When Ariel Sharon, facing strong international pressure, proposed a withdrawal of settlements from Gaza, the settlers’ response was predictably hostile. For some, the motive is predominantly economic—the settlements represent affordable housing; for others, nationalist politics is the driving force: Israel, they say, is Israel, and no part should be subtracted.
These arguments can be countered by political and economic arguments, and compensation can be provided to the displaced settlers, but one argument cannot be dealt with by either reason or money, and that is the argument of divine will: God gave the land to Israel, and what God has given, no mere man can take away. For example, in the spring of 2004, with the May 2 Likud referendum on the retreat plan looming on the horizon, residents of Gaza’s Katif Block released a short video to show that the plan betrayed the settlers who risked their lives to live in the strip. The video featured the intransigent settlers singing: “Fear them not, for the Lord thy God He is with thee.”
Opposing the settlers is an array of Arab nationalist and Islamic militants, especially members of Hamas, which is headquartered in Gaza. Hamas wears many faces, and, in the United States, it has raised money for helping Palestinian children, but the Hamas Charter, written in 1988, does not conceal that its goal is to “raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.”
On the radical end, then, the war is between rival gods who make rival promises. Some American evangelicals have weighed in on the side of Israel. TV mogul Pat Robertson has led thousands of his followers to Israel, a secular state that Robertson praises as part of God’s plan, and has criticized the very idea of including Israeli-controlled land in a Palestinian state as part of “Satan’s plan.” He condemns Prime Minister Sharon’s plan to withdraw from Gaza, for “Only God could decide on transfers of biblical land.” Since Robertson claims to be God’s official spokesman, apparently only he has the right to decide the future of the Middle East.
Robertson’s analysis is derived from his 19th-century dispensationalist theology, whose adherents are working hard to bring about the end of the world, which entails, among other things, the conversion of all of the Jews in the state of Israel to a kind of Judeo-Christianity, which recognizes Jesus as its Messiah but worships Him via the temple cultus of the Old Testament. As I tried to explain to an American Zionist leader I met in Tel Aviv, with friends like Robertson, the Israelis do not need enemies.
If we look around the world today at the most violent and intractable conflicts—in the Middle East, in Northern Ireland, in the Balkans, in the Sudan—these trouble spots, so different in every way, share a common theme: The antagonists, who might easily find some common economic or political ground, are locked in a religious-historical hatred that makes resolution impossible. It is only in the Middle East, however, that some sizable population of Americans plays a decisive role in perpetuating the conflict. For any progress to be made toward peace in the Middle East, Americans—especially conservative Americans—must agree to demystify the issue by looking concretely at the problems without invoking ancient rights or the divine will.
Obviously, there can be serious disagreements among conservatives about the details, but any conservative foreign policy will be based on a number of principles: First, it will be patriotic, with the security of the nation as its primary objective. The Constitution of the United States established a government “to provide for the common defense,” not to bring freedom to the world.
Second, it will be just and fair. Conservatives believe in principles of justice rooted in the tradition of natural law. Such policies are not only just but expedient. Unjust policies of aggression may seem attractive in the short run, but, in the long run, the resentments they cause are a source of enduring danger.
Third, conservatives are pragmatic. From the days of the French Revolution, leftists have called for global revolution, and that call has been heeded by communists, Nazis, and messianic advocates of democratic revolution. Conservatives have always preferred to deal with the world as it is and have refused to listen to the siren song of global democratic revolution, whether sung by Woodrow Wilson or by the neoconservative followers of Lev Trotsky. While it is the mark of leftists to dream glorious dreams of the future, conservatives know that they must study the past if they are to act pragmatically in the present.
Unfortunately, the history of the Middle East tends to be told by religious fanatics who care very little about the messy details, so long as the story can be made to show that “god” is on their side. All parties—Christians, Jews, and Muslims—regard Israel-Palestine as a holy land, but what are the boundaries? Even if we could assign definite borders to the Holy Land, we could not easily determine to whom it belongs today. Much blood has been spilled, and is even now being spilled, in attempts to answer that question. Some evangelical Protestants in the United States have a simple answer: The promise made to Abraham now extends to the state of Israel, which has the right to occupy not just Israel but the whole of ancient Palestine. This is, as many Israelis know, a recipe for unending war, the extinction of the Israeli state, and a second Jewish holocaust. It is also based on a very insubstantial historical foundation that is a product of Christian myth making and nationalist ideology.
How did the promise get handed down to the current state of Israel? It cannot be a religious dispensation, since few Israelis today make much of an attempt to maintain the practices of ancient Judaism. Perhaps it is carried in the genes, then. In the Middle East, however, there is no such thing as a pure race. By the time Abraham enters Canaan, some time after 2000 B.C., it is already a land dominated by peoples whose spoken languages belong to the Northwest branch of Semitic, which includes both Hebrew and Amoritic. The dominant ethnic group was later called Phoenician, but they called themselves Can´ani or Canaanites. In the Old Testament, we also hear of other nonsemitic peoples, such as Hurrians and Hittites, and, a little later, the Semitic Aramaeans, who took over Syria about 1200 (in the northwestern part of Canaan). These Aramaeans are linked by Deuteronomy (26:5) with the Hebrews: “A Syrian ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.”
The Old Testament tells us that some of the Hebrews migrated to Egypt. Modern scholars believe this took place during the period when the Hyksos—Palestinian Semites—invaded and ruled much of Egypt. When the Hyksos were overthrown, their allies and supporters could not have been very popular, and the Bible tells of the hardships suffered by the subjugated Jews.
