Israel and Palestine in Sunday School

Israel and Palestine in Sunday School July 31, 2014

I was asked by my Sunday school class to help them understand what is going on in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and how if at all this connects with the Bible. I was going to try to make a video with a brief overview of the history of Israel, providing maps and illustrations. But I have decided that adding yet another video on this topic to what is already on YouTube may not be the best use of my time. There are many – some quite good, most extremely one-sided. But even from the latter you can learn things, at least about how some constituencies view things, provided that you don’t listen to only one side’s perspective. So I will share one video here which at least tries to provide narratives from both sides, encouraging you to seek others, including ones which express views you are inclined to accept and ones which articulate views you are inclined to reject. And then, instead of making my own video, I will offer a few brief points about my own perception, starting with the question of ancient and Biblical connections.

So here are some thoughts and views of mine on this topic:

What is the connection of the current conflict to the Bible? I would say that there is no real connection. Many Christians in North America think that the very existence of the modern state of Israel is a fulfillment of prophecy. But that view depends on a particular problematic way of reading the Bible as focused on the “end times.” This approach wants the present day to be the focus of at least some of the Bible, and thus prefers to say that references to the temple and the Roman empire in works like Revelation are about a rebuilt temple and restored Roman empire, rather than the more natural reading, which is that it refers (as Revelation explicitly states) to realities in its author’s own time.

Despite what you will hear, there is not an endless history of conflict between Jews and Arabs, going back to Isaac and Ishmael. When Jews were persecuted in Christian Europe, they often found a safe haven in predominantly Arab and predominantly Muslim territories.

The modern nation state is a relatively recent phenomenon. When the kingdoms of Israel and Judah existed in ancient times, they were almost always vassal kingdoms within some empire – whether that of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, or any other.

There was a united Israel for relatively little of the history of the people of Israel. At no point was the nation ethnically and religiously monolithic. There are laws about the treatment of foreigners, and at no point in the history of Israel is a promise given that the nation will possess the land regardless of how they behave. And so the attempt to appeal to the Bible as though it means that one cannot criticize Israel is not merely wrong, it is a diabolical inversion of what the Bible says. Throughout much of ancient Israel’s history, we find people called false prophets saying that God is on their side, and those whom the Bible considers to have been true prophets predicted exile and called the nation to repentance.

But all of the above is at best tangentially related to the realities of modern Israel. Israel is beleaguered and war-torn for the same reasons that places like Northern Ireland, Kuwait, Pakistan, and the former Yugoslavia have been at various times over the past century.  At the end of the colonial era, lines were drawn creating modern nation-states, which typically divided people from others whom they considered their kindred, and lumped them with others that they felt less kinship with. Extracting Israel from world history as though it were not a result of processes we have seen at work elsewhere hinders understanding.

The modern nation of Israel was created to be a homeland and safe haven for Jews who were experiencing not merely persecution but extermination elsewhere. This is one reason why one-state solutions are unappealing to many Israelis. If Jews can potentially become a minority in Israel, it is doubtful whether it can serve this function. I don’t think that anyone who understands the Holocaust can fail to empathize with and appreciate this point.

From the Palestinian side, most Americans should try to put themselves in the shoes of Native Americans, being driven from land that they inhabited for a very long time and given small territories where they exercise limited sovereignty. But imagine that, unlike here, you do not have citizenship, and you are not free to travel outside of your reservation. Some Americans would surely take up arms if others did to them what their ancestors did to others. Others might simply live lives of despair and hopelessness. I don’t think that most people can fail to empathize with and appreciate this perspective, either.

And so we have two sides, and many people who seem incapable of recognizing that both sides have valid points, aims, and grievances, and that there have been atrocities committed by both sides. Usually when someone points this out, the reaction is to emphasize that one side or the other has been far worse. I don’t dispute that, if a tally were made, the balance would not be equal. When is it ever? But that does not appear to me to justify either side simply pressing ahead with business as usual.

A two-state solution confronts the problem that sacred spaces for those who would reside in both states will be found with the other’s state. And so, in my opinion, the only viable two-state solution has to include freedom of movement so that no one in either territory is hindered from going to the other. We have seen borders largely made irrelevant in places like the European Union, and so it is not impossible, but it is unrealistic in the present climate of understandable distrust on both sides in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

I would also note that the Christians of the Holy Land are mostly Palestinian. American Christians often have surprisingly little interest in seeking out and listening to their perspectives, never mind trying to offer help and support for fellow Christians in the region.

