Normally, I’m a defender of the so-called “mainstream media,” in part because I am one of that group. However, when it comes to understanding and reporting on Israel and Palestine, almost all media outlets have failed Americans who seek clear understanding of one of the most intractable political and theological conundrums of all time.
To hear most American media tell it, Israel is the “good guy” in this conflict and the Palestinians — particularly Hamas — are the “bad guys.” We long for easy dichotomies, but that’s simply not possible here despite what the U.S. State Department says. What Hamas has done is despicable, but what Israel has done and continues to do also is despicable.
Call Israel the “victim” in the current war between the nation of Israel and Hamas, but do not paint them as wearing white hats. To do so is equivalent to playing Cowboys and Indians the way we did as I was growing up in the 1960s in — ironically — Oklahoma. Those “Indians” were defending territory they had occupied for centuries. The way American history used to be taught — and maybe still is in Florida — we focused on the raids and the scalpings and overlooked the fact that white invaders were driving people from their land and way of life.
That comparison ought to give Americans some basic understanding of how to reframe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I reached out to some people who are smarter than me about all this for interpretation. One of those is BNG columnist Wendell Griffen, a Baptist pastor and retired circuit court judge in Arkansas who is an outspoken advocate for Palestinians in general and Palestinian Christians in particular.
“The Biden administration is continuing the decades-long U.S. approach of supporting the Israeli regime,” he said. “That approach disregards the morally indefensible pattern of Israeli aggression against Gaza, Palestine and Palestinians involving Israeli theft of Palestinian land and water, settler colonialism and violence against Palestinians in violation of international law (United Nations resolutions and Geneva Conventions), and decades of genocidal conduct toward Palestinians.
“This war is the latest flashpoint in the 75-year Nakba of U.S.-financed, provisioned and cheered Israeli colonialism, apartheid and genocide against Palestine and Palestinians. Viewed from that perspective, the Israeli regime’s current war on Gaza is worse than lamentable. It is inexcusable.
“People in the U.S. who claim to love God and follow Jesus lack the moral discernment and ethical competence to be saddened about the Israeli regime’s war in Gaza and against Palestine.”
“It is telling that people in the U.S. who claim to love God and follow Jesus lack the moral discernment and ethical competence to be saddened about the Israeli regime’s war in Gaza and against Palestine, let alone condemn, denounce and protest U.S. support for it.”
Now, that’s a perspective you’re not likely to hear every hour on CNN. But it is the perspective of many progressive Christians — and even some Jews — in the United States today. Increasingly, those who are paying attention are sounding alarms that the nation of Israel — which is not biblical “Israel,” by the way — is guilty of atrocities beyond comprehension in its treatment of the Palestinian people.
The Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza have been called “open-air prisons” because of the security walls Israel has built and the draconian measures it has implemented that prevent Palestinians — including Palestinian Christians — from accessing basic freedoms and services, such as access to health care, freedom of worship, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, access to education, and access to nutrition. All done in the name of preventing “terrorism.”
Ashlee Wiest-Laird, pastor of First Baptist Church of Jamaica Plain, Mass., served four years as the Southern Baptist chaplain at Harvard University and then spent a year working with Sabeel Liberation Theology Center and the Middle East Council of Churches in Jerusalem.
Here’s how she explained the situation to me: “What is happening now in Palestine/Israel is a natural outcome of 75 years of colonization and oppression. Of the 2.1 million people living in the Gaza Strip, two-thirds are refugees from areas that were incorporated into the state of Israel in 1948.
“Not only have they been denied the right to return to their homes, but since the Oslo Accords they and their Gazan neighbors have effectively been prisoners of war. Trapped on a tiny piece of land, chronically denied water, electricity and economic development, Gazans endure the worst of the Palestinian experience. For the last 15 years, they have additionally suffered repeated attacks and bombings by the Israeli military that have killed and wounded thousands.”
“If the atrocities faced by Palestinians in Gaza were happening in the Ukraine, the world would be mortified. And yet, when in desperation, Palestinians fight back, they are labeled terrorists.”
And then this: “If the atrocities faced by Palestinians in Gaza were happening in the Ukraine, the world would be mortified. And yet, when in desperation, Palestinians fight back, they are labeled terrorists.”
