Opinion: Being pro-Jesus on Israel-Palestine

Apr 27, 2015 by

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There is a growing concern among evangelical Christians for the conflict in Israel-Palestine. Prominent leaders such as Lynn Hybels of Willow Creek Church and Gary Burge of Wheaton College are visiting the Holy Land, learning firsthand about the conflict and returning home with a passionate call to do something about it. They are also returning with a deeper understanding of the conflict’s causes and imbalances and the ways the Bible has been used to perpetuate it.

A primary example of the latter is the belief that God commands us to support the state of Israel without question or condition. “Whoever blesses you I will bless, and whoever curses you I will curse,” God declares in Genesis 12.

However, the “you” is not Israel, let alone the modern state of Israel. It is Abraham, whom God intended to be a blessing to all nations and who became the father not just of Judaism but of Christianity and Islam.

A second example is the belief that Palestine rightfully belongs to modern Israel because God promised it to them. Often overlooked is the conditionality of God’s promise: It depended on biblical Israel’s faithfulness to God’s covenant.

Over and over, the biblical prophets chided Israel for its unfaithfulness, particularly its lack of justice for the oppressed. The prophets, in other words, were pro-Israel, but that didn’t stop them from naming injustice when they saw it. (For a thorough, biblical analysis of this issue, read Burge’s Whose Land, Whose Promise?)

Jesus was pro-people, pure and simple. He wanted the best for everyone. But he also wanted the best from everyone. And so he didn’t hesitate to confront injustice when he saw it. One could even argue that he took sides — with the poor and oppressed, just as the prophets and the Torah did before him.

Becoming the oppressors

Many Israeli Jews — particularly their European forebears who experienced the Holocaust — know all too well what it is like to be oppressed and persecuted. They are understandably determined that it never happen again.

But visitors to the Holy Land, if they look closely enough, discover an awful irony. The oppressed have become the oppressors and the persecuted the persecutors.

The victims are the Palestinian Arabs (both Christian and Muslim) who had been living in historic Palestine long before the Jewish immigrants began arriving — displacing the Palestinians, destroying their villages and declaring an Israeli state.

Palestinians who remained in Israel must now live as second-class citizens. Those who fled eastward now live under military occupation, their movements severely restricted, their olive groves destroyed, their water sources seized by the thousands of Israeli settlers living illegally in the West Bank. Those who fled to the area known as Gaza live in what many call an open-air prison.

In 2009, Palestinian Christian leaders wrote a letter known as “Kairos Palestine” to Christians in the West, pleading not just for our prayers but our attention, compassion and help. Meanwhile, the U.S. government continues to support Israel militarily and without condition, giving scant attention to the humanitarian plight of the Palestinian people.

If we follow Jesus’ example, we will be pro-people. We will want the best for everyone. We will remember that in God’s economy, everyone should be able to live without fear, beneath their own vine and fig tree — including both Israelis and Palestinians (Micah 4:3-4).

We will denounce violence, whether committed by Israelis or Palestinians. We will work for peace with justice for all of Israel-Palestine. But if we follow Jesus, we must stand up especially for the oppressed and hold the oppressors accountable to the standard of living and loving required by God.

Tom Harder is co-pastor of Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church in Wichita, Kan., and chair of the Mennonite Palestine-Israel Network (Menno-PIN) Steering Committee.

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  • Isaac Rubinson

    Your analysis fails at so many levels. First is the stereotype that Israeli Jews are Europeans. You forget (or perhaps you just didn’t know) that about 50% of Israeli Jews are descendants of the nearly one million Jews essentially ethnically cleansed from 10 Arab countries before, during and after 1948. It would be important for you to speak out for their rights to redress. And please, don’t say that they, too, have a right to return. Just what would they return to? ISIS in Syria and Iraq? The Houthies in Yemen? The civil wars in Libya and Syria? Christians and other minorities are being slaughtered in those lands today. Ironically, the safest place in the region for both Jews and Christians alike is in Israel. All this is beside the point as the descendants of these Jewish refugees from Arab and other Islamic lands are fully integrated Israeli citizens and have no desire to live in any of the countries from whence their parents or grandparents fled.

    Likewise, the tautological formula you present, “The oppressed have become the oppressors and the persecuted the persecutors” ignores so many layers of Middle East history. Have you ever applied this formula to the Arab peoples themselves? A formerly colonized people who, once attaining power in 22 states, began in a number of instances to oppress non-Arabs and non-Muslims. Need I rehearse this grim history here? Just the example I gave of how nearly 99% of the Arab world’s Jews were forced out of their homes by Arab governments should be enough. But, just look at the Iraqi Arab genocide of the Kurds in the 1980s as another example, or the systematic discrimination by Arab governments against Berbers in North Africa.

