updated June 2, 2021
The author of this blog reflection acknowledges that the wars and conflicts in the Middle East in general and in Palestine in particular are complicated, often nuanced, with varying interpretations within both the Jewish Israeli and Arab Palestinian communities. This reflection offers a perspective that is often neglected or unheard of by Americans and American Christians. Hopefully, it will serve to provide further understanding in support of both the Israeli and Palestinian communities as well as to outsiders looking in.
The Nations of Israel and Palestine have captured international attention again in May. Fighting between the Israeli army and Hamas lasted for eleven straight days and inflicted massive casualties both in human life and in property damage before a cease fire was agreed on for May 21.
As a person who aims to follow Jesus’ mission and the kind of life that Jesus talked about, I am persuaded to believe that both Israelis and Palestinians matter, and should matter, to anyone who identifies as a Christian. According to Jesus, all people have unsurpassable worth. No exceptions.
This is why Christian Zionist claims that God supports Israel and the Israeli government no matter what they do, including how they treat Palestinians, is actually antithetical to who Jesus was and what Jesus stood for.
To find out why, keep reading. But I ask one thing. Please keep an open mind and open heart before you do.
My Christian Zionist Upbringing
From a very young age, I was taught that the ancient Hebrews were God’s special people. As God’s special people, God had promised to bless their descendants. Part of this promise included giving the Hebrews a large plot of land. This land was called Canaan, The Promised Land.
Fast forward a few hundred years: after being freed from Egyptian slavery under the leadership of Moses, the Hebrews eventually inhabited The Promised Land and renamed it Israel. But because of their ongoing idolatry, forsaking the Sabbath laws and other grievous sins forbidden in the Law during the time of Israel’s monarchy, God allowed other nations to take control of their land and force them into exile.
The prophets of Israel and Judah spoke and wrote about a future time when God would return Israel to their land. The people of Israel did eventually return, but they never succeeded to self-govern themselves outside of the oversight of another empire or nation.
This is where the idea of Christian Zionism comes into play. Christian Zionism assumes everything I just mentioned above but goes further to say that the reestablishment of the nation of Israel, which happened in 1948, was a fulfillment of Biblical prophecies.
Christian Zionists also assert that anything (or most anything) that Israel does to protect it’s national interests militarily is supported and blessed by God. After all, for them, the reestablishment of Israel was according to Biblical prophecy, so God must support (it’s argued) any action done by Israel to protect itself no matter what. The claim coincides with another belief that Christian Zionists hold to–that Jerusalem, the capitol of ancient Israel, will be the location of the second coming of Jesus.
But does the Zionist movement in any of its forms actually help or hurt the nation of Israel long-term? And what about the Palestinian people who have lived within East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza for many generations? How has Zionism affected them since the reestablishment of the nation of Israel? And for Christians who support Zionism, how has this support helped or hurt our faith and our witness around the world (particularly with Muslims and Muslim nations)? And, of course, is there anything we can gleam from Jesus and his teaching that might shed some light on any of these questions?
To these questions we will turn.
The Diaspora (the dispersion of the Jewish people)
When the nation of Israel was reestablished in 1948, there was a very large number of Palestinian Arabs already living there. In fact, less than half of the total population were actually Jewish. Why?
Over the last three thousand years, going back to the time of their ancestors, Jewish families have fled their homeland numerous times. Often times, it was due to religious persecution. Other times it was due to economic and political oppression from nearby nation states. In fact, the Jewish people and their Hebrew ancestors have endured numerous empires who conquered their nation, used their land for its natural resources and for its convenient trade route into Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe and for slave labor. The Jewish people have also returned to their homeland at numerous points in history as well.
During times of dispersion (or the Diaspora), nearby people groups would then occupy the land in their absence. One of the enduring ethnic groups who remained were Arabs. By the 20th century, Arabs who lived in the land identified as Palestinians, named after a portion of the land during Roman occupation (Palestine).
Fast forward to the last hundred and thirty years.
