Seminario ESEPA held a conference in 2014 on the topic of “Israel and Palestine.” They asked me to be one of the participants; I offered the following thoughts, which I have updated a bit, with the warning that they come from a Bible student with only cursory knowledge of world affairs.
Good evening, and thank you for allowing me to participate tonight, alongside of my esteemed colleagues.
1. Where are the answers?
In my case, and I think in yours, there are answers to the Israel-Palestine conflict in the Word of God. There are many other levels, of course – historical, political, military, etc. – but our focus and our authority will be the Bible. And from the gospel I offer you two basic truths:
First – “God’s people” today is not equivalent to the modern State of Israel; rather, we define “God’s people” as those who believe in Christ, no more and no less. As it says in Romans 9:24-26 – “even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? As he says in Hosea: “I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,” and, “In the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘children of the living God.’” And in Galatians 3:7 we have – “Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham.” That is the promise for the gentiles and the Jews who believe in Jesus, period; and there is no other manner for anyone, not even Israelites, to be saved, as some teach today, falsely teach, in my opinion. Any believer in Jesus is now a true descendant of Abraham. That is not Replacement Theology (or Supersessionism), by the way, as we shall now see, since:
Second – our other, corresponding, gospel truth is from Romans 11, which speaks of the olive tree, in which Gentile believers have been “grafted.” But in his conclusion, Paul adds a surprising note in Rom 11:23 – “And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” and 11:26 – “and in this way all Israel will be saved.” I take this passage, admittedly a difficult one, to predict a universal conversion of Israelites to Christ as an eschatological even at or around the Second Coming. Paul does not, however, speak of a return of Israel to the Land in unbelief, nor of any mandate to control both halves of Jerusalem, nor the need or desirability to build a Third Temple – the temple he is concerned with in his letters (1 Corinthians, Ephesians) is the temple that is the body of Christ.
2. How does the Bible help us to solve modern questions about the Middle East?
I am not at all convinced that current events in the Middle East are specifically predicted in the Bible; that is to say, I see little to nothing in the prophets that speaks directly to 2017, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ISIS, Iranian nuclear development, Iraq I, Iraq II, Afghanistan, and so forth. Taking the two truths described above as a basis, I will offer some brief thoughts to some of the main questions regarding Israel and Palestine, and will conclude my time with a positive suggestion. I will focus on Israel, because that’s the side that seems to interest my fellow Christians tonight.
Should Christians regard the modern state of Israel as God’s chosen nation? Or to use the language of one group, Christians United For Israel (CUFI), are we obligated “to stand with our brothers and sisters in Israel and to speak out on their behalf whenever and wherever necessary until the attacks stop and they are finally living in peace and security with their neighbors”? I say no, or at least I reject that this encapsulates the whole truth. I would suggest we say that, God’s ancient people will be redeemed in the End, when they come to Christ, but as of now the State of Israel has no special claim on our support, other than the justice we should seek for any nation; nor is it proper to call them “brothers and sisters” any more than we would say of any fellow human being. A commitment to the Bible does not lead one to “Christian Zionism.”
Should Christians defend Israel, just as some hid Jews during the Holocaust? I say that, yes, Christians are always obligated to defend the persecuted. If we are speaking of Nazi persecution, we would have been under the solemn obligation to defend and protect the 6 million Jews and the 5 million non-Jews, which included Slavs, Catholic leaders, Gypsies, the mentally and physically handicapped, and – oh, yes! – Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals. When ISIS looked about to exterminate thousands of Christians and Yazidis in August 2014, it was our obligation to pray for and aid all of them, despite the fact that theologically we Christians have been at odds with the Yazidis for almost 2000 years.
Does the modern state of Israel have an absolute, immediate right to annex all the territory God promised to Abraham, which would include not just all of Palestine but also parts of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria? I say no. In Genesis 15:18 God says to Abraham “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” This is repeated almost wholesale in Joshua 1:4 – “From the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, to the Great Sea in the west shall be your territory.” There are people who say that if Israel allows even a square meter of the West Bank to be under Palestinian control, then it is acting out of wickedness and unbelief. For example, in 1967 Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook argued that all land west of the Jordan had to be occupied by Israel: “Yes, where is our Hebron? Have we forgotten it? And where is our Shechem? And our Jericho? Will we forget them? And the far side of the Jordan, it is ours, every clod of soil, every region and bit of earth belonging to the Lord’s land. Is it in our hands to give up even one millimeter?”[i] To this I must say No. Israel has never in any one moment of time occupied all of the territory of these two texts; so why, all of a sudden, do they have to, are they obligated by God to, occupy Palestine and not, one should hasten to add, the areas of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and Egypt that are also implied?
