The Peripatetic Preacher The Bible and Modern Israel

The Peripatetic Preacher The Bible and Modern Israel May 29, 2020

The modern state of Israel is both phenomenon and phantom, constitutional democracy and chimera. Of late, under the long-time premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu, the nation has moved decidedly to the right of the political spectrum, building high walls of separation between Israel and the two bits of Palestinian territory, the West Bank and Gaza, siting innumerable settlements on former Palestinian land against international law, and now threatening to annex the land on which those settlements sit into the nation of Israel, further depriving Palestinians of a future nation of their own, and effectively killing the long-hoped-for two state solution to the intractable enmity between modern Israel and both their Palestinian citizens, well over a million of them, the currently stateless Palestinians on their borders, and the millions of refugee Palestinians living in several nations of the Middle East. Israel has done all this in the name of security, a genuine concern, of course. No one wishes to live cheek-by-jowl with neighbors bent on your destruction that on occasion lob rockets into your yards and homes. Still, the result of these extreme measures of security have made life difficult if not unbearable for Palestinians who, attempting to work in Israel, must undergo long and humiliating commutes from their homes, pass through many checkpoints, and face angry and powerfully armed soldiers merely to work and shop. This situation has no winners; the Palestinians are powerless and furious, while the Israelis are terrified and equally furious. It is the proverbial powder keg, and has been so for decades.

I recently read the gripping account by Lawrence Wright of Jimmy Carter’s heroic attempt to solve this ruinous dilemma at Camp David when he convinced Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt and Menachem Begin, president of Israel, to hash out a treaty that Carter hoped would be a roadmap to a larger peace in the Middle East. It wasn’t. Too soon, Sadat was assassinated by enraged citizens of his own country who rejected his peace overtures, and Begin passed from the Israeli scene, followed by increasingly fearful and conservative leaders who backed further and further away from peace talks. The only Israeli president who spoke seriously of peace was Yitzach Rabin, who himself was assassinated in 1995 by a semi-crazed ultra-orthodox Jew, Yigal Amir, who had no interest in any Palestinian accommodation. The fact that one can still today in 2020 visit a shrine to this murderer speaks more clearly than anything that the deep distrust and hatred are still all too present and alive in modern Israel.

Rabin, along with the Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat, won the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize after the Oslo accords, with the help of US President Bill Clinton. What is often forgotten is that far from tamping down the tensions between Israel and what was hoped to soon be a Palestinian state, instead ferocious attacks increased between the two peoples, and no disputed Israeli settlements were dismantled. Amir spent several years consulting rabbis, looking for Talmudic support for his murder of Rabin. Several extreme rabbis may have provided such support by manipulations of certain texts, though that has never been shown to be true. Amir’s brother, a convicted accomplice in the killing, who claims that Amir found such rabbinic justification, is now out of prison and has gone back into Israeli society. Meanwhile, the nation has moved further to the right, and any hope for a two-state solution is dead. With the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency in 2016, the fate of any such solution was sealed, as Jered Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, has tried fatuously to fashion some sort of peace agreement, but has left out the Palestinians from the process completely, a very bad joke in the work of foreign treaty-making. And, miracle of miracles, Netanyahu is STILL the prime minister of Israel, though he is under indictment for various crimes while in office. He and Benny Gantz, his once arch-rival for power, are now sharing power as co-heads of state, a bizarre arrangement that assures the status quo for as far as the eye can see. 400,000 Israelis now live in disputed settlements, there are growing numbers of Palestinian Israelis who may soon overtake the number of Jewish ones, and Netanyahu, with the very public support of the USA and the Trump administration, may now move to annex all that settlement land for Israel, surely a goal he has had since the murder of Rabin over two decades ago.

For those of us who read the Bible and find in it rich resources for modern living, what may we say about this vastly complex conundrum that has defied solution since the 1948 creation of the state of Israel? Does the Bible, written over two millennia ago, created in an historical context vastly different from our modern one, describing a tiny emerging nation state, have any real connection to the modern state of Israel? On the one hand it seems a huge stretch to imagine that ancient Israel has anything at all to do with its supposed modern counterpart. After all, contemporary Israel 72 years ago was carved out of the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the Gulf of Aqaba in the south. This does approximate the land of biblical Israel with a few exceptions, but the population mix of ancient Israel is the subject of intense debate today. Who came first—Israelite refugees from Egypt or precursors of the modern-day Palestinians, a name derived from the ancient Philistines who arrived on the shores of what became Israel from islands in the Mediterranean, perhaps Crete? All that I have just written is in dispute. Does modern Israel have a first- come, first-served claim on the land now known as Israel, as the ultra-Orthodox rabbis continually claim that Eretz Israel is in fact the Judea and Samaria of the Bible, and we will not surrender an inch of it to anyone! The Palestinians have no claim to it, they cry!

But is that so? And finally how could anyone prove it one way or another? Even though Israel is now a self-proclaimed Jewish state, in reality it is surely no more Jewish than the USA is a Christian state. There are after all millions of Christian citizens and thousands of Muslim citizens in Israel, just as there are millions of Muslim citizens in the US, along with millions of agnostic/atheists, along with thousands of Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, etc. It could easily be concluded that both Israel and the USA are in fact nations with very mixed populations, no matter what any official or semi-official extant documents say otherwise.

In short, I would say the following: Israel is a democratic nation just as the USA is a democratic nation, among the other democratic nations of the world. As such, it is subject to the rules and expectations of all democracies, namely the rule of law, mandating that all the nation’s citizens have designated rights and privileges, among those right to trial, right to property, right to equality before the law. Hence, Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens must be judged by those rules, just as the treatment of any of the US’s citizens must be judged. Recent violent actions against African-American citizens by the police must be judged by those democratic rules, and where those rules are not followed, legal consequences must ensue. And so it is with Israel. When property of Palestinian citizens of Israel is confiscated against the rule of law, for example in East Jerusalem, the law must say that in a democracy that is unacceptable behavior; the law must step in and call out the injustice of such action. If Israel continues to claim the mandates of the Bible, it must accept the power of those mandates to adjudicate itself. The biblical prophets are clear that all nations, especially the ancient nation of Israel, are to be judged by YHWH under the stated demands that the poor, the outcasts, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner have special rights and must be treated with special concern for those rights before God. If Israel claims its biblical heritage, the heritage of the prophets is a particularly potent part of that heritage; it seems clear that Israel’s modern treatment of its Palestinian neighbors would fall under the heavy hand of a God who demands care for them rather than oppression and rejection. The same could well be said of the Palestinians who may claim a special mandate of Islam and the prophet Mohammed. The Qur’an states many of the same demands found in the Hebrew Bible. Hence, lobbing rockets against innocent Israelis surely contravenes the ethical demands of Islam. Thus, neither Israel nor Palestine has the moral high ground in their struggle, and to claim otherwise is to play the religious hypocrite.

Modern Israel holds no special place in the world of nations, despite its religious announcements, statements that ring hollow in the light of the biblical prophets. Likewise, Palestinian religious claims must be judged on what they do, not on what they say. My discussion does little to solve the ancient struggle that is being played out in 2020. At least, I think it right to resist the language of specialness, the language of chosenness, when talk of political struggles is broached. However the deep antagonisms between modern Israel, many Arab states, and the stateless Palestinians, we have gotten nowhere, and will get nowhere, by reversion to ancient claims that are in the end undecideable and unproveable. Let us all leave the Bible out of the debate, for down that road lies only fury and intractable difference.


(Images from Wikimedia Commons)

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