The Issue With Trying to Understand a Conflict Older than Any of Us in 5 Minutes

I understand that what I’m about to talk about reaches across the political, religious and moral spectrum for many people. Know that I love each and every one of you who take the time to read my blog posts and that I am stepping into these waters with a healthy dose of humility. I ask for you to do so as well. Also, this post is going to be a bit long and we’re going to start out pretty heavy on the history before ending with a little light smattering of theology. So, if history is not your bag…you may want to buckle your seatbelts or just skip to the end.

With that said, I’m going to talk about the fighting that is currently going on between Israel and Palestine.

History Lesson:

In reality, this is a fight that has been going on in some form or fashion since the UN Mandate that created the modern nation of Israel in 1947. The deep roots of the fight, however, go way back into history. These roots are so deeply ingrained in the Israeli and Palestinian society/cultures that we in the West have little to no context to understand them. This is the blessed curse of having a history degree. I know that we are but a small blip, a speed bump if you will, in the slow progression of time. For example, people in the United States tend to be shortsighted about historical issues. I think this is mainly because as a country we are relatively new in the world having only been officially a nation since 1776 (1787 really if we skip the whole Articles of Confederation awkwardness). As a nation the United States has existed for a mere 238 years. For comparison Spain as a nation officially began in 1492 when the Catholic monarchs pushed out the Islamic Moors. So, there’s about 522 years of official history there. But, as a people, Spanish culture can trace way back to the Roman period in the 200’s BC so that’s like 2200+ years of history and culture.

When we start talking about the history of Palestine, the first thing to realize is that Palestine has been more of a location than a people (i.e. the Palestinians). If we’re talking about Islamic people and culture in Palestine, then we’re going back to 634 AD when Muslims conquered the area around Syria. If we dig even deeper, say to about 2000 BC, the people groups who have at various times ruled or lived in Palestine looks more like this (from Wikipedia):

Here's a breakdown of what kingdoms and peoples ruled Palestine since about 2000 BC (4000 years of history).

Here’s a breakdown of what kingdoms and peoples ruled Palestine since about 2000 BC (4000 years of history).

When we start talking about Jewish people, we’re going way back in history as well. You can see that at about the 1250-750 BC mark the Israelites and Philistine’s were in control of the area of Palestine. Followed by the Assyrian and Babylonian periods we’re probably familiar with from the Biblical narrative and then hands changed pretty often from there leading up to a long Roman/Byzantine occupation and then the Islamic period after that which leads pretty much up to modern times. Currently, the Jewish led modern state of Israel that we are all familiar has been around since 1947.

What I’m getting at is simply, the history of this tiny area we call variously as the Levant, Palestine and/or Israel near the seed bed of civilization in Mesopotamia has a long and fraught history. We can be grossly shortsighted because, well…our time in history is short. So, the tiny historian in me cringes a little when I see videos like this come across my social media feeds.

Really Mr. Prager…is it that easy to understand the conflict? Palestine and the other Islamic nations around it wants Israel dead for just existing? And that gives Israel full license to defend themselves no matter the cost because they’ve been well supported enough to fend off attacks that want to wipe them from the face of the earth? Things would just be easier if Palestine stopped fighting and laid down their arms?

Issues in this area of the world (as with MOST areas of the world) are never THAT easy.

Now, before you pick up your pitchforks let me say that I agree with most of what Mr. Prager says historically. Everything he talks about happening since the 1947 mandate is pretty much correct and as troubling as it sounds. The countries around Israel wanted Israel erased and resorted to war multiple times to try and make it happen. Israel fended them off, thanks to a lot of American and western-international support. What he fails to include is much of what happened before and completely ignore the tipped scales of the current conflict.

Map of UN Partition Plan for Palestine, adopted 29 Nov 1947, with boundary of previous UNSCOP partition plan added in green.

Map of UN Partition Plan for Palestine, adopted 29 Nov 1947.

The deeper historical issue at stake is that Western powers have a long and bloody history of involvement with the Middle East and the land around Israel. During the medieval Crusades, Western powers moved into the area to “free” the Holy Land from the hands of the Muslims who had controlled the area since the 600s and to bring in Western control and order. The conquered lands were divided up, somewhat arbitrarily, into Crusader states around 1000 AD and the Crusader rulers generally treated the locals (Jews, Muslims and even Eastern Christians) poorly. Eventually the Muslims would reorganize and push the Crusaders out and regain control of the area. Palestine would stay in Islamic hands until the Ottoman Empire would fall. The Ottoman Empire was defeated in World War I and essentially dissolved and partitioned out.  Britain was given control over Palestine by the League of Nations (the “UN” at the time) and Britain wrote a mandate in 1923 that essentially created the country of Palestine out of thin air. Aside from this seeming eerily familiar to the creation of the Crusader states, the standard rule of “history being written by the victors” is on grand display here. The goal of the mandate was to create a country where the Jews could have a homeland and could live in peace and prosperity with the other religions and cultures in the area. Which is all well and good, except that most of the Islamic nations in the area did not agree. They were not huge fans of Western powers coming in (again) and determining borders (again) and telling other countries what they could or could not do (again). Especially after World War II once the UN mandate came to the table, most of the other nations argued that it was against the basic principle of national self-determination written in the UN charter.