    Or, we can look closer to home regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and examine the Palestinian nationalists of the 19030s and 40s who sided with Nazi Germany, including overtly supporting the genocide against the Jews of Europe as well as attempted genocide of the Jews of the Middle East in Tunisia where there were concentration camps set up by the occupying Nazis and Iraq where pro-Nazi Arab nationalists ousted the pro-British government in 1941 which culminated in a massacre of hundreds of Jews in Baghdad and Basra. This Palestinian-Nazi collaboration is extensively documented and it should inform anyone who has an interest in learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a factual manner.

    Another failure is that your argumentation may convince your fellow Christians, but would fail if presented to a Jewish audience. Theologically, the idea that Abraham is also the spiritual father of Christianity and Islam is very thin ice to skate on, at best. To expect Jews to accept this you would be asking them to turn their backs on their own religion and accept the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps as a Christian you may indeed think that is precisely what Jews ought to do. If so, than such thinking is part of the problem, not solution.

    Perhaps the largest failure of your piece is the inconvenient truth that the war of 1947-49 was begun by the very same Palestinian nationalists who spent World War 2 in Berlin collaborating with the Nazis. They rejected all attempts at compromise by the international community, opting instead for violence in the belief that they would emerge victorious by pushing the Jews into the sea. The Arab League invasion in May 1948 was war, plain and simple. It is certainly true that everywhere Palestinian and other Arab forces were victorious, the Jewish population suffered expulsion and/or massacre. Palestinians committed numerous atrocities against the Jews before and during the 1948 war.

    You want to be pro-Jesus and use the morality preached by Jesus, the Prophets and the Torah to bash Israel. You fail to hold Palestinians accountable for their atrocious actions, for their national movement’s extremism and rejectionism, for their violence.

    As a Jew and an Israeli one at that, you failed to reach me. You failed speak to my concerns, my fears. You point your finger, you blame me exclusively. You forget that Israel is a very small country that has no strategic depth and what we see just over our borders truly is frightening. I should not need to rehearse the atrocities of the Syrian civil war, the horror of ISIS, or Iran’s daily threats to destroy while building the nuclear means to do so. You don’t seem to know or care that Hezbollah — Iran’s proxy — has over 100,000 missiles and rockets pointed at us Israeli civilians, threatening to fire them off at our cities and towns.

    What would Jesus say about all this? I wouldn’t know from you that Jesus would say anything. Where is your finger pointing moral indignation when it comes to all that? Or, are you j ust bent out of shape at “the Jews”?

    • berryfriesen

      Oh my, Isaac, with all due respect, you have been reading too many government news releases and too much propaganda from groups that want Israel to be “the Jewish state.” For honest accounts of the contested history of Israel, I suggest Shlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People” and Ilane Pappe’s “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.” These are respected Israeli authors; there are others, to be sure.

      The website Mondoweiss is excellent for current reporting and commentary; I highly
      recommend it to you. A September 16, 2012 article, “Israeli hasbara effort– ‘Justice
      for Jewish refugees from Arab countries’– gets pushback from Baghdadi Jews”
      discusses the history of Jews relocating from Middle Eastern countries to Israel. Please also read the longer articles sourced via the links in the Mondoweiss article.

      Another helpful website that avoids government talking points is Jewish Voice for Peace.

      Regarding Palestinian collaboration with Nazi Germany, I recommend Lawrence Davidson’s recent essay, “Anti-Islam Hate in City of Brotherly Love” at ConsortiumNews dot com. Davidson describes the context for the Palestinian decision—the pursuit of Palestinian independence from the colonial rule of the Brits. Thus, during WW2, the Palestinians formed an alliance with Great Britain’s enemies.

      Regarding Daesh (ISIS), I have been encouraged by comments from senior Israeli security sources that Israel has nothing to fear. So long as Israel stays within its borders, it likewise has nothing to fear from Hezbollah. As for the war in Syria,the New York Times has quoted officials of the Israeli government to the effect that they want it to continue! Sad to say, the US government has adopted the same approach to Syria and Iraq, although without admitting it in the way Israel’s government has.