Escaping from Egypt, the wandering Hebrews made their way back to Canaan. At that time, the Israelites would have hardly differed in language and culture from other Canaanite peoples, such as Moabites and Edomites (whose descent they traced to Jacob’s brother Esau). The children of Israel were entering a well-developed though politically and ethnically divided land of thriving agriculture (“a land flowing with milk and honey”) and prosperous cities—many of which were destroyed by the nomadic invaders.
The impression is given, at several places in the Old Testament, that the Jews exterminated the peoples they found in possession of the land, but intermarriage was frequent enough to pose a problem. In other words, the justification used by Christian Zionists today, who believe any action taken against Palestinians is demanded by God, is as false historically as it is morally.
The conquest of Canaan (as the archeological record and some scriptural texts reveal) was a patchy and uneven affair undertaken tribe by tribe and over a long period of time rather than as a concentrated national invasion and conquest. Even the identities of the 12 tribes were not actually fixed in the time of Joshua. Considerable intermarriage took place, and not only with the Israelites’ polytheistic “cousins” but with the Philistines, who were an offshoot of the same stock that produced Mycenaean Greeks. King David took the wife of a Hittite, Bathsheba, while Ahab married Jezebel, the daughter of the Phoenician king of Tyre. The mixed stock of Jerusalem described by Ezekiel (16:3)—“Thy birth and thy nativity is of the land of Canaan; thy father was an Amorite, and thy mother an Hittite”—was not an exceptional case, and the creation of the nation of Israel required a long process of assimilation. To a large extent, the tribal communities were only unified in facing the dangers presented by their enemies: other Canaanites, Ammonites, and especially the Philistines.
The situation becomes infinitely more complex during the centuries of the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests. The northern kingdom of Israel was the first to fall, to the Assyrians. The number of Jews deported by the Assyrians and of non-Jews actually introduced into Israel is a subject of controversy. The newcomers—Babylonians, Assyrians, and even Hittites—would have had trouble adjusting, but, even after the settlers had intermarried with Israelites and adopted their religion, the so-called Samaritans were the object of bitter hatred from many Jews in the southern kingdom.
When the Babylonians conquered Judea, they took several thousand Jewish leaders and skilled craftsmen to Babylon. A subsequent revolt had even more disastrous consequences: The king was killed; the fiction of independence was ended; the walls and fortifications were destroyed; the Temple was razed; and thousands of the inhabitants of Judea were driven from their land.
Although the number of Jews who were forcibly deported at this time is difficult to estimate, it cannot have been very great. Current estimates suggest that roughly 90 percent remained, though others left in search of better opportunities. Nonetheless, Jewish morale must have been disproportionately affected by the deportation of much of the elite class. During this period of captivity, many Jews were allowed to return to Judea and its ruined capital, ruled by an appointed governor. In Babylonia itself, exiles seemed to have done well, and it was from these Babylonian exiles that a new Israel would be recreated. By the Macedonian period, a large percentage of Jews were living outside the land promised to Abraham.
Even the success of a thriving Hasmonean Jewish state was not sufficiently attractive to most Jews in the Middle East, who still preferred to live outside the borders of Judea. This state lived in an uneasy relationship with the Roman Empire, which incorporated its parts into the imperial provincial structure. Revolts in the first and second centuries A.D. resulted in the destruction of the Temple and the forced withdrawal of Jews from Jerusalem and some part of Judea. Jews were never expelled from all of what is modern Israel. Most Jews, even before their wars with Vespasian and Hadrian, chose to live outside the Promised Land, and this pattern continued throughout ancient, medieval, and modern times down to today.
Palestinian nationalism rests on an equally shaky foundation. There was no Palestinian people before the creation of the state of Israel, only a population of Muslim and Christian Arabs living under Turkish rule before the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and then under the British Mandate. In the 20th century, their national dream, if they had one, was of a united Arab state liberated from Turkish officials. They were no more native to the soil than the Greeks or Turks or Franks who had come to the region, and, to the extent they were Arabs, they represented an invading force that had stolen the land from Syrian Christians and Jews who lived under Byzantine rule.
It is important to note, however, that, after centuries of Islamic persecution, which seriously depleted their numbers, Christians have been subject since the late 1940’s to unfair and discriminatory treatment from the government of Israel, which lumps them together with Palestinian Muslims. That Christians in Palestine often side with the descendants of their persecutors speaks volumes about their recent experiences under a nationalist Israeli state.
Religion is the lifeblood of any people, but that blood can be poisoned by hatred. Any reasonable settlement between Israel and the Palestinians will include a provision for the preservation and use of the holy places of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Sensible people in both camps understand that nothing good can come out of perpetuating the nationalist myths that have so inflamed the region. Tomy Lapid, a Jew from Yugoslavia and leader of the Secular movement, calls for an Israeli state that offers equal rights to all its citizens regardless of ethnic and religious backgrounds. Mahmoud Abbas, the new president of Palestine, understands the need for negotiations and an end to terrorism. Such men can work out pragmatic solutions to the conflict.
American conservatives cannot pretend to solve the problems for Israelis and Palestinians, but we can see to it that, here in America, our policies are formulated on the basis of a just assessment of the American interest. Those of us who are Christian—whether Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant—should repudiate the false prophets who claim to speak in God’s name while calling for the blood of innocent human beings.