Rev Páraic Réamonn
Nothing enlivens our faith so much as walking in the footsteps of Jesus. Nothing awakes our compassion so much as seeing how Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the land of Jesus today suffer as a consequence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza; the 70th anniversary of when Britain finally recognized that it was impossible to square the circle of the incompatible promises it had made to Arabs and Jews, packed its bags, and left the land to war; and the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, in which Britain viewed with favour the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine – without prejudice to the rights of the Arabs in Palestine or the rights of the Jews elsewhere.
Last and not least, it marks the 120th anniversary of the first Zionist congress, convened in Basel, Switzerland, by the Austrian Jewish playwright and journalist Theodor Herzl, which launched the movement for a Jewish state in Palestine.
Herzl argued that Europe would always hate the Jews, and that Jews had no choice but to go somewhere else and create a state of their own. The trouble is, when you go somewhere else to do that, you run into the problem of people who are already living there: Arab Muslims and Christians.
The solution the Zionist movement found in the war of independence in 1948 was to take by force almost 80% of the land and to exile 80% of the Arab inhabitants of that part of the land. The solution the state of Israel found in the six day war in 1967 was to occupy the rest of the land and to rule the Arab inhabitants of that part under military law, as it still does today.
Arab-Israelis – Palestinians living in 1948 Israel – are discriminated against but have certain rights. Palestinians in the territories occupied in 1967 effectively have no rights.
For the Arabs of Palestine, the war of 1947-48 was not a war of independence. It was a catastrophe – in Arabic, the Nakba. Today, people are more and more inclined to question not just what Israel did in 1967 and after, but also what the state of Israel did in creating itself. The Nakba, they say, wasn’t something that just happened in passing. It was essential to the creation of a Jewish state. It was Israel’s original sin.
It’s easy for us to get on our high horse about this, but only if we don’t look in the mirror. For the original sin of the state of Israel is rooted in a sin even more original: the sin of Christian Europe.
For centuries Christian Europe was unwilling to treat the Jews of Europe as human beings. Even after Jewish emancipation, many gentile Europeans were unwilling to accept their Jewish neighbours as equal citizens. Emancipation in many places created a vicious backlash of modern, racist antisemitism – an antisemitism that culminated in the Holocaust, the death of six million Jews at the hands of Hitler’s Germany.
Theodor Herzl invented political Zionism because of his experience as a Jew in 19th-century Europe. They will always hate us, he said. He was wrong about that, in my view – antisemitism is not written in the DNA of Europe – but he certainly had his reasons.
Equally, the Balfour Declaration did not create the Zionist-Palestinian conflict; but once incorporated in the British Mandate, it guaranteed that it would all end in tears. And over the decades the Western contribution to ending the conflict has been less than helpful.
This is an asymmetric conflict, with most of the power on one side and most of the suffering on the other. But there is no one in Israel/Palestine who is not suffering from a conflict in which all are trapped and from which they are unable, and often plainly unwilling, to escape.
As I see it, we must be bold as a church in speaking up about what is wrong in the Holy Land, even if this sometimes gets us into trouble. But we must be strong as a church in standing alongside all who suffer in the Holy Land, Arab and Jew alike.