Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Steven E. Meyer
By Steven E. Meyer
March 2, 2015
On March 17th, Israel will hold what many commentators argue could be the most significant national election in a generation. Its significance depends not only on who wins (right-of-center Likud or left-of-center Labor), but what the winners do with the victory. Nothing will change unless the victor is willing to break the inertial slugging match that has hamstrung relations between Israel and most of the rest of the Middle East and has shaken support for Israel throughout the West. Current neck-and-neck polls reflect a fluid situation in which voters are unsure where they are going and what they want.
But why is this election and, more importantly, this period of time, so significant? The entire Middle East is changing more fundamentally than any time since the end of World War I, and the domestic environment in Israel is splintering more than at any time since its founding in 1948. Contention between religious and secular Jews, as well as between those who seek a way out of the almost constant violence and those who are willing to continue to hunker down and hammer away at Israel’s enemies is on the rise. Driven by internal and external upheaval, Israel lives today in an atmosphere of introspection, fear, and isolation and is caught in a siege mentality with a growing reputation as a regional bully.
For many American Christians, modern Israel has been a cause célèbre ever since 1948. The establishment of the State of Israel has been considered a triumph over the horror of the Holocaust; it is a moral victory for religious freedom over brutality and a definitive democratic statement in a region that knows no other democracies. But unfortunately, a large number of Christians, who erroneously cite “proof texts,” also see modern Israel as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. This interpretation has dominated American Christian discourse around one of the world’s most significant and intractable conflicts.
This detrimental perspective is less interested in the plight of Israeli Jews than it is with a radical, rapture-laden nineteenth-century interpretation of Scripture that does not square with orthodox, historic Christian belief. It is a perspective that allows the brutal actions conducted by Israel to be easily dismissed as insignificant in the grand scheme of fulfilling an apocalyptic narrative. But most importantly, this view assigns to Israel a position of unquestioned moral superiority, where its violent acts seemingly derive their authority from divine mandate. This erroneous understanding of Scripture conflicts with the Christian calling to be peacemakers, working to end conflict, because it makes the ability to see right and wrong in human actions impossible.
It is exactly this last point that makes Israel and the region so important for Christians. The conflict between Israel and its neighbors in the Levant comes as close to being hopeless as any issue on earth, and leaving it to the international diplomatic process has proven to be a disaster. This issue is one that Christians need to take seriously, not to back one side or the other, or to cling to a misunderstanding of Scripture, but to pursue peace in our day as the Lord commanded in so many parts of Scripture, “Blessed are peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)
Yet as we consider our Christian calling to be peacemakers, we need to gain a better understanding of both the historical and contemporary contours of the conflict, and the complexities that have thus far stymied international attempts to bring a peaceful solution.
The Founding of Modern Israel
While many Jews throughout the diaspora yearned for a return to a new Israel ever since the First Jewish-Roman War (66-73 AD), the first serious Zionist effort began only at the end of the nineteenth century under Theodor Herzl (1860-1904). Herzl focused on anti-Semitism, especially in Europe and Russia, and the desire for many Jews to have a homeland on the same ground their ancestors had in the Middle East. His book, The Jewish State, was an immediate success and a controversial argument for the return of Jews to Palestine.
Serious Jewish immigration began after World War I. In November 1917, the British issued the Balfour Declaration, which “looked with favor” on the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine as long as it did not compromise the rights of the non-Jews already living there. After World War II, the victorious allies strongly supported an independent Israeli state, which was approved by the United Nations in 1947 and formally established in 1948. Despite the deepening of the Cold War at this time, the United States and the Soviet Union—driven mostly by the horror of the Holocaust—agreed to support the establishment of the modern Israeli state.
The founding of modern Israel was characterized by tension between Jews dedicated to Labor Zionism with a strong commitment to economic development, and those holding to Political Zionism, which was much more concerned with the issue of legal sovereignty and Jewish political control. The Labor Zionists adhered closely to the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights and the development of the Basic Laws of Israel (Israel has no formal constitution), focusing on justice for all inhabitants. Political Zionism was itself divided between more moderate individuals and hard core, violence-prone nationalists who wanted an exclusively Jewish state and favored pushing the borders of the new Israel as far as possible.
