicing injustice, for that is, in part at least, what is happening now, is something God cannot tolerate and neither should we when considering the Palestinian question. But there are other considerations, not least trying to understand all sides of the argument, but that will have to wait for another post.