We're ignorant of history.
How many of us know that Jews were only 5 percent of the population of Palestine (i.e. 1 in 20) in 1880 when the Zionist movement began? How much do we know about the way the United Nations Partition Plan was imposed on the Jews and Palestinians in 1947 and 1948? Many Christians get a majority of their information about the conflict from books about prophecy and the End Times rather than from reliable historical sources. But if we’re ignorant about the way the conflict began, and how it has developed in the last 130 years, it’s hardly surprising that we have difficulty in understanding what the conflict is all about now.
We fail to understand the nature of the conflict.
Some believe that Islam is the root of the problem and that it’s Islamic ideology that has made the Palestinians so resistant to the Jews who were seeking a safe haven in Palestine. Others see Israel as the defenceless David surrounded by the Goliath of 28 Arab states. But what if the root of the problem is a clash of nationalisms—with two peoples laying claim to the same piece of land for different reasons? What if the Palestinians feel they have been dispossessed of their land by colonizers coming in from outside? What if it’s dispossession–not religion–that lies at the heart of the conflict?
We’re more interested in the future and eschatology than in justice today.
If we think the Bible gives us a detailed picture of how history will unfold in the Middle East, of course we won’t be very concerned about how the actors in the great drama have behaved. If events happen according to a foreordained script, we won’t attach much importance to human rights and international law. But Old Testament prophets were very concerned about justice. While they had plenty to say about the future, they didn’t hesitate to make moral judgements about how individuals and states were behaving. For example, Elijah predicted the drought, but he also condemned Ahab for stealing Naboth’s vineyard.
We seek military solutions to political problems.
We have now seen a whole succession of six Israeli-Arab wars between 1948 and the present time, and the most recent military operation was Israel’s attack on Gaza in August 2014. But if we’re dealing with a political problem, it’s not going to be solved by force of arms. None of the military options that Israel has used has given it peace and security. Political problems require political solutions.
We practice double standards.
Western powers went to war in 1990-91 to force Saddam Hussein to comply with a UN Security Council Resolution calling for it to withdraw from its occupation of Kuwait. However, they have nothing to force Israel to comply with the UN’s Security Council Resolution 242 in November 1967, calling for withdrawal from territories occupied in the Six Day War in June 1967. They claim that they have been encouraging democracy in the Middle East. But then they refused to recognise Hamas’ victory in a genuine democratic election in the occupied territories in 2006. Don’t Palestinians have good reason to accuse the West of applying double standards?
We politicize religion.
We’re quick to accuse Muslims of using Islam for political ends. But don’t many Jewish settlers on the West Bank use God’s promise of the land to Abraham and his descendants to support their claim to occupy the land? And aren’t Christian Zionists politicising religion when they support Israel’s continuing occupation of the West Bank and the building of settlements –which most of the world regards as illegal in international law? Aren’t some Christians mixing religion and politics as much as many Muslims and Jews do?
We don’t listen to national Christians.
We listen to our own well-known preachers who seek to interpret current events in the Middle East in the light of scripture. Their teaching is generally very close to the teaching of most Messianic believers within and outside Israel. But do we take the trouble to find out how Palestinian Christians– both in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza– think about current events? Shouldn’t we take the trouble to find out how our brothers and sisters on the ground think about the conflict?
We’re not sufficiently critical of our own nation.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never been a purely local quarrel between two peoples. Different nations have played highly significant roles at many stages. Britain and France divided up the Middle Eastern parts of the old Ottoman Empire between themselves after World War I. If the US and allies hadn’t gone to war in Iraq in 2003, there would never have been the vacuum that allowed for the creation of ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The US has tried to act as a mediator in recent years, but can hardly play the role of the honest broker, since it is so closely identified with one side in the conflict. Is my country always right, and always as innocent as I like to think? Don’t Christians have a responsibility to hold our own nations accountable?
We imagine there’s nothing we can do.
Even if we don’t live in Israel-Palestine, there are several ways we can support people who live and work there. Many churches are involved in educational, medical or social work of different kinds. A wide variety of NGOs–both secular and Christian–are working in a number of creative ways. All of these organisations are dependent on moral and financial support from outside, and all of them can make a real difference in meeting human need, nation-building and peace-making.
We give up hope too easily.
Could there ever be a peaceful resolution to the conflict that will satisfy the legitimate aspirations of both Jews and Palestinians and enable them to live peacefully side-by-side? Humanly speaking, there aren’t many signs this is going to happen any time soon. But the American Civil Rights Movement achieved something momentous. Apartheid finally came to an end in South Africa. And Catholics and Protestants eventually made pace and started to work together in Northern Ireland. Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” So, if radical change has come about in these situations of conflict, why do we give up hope that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can come to an end?
The roadblocks to peace, therefore, aren’t only out there in Israel-Palestine. Some are in our minds and in our nations–particularly the West. If we have been part of the problem, we should also be part of the solution. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness/justice,” and “Blessed are the peacemakers.” So disciples of Jesus must be passionate both about working for justice and about being peacemakers.
For more on this topic, see Colin Chapman’s article A Biblical Perspective on Israel and Palestine.