Blessing Israelis and Palestinians Today

Today David Johnston continues his post from last week and endeavors to present readers with a pro-peace perspective on the Middle Eastern crisis. After explaining the roots of Christian Zionism and American Christianity, he goes on to explain the present situation in the Israel / Palestine area and to exhort Christians towards a pro-peace stance regarding the current conflict.

Wheaton College New Testament professor Gary Burge wrote a report on a visit in June 2009 to Israel/Palestine with forty Presbyterians. It was entitled, “A Third Intifada?” In it he tells how a Palestinian village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Jabal Mukabber, has been told, “You are now part of the ‘Greater Jerusalem.’” For this privilege they pay much higher taxes, yet they still have no sewer system and their running water in old leaky pipes runs dry most of the time. So they have to buy water from trucks. Meanwhile, at the new Jewish settlement sprawling next door with its high-class condominiums, there is more than enough water to irrigate their gardens and fill their swimming pools. No wonder the infrastructure in the Palestinian villages has long crumbled: Israel has consistently invested ten times more in Jewish neighborhoods than it has in Palestinian ones – and even more dramatically in the West Bank since its military occupation in 1967. Burge comments:

Now here’s the catch: When the Palestinians try to build and improve their lot, they are denied building permits in places like Jabal Mukabber. And if they build anyway, Israeli bulldozers destroy the building. I saw the rubble of one. In the last 10 years, the Israeli army has demolished 300 Palestinian homes within the city limits of Jerusalem. According to ICAHD [the Israeli Coalition Against Home Demolitions], the goal here is to so frustrate the Palestinians, that they will leave. And this is to maintain an explicit racial quota in the city: the Israeli government's publicized goal is to keep a 72 percent - 28 percent ratio of Jews over Arabs at all times. The explicity made me dizzy. I couldn’t imagine imposing a racial quota on an American city like this (Burge, “A Third Intifada?” Electronic Intifada, August 3, 2009).

Nobel Peace-Prize Laureate Jimmy Carter’s use of the word “Apartheid” (in his 2006 book, Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid) was by no means exaggerated. As someone who, through his Carter Center, has monitored elections all over the world and brokered peace talks in countless war zones over the last four decades, this book was his best shot at getting Americans (and especially evangelicals) behind the current peace process that aims for a two-state solution. I highly recommend this book as a primer on the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Despite the heart-rending description of some of the injustices and humiliations suffered by Palestinians, it is a hopeful book. The 2002 Arab League offer is perhaps the best reason to go ahead with negotiations that will clear the way for a viable Palestinian state. The 22-member club of Arab nations committed itself to a full-fledged recognition of the State of Israel, if the latter withdrew from the territories occupied since 1967 and recognized a Palestinian state. The implication is, of course, that most of the settlements have to be dismantled.

The Obama administration has continued to push for the 2003 “Road Map,” decided by the Quartet (USA, UN, EU, and Russia), which aims for two states side by side, with Jerusalem as a shared capital. The majority of Palestinians support this goal, although the majority on the Israeli side seems to be evaporating. Yet this is the only solution that provides dignity to the Palestinians and security to the Israelis. Christians of all stripes should still stand behind this venture, even if it seems unlikely that Israel will withdraw from most of its settlements in the West Bank – it is still the only realistic option.

In fact, a growing coalition of evangelicals voiced their concerns to President George W. Bush in 2007 through an open letter published in the New York Times. Signed by thirty-four prominent evangelical leaders, scholars, mega-church pastors, university presidents and denominational leaders (including Bert Waggoner, National Director of the Vineyard, USA), this letter sought to publicly demonstrate support for a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, explicitly supporting the Road Map strategy and the two-state solution. Here is the central paragraph:

Historical honesty compels us to recognize that both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate rights stretching back for millennia to the lands of Israel/Palestine. Both Israelis and Palestinians have committed violence and injustice against each other. The only way to bring the tragic cycle of violence to an end is for Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a just, lasting agreement that guarantees both sides viable, independent, secure states. To achieve that goal, both sides must give up some of their competing, incompatible claims. Israelis and Palestinians must both accept each other's right to exist. And to achieve that goal, the U.S. must provide robust leadership within the Quartet to reconstitute the Middle East roadmap, whose full implementation would guarantee the security of the State of Israel and the viability of a Palestinian State. We affirm the new role of former Prime Minister Tony Blair and pray that the conference you plan for this fall will be a success.