Most adherents of both strands formally observe the rules of Judaism, but they were not—and are not—deeply religious; most are cultural/political Jews driven by non-religious motives. It was not until later in the 1960s and 1970s that the devout Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox adherents, who originally opposed the establishment of modern Israel, arrived on the scene. Now they are the most rapidly growing force in Israel and the source of increasing tension between religious and non-religious Jews. The descendants of Labor Zionism, Political Zionism and religious Jews live uneasily—and often contentiously—in contemporary Israel and are the source of much of the disquiet in the country today.
Tools of Conflict
The return of Jews to Palestine in greater numbers during the 1930s was filled with violence, terrorism, and war, not only between Jews and Arabs, but against the British authorities who were there at the direction of the League of Nations (the British Mandate). Both Jews and Arabs (including Palestinians) engaged in horrific violence to further their respective political positions. The Irgun, Lehi (the Stern Gang) and the Haganah (which later evolved into the Israeli Defense Forces) came to define the power and reality of Jewish violence. The early Palestinian Liberation Organization (until 1991), its military wing, Hamas, the Izz ad-Din al Qassam Brigade, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and others came to define the power and reality of Palestinian and Arab violence. Additionally, five major wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors between 1948 and 1982, as well as conflicts between Israel and Lebanon, Hezbollah, and Hamas in more recent years have further poisoned any hope of permanent peace and a political understanding.
Both sides in this brutal affair have used whatever strategy, tactics, and weapons they have had access to at various times. In the beginning, both emigrating Jews and resident Palestinians and Arabs did not have modern, large-scale military equipment, uniforms, advanced tactics, or the all-important designation as “legitimate” military forces—the terrorist forces on both sides were deemed illegal. So they used what they had and relied on the weapons and strategies of terror (mostly bombings, assassinations, and mass killings). This has changed today. Israel now is recognized as a state, and it possesses—mostly because of US help—modern weapons, training, and legitimacy. The Palestinians have none of this. As in the past, today each side uses what it has at its disposal, and no matter the “tools,” both sides engage in incredible violence, are guilty of atrocities, and have blood on their hands.
Since the collapse of peace talks last spring and the violence last summer between Israel and Hamas, tensions have gotten worse and the two sides are even further apart. Israel has become more insular and withdrawn, frustration has built among the Palestinians, and anger rises on both sides. It has become a contest of two scorpions in a bottle—a militarily strong state that is becoming stuck in its self-righteous, narrow understanding of its own region and a misguided notion of the solutions that will ensure its own survival, and a stateless, stubborn people who resent their plight, subservience, poverty, and lack of sovereignty. Sixty years of war, terrorism, and failed attempts to establish a stable, peaceful working relationship seem to have reached a tipping point.
Legislation has been introduced in the Knesset to remove Arabic as a national language in Israel and politicians on the right are talking about ways to reduce the number of Palestinians in the country. Perhaps one of the most menacing indicators for Israel has been a steady shift in opinion among Israel’s youth which traditionally has been more open to reconciliation than the older generation. According to recent polls conducted by the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz, sixty percent of Israeli youth between fifteen and twenty-four believe that security and the “Jewishness” of the state should define Israel and prefer “strong rulers” over the rule of law. Seventy percent believe that state security needs should have precedence over democratic values, and support for “living in peace” with neighbors has fallen over the past decade from twenty-eight percent to eighteen percent.
The “two-state” solution—a bedrock part of almost all peace plans—has been losing support in Israel, especially among leaders on the right. For many of them, it has become a dead issue. Israeli settlements continue to be a major stumbling block between Israel and the Palestinians, with Israel continuing to build thousands of apartments and houses in the West Bank and Jerusalem in defiance of all Western and U.N. pressure to end the settlement policy. These settlements not only take land claimed by the Palestinians, but increasing numbers of Israeli politicians refer to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria, thereby justifying Israeli claims to the West Bank as part of the Old Testament kingdom. This strikes at the heart of the fundamental argument that the West Bank constitutes the territory that would define a future Palestinian state.
