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What I Know about Israel and Palestine

I have visited Israel only once: twenty years ago or more, for an interfaith conference held at a study centre just outside Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate, and then a quick tour up and around the Galilee. I came away thinking that “the question of Israel/Palestine” was the first subject I had ever studied that got more complicated and confusing the more I studied it.

I think I understand the situation better today than I did then. But it remains a conundrum—and now a conundrum on fire.


Meanwhile, lots of people think it isn’t a conundrum at all. Student protesters think it’s obviously true and good that Israel must withdraw from Gaza, that the Palestinians must have their own state, and that Israel instead must—well, what?


“From the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea, Palestine must be free” is a phrase—going back to the 1960s coined by the Palestine Liberation Organization (the Hamas of its day)—to indicate a Palestinian state replacing the Jewish one. That sounds simplistic, if not genocidal, to me.


But I was also nonplussed by the recent utterance of a Christian pastor. He told his congregation that we Christians ought to “pray for the peace of Israel” and in particular support the local synagogue, who could be presumed to be anxious about the rise of antisemitism.


I wasn’t sure he quite understood the scriptural source of that phrase, about which more below. More bothersome, however: I waited in vain for him to mention other people in that region and in our own locale for whom we ought also to pray.


He didn’t mention Palestinian Christians, there or here, who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Nor did he mention Islamic Palestinians, who have a list of significant grievances and who are undergoing most of the suffering there today, as well as Muslims here in Canada who stand with them as cobelievers—and who are our neighbours.


I worried about how this well-intentioned gesture might actually damage the reputation of the church among the community—taking sides in a fraught situation, implicitly disparaging a growing immigrant population, and so on. It was a dangerous move to make on its own.


Still, I certainly can’t solve the situation in Israel today. (I apologize to those of you who have read this far in hopes that I would.) Instead, I offer a short list of what I do think I know about it, in hopes that readers will both protest and pray appropriately.


• Mass movements sputter out for lack of focus, such as the Occupy movement did. If they have a key and clear objective, the results can be piecemeal and often unexpected, as in the civil rights and Vietnam War protests of a generation ago.


(The anti-apartheid protests commend themselves to some as ideal models for today. I will leave it to more-informed minds to comment on useful parallels between the two situations, but they clearly aren’t just the same.)


The situation in Israel nowadays strikes me as probably the least simple situation most university students have ever encountered. It is therefore utterly unsuitable as a matter for the blunt instrument of coercive campus protests.


Learning about it all? Yes, of course. Discussion, even debate? Indeed. Professors turning their class periods into political rallies, and demonstrations preventing the normal business of the university? No sympathy for any of that from this career academician.


• “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” comes from Psalm 122, a “psalm of ascent” sung by ancient Israelites as they slowly made their way up to Jerusalem for festivals. The psalm celebrates Jerusalem, however, not as the centre of ethnic Israel, the Jewish people.


Jerusalem is extolled instead as the centre of the worship of Yhwh and the place of righteous political judgment:


That is where the tribes go up—    the tribes of Yhwh—to praise the name of Yhwh    according to the statute given to Israel.There stand the thrones for judgment,    the thrones of the house of David.


Contemporary Jerusalem is not, of course, either of those things: neither the centre of the worship of Yhwh nor a place of righteous political judgment.


• What would it mean, then, for Christians to join ancient Israelites in prayer for the peace of Jerusalem today?


It means to truly pray for the free and flourishing worship of God and for the righteous administration of justice.


To the extent that any actor in the Middle East today is furthering the worship of God— such as, say, Palestinian Christians who faithfully maintain and preach the gospel in a singularly hostile situation—we should pray for their peace.


To the extent that any actor in the Middle East is working against justice, we pray for God’s corrective judgment upon them—wherever they happen to live, whatever flag they wave, and whatever identity they claim.


• It also means to pray for shalom, a much richer word than our English “peace.” It means flourishing. It means for something to be the best it can be, according to its design by God.


So we pray that shalom will come to Jerusalem—and, by extension, all Israel—and, by extension, all of the world loved by Israel’s God. The shalom of Jerusalem is for the blessing of the world, not just for Israel, just as the nation of Israel itself was elected by God to bless the entire world, not just itself.


The true shalom of Jerusalem cannot come at the expense of other nations God loves, and especially not at the expense of our fellow Christians.


• What would it mean for shalom to be enjoyed by Jerusalem?


It would mean justice for all. Welfare for all. Repentance by all and forgiveness for all. It would mean generosity among all.


What it does not mean is just the cessation of armed hostilities. A mere ceasefire is not in view. Indeed, a ceasefire at the wrong time and under the wrong conditions might produce less shalom, not more.


• There is no way to roll the calendar back, to move all the players back to some putative “first position.” Too much history has been overlaid on too little territory.


The only way forward in resolving these land claims (as in resolving others) lies in good will and good action. We must earnestly try to understand the others’ position and to acknowledge the justice of their claims (including sincere regret for historic injustices). We must fairly put our own situation and claims on the table (including willingness to forgive past wrongs). We must recognize the limits inherent in the situation and its possible resolutions. And we must aim for a lasting peace, which will mean compromise and cooperation.


Our jaded age will respond to such recommendations with rolled eyes. Many of us prefer Alexander’s solution to the Gordian knot of political complexity: Just take a sword to it!


Yet only these principles—Biblical principles, principles also of common sense given to us by our common Creator—have availed in the past to produce enduring resolutions. Even wise imperial regimes have engaged in such conversations rather than trust in mere military power to keep everyone in line.


• Antisemitism and Islamophobia alike are ugly enemies of the common good. Christians should indeed be quick to support the local synagogue—and also the local mosque. Christians should indeed be quick to support all of those who are suffering today in Israel. “For God so loved the world….”


In conclusion, I want to affirm the good instinct of that pastor who reached out to the local synagogue. Frankly, who cares what you or I think about the crisis in Israel/Palestine? Precious few of us have a flyspeck’s worth of influence on that situation.


The important question is whether you and I are fostering good relations among Jews, Muslims and Christians here: where we live, where God has placed us to cultivate shalom.


Let us indeed pray for the shalom of faraway Jerusalem—and then return, each of us, to our proper work: whatever it is to which God has called us, and whomever it is to whom God has called us, to promote shalom wherever and however we can.


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