Anyone who thinks or speaks as though the interests of a particular constituency makes what people are experiencing in the region on both sides less tragic should not be taken seriously. You can strongly believe that Israel has the right to exist and defend itself. You can also (and simultaneously!) believe that the Palestinians have the right to freedom and mobility and an infrastructure that makes life more bearable. But if believing either or both leads you to consider the deaths of civilians, including children, to be something that is unfortunate but necessary, then I think that your commitment to a particular subset of humanity has come to outweigh your commitment to humanity as a whole. And if that has happened, I would encourage you to rethink your outlook – not necessarily your political commitments, but your view of the value of all human life. Because “never again” is a slogan that should lead us to equally abhor when people say “gas the Jews” and when people say “gas the Arabs.” And I have to believe that it is possible to work for what we consider to be just and right without engaging in acts of injustice that by definition undermine the rightness of our own stance.

These are some of my thoughts on the subject. Feel free to disagree with me, challenge me, or in other ways discuss the subject. That’s what I suspect will be happening in my Sunday school class over the next several weeks, too.

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  • Juan Lopez

    I feel exactly the same way. I really hate the fact that these two peoples, who are really one people, have been so divided over religion. And then here comes us, the “Christian” United States, encouraging hostility towards “Palestenians” for economic and political reasons.

    Great Blog!

    • It’s not just religion. Israel is a bulwark of Western European democratic civilization in the Middle East. Until recently, it was the only democracy in the Middle East. As far as I can see, the Arabs and Jews cannot now be said to be “really one people”, although the religious separation is clearly very important. Israel is a “start up nation”. The rest of the Middle East is decadent to the extreme.

      • Liadan

        You can’t be a nation for democracy for only white european Jews and call your self a true democracy. Iran used to be a democracy until the US over threw it. And there are also Palestinian Jews. The rest of the Middle East was consistently destroyed and inhibited by the West. We made the Middle East what it is. Its *our* creation.

        • Only about half of the Israeli population are white European Jews. It is unquestionable, however, that Israel would not be what it is today without them. There are still plenty Arab Muslim citizens of Israel, and their number is growing every year. The number of Palestinian Jews that have not become Israeli citizens is negligible.

  • Don Scott

    Thank you, James. I appreciate what you have written.

  • Persia didn’t have vassal kingdoms in Palestine, except for the Phoenician ones.

  • Gary

    I am getting sick and tired of Israeli representatives on CNN saying they are just firing back at Hamas rocket firings located close to civilian locations. If a terrorist is holding a child in front of him as a shield, does a swat officer think it is OK to kill the terrorists by putting a bullet through the child? Last time I checked, there was 1 Israeli civilian killed, and one hurt, in all the Hamas rocket firings. There are thousands of Palestinian civilians killed so far. The Israeli reps just keep harping on the thousand of rockets coming in. Unless, of course, it is near the airport. Then, everything is OK. Don’t want to hurt tourism. Not to mention the fact that Palestinians live in a miserable third world territory, dependent on Israel for water and power. Last time I was in Tel Aviv, Israeli’s live like a bunch of upper class yuppies, more interested in clubbing than anything else. I would say Israel needs to back off, and think about “measured response”. Otherwise, they are just creating more young terrorists. AND, we in the U.S. Should be ashamed of ourselves, re-supplying the Israeli’s with more mortar shells and ammo.

  • Michael Wilson

    The death of civillians is necessary. If Israel does not attack rocket launchers and tunnels, then over time, Israeli civillians will die. Either way civilians will die so the only way civilians will stop dying is if Hamas consents to disarm. Hamas will not disarm unless it concludes it will be extermanted if it does not disarm. That is the goal we should seek for peace. Convincing Hamas that killing civilians will not help it acheive its goals. So long as Hamas violates rules of war by hiding millitery gear in civilian buildings and disguising its soldiers as non combatants, the casualty rate among civilians will be high. But to avoid them would put others at risk and prolong the war. A cease-fire that leaves Hamas’ weapons intact means more civilans, more women and children, will die.

    The Gazans had independence but they choose to support a terrorist army dedicated to the destruction of Jewish idependence in Israel. They need to give up on Hamas and demand competent peaceful leaders that will bring investment to Gaza and not waste money on tunnle and rockets.