Wiest-Laird said she does not condone killing of any kind and mourns the loss of hundreds of Israeli lives, just as she mourns the perpetual loss of Palestinian lives under Israeli occupation.
“Having visited the Gaza Strip, I can certainly understand the despair and hopelessness and rage that leads the oppressed to commit acts of violence in the struggle for their own freedom and existence,” she added. “Israel is a nation-state (that) receives $3.8 billion per year from the United States with the fourth most powerful army on the planet. It seems while everyone is eager to condemn the violence of Hamas, very few are willing to name the state-sanctioned violence that takes place day in and day out to the Palestinian people.
“Do their lives not matter? Do they not have a right to resist oppression and seek self-determination? This is not a conflict of equal parties by any stretch of the imagination.”
Again, there are no “good guys” in this war.
Unquestioned American support
Yet it’s likely in a majority of American pulpits yesterday, congregants heard prayers and sermons that sided uniquely with the nation of Israel.
Some of that is due to a messed-up theology of the end times that sees a resurgent Israel and a rebuilt temple on the Temple Mount as God-ordained signs of Christ’s Second Coming. But even Christians who do not share that theology easily side with Israel without acknowledging its own history of atrocities.
A perfect example of this came over the weekend from Russell Moore, editor of Christianity Today. Writing on Saturday, he said: “Americans awoke this morning to reports of war in the Middle East, as the terrorist group Hamas attacked the state of Israel in unspeakably brutal ways. As our screens fill with imagery of fire raining down from the skies, of families grieving the kidnapping and murder of their loved ones, we know that — just as for our own country in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks — this evil day is just the beginning of what is to come. As we pray for peace at the beginning of this war, American Christians should do so with the moral clarity to recognize Israel’s right and duty to defend itself.
“Some might assume that evangelical Protestants automatically support Israel based on eschatological views that cast the modern state of Israel in some role in biblical prophecy. For some, this is indeed the case. Many of us, though, don’t share those beliefs. We believe the promises of God are fulfilled in Christ, not in the 1948 Israeli Declaration of Independence. Many of us are quite willing to call out Israel when we believe it is acting wrongly. We don’t believe the Israeli Knesset is somehow inerrant or infallible.
“American Christians should be united in support of Israel as it is under attack.”
“But even with those disagreements, American Christians should be united in support of Israel as it is under attack.
“Some Christians, to be sure, are pacifists who believe any military action to be wrong. Most Christians throughout church history, however, have held to some form of just war theory, which holds that war is always awful, but — under certain, very limited circumstances — can be morally justified.”
He goes on to say “every state is accountable to the justice of God” and is “subject to the judgment of God.” But he says nothing about the atrocities committed by Israel against Palestinian people for decades. Not a single word.
Then he brings it home: “Sometimes, especially in the early moments of any war, we may be uncertain about who is right and who is wrong. There is no such moral confusion here. Hamas — and its state sponsors — attacked innocent people, as they have done repeatedly in the past, this time employing a force and brutality previously unseen.”
Again, no mention of Israel’s attacks and murders of innocent people or its “force and brutality previously unseen.”
Israel is not the “good guy.”
Israel is not “Israel”
Moore says Americans “should stand with Israel under attack because it is a fellow liberal democracy — and a democracy in a region dominated by illiberal, authoritarian regimes. As Christians, we should pay special attention to violence directed toward Israel — just as we would pay special attention to a violent attack on a member of our extended family. After all, we are grafted on to the promise made to Abraham (Romans 11:17). Our Lord Jesus was and is a Jewish man from Galilee. Rage against the Jewish people is rage against him, and, because we are in him, against us.”
Dear Russell Moore, the modern state of Israel is not “the Jewish people.” It is a political and secular government. We can support and love “the Jewish people” just as we support and love “the Palestinian people” without buying into the politics of the modern state of Israel.
We had a long discussion about this yesterday morning in the adult Sunday school class I teach at church. One member of the class asked how we should respond to the biblical admonitions to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6) and that “whoever blesses Israel will be blessed” (Numbers 24:9).
Again, the common mistake here is equating the modern political state of Israel with “Jerusalem” and “Israel” in the Hebrew Scriptures.
“There is no direct line of succession between King David and Benjamin Netanyahu.”