Britain would stay in control of the area until the previously mentioned UN mandate in 1947. The mandate provided for the slow withdrawal of British control of the area and partitioning the land between Jewish and Arab states and turning control of Palestine over the local governments. The post-World War II issue of creating a Jewish homeland was made even stronger by the atrocities of the holocaust. Many of the dispossessed and displaced Jews needed a home to return to so the fledgling modern nation of Israel became that home. However, when Britain left, things went about as well as the video explains and have been on much of the same trajectory ever since.

Theological Musings:

If you made it through the history lesson, thanks for taking the time. If you’re just here for my theology thoughts…read on.

First of all, I completely support the right of Israel to exist as a nation-state. However, this support has no basis in my theology. I do not see Israel’s right to exist as a nation-state simply because they are God’s chosen people and have any special claim to the land of Israel. I also support the right of the Palestinians to exist as a nation-state. But, the existence of a Palestinian nation-state also has no basis in my theology either. Neither Israel nor Palestine has any “special” or “divine” right to the land. I completely understand the paradox of supporting an Israeli and Palestinian state. It can probably never happen. But, I do not get the luxury of choosing one people over the other just because one happens to be in my Bible. The issue with a belief in a “divine” right for anyone is that it quickly leads to demonizing and depersonalizing those standing on the other side of the perceived divine right. When this happens, the loss of precious lives becomes statistics like this provided by the NY Times:

The Toll in Gaza and Israel, updated as of August 1 from nytimes.com.

Death becomes justified because people become “other” and not us. 1 Israeli life becomes worth 24 Palestinian deaths. I do pray for peace in Jerusalem, Israel and Palestine and wish that there were no deaths on either side but the numbers are hard to square with the easy explanation Mr. Prager has provided us with. As a nation, Israel has every right to defend itself. But, I also have to believe the Palestinians have that right as well. So, who really wants who dead in this graphic? Israel keeps fighting because indiscriminate rockets are launched into their territory putting innocent lives in danger. Palestinians continue to fight because Israel fires targeted missiles and artillery into their neighborhoods putting innocent lives in danger. What reason do the Palestinians have to lay down their arms when Israel continues to rain down missiles and artillery strikes in urban areas on or near schools (yes, plural), mosques and marketplaces? Where can the people turn for help while under siege? Shelter from the attacks on Gaza is becoming slim and power is out limiting the effectiveness of hospitals and basic sanitation in Gaza.

If I can bear my heart for a second, the tipped scales of death and threats to human life in these attacks is an abomination.

Being gay, eating shrimp, collecting grain on the sabbath and pouring pigs blood on the altar are less of an abomination than the blood crying out from the ground in Gaza right now. We’ve moved well beyond the basic rule of “eye for an eye” here.

As Christians, Jesus calls us to see beyond our national, culture and religious borders, break down barriers and see the “other” as a person loved by God just as much as we are. Christians would not support any other nation with these kind of statistics. But, somehow Israel gets a pass because of their biblical “chosenness”, their democratic ideals and history of global repression. Don’t get me wrong, the Holocaust and mistreatment of Jews throughout history was atrocious. But what we are witnessing between Gaza and Israel is quickly becoming an international, humanitarian, moral and ethical crisis.

People wounded in the strike on the school waited for treatment at a hospital in Beit Lahia. Photo by Wissam Nassar for The New York Times

People wounded in the strike on the school waited for treatment at a hospital in Beit Lahia.
Photo by Wissam Nassar for The New York Times

We do not get the luxury of deeming one life more valuable than the other. We are to steward and cherish all life as Christ has died for the whole of creation and the whole of humanity. When we say we have found our identity in Christ…we honestly have no other option but to love others regardless because that’s what Christ did. God pours out his goodness on the righteous and the unrighteous, the deserving and the undeserving. When Christians start drawing lines, defending borders, favoring one country over the other, play politics and justify violence for violence I feel we may have missed the point entirely.

In that vein, I’ll leave you with some words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.
“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.
Matthew 5:38-48 (NLT)
  • How might knowing the deeper history of the region of Palestine affect your thinking on the current conflict? Do you agree or disagree with what was said in the video?
  • Does the violence (defensive or otherwise) seem to be helping decrease the tension? Is there an alternative?
  • How might Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount address the current conflict?
  • Do Christian’s have a responsibility to support Israel or the Palestinians? Is there an alternative?
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