Saturday, October 21, 2023

What to do about Palestine?

I have, so far, rather avoided commenting on the Israeli / Palestinian conflict.  This is partly out of a concern that more or less anything I say is likely to cause offence to someone.  It’s also out of the sense of powerlessness that many of us feel about the situation.  After all, what can you or I, in here Havant, do to affect the outcome of such a major international problem?  But today’s Gospel reading, with its reference to the occupation of Palestine (as the Romans knew it), really doesn’t give me the chance of avoiding comment.  So, I plan to offer you, this morning, a bare-bones history of the land of Palestine, which also now includes the legally-constituted State of Israel.  It might feel a little bit like a lecture – but I hope you will find it helpful and useful.

But first, a personal story…35 years ago, at the tender age of 22, I had the honour to sing in Jerusalem.  It was the 40th anniversary of the founding of the modern state of Israel – and I sang at the performance of an oratorio called ‘Hear, O Israel’, by Irish composer, Cormac O-Duffy, who was an old college chum of mine.  The concert took place in an open-air amphitheatre belonging to the University of Jerusalem, with a back-drop of the Jordan Valley.  It was attended by the then Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzak Shamir. It was accompanied by a mixed choir of Christians and Jews, and led by the Israel Symphony Orchestra.  It’s something I hope I’ll never forget!

A few months later, we repeated the concert in Westminster Central Hall, for the benefit of London-based Christians and Jews.  And there is a recording of that!  So here I am, looking young and gorgeous, singing the song of Theodore Herzl.  Herzl was the leader of the Zionist Movement – and he predicted in 1897, at a Zionist Conference, that within 50 years, a State of Israel would be formed in Palestine – and he turned out to be correct.  There’s a lot to think about, but first, let me play you this clip: 

Theodore Herzl undoubtedly didn’t sing in such a rock and roll style!  But he was the most prominent leader of the Zionist movement of the late 19th century. It is important to understand the roots of Zionism.  First of all – the name.  Zionism refers to Mount Zion – a large hill just outside the Old City of Jerusalem, but a name also synonymous with the Temple Mount.  Zionism is therefore essentially about the Jewish people regaining political control of Mount Zion, and the land around it.

But before we get too deep into modern Zionism, let’s take a brief tour of ancient history.  Around 1000 BC the Hebrews (as they were then known) had conquered the land of Palestine by force, taking it from the tribes such as the Canaanites, and the Philistines (from which the word Palestine originates).  According to the ancient Scriptures, God had promised this land to Abraham, and so the descendants of Abraham through Isaac believed they had the God-given right to claim it, through force if necessary.  The trouble is that Abraham had three lines of descendants, through three different women. The Jews were descended from Abraham’s wife Sarah, through Isaac.  But Abraham had two other lines of descendents, through Hagar (Sarah’s concubine) and Keturah (who Abraham married after Sarah’s death).  The peoples of the region trace their line back through Hagar and Keturah and therefore also claim God’s promise to Abraham for themselves.

Unfortunately for both Jews and Palestinians, the land lay in a strategic corridor between Africa and the Middle East – it was a narrow part of the so-called fertile crescent – a swathe of land, amid a lot of desert, in which food can be grown.  And so, throughout history, everyone fancied a piece of it – from the Assyrians, the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Babylonians (Iraqis), the Persians (Iranians), the Macedonians, and then the Romans.  Palestine had only actually been one unified Jewish State for about 80 years, from the time of King David, a thousand years before Christ up until the Exile around 500 years later.  As this set of key dates shows, Israel split into two kingdoms about 80 years after David – and both kingdoms were then subsequently conquered.  Various overlords then had control of Palestine, right up to the time of Jesus.

The Romans finally gained control a few decades before Jesus came on the scene.  But even their fragile control came to an end within about a hundred and fifty years.  Notably in the year 70AD, the Temple in Jerusalem was razed to the ground, during one particularly bloody uprising of Jewish nationalists. Without their Temple, the Jews became scattered all around the world, into what is known as the diaspora.  

After the Roman occupation, with the Jews now scattered, Jerusalem and Palestine continued to change hands – it remained an important and valuable property – overflowing with milk and honey (as the Scriptures say).  Palestine was controlled by various political entities, including the Church, through the Crusader armies of the West, and of course the Ottoman Empire, who were largely in control for about 400 years, up until the end of the First World War, when Britain invaded and expelled the Ottoman Empire.  Between the first and second world wars, Britain was in charge, under a mandate from the League of Nations.  The mandate was intended to lead the native population to self-government and independence.  

But, under the influence of the growing Zionist movement who had gained a strong foothold in world politics, the Mandate was also committed to providing for a Jewish Homeland.  Another influence was a strain of mainly American Christianity which believed that the legal establishment of a state of Israel was a necessary pre-cursor to the return of Jesus.  But creating a new state of Israel was at significant variance with desire of the native Arabs of Palestine, who feared displacement.  After a turbulent period of conflict during the 1940s, the State of Israel was formally established in 1948.  Around 500 Palestinian towns were forcibly absorbed into the new State, and something close to a million Palestinians were pushed out into Gaza and the West Bank – an area to the East of Jerusalem, but on the West Bank of the River Jordan.

And the rest, as they say, is modern history.  The State of Israel insists – not unreasonably - on its legal right to self-governance and security, not least because of the Holocaust and many other past injustices.  That view is reinforced by those religious Jews who draw on Scripture for the promise made to Abraham.  Some Israelis, supported by their Government, are systematically occupying Palestinian land to strengthen their claim.  Palestinians, who are mainly Muslim but also containing a significant minority of Christians, state – not unreasonably - that they were there first – as Philistines and Canaanites before Kind David’s military success, as well as being also legitimate descendants of Abraham.  They – rather naturally - perceive the Jews as invaders, both historically through King David, and in modern times under the British Mandate.  These are therefore deeply rooted enmities – coloured by the fact that over the last 3,000 years, many other nations have also had administrative control of the land of Palestine. History matters, you see – it shapes ideas and attitudes that are still being played out in Palestine and Israel today.

I now regret my 22 year old decision to sing about the founding of Israel, at its 40th anniversary, and by appearing to take such an uncritical view about the founding of Israel.  I was ignorant of the real history of the land at that time – except for the fact that I knew something of the horror of the Holocaust, and I was glad that Jews now had a place of relative safety and security.  What I hadn’t realised is the significant claim of the Palestinian people on the land which has borne their name for most of the last 3,000 years.  

The question that confronts each of us today, is what to do with that complicated, highly-contested history.  How shall we respond to the horror of Hamas terrorism, and the resultant Israeli rage?  How can we play our part in establishing justice, mercy and peace for all the inhabitants of the land called Holy?

Truthfully, there is not much we can do – except that through our relative wealth, we can bless those agencies who work on the front-line of caring for everyone affected by the political and historical forces at play.  In Jesus’ words, we can render to Caesar through the honest payment of our own taxes. And we can render to God through our gifts to agencies like the Red Cross and the Anglican Church in Jerusalem (provider of the Gazan hospital that was bombed this week) who work impartially for the good of all.   We can also play our part in voting for those British politicians who demonstrate the fairest and most just understanding of all the complex forces in play.  And of course we can pray – for justice and peace: for a Kingdom of righteousness to be established on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.    

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