In the Bible, “Israel” is an ethnic group and “Jerusalem” is the symbolic and previously literal center of that group’s worship. There is no direct line of succession between King David and Benjamin Netanyahu.
How did we get here?
The current war between Hamas (not a nation) and Israel has been centuries in the making. But a Southern Baptist U.S. president played a key role in setting the stage for the modern iteration of the conflict — and, no, I’m not talking about Jimmy Carter. More on that in a minute.
For centuries, the land Sunday school children know as Palestine was contested and passed around in different configurations. Keep in mind this is a small territory about the size of the U.S. state of Maryland.
From the end of World War I through 1948, the biblical Holy Lands were known as Palestine.
In the modern era until 1948, Palestinian Arabs maintained continuous residence in the region for hundreds of years and were a demographic majority by a factor of 10. When modern-day Jews contend they were given this land by God as the “Promised Land,” Palestinian Arabs counter they also are children of Abraham through Abraham’s firstborn son, Ishmael (see Genesis 16).
The land of Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire and then later was controlled by Great Britain, which is a longer story than we have space for here. Read an excellent and objective summary at the Middle East Research and Information Project.
Britain promised to create a Jewish homeland but also made other competing promises. It was only after World War II — amid the world’s contrition for the Holocaust — that serious efforts were made to create such a Jewish state.
“It was only after World War II — amid the world’s contrition for the Holocaust — that serious efforts were made to create such a Jewish state.”
On Nov. 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. The plan would have divided the country so that each state would have a majority of its own population, and the territory assigned for the Jewish state would be slightly larger than that of the Arab state, based on the assumption that worldwide Jews would continue to migrate there.
Jerusalem and Bethlehem — hotly contested today — were to become an international zone.
Fighting ensued immediately and the new Jewish state expanded its borders beyond what the partition plan allowed. On May 15, 1948, the British evacuated, and emboldened Zionist leaders proclaimed creation of the nation of Israel.
U.S. President Harry Truman was the first world leader to recognize Israel as a Jewish state on May 14, 1948, only 11 minutes after its creation. “His decision came after much discussion and advice from the White House staff who had differing viewpoints,” according to the Truman Library. “Some advisors felt that creating a Jewish state was the only proper response to the holocaust and would benefit American interests. Others took the opposite view, concerned that the creation of a Jewish state would create more conflict in an already tumultuous region.”
Residents of the region have been at war seemingly ever since. By 1949, the boundaries of the U.N. partition plan were obliterated, and the Palestinian Arab state promised by the U.N. never happened.
This created an enormous refugee crisis as 700,000 Palestinians became refugees in two years.
Today, the term “Palestinian” refers to Arabs who are Christian, Muslim and Druze. Those who are in the worldwide diaspora have thrived far more than those who stayed behind in their homeland. Both those who live within the borders of Israel and those who live in Gaza and the West Bank face extreme restrictions.
Meanwhile, Israel’s conservative political leadership has continued to expand its territory by building hundreds of Jewish settlements — entire towns — in Palestinian areas.
The Middle East Research and Information Project explains that from 1967 forward, “Palestinians were denied many basic political rights and civil liberties, including freedoms of expression, the press and political association. Palestinian nationalism was criminalized as a threat to Israeli security, which meant that even displaying the Palestinian national colors was a punishable act. All aspects of Palestinian life were regulated, and often severely restricted. Even something as innocuous as the gathering of wild thyme (za‘tar), a basic element of Palestinian cuisine, was outlawed by Israeli military orders.”
Israel has bulldozed hundreds of Palestinian homes in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel has imposed curfews and closed schools and roads. Also from the Middle East Research and Information Project: “Israel has relied on imprisonment as one of its key strategies to control the West Bank and Gaza and to thwart and punish Palestinian nationalist resistance to the occupation. The number of Palestinians arrested by Israel since 1967 is now approaching 1 million. Hundreds of thousands of the arrestees have been jailed, some without trial (administratively detained), but most after being prosecuted in the Israeli military court system. More than 40% of the Palestinian male population has been imprisoned at least once.”
Under the banner of countering terrorism, Israel has tortured prisoners since 1971 — yet another example of breaking international law without consequence from the global community.
The Temple Mount
In the center of all this, Jerusalem remains the most contested city, with the Temple Mount the most contested single site. The city and the mount are critical to both Jewish and Muslim history.