      Many contemporary events— such as the current Israeli’s government’s collaboration with al-Qaeda in southern Syria, its alliance with the repressive and terror-supporting regime in Saudi Arabia, its threats to attack Iran, and its fear-mongering about its Arab citizens exercising the right to vote—are discouraging, equally so to citizens of the US because our own government is so closely aligned with those same policies.. But we the people of Israel and the US can do better, and as YHWH is our help, better days are coming, especially as we turn away from the propaganda that has enabled Israel’s recklessness over the past 50 years.

  • Scott R. Troyer

    Thank you so much for your commitment to peace, Tom. I especially appreciate how you hold everyone accountable for their part in the struggle when you say “we will denounce violence, whether committed by Israelis or Palestinians.” In the face of a long and complicated history, we as a society should not forget about the poor and the oppressed, whatever their neighbors or ancestors might have done. There are probably everyday Israeli citizens out there who are also repulsed by violence and injustice and are acting towards peace. All people deserve dignity and justice.

  • Isaac Rubinson

    First, I’m an Israeli and I live in the Galil, so don’t pretend to know more about Israel than I do. I deeply resent your assertion that all I am doing is repeating “government talking points.” is that the best you can do? Be utterly dismissive of what I said, refuse to address my points and pretend that all they are are talking points from the Israeli government? Seriously? Me? I voted for the Left in the last election.

    I could, or perhaps should ask, whose talking points are you repeating? Could it be that you are parroting the talking points of a particular nationalist movement that is promoting its own version of history?

    If the best you can do is cite Shlomo Sand, Ilan Pape, Mondoweiss and JVP, then I’m afraid you are listening to an echo chamber of the most radical left fringes of the Jewish world. Sand and Pappe are anything but well respected in Israel. They are a tiny fringe who have learned how to gain access to a Western audience by publishing in English. Save for a few fringe elements here in Israel, they have no constituency and no following.

    I also find your dismissal of the Mufti’s collaboration with Nazi Germany to be utterly immoral. There is no excuse. NO excuse for the Palestinian collaboration with the Nazi regime in its genocide of the Jews. To belittle that collaboration as nothing more than “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is a gross moral failing on your part. The Mufti was an avowed antisemite, a Nazi collaborator who was wanted by Yugoslavia for war crimes after the war. Such is the father of Palestinian nationalism.

    If you so easily dismiss the role of the Palestinian leadership with Nazi Germany, I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised then that you would also dismiss Iran’s constant threats to destroy Israel. These threats are clear, and occur weekly. This is the same Iran that murdered 85 people at the Jewish community center of Buenos Aires in the 1990s. Or, perhaps that doesn’t matter to you? What’s another dead Jew or a dozen?

    But, Jewish lives matter.

    As for Israel “collaborating” with IS. Where did you get that from? Assad’s talking points? Hezbollah’s talking points? Teheran’s talking points? It is absurd to think that Israel would or could collaborate with IS. The IS is a genocidal movement, deeply antisemitic, and there is no commonality between us and them.

    Clearly you are on a path to delegitimize my country, my right as a Jew to national sovereign equality. Of course, I cannot claim such a right without acknowledging the right of Palestinians to the same. I want there to be a State of Palestine. I do not support this government, especially now. But, I distinguish between the government and the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. Despite the likes of Sand, Pappe or JVP, we will not go back to being a scattered powerless minority vulnerable to genocide. No sir. No sir. No sir.

    • berryfriesen

      I am reminded of the words of the prophet, Jeremiah, spoken at the end of Judah’s long and failed experiment to play the imperial game: “They deceive their neighbors and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongues to speak lies; they commit iniquity and are too weary to repent” (9:5).

      I am speaking not only of the false narratives of “poor, beleaguered Israel”
      spread abroad by a state armed by nuclear weapons, guided missiles and the latest in firepower and technology, but also of the propaganda-driven reality here in the USA. Just as Israel’s top security officials openly admit that Israel has nothing to fear from anyone in its neighborhood, including al-Qaeda and Daesh (an admission confirmed by the fact that Israel has never been attacked by those organizations), so the USA has nothing to fear in the post-Soviet Union world.

      But of course, that will never do! If the common people were not afraid, they may tire of political and economic system that enriches and empowers the few and leaves the rest of us in ever more dire circumstances. Teaching our tongues to speak lies is the elite’s solution to that dilemma. Thus, both in Israel and in the USA, we live in the grip of deceit, or at least many of us do.