Modern Day Israel
In the late 19th and early 20th century, there was a growing Zionist movement among European and Russian Jews to return to their former homeland (The Promised Land), the land they once inhabited and governed as a nation. This was in large part due to the antisemitism they were experiencing across Europe and Russia.
In 1920, in support of the Jewish people, the League of Nations issued the Mandate for Palestine granting the United Kingdom the authority to reestablish “a Jewish national homeland.” The UK oversaw this process for the next twenty years within Palestine.
Then, after the horrendous murder of over six million Jews under the direction of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime in the 1930s and early 40s, the United Nations (formerly known as the League of Nations) decided to push forward plans for the Jewish homeland. Aware of growing tensions between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, the UN recommended that Palestine be partitioned into two states, an “independent Jewish state and an independent Arab state.”
Initially, the majority of the Jewish leadership in Palestine accepted the proposal, but the Arab Palestinian leadership did not. Up until this point in history, Arab Palestinians had feared that an increase in the Jewish population in the land would also mean a gradual reduction in Palestinian rights and livelihood leading ultimately to “political domination” under the Jews. Some Jewish agencies and individuals, however, opposed the two-state solution advocating, instead, a one-state solution between Jews and Arab Palestinians. To complicate matters further, when the Jewish council in Palestine met privately to discuss their plans for Israel’s statehood, there was disagreement over where the borders would be (in the tradition of the United States when the founding fathers declared independence from Great Britain without first defining what their borders would be–ultimately affecting the lives of countless Native Americans). Then on May 14, 1948, Israel declared itself an independent state, which Arab Palestinians and other Arab nations took as an act of war. Palestinians’ desire for their own state was ignored, granted they had rejected the two-state solution.
In fact, between the years of 1947-1949, some 726,000 Palestinians fled or were forced by Israeli forces to leave their homes. Palestinians refer to this mass exodus of their people as the Nakba (the Catastrophe). Remember, Palestinians had lived in the land of Palestine for generations, perhaps hundreds of years. For them, the land that is now referred to as the state of Israel was their homeland, and it was taken from them. Not only this, but the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes by the Israeli government has been reoccurring off and on over the last seventy years.
Ever since this decision of Israel to declare statehood, there have been ongoing wars and conflicts between Israel and Arab nations, including the Palestinian Authority.
In my formative years growing up under the influence of American Christian Zionism, I was not taught some of this, particularly that Palestinians might have a reasonable case for staying in the land.
I was also taught that the nation of Israel was always the victim during the latter half of the 20th century, and that Arab nations, like the State of Palestine (as well as other predominantly Muslim nations), were always the aggressors.
As I already mentioned, the Jewish people and their ancestors have (without question) experienced horrendous persecution over the last two thousand years and near annihilation in Europe in the mid 1900s. I am not downplaying this. I believe the Holocaust actually happened. At the same time, I must also acknowledge that over the last seventy years, the nation of Israel has demonstrated numerous times that they, at least at times, have been the aggressor in the Middle Eastern conflicts.
That may be hard to believe if you were taught different. I can understand this dilemma. It was difficult to hear the first time it was presented to me. My recommendation, if it is hard to hear, is to reread the history of modern Israel and Palestine.
Another thing I had previously been taught was that the wars and conflicts in the Middle East were wars of religion as if to say they are purely about religious differences or power plays between two religions–either as Judaism versus Islam (or perhaps Judaism & Christianity versus Islam). While it’s true that religion plays a large part, it must be understood that any religious hostility between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians is directly connected to very real concerns like–
- Ancestral rights
- Human rights
- Lack of compassion
While the two-state solution was initially supported by the Jewish leadership of Palestine in the early days leading up to the declaration of Israel’s independence, it has increasingly been looked down on with suspicion over the years. This, in addition to the ongoing Nakba (the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes), must be acknowledged as key components to the ongoing hostility between Israeli and Palestinian peoples.
The Israeli-Hamas War of 2021
The Israeli-Hamas War in May is the most recent of many wars and flare ups between the Israeli army and Palestinian militant groups like Hamas over the last seventy years. And like many of the previous wars, there are always trigger points.