    What I think people miss in discussing the history of Israel is that there have aways been Jews there and contrary to the standard line about how Jews were accepted in the Islamic world when they were drivien from Europe, they were always second cLass citizens by law in the islamic world. No one has a duty to be an outcaste and Jews in Israel have the same right to equality afforded them in modern Europe and North America. It is immoral to ask that Israel to become second class citizens in a Palestinian state when Israel lets its Arab citizens vote, hold office and serve In The army. Hamas is fighting for the same reason the KKK did, to avenge the honor of racist who refuse to recognize the equality of the other.

    • joriss

      “The death of civillians is necessary.”

      I think “necessary” had better be replaced by “unavoidable”.
      “Dear baby, I’ve got to kill you, it’s not fun I know, but it’s necessary for my safety. And also your little brother and mom I’ve got to kill. It’s all for our safety. Do you understand? No? If you would have grown up, then, as an adult, you would have understood my point of view and admitted that I was right. So now you should be comforted and die in peace”.

      When there is a war, wherever in the world, there will be innocent victims, children, women, old people, sick people in houses and hospitals. That is an unavoidable and terrible result of every war in this world. But at least these should not be deliberate, but unintended accidents. To say: “it’s necessary” gives permission to kill innocent people for the sake of one’s own safety, which should be rejected.

      There is a history of enmity between Israël and the Palestinians since the foundation of the state of Israël. From the very beginning the surrounding Arab countries have tried to destroy Israël and so Israël has had to defend it’s (undefendable) borders from that very beginning. All these years Israël has had terrorist attacks, suïcide bombers, never a moment of rest, always aware of immanent danger. And enemies that not only want their own independent state, but whose very intention from the beginning was and is: TO DESTROY ISRAEL. That is the goal Hamas wants to achieve. Knowing this makes Israël more or less hardhearted. It’s difficult to negotiate with the one who is trying to kill you, isn’t? I don’t think we should have illusions about the eventual intentions of Hamas.

      Nevertheless this doesn’t justify killing hundreds of innocent people. You can’t say: it is necessary. But the question is: who is to blame most for this: Hamas or Israël? And how can Israël destroy rocker launchers without killing citizens? It’s a very bad, sad situation. Perhaps UN military should stabilize this region.

      • Michael Wilson

        Hamas is responsible for the civilian deaths by using their population as a screen for their army. Certainly Israel should do what it can to minimize casualties and use proportionate force. So far it has been doing relatively well. I reject the notion that just because the rockets Hamas is aiming at civilians are not acurate and that defences are so good that Israel should not attack the rockets. Regarding your UN suggestion, I dont see that going any where. Im not sure many outside nations, especially ours would be willing to send troops to potentialy die for this cause and Israel would likely reject it given the support the UN has given to Hamas, such as storing rockets for it to fire on civilians.

    • John A. C. Kelley
      • Michael Wilson

        John, I think many Americans know and it doesn’t change their thoughts on this. Palestinians shouldn’t get any millitary aid. I don’t think the problem is that Hamas doesn’t have enough rockets or that they need better rockets or that more Israelis need to die. The poverty is caused by Hamas. It diverts resources needed for its ecomnomy toward war, it does not foster an enviroment friendly to economic development. The settlements don’t justify Hamas war crimes. The settlements in the West Bank can be removed like the ones in Gaza if the Palestinians agree to a just peace. But if they decide instead to keep gambling on war and hoping for genocide for generations to come, do they deserve their land?

        • Michael I

          Israel’s blockade of Gaza makes any kind of economic development impossible, making it impossible to even try to alleviate the poverty.

          And there is no reason to think that the current Likud government would agree to anything other than the Palestinians accepting a permanent Bantustan status.

          • Michael Wilson

            I dont think things would be much better without the Egyptian/Israeli blockade. Hamas is at a state of war with Israel and should be denied aid. A Palestinian state should not have full sovereignty because they historically have been bad faith actors. Germany faced a long period of occupation and restriction after WWII, we should expect the same for Palestine. Once the Palestinians reject terrorism, the destruction of Israel and Hamas I think will get the support they need to achieve full sovereignty.

          • Judea

            The Gazans were given billions in aid-Hamas wasted it all on hate. Gaza could have been made into a resort state. The Egyptian-Israeli blockade came only after Gazans elected Hamas & began attacking Israel.