      (Yes, I know about the primitive, unguided missiles launched out of Gaza in response to the IDF’s many provocations, those rockets can cause real harm. Here in the US we have terror plots, often assembled by FBI informants who provide technical know-how to confused and incompetent men. Those plots also cause real harm on occasion. Your rockets and our terror plots serve to win popular support for the war machine, but neither is a serious threat to the states you and I live in.)

      In this morass, YHWH is our hope. YHWH opposes empires, opposes deceit, opposes injustice. As YHWH is our help, more and more people are turning away from the false narratives and noticing the facts on the ground. The IDF’s recent war crime in Gaza is one such fact, as are the USA’s destruction of very Middle Eastern states (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria) which practiced Western values of tolerance, religious and ethnic pluralism and broadly-based social/economic development. Israel’s and the USA’s cozy relationship with the most repressive, cruel and autocratic state in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia) is another fact that speaks for itself.

      Isaac, I understand why someone with your worldview dislikes Hezbollah and Iran. They do indeed serve as a check on aggressive and expansionist policies.

      And to end on a note of agreement, yes, Jewish lives matter and, if you will stay with me a bit longer, Israeli lives matter, and even more boldly, Palestinian lives matter.

  • Al Longenecker

    I must weigh in. The views expressed by the author of this piece and his supporters is a direct result of failed and persistently wrong theology / eschatology. When early Anabaptists reacted to the grossly insane actions at Muenster , Germany ,1535 or there about, they regressed to the Augustinian amillennial theology/ eschatology mode. That includes the fulfillment view that says that God is ,for all practical purposes , done with the Jewish people. The steady drumbeat of almost all of Christiandom has followed this path. Hence Luther, Hitler and present day anti Jewish/Israel positions.
    Unfortunately many Mennonites are unknowingly endorsing the next holocaust. A long read of Dr Michael Brown’s book ” Our hands are stained with blood” is helpful in understanding the consequences of bad theology . S

    • Bruce Leichty

      Whose theology is bad? Too many Mennonites have joined a throng of modern-era Book-centered Christians in blinding accepting that those who clamor to call themselves Jews are in fact the inheritors of the promises of the Old Testament. This is sheer fallacy and folly, particularly when one looks at the shifting composition of the Judaic community during the past centuries culminating in the composition of that community today. The community is now fully blown Khazar and Talmudic in nature, and in many cases there is no genetic lineage of Judaic adherents “now” to Jewish adherents “then.” Views like those of Longenecker reflect a particularly perverse literalism with regard to (only certain) scriptural texts. God used Jesus to call the Jewish people to faithfulness, and those who heeded the call are now called Christians. I can’t fathom why some Mennonites are more enamored with the rabbis and their descendants — and their deceits — than they are with our founder and shepherd.

      • Isaac Rubinson

        Amazing. Here in a forum that thinks of itself as progressive, we have a racialist theory of Jewish origins. In this version, Jews are not really Jews, and really not Semites, but are Khazars — meaning they have no legitimate claims to any part of Israel. Interesting that you are unable to see that this is just the other side of the nazi Aryan racial theories that promoted the idea that Jews were too Semitic and had to leave Europe, or barring that, had to be murdered. Now, Jews are not Semitic enough in your warped thinking, to have the right to live in the Middle East. Your full blown attack on Judaism, coupled with your racist anti-Jewish prattling make you one thing: a racist antisemite. You are in the same boat as Hitler, Goebbels and the rest of that crew. How does it feel?

        • Bruce Leichty

          I firmly disavow the violent ideology of Nazism and its proponents that you reference. Nor do I have a “racialist” theory of either Jewish or Judaic origins (I use the two terms to refer to the Hebrew people of the Old Testament and the adherents of Judaism respectively, since there is a distinction). Jesus likewise repudiated a racialist theory of God’s favor when he exclaimed, with considerable hyperbole, that God can create children of Abraham “from these very stones.” But whereas many Christians DO believe that Jewish claims to the State of Israel cohere and are justified in religion or race, I can’t sugarcoat the fact that there is no reason in Jesus Christ to espouse either view. I would not expect you to understand this, Isaac, particular since many Mennonites themselves have lost sight of this, and since you claim to stand in the (only rightful) tradition of the Israelite forebears, but I urge you to not reach premature conclusions about me, and about what are ultimately differences of spiritual opinion.

          (And by the way, some of us Mennonites even use the word “progressive” with caution! Spare us some of the “progress” embodied in U.S.A. circa 2015).

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