In the weeks and months leading up to the war, a number of Palestinian families, who had lived in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem for many generations, were ordered by the Israeli Court to leave their homes by May 2 to make room for new Jewish settlements.
Strictly speaking, when any government made up of one predominant ethic group forces a minority ethnic group or nation out of its home of heritage to make room for the predominant group, this is typically referred to as occupation and colonization.
On Friday May 7, the final day of Ramadan, tens of thousands of Muslims worshippers (including Palestinians) filled the Al-Aqsa Mosque to pray.
Side Note: Ramadan is for Muslims what Lent and Easter are for Christians and what Yom Kippur is for Jews (the holiest of all events on the religious calendar).
After the time of prayer, some Muslim worshippers who came to pray stayed to protest the recent decision of the Israeli Court to expel Palestinian families from their neighborhood. On Monday May 10th, Israeli forces showed up at the mosque to break up the crowd by firing rubber coated bullets and grenades at protesters (see images). If you are a Christian, consider what this would be like for you had it happened at church on Sunday. If you are a Jew, consider what this would be like for you had it happened at synagogue on Sabbath day.
Hamas warned Israel that if they did not remove their forces by 6 pm that evening, they would retaliate. This is what they did and the war ensued for eleven straight days.
For those entirely new to this information, I understand this may be hard to hear. Unfortunately, these kinds of actions executed by Israel’s government toward the Palestinian people has been going on for some time. Palestinians have been systematically pressured and forced to leave their homes by the Israeli government in order to make room for Jewish Israeli families off and on over the last sixty to seventy years.
What this does and does not mean
I am suggesting that the stories of the ancient Hebrews (the Jewish people) and the ancient Arabic people (and Muslims in general) is a bit more complicated than many of us Christians were raised to believe (if we do the hard work of familiarizing ourselves with their history).
I am suggesting that neither ethnic people groups has more nor less of a divine right to be in Palestine than the other. Their shared history in Palestine demonstrates that things are a bit more complicated than that.
I am not claiming that the war violence inflicted by Hamas on Israelis was excusable.
I am also not claiming that the war violence inflicted by the Israeli army on the Palestinian people is excusable either.
Let’s put things into perspective: a total of 227 Palestinians died, including 64 Palestinian children. In contrast, there were 12 Israelis who died, including one child. There was an additional 1,620 wounded Palestinians and hundreds of Israelis wounded. Previous wars between the Israeli army and Hamas, like in 2014, demonstrate an even worse disproportionality of casualties between Palestinian civilians and Jewish Israeli citizens.
The recent 11 day war between Israel and Hamas is simply one more example of why Zionist claims are hurting, more than helping, Israel.
Are there violent extremists among the Palestinians? Yes. Are there also violent extremists among Jewish Israelis? Yes.
Are there also good-hearted Jewish Israelis and Palestinians who want peace and desire good will toward one another? Also yes.
Four Problems with Christian Zionism
Understanding the shared history of Jewish Israelis and Palestinians in the land suggests that Christian Zionism is very short-sided and entirely misses the point of Jesus’ mission for at least four reasons.
First, Zionism (whether Jewish or Christian) assumes that God is the kind of being who accomplishes his will through violence and conquest, even if that means taking land from one group of people and giving it to another. The story recorded in the Bible says this very thing. According to the Canaan Mandate recorded in Old Testament books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and Joshua God commanded the ancient Hebrews to go into the land of Canaan, completely annihilate the inhabitants, make it their own so that they could have a place to worship their God. Yes this is in the Bible.
It’s because of this Biblical narrative that people have gone a step further to assume that modern day Israelis can then do whatever they want in the Land and treat non-Jewish persons living there however they want because (AFTER ALL!) God had given it to their ancestors a few thousand years ago.
Please, stop for a moment to think about that line of thinking long and hard if that is what you believe.
Zionism in it’s most extreme measures assumes that conquest, annihilation and possession are completely ok and that God is the kind of being who finds this acceptable.