        • John A. C. Kelley

          The numbers clearly show that Israel is reacting with much greater force than what they are being hit with. Also, Hamas is a attacking Israel, not Palestine. The puny insignificant rocket strikes from Hamas are laughable and cause virtually no damage and have killed many less civilians than there have been rockets. There’s also this:

          • Michael Wilson

            That’s great, I’m glad Israel is more effective. My problem is that Hamas’ goal is to hit civilians with those rockets. Im glad they are not good at it. That they are targeting millitry targets is joke. It would be like cops using molatove cocktails. Further, regarding the article you linked to, so what if Israel would wipe out their army if it were not in civilian areas? If Hamas puts a rocket launcher in a residential area it is not free to fire at will without retaliation. If you willingly choose to stand by military gear, you a combatant, not a nonviolent activist, your a soldier performing a military function.

            If Israel were only out to cower Hamas into submission with terror why is it risking ground troops? Israel could kill ten times as many civilians just with Arial bombing. Instead it is Hamas that fire dumb bombs at cities. It does not invest in bunkers for citizen, or defensive weapons. It invest in rockets.

          • joriss

            I agree that Hamas is very much the most to blame for installing their rocket launchers in the middle of areas with high density of population, so that Israël by others is hypocritically onesidedly blamed for the casualties among citizens.
            That said, I hope Israël will find other ways to defeat Hamas. I think the costs of innocent lives is too high.

  • Judea

    Most Palestinians came during WWI. In 1882, official Ottoman Turk census figures showed that, in the entire Land of Israel, there were only 141 000 Muslims, both Arab and non-Arab.

    Israel was sparely populated until WW1. In 1867, Mark Twain took a tour of Palestine. This is how he described that land: A desolate country whose soil is rich enough but is given over wholly to weeds. A silent, mournful expanse. We never saw a human.

    The Jews invited all Arabs to stay and live in peace but Arabs choose war & terrorism instead of peace.

    Israel’s Proclamation of Independence, issued May 14, 1948, also invited the Palestinians to remain in their homes and become equal citizens in the new state:

    “In the midst of wanton aggression, we yet call upon the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve the ways of peace and play their part in the development of the State, on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its bodies and institutions. . . . We extend our hand in peace and neighborliness to all the neighboring states and their peoples, and invite them to cooperate with the independent Jewish nation for the common good of all.

    Israel gave up enormous amounts of land for peace. In 1947, the Jewish state huddled on 18% of the original British Mandate land. The Jews accepted it gratefully. The Arabs rejected it with a vengeance and seven Arab states immediately declared war against Israel.

    • You seem to have been misinformed. Where did you get your information from?

      • Judea

        From the official Ottaman Turk census of 1882

          • Judea

            1882, official Ottoman Turk census figures showed that, in the entire Land of Israel, there were only 141 000 Muslims, both Arab and non-Arab. The census from the 1800’s you posted from Jewish virtual library shows the Muslim population at 246,300. Pretty close.

            Many Historians documented the fact that Israel was sparsely populated throughout the 1800’s.

            The sorrows of the Palestinian people has been their acceptance of war & terrorism instead of peace.

          • Table 1.1 on p.22 would suggest that either you are misinformed or are misrepresenting things. Would you minnd actually providing a source from which you claim to have derived the erroneous/false information you have provided thus far?

          • Judea

            The Source you provided from Jewish virtual library has the Muslim population in the 1800’s at 246,300. (Your initial reply to me.)

            That is sparsely populated.

          • You deleted part of your original comment, which claimed that Jews were 80% of the population then:

            “Most Palestinians came after WWI. In 1882, official Ottoman Turk census figures showed that, in the entire Land of Israel, there were only 141 000 Muslims, both Arab and non-Arab. Jews made up about 80% of the population of Jerusalem, throughout the Ottoman Empire.Israel was sparely populated until WW1 .”

            This is not the sort of site where you can make false claims and fail to document your assertions and expect not to be challenged. It is even less one where you can expect no one to notice when you change what you wrote and then say that nothing you wrote was erroneous or false.

            Pretending that the invitation to full citizenship for Arabs in Israel proper (I know such a citizen) applies to Palestinians in the occupied territories (I know such a non-citizen) likewise indicates that you are either misinformed or being dishonest.

            I have banning people, but I expect honesty and documentation. If you can aim to achieve that, I am happy to allow you to continue commenting here. But if you are looking to troll then it would be best if you simply went elsewhere of your own accord.

          • Judea

            There is a British census from the 1857 that has the population of Jerusalem at 80% Jewish. I erased that a few minutes after I posted it because -I saw other censuses-Long before your second reply to me.