However, since that letter was published and Jimmy Carter wrote his book, facts on the ground seem to indicate that the two-state solution may have died an early death. This is what John Mearsheimer argues in his April 29, 2010 lecture at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC, “The Future of Palestine: Righteous Jews vs. the New Afrikaners.” Professor of Political Science and the co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago, Mearsheimer is also a leading expert on the Jewish Lobby in the US.  His central thesis is that Netanyahu’s deliberate humiliation of President Obama in June 2010 on the issue of the settlements is just one more sign that Israel will never go back on this policy and that, as always was the case, no American president can afford to put any meaningful pressure on Israel, due to the power of its US lobby. In his words,

In short President Obama is no match for the lobby. The best he can hope for is to re-start the so-called peace process, but most people understand that these negotiations are a charade. The two sides engage in endless talks while Israel continues to colonize Palestinian lands.

Two other reasons why time has fatefully run out for the Road Map objectives is (1) the Palestinians are now badly divided (Hamas vs. PLO), and there is no will either among the Americans or the Israelis to help mend those fences; and (2) the power of the Christian Zionist lobby on Capitol Hill, which wants no part of a two-state solution. As a result, “there is going to be a Greater Israel between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. In fact, I would argue that it already exists,” concludes Mearsheimer. But how will it be ruled and who will live there?

Mearsheimer sees three possibilities. The first is a sweeping act of ethnic cleansing. It is unlikely, however, that Israel would expose itself to an iron wall of international condemnation for any large-scale expulsion and massacre of the Palestinian population. Even if the Palestinians start a third intifada (“uprising”), which considering their frustration and despair level would certainly be more violent than the second one, Israel will find ways to put it down. A second possibility is even less likely, at least in the short run: a bi-national democratic state.  Though several Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals have been calling for this, neither side is ready to sit down as equals and resolve their grievances through the ballot box. Israelis especially will not tolerate being dominated by a (soon to be) Palestinian majority.

As one could see from the above quote, Mearsheimer believes we are headed toward the “Greater Israel” between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. It will continue to rule with an iron fist and only give Palestinians a modicum of freedom and human rights. It will be, as it is already to a large extent, an updated version of South Africa in the 1980s – little enclaves of Palestinian self-rule, with big brother controlling everything from the economy to political freedom, from educational curricula to local and national security. Needless to say, when even the American press begins to report on the actual situation of Palestinians, more and more pressure from civil society around the globe will reach a tipping point and force a change, as happened with South Africa. The “righteous Jews,” as he puts it, will keep pushing ever more loudly for equality and freedom for the Palestinian population, while the “New Afrikaners” will do their best to keep the lid on the status quo and find ways to justify it to the outside. But in the end it will inevitably lead to a one-state solution, with democracy for both peoples, though spelling, it is true, the end of the current Jewish state and the Zionist dream.


Blessing Jews and Palestinians Today

King David in Psalm 34 wrote, “Seek peace, and pursue it” (v. 14). As we read the gospels, it is difficult to miss that Jesus is consciously living out the virtues of God’s coming kingdom as mapped out by the prophets, and Isaiah in particular. The Servant of the Lord was to be meek and eschew violence (Is. 42:2), and bring peace to his people through the sacrifice of his life (53:7-9). His peace is closely connected to the justice he offers the poor and marginalized, the eunuchs and foreigners (56:3, 7). From the beginning, Messiah was to fulfill the mission Israel failed to carry out: to be “a light to the nations” (49:6). The passages connecting Messiah’s justice and peace are both numerous and stunning (2:4; 9:5-7; 26:12; 35:15-17; 60:17).