How is the violent conquest of one religious group or nation by another religious group or nation ever morally acceptable? And why should this ever be “evidence” that your religion is true or right or good? In ancient societies, that logic may have worked superficially for a few thousand years, but it only worked because it drove fear and terror into one’s enemies. Other nations assumed the victor’s god (or gods) must be fighting for them.
But how is driving fear and terror into one’s enemies ever a good thing? How is it ever a long-term method for sustaining a peaceful future for your nation or our world? How is it even close to an admirable way of demonstrating excellent leadership to other nations or religions?
Quick Side note: the ancient Hebrews were not the only ancient nation or people who had stories about gods (or goddesses) who led them to conquer, enslave and, at times, annihilate other inhabitants or nations, possess their lands and to do it all in the name of their gods.
Second, yes it is true that the Hebrew Scriptures (and the Christian Old Testament) portray the God of Israel as commanding military violence, but these portraits are in stark contrast to how Jesus portrayed God. They are also in stark contrast with how Jesus modeled true leadership and the kind of life he believed God is pleased by.
A good and honest read through Jesus’ sermon on the Mount demonstrates as much. Jesus’ teaching in that sermon is a dramatic reversal of so many previously held violent portraits of God and commands of God found in the Old Testament, particularly as they relate to the Canaan mandate. Considering this possibility may affect your view or understanding of Biblical inerrancy, but so be it. If you want to be faithful to Jesus, you have to deal with that very real contrast. For those who claim to follow Jesus but ignore his directives (i.e. commands), can you really claim to follow him?
Third, the Jewish Christian authors of the New Testament shifted their focus entirely away from the ancient narrative of conquering, possessing and maintaining the Promised Land of Israel to following Jesus and his mission by going into all the world (not just one secluded location) to share the good news and do what Jesus taught. And his greatest commandments were to love God fully and to love your neighbor as yourself. Love of God and love of neighbor was the proof that you understood God’s love and that his love had worked itself inside you to the point where you began sharing it with others.
And on that note of loving your neighbor, Jesus also taught his followers to love their enemies. Jesus was a pacifist who believed that non-violence was God’s way of responding to violence or persecution; not more violence or persecution! Non-violence, for Jesus, was a holy and powerful act of loving your enemies as people whom God also loves. Turning your other cheek and going the extra mile were not figures of speech. They were commands to love in action.
And whereas the Old Testament narrative had focused on worshipping God in a particular place (the Promised Land), the New Testament focused on demonstrating one’s worship in all places and all times no matter where one lives. Whereas the Old Testament Canaan Mandate focused on the violent narrative of conquest, possession and maintenance of the Promised Land, the New Testament focused on humble service, giving up selfish living and working to bless and heal all people groups and nations of the world and to do so in the name of the Jewish Messiah Jesus.
Fourth, if the above three points I made are true, then making claims that God always blesses the actions of the state of Israel or Israel’s government no matter what–even if that means that Israel should take over Palestinian lands and homes because it was Israel’s land first–is antithetical to the mission of Jesus. In fact, it’s anti to what Jesus was all about.
So what’s a practical solution for Israelis and Palestinians?
Probably something that involves finding ways to…
- humanize one another
- taking time to listen to one another’s stories and learn from one another
- spending time eating together (food has a way of softening people’s hearts)
- letting your children play together
- taking the time to find ways to come together on common goals
Maybe then, and only then, will the issue of what to do about lands and homes and governments become clearer.
But until this happens, pressure on Israel by the international community for the fair treatment of the Palestinian people is a must.
Everything Changes with Jesus
The point is this…Jesus’ mission to go into all the world and share the good news forces us to reconsider the claims of Christian Zionism (or any interpretation of Zionism that includes persecuting, removing or killing Palestinians). Anti-Palestinian rhetoric is simply antithetical to Jesus’ mission, just as antisemitism is toward the Jewish people.
Both are wrong. Both must be condemned.
It’s time to stand in support and kneel in prayer for both Israelis and Palestinians.
Not one more than the other.
In fact, it’s been long overdue.