Jews and Christians see this as the place where Solomon’s Temple and then its replacement were erected. Muslims see this as the place where the Prophet Muhammed ascended into heaven.
Atop this site today is the Dome of the Rock, the main praying hall of al-Aqsa Mosque, said to be the oldest existing Islamic structure in the world.
This is where religious fervor collides with political ambition. And this may be one of the prime motivators for the current war.
The New York Times reported: “Muhammad Deif, the leader of the military wing of Hamas, said in a recorded message that the group had decided to launch an ‘operation’ so that ‘the enemy will understand that the time of their rampaging without accountability has ended.’ He cited Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which it captured during the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, recent Israeli police raids on the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and the detention of thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails.”
Voice of America added: “A Hamas leader referred to Saturday’s assault into southern Israel, which included Palestinian gunmen on paragliders under cover of thousands of rocket launches, as the ‘al-Aqsa flood’ in defense of the mosque. … There have been numerous assaults on the mosque ‘by Israeli soldiers marching in with their boots on, which is total desecration. If that happened in any synagogue in the world, something comparable, we’d be screaming that it was antisemitism, which indeed it would be,’ said Professor Joel Beinin of Stanford University.”
To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction
Newton’s Third Law of Motion states: “For every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
What we are seeing in today’s Israel/Hamas war is just that. For centuries, but particularly since 1948, the Holy Lands have been wracked by a series of actions and reactions. The current Hamas incursion is a reaction to Israel’s immoral treatment of the Palestinian people.
“While violence and bloodshed must be condemned, we must not act like we don’t understand why this is happening.”
While violence and bloodshed must be condemned, we must not act like we don’t understand why this is happening. The Palestinian people have been pushed against a wall and are hopeless. What else are they going to do?
Now, I can hear some of you saying, “Well, they just need to be patient and wait for this to all sort itself out.” Or, “Change takes time.”
It has been 75 years. And things are worse, not better. This is the same mentality that today tells women to “just wait” for equality to become a reality or Black people told during the Civil Rights movement to “be patient.”
Americans are not making this situation better.
Wendell Griffen adds to the analysis: “Of course, the history of pro-Israeli sentiment in this society is deep and strong. I attribute some of it to racism. Israel is a white enclave in the otherwise darker-complexioned Middle East. Add the premillennialism of Left Behind U.S. evangelical fundamentalism to that with Zionism and the picture is almost complete save for one salient, albeit over-arching reality few people in the U.S. seem to discern.
“In Israel, the U.S. has a robust, nuclear-armed, fully subsidized intelligence and military force in that region that openly violates international law and human rights norms with impunity in a region where the petroleum industry has craved a security guarantee.
Think of Israel as the petroleum industry’s biggest and most expensive private security contractor, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers.
“The Israeli experiment is the longest running client-state operation of the U.S. intelligence community and perhaps the most expensive.”
“Long before the U.S. entered the morass of Vietnam, the U.S. chose neocolonialism as the way to extend its military, political, commercial and cultural influence by forging a client state relationship with Israel. That approach collapsed in Vietnam, Iran and most recently in Afghanistan. The Israeli experiment is the longest running client-state operation of the U.S. intelligence community and perhaps the most expensive.”
The way forward
There are no easy fixes to this problem, and there may not be any fixes at all. Yet the starting point for Americans must be greater understanding.
Wiest-Laird puts it this way: “Imagine you have moved into someone’s house by force and locked the previous inhabitants up in one room. There for generations, you deny them adequate resources and occasionally kill a few of them so they know you are in charge. In the meantime, you and your family continue to live as if these people do not exist. Every once and a while one of them gets out, but you go to your panic room and call the police and say that this person is terrorizing you.
“If this were real, would you really be surprised if those folks broke down the door whenever they could and tried to get someone’s attention to end their plight and restore their freedom?
“The continued narrative that Israel is the victim in this scenario is not what will bring justice and peace to Palestinians or Israelis. The only way forward is for the world to address the injustices done to the people of Palestine: bring an end to collective punishment, allow freedom of movement, and recognize the right of return for refugees. There must be an end to any culture of supremacy (religious or otherwise) and equal rights in a state that is made for all people.”
Anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel are not the same | Opinion by Miguel de la Torre