Jesus embodied God’s Kingdom of righteousness and peace in both word and deed. He centered his ministry in the Galilee, that is, with those most despised by the religious elites – a mixed Jewish-Gentile population, with a high percentage of poor day laborers working for rich absentee landlords in Jerusalem and Judea. Among his disciples he not only chose fishermen, but he also brought together people who hated each other: a wealthy tax collector, in essence a collaborator with the occupying forces, and a zealot, or “freedom fighter” aiming to bring down Roman rule by force of arms. He lived very simply, owning only the cloak and shoes he was wearing. With regard to enemies, his teaching was shocking. If a Roman soldier asks you to carry his gear for a mile, walk two miles with him, Jesus taught. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other. No matter what, refuse to retaliate and escalate violence. In fact, Jesus goes farther: “love your enemies and pray blessing on those who insult you.”

With regard to the land of Israel, Jesus makes not even one mention of it. If anything, he cries over Jerusalem, “the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers.” Its future holds only abandonment and desolation. Its only hope is the second coming of Messiah: “For I tell you this, you will never see me again until you say, ‘Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Mat. 23:39 NLT). In the parable of the Evil Tenants, the absentee owner of the vineyard (a Jewish code word for Israel) has the murderous farmers executed and the property given over to “others,” undoubtedly Gentiles in the context. A one point Jesus tells the religious leaders, “[t]here will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, for you will see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God, but you will be thrown out. And people will come from all over the world – from east and west, north and south – to take their places in the Kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29-29 NLT).

Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem is in fact a humble ride on a donkey – hardly a kingly figure about to fight an occupation army! His “cleansing of the Temple” is the opportunity to rededicate it as “a house of prayer for the nations,” seizing again a prophetic word of Isaiah (56:7). Finally, when after his resurrection his disciples ask him, “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?” Diplomatically – and no doubt with a twinge of exasperation – Jesus replies, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know.” What really counts, he continues, is to spread the Good News to the whole world as witnesses of the Messiah by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is no more hint in the book of Acts, or anywhere else in the New Testament for that matter, that God will restore the political fortunes of Israel in its ancestral land. Ironically, in the most Jewish of all four gospels, Matthew has Jesus giving his “Great Commission” and ascending into heaven from Galilee, as far from Jerusalem as could be. The focus was now on the nations.

Paul in his ministry wrestled again and again with the Judaizers who were trying to make Gentiles into Jews, if they wanted to follow Jesus. On this he never wavers: salvation is through personal faith in Jesus crucified and resurrected. In Ephesians he declares that through the cross “Christ made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups” (Eph. 2:15). On another occasion, while addressing conflicts over foods to be eaten or not, Paul finally tells the Corinthian church, “For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). In the next chapter he writes, “I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him” (15:13). Just before that, in a wider context: “Live in harmony with everyone . . . Never pay back evil with more evil . . . Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone” (Rom 12:16-18 NLT).

In light of these and many other passages in scripture, how are we followers of Jesus to bless Palestinians and Israelis today? To be sure, there are many ways to do so, starting with prayer for peace and reconciliation, and then finding practical ways to help, depending on how God leads different people according to their own gifts, relationships and opportunities. But here is a useful, general guideline – in the words of the above-mentioned letter to President Bush:

As evangelical Christians, we embrace the biblical promise to Abraham: "I will bless those who bless you." (Genesis 12:3). And precisely as evangelical Christians committed to the full teaching of the Scriptures, we know that blessing and loving people (including Jews and the present State of Israel) does not mean withholding criticism when it is warranted. Genuine love and genuine blessing means acting in ways that promote the genuine and long-term well being of our neighbors. Perhaps the best way we can bless Israel is to encourage her to remember, as she deals with her neighbor Palestinians, the profound teaching on justice that the Hebrew prophets proclaimed so forcefully as an inestimably precious gift to the whole world.

And finally, when we pray for “the peace of Jerusalem,” let’s not forget that Israel today has two lungs – one Jewish and one Palestinian. Maybe in the not so distant future they’ll share the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, and as one nation they’ll inhale the life-giving oxygen of peace, justice and mutual respect.