            The article failed to mention how much of the British Mandate that Israel gave up for peace. It also fails to mention that Arab wars and Terrorism came long before occupation & the Israeli-Egyptian blockade. Perhaps the video does.

            My last reply on your articles-be well.

          • You still seem to be confused about the details. And you are still not citing sources in a manner that would allow me to figure out whether you misunderstood what you read, consulted sources that make false and distorted claims, or are fully aware of the details and are misrepresenting them. It is disappointing that you prefer to depart than to be well-informed and honest.

    • joriss

      And besides, the Arab nations told the Palestinians to leave the area for a short time, until they would have destroyed the state of Israël and hunted them into the sea, then they could safely return to their homes….. But how different was the outcome!

      Israël lost 10% of it’a population during that first war, but in spite of that won the battle.

      The most horrible thing of what is going on now is the suffering of innocent children that experience terrible things and will be traumatized for a lifetime. Only God can give the solution to stop this nightmare.

  • Marta L.

    Reading this, I found myself troubled by my reaction on one point in particular. I agree with you, the fact that A is better than B (at respecting inalienable human rights, at loving his neighbor, whatever) doesn’t take away the fact that A still can (and should!) do better. Laying my own cards on the table, I tend to think the Palestinian territories have been wronged more than they have been the wrong-ers, but that shouldn’t blind me to the very real ways the Palestinians fall short of the mark; and the same would be true if I was more sympathetic to the Israelis.

    The bit that troubled me was my first reaction to reading that. I was worried how recognizing that reality set up a bit of a false equivalency, that it didn’t make room to work out who was more or less wrong. And I do think that’s an important question – I’ve certainly been struck more than once by the claim that (e.g.) because Democrats don’t represent the people, that they are either too moderate or just obligated to big money because of the need to fund-raise, that there’s no real difference to when Republicans are in office. (And someone with different political inclinations to myself could have a similar frustration running the other direction.) Of course when kids are dying — Palestinian or Israeli kids, it makes no difference — it is not the time to focus on who is “winning.” I need to do better at keeping that reality in mind. The problem is, even given that claim, I still worry that this kind of approach is prone to fall into false equivalences. There’s a world of different between saying “both A and B are wrong” and that “both A and B are equally wrong.” I’d agree with the first one, and I think that’s what you are driving at here, which is fine as far as it goes. But the question I keep coming back to is: how do we keep from falling into the second? How do we balance a need to hold people accountable for their wrongs against the drive for mercy and sympathy I think this situation calls for?

    Because I really, really don’t know. I feel at an intuitive level that it matters, even at this moment of crisis. But I also feel a bit ashamed that it matters so much to me.

  • Marta L.

    On a slightly more specific note, I’d question whether we can draw a distinction between civilian death and soldier deaths, at least when it comes to feeling sympathy and pity over those deaths. In Israel, isn’t military service pretty well obligatory? And as you point out, picking up a gun is a natural response, at least for some psychologies, just because you are born into that situation. I wouldn’t hold a soldier who killed another soldier ethically responsible for that death, it’s a matter of self-defense at that point clearly. But I’m not sure why civilian deaths in particular are lamentable, given that people on both sides are pretty much forced into the conflict at a certain age.

    • I am not opposed in principle to asking whether one side is, on the whole, in the right for the most part. I’m just very aware that, in this case, there has been enough done that deserves criticism and condemnation on both sides that, even if the two are not equal by some standard, both are blameworthy by this stage and so focusing on that is pointless.

  • Wonderland of Wes

    I cannot tell you how much I appreciated this common sense article that gets down to the facts. I heard there are less than 1,500 Christians living in Gaza, but nobody is trying to help them from here in the USA. Instead, most Christians go on and on about how they must protect Israel and their Jewish “chosen ones.” I have told them repeatedly that, after the coming of Christ, all Christians (+ those few Jews) are God’s chosen people and none are more special than another. And that even those who are not religious, or Christians, are loved and welcomed by Him. He created and loves all of us. We are here to love one another, as much as we love ourselves. Meaning we are to value others and their feelings just as highly. I have said that not killing is one of the biggest Commandments God gave to us. And that we are told over and over again not to collect up things and chase after wealth; not to worry and live in strife. What the Israelites and Palestinians are doing is everything God wouldn’t want and I cannot support any of it for any reason. There are no good reasons for war.

    (I have shared this article on 3 different social media websites, already.)