By David Gushee
A casual newspaper reader might think there are two discrete places called “Israel” and “the Palestinian territories” but a visitor soon discovers the intertwining of these populations. That intertwining could be a good thing. There were parts of uncontested Israeli territory that we visited in which Jews and “Arabs”/Palestinians live near one another without a problem.
But a visitor soon discovers that “the West Bank,” which is supposed to belong to a future Palestinian state, has been intentionally populated over the last 40 years by hundreds of thousands of Jewish “settlers” in dozens of civilian communities. They are able to take this land because Israel has occupied it since its military victories in 1967, even though it is still Palestinian territory under international law.
The Jewish settlers have a variety of motives for taking up residence in land that is not supposed to belong to them. Some are motivated by Israeli government policies that simply make living in a settlement a more affordable option — no small matter in a country in which housing prices and the cost of living have driven hundreds of thousands of protesting Israelis into the streets in recent months.
But most Jews who move into settlements within Palestinian territories are motivated by some form of Zionist ideology.
Secular Zionists believe that Israel should possess the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, for historic, political or security reasons. Modern Israel was founded mainly by secular Zionists, though most had limited, pragmatic hopes about how much of their ancient homeland Jews would or should occupy.
Religious Jewish Zionists believe that the modern state of Israel has been given title in perpetuity to all of the land specified in a few key biblical texts. They come to Israel — often from the United States — in order to help advance the modern fulfillment of this divine mandate.
Christian Zionists, mainly from the United States, play a significant role in supporting Jewish Zionism. They read the Bible to support expansive and totalistic Jewish claims to the land, usually in tandem with some version of dispensational eschatology that interprets the birth of modern Israel as part of the last days.
American Christian Zionists are significant not only in offering political support in the U.S. to Israeli government settlement policies, but also in providing financial support. Much of their theology is odious to Israelis, but their political support sure comes in handy.
Space does not permit me to deal with all the flawed biblical and theological claims of Christian Zionism, but it is within the scope of this column to say that Christian Zionists contribute greatly to daily injustices against the Palestinian people.
They perpetuate a situation in which land that under law belongs to a Palestinian state is being gobbled up by Israel. This is quite simply a form of land theft. Bible-believing Christian Zionists ought to consider whether God really wants them to support routine violations of the 8th Commandment. It is a dangerous thing when speculative biblical theology overrides clear biblical moral commands.
Some of these Palestinians whose land is being stolen are our fellow Christians. We found deep pain among the Christian Palestinians we met who wonder what kind of Christianity allows indifference or even support for the pillaging of brothers and sisters in Christ. These issues surface in any visit with a Palestinian Christian.
It would be unfair not to note that there are still glimpses of a totalized Palestinian mythology of the land. I noticed in several Palestinian buildings framed pictures of the entire land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, captioned with the simple heading “Palestina.” It is hard to know exactly what such a poster means to those who hang it on the wall, but it looked to me, at least, like a strong yearning for a return to pre-1948 days when there was no Israel. And history since then has demonstrated that there is a part of the Palestinian community — symbolized today by Hamas — that finds it very difficult to accept ever sharing this contested strip of land.
This much seems certain: the more Israel gobbles up Palestinian lands, the more desperate and angry the Palestinians will become. Right now, mainstream Palestinian leaders appear to retain hope that they will get their state through the global political process, and they may declare a state next month in hope of U.N. recognition.
But if the U.S. blocks that recognition, and if the consequent wait for a political settlement lasts into the indefinite future, Palestinian patience may finally be exhausted. People do not wait forever for recognition of their basic rights. It is contrary to human nature. If we don’t want the Palestinians to declare a state unilaterally, we need to give them a good reason not to do it.