Conditions in Palestinian-controlled territory have added to the deteriorating situation and have increased Israel’s isolation, frustration, and anger. In January, Palestinian authorities moved to join the International Criminal Court as a way to prosecute Israel for “atrocities” perpetrated in Gaza last summer. Israel has retaliated by withholding about $127 million in taxes that it collects for the Palestinian Authority (a procedure established by the 1993 Oslo Accords)—a move that ultimately could drive the Palestinians toward bankruptcy and a greater propensity for violence on both sides.
Europe and the United States have added to tensions in the region and to Israel’s growing isolation. The Europeans have become strong supporters of the Palestinians and several European states have withdrawn economic and financial aid to Israel, scaled back trade, and condemned heavy-handed Israeli military action. Consequently, European policies have enabled Palestinian violence and compelled Israel to dig in deeper.
American efforts to bring peace to the region have been pusillanimous and conflicted. Congress—the heartbeat of American support for Israel—stymies the meager efforts by Republican and Democratic administrations alike to force even the mildest restrictions on both sides, thereby emboldening Israeli intransigence and reinforcing Palestinian resentment. Most recently, the House of Representatives has invited Prime Minister Netanyahu to address Congress on March 3 just before the Israeli election. This not only seems designed by the House leadership to affect the outcome of the Israeli election, but it intrudes into the realm of foreign policy, normally the prerogative of the executive branch.
Peacemaking and Principled Pluralism
The Israeli-Palestinian (Arab) issue is a particularly appropriate peacemaking challenge for Christians. For one, the church has been intimately entwined with the region for centuries as the place of origin of the Gospel. However, the ongoing tensions and conflicts there have led to the dispersal of Arab Christians and the decline of the church. Of the three major religions that claim Jerusalem as a special place, only Christianity lacks a concrete role in its governance. Christians should have a vested interest in peace in the Middle East and a desire to rebuild Christian influence. Christians should have a stake in the outcome of peace efforts, including a role in the administration of Jerusalem. Although placing Jerusalem under international control benefits Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, Christians have been forced to back off because of heavy pressure from Jews and Muslims. This has created additional hurdles to overcome for Christians contributing to peacemaking.
Secondly, the lack of peace in the Levant is now one of the most dangerous and long-running crises in modern times. Characterized by almost perpetual violence, stubborn arrogance by the protagonists, and staggering incompetence by Western state institutions, the region likely will not heal without the concerted effort of the Christian community.
It is here that principled pluralism can potentially provide an excellent rubric under which to move forward. According to principled pluralism, we are called to work toward “equal treatment of different communities of faith” by government and in society. We need to help bring peace between Jews and Palestinians/Arabs not by surrendering our Christian principles, but by employing and verifying them. It is time for Christians to engage in a major way by encouraging and organizing such efforts as educating Christians in peacemaking, praying diligently for peace, bringing together secular and religious organizations that focus on peacemaking, proposing policies that bring peace, issuing public statements and position papers, and holding discussions with leaders in the region. None of this will be easy. But it will be rooted in orthodox Christian belief.
As Christian counselor and minister Peggy Haymes reminds us, “Avoiding conflict is not peacemaking. Avoiding conflict means running away from the mess while peacemaking means running into the middle of it. Peacemaking can never be separated from justice. Peacemaking means having to stir the waters on the way to peace. Peacemaking means speaking the truth in love, but speaking the truth nonetheless.”
Reflection and Discussion Questions:
- What should be the approach of Christians to the modern state of Israel?
- How might US policy change toward Israel to encourage an end to the conflict?
- What are some practical ways that Christians can engage with peacemaking endeavors in the Middle East and in support of the indigenous Arab church?
- Steven E. Meyer is a formal intelligence professional and a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”