It is a joke in the Middle East that the Jews and Palestinians compete for the title of biggest victim. The Jews put forth their suffering in the Holocaust. The Palestinians say that they were exiled from their ancestral homeland by European invaders, whom the Palestinians had done nothing to harm. Jewish grandmothers show the tattoos on their arms from Nazi death camps. Palestinian grandfathers cry over the key to their childhood homes in Jerusalem, knowing that they are dying and will never see their homeland again.
When Christians hear the word “Israel,” they either think of the Israel of the Bible or the Israel of today. Although these two concepts are related, the nation of King David and Jesus is remarkably different from the nation of the late David Ben-Gurion and the very much alive Binyamin Netanyahu. In this essay I hope to answer several questions: What’s the modern history of Israel and their relationship with Palestine? Which narratives do the Israelis and Palestinians cling to? Why does this matter to us, students at Cedarville? How can we help?
What’s the modern history of Israel and their relationship with Palestine?
Zionism is a secular movement that was started by the moderate and secular Hungarian-Austrian Jew Theodor Herzl in the late 19th century. Herzl had noticed the anti-Semitism in Europe and resolved to campaign for a Jewish state in which European Jews could live. In 1917, his goal of seeing a Jewish state established was partly realized: a letter from British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour, to Lord Rothschild, showed support for the idea of the state.
The British, however, made other commitments. During World War I, the Brits had promised the establishment of a large Arab homeland to the Hashemites, a Saudi Arabian tribe ruling Jordan. Instead of following through on their promise, though, Britain and France divided and kept Arab provinces; the League of Nations formalized British rule over the region through a document known as the British Mandate for Palestine.
The Palestinians in the region had good relations with the native Palestinian Jews, but as more Zionist Jews fearing Europe’s anti-Semitism arrived, they bought more land and competed with the native Palestinians for resources, causing tempers to flare. After an attempted partition of the land between the Palestinians and the Jews in 1948, the Brits bailed and the Jews declared an independent state of Israel. This was the end of the Israeli War for Independence, their dream realized: they had established a homeland for the Jewish people, a homeland created for a people who had suffered so much over the past 2,000 years. The people had a country at last, paid for with blood, treasure, and tears.
But the land on which it was established was not “A land without a people” for “a people without a land” as the Zionist mantra claimed. Palestinian Christians, Muslims, and Druzes lived there. And for them, the establishment of Israel was Al Nakba - The Catastrophe. Before Al Nakba, there were 700,000 Palestinians living in what is now Israel proper. Most fled to surrounding nations, afraid for their lives; a scant 120,000 remained. Those that left became refugees, and 5,000,000 of their descendants remain refugees to this day. Many live in UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinian territories. Those that remain face life as a minority in their own homeland, and their minority status makes them more vulnerable to poverty and discrimination.
To which narratives do the Israelis and Palestinians cling?
The Jewish Diaspora, the Holocaust, Zionism, and the Israeli War for Independence are the hardships of the Jewish narrative. Broken promises, exile, Al Nakba, deeds and keys to houses that have been demolished, and an intense nationalism are the hardship of the Palestinian narrative. But these two narratives share something: victimization and a desire to return to an idealized homeland.
Jews and Palestinians have both suffered injustice. But competing over who has suffered or who is suffering the most is pointless; it will not fix the underlying problems. What can help is the intentional effort of all involved to stop injustice in the present time and circumstances. As my friend Mary (daughter of a 1960s diplomat in Jerusalem) put it, “The security of one people (the Jews) should never take priority over another people’s (the Palestinians) need for justice.”
Why does this matter to students at Cedarville? How can we help?
I believe it to be a Christian duty to seek to end the injustices faced by an oppressed people group. As Christians, we must separate our image of Israel of the Bible from the modern Israel. They are not one and the same, even if there are some similarities. The political realities of Israel are more convoluted today than they were in the days of King Solomon. And, to be quite honest, the modern history of Israel must be considered more pertinent to Israeli-Palestinian relations than ancient history. Christians must educate themselves about the modern history and present conditions in order to determine a fair and balanced view.
If one acknowledges that the Palestinians have faced injustices at the hands of some Israelis, she is not saying all Jews all evil or that they haven’t faced severe injustice in the past. He is not anti-Semitic if he supports Palestinians (actually, it’s pro-Semitic, since Palestinians are Semitic too). Supporting Palestinians does not preclude support for Israel. Concern for Jews and Palestians is not a mutually exclusive choice. But both groups suffer if Israel does not grant Palestinians justice and a state.
For those interested in creating justice for the Palestinian people, I would stress again the importance of informing yourself about Palestinians and Israelis: their history, their culture, their religion, their goals, their news sources, etc. Then, I would suggest visiting Palestine and Israel. I lived in Jordan for a year, a country where half the population is of Palestinian descent. I visited both the West Bank and Israel and interacted with the populations in each area. I intend to go back to Israel and live among Israelis for a longer period of time.
The conflict might seem very abstract or larger and life, but here are some practical ways by which we can encourage justice:
Acquaint yourself with Palestinian and Israeli mindsets and cultural customs.
Read about JStreet, an advocacy organization that is pro-Israel and pro-peace (with the Palestinians) at the same time.
Write to your congressperson and let them know about your view on the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the need for a future Palestinian state.
Donate to UNRWA and help Palestinians living in poverty.