Are the Palestinians an “invented” people, as said US politician Newt Gingrich? That they do not deserve a state, and should just pull up stakes and “go elsewhere”?[ii] I say no. There are 6 million Palestinian Arabs living in the region, many in refugee camps. Their people have been there for generations. It is correct to say that they haven’t been a nation or a state, but that is because they were part of the Ottoman Empire; the idea of a modern Arab state is only from the 20th century onward, but that doesn’t mean the Arabs didn’t live in those territories. Oddly enough, Gingrich is a fierce opponent of Russia’s occupation of the Crimea section of Ukraine, despite the parallels to the Middle East – in modern times, Ukraine has been a nation only since 1991; Russia claims that it needs its Crimea region for security reasons.
Is the State of Israel shrinking or being crowded out, as some imply? No indeed; and de facto it is growing, and rapidly. Since 1967 it has occupied all of the Palestinian territory as delineated by the UN, and also built settlements there. Israeli territory is growing; Palestinian is shrinking. As of July 2017, nearly half a million Jewish Israelis live in the Palestine territory, and soon will be the majority population. For a while it was feared that the Arabs were reproducing faster than the Jewish Israelis, but that has been reversed, in great part due to massive emigration to Israel.
Do all Israelis support the idea of annexing East Jerusalem and all of Palestine? No, and neither do I. In any given year only a minority push for that, for example, the political party Likud and the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And there is an excellent reason for rejecting the occupation or annexation of Palestinian territory: the original dream a century and more ago was for Jewish settlers to buy land and to start colonies of Jews. The dream of the state of Israel, which declared itself independent in 1948, was that Jews could have their own homeland. But if Israel does formally annex all the Palestinian territories, that will end the hope for a specifically Jewish homeland. If they want to remain a Jewish state, that will mean taking the vote away from non-Jews; or expelling 6 million Arabs, both Christian and Muslim ones. I don’t regard that as a workable idea and certainly not a just one.
Does Israel have the right to exist? Absolutely, and so do the Palestinians and the Costa Ricans and the Tibetans and the Ukrainians.
Is Israel merely a tool of Western imperialism? I say no, if it is imperialism it has been an extraordinarily poor investment and causes a hundred times more grief than good.
Is Israel more deserving of land? I have heard this argument that because they Palestinians did little to cultivate the land, and the Israeli settlers have made it thrive, that therefore the Israelis deserve to possess it. But let’s think through a parallel: what your response would be, if your neighbor demanded your garden because it had more weeds in it than his? Or if Mexico demanded Arizona because of the Hispanics who live in it? It is also visibly clear on inspecting the topography of Palestine, that much of its irrigation supply has been (unjustly) sluiced off to Israel and to the Israeli settlements and away from the Palestinians.
Have Jews invented the Holocaust in order to invade Arab land? No. And it’s grossly insulting to imply this. This is not just some conspiracy group that argues this, it is part of the education of many Arab children that the Holocaust is a myth; there are plenty of Americans who believe the same thing.[iii]
Does Israel have the right to defend itself? In a sense this is a loaded question, since it addresses only half the issue. Israel of course does have the right, and it has always defended itself. [iv] Militarily, Israel is easily the strongest hand in its region and, contrary to popular belief, it is the only Mideast state to possess nuclear weapons. Let me repeat that: in that region, only Israel possesses atomic bombs.
Should we pray for the peace of Jerusalem?[v] Absolutely, and I do. And as far as I can see in the Bible, that means praying for Israelis and Palestinians both. And for peace in other areas of war today. One book I have run into is titled “How to Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem: A Guide to Praying for Israel, Jerusalem and God’s Chosen People”[vi] – and that I cannot agree with, at least it is not a full picture of what the Christian should be doing in their prayers.
Should Israel give up land for peace? No to that question, but the question is a loaded one, and poorly expressed. Some Arabs want Israel completely off the land; the rest want Israel to pull back into the land that they were granted by the United Nations in 1948. So I would say, they should vacate land that is not theirs according to the 1948 UN decision.
Does Palestinian intransigence mean that there can never be a peace settlement? That is, as some imply, so long as Palestinian fanatics exist, does this mean that war must continue unabated? My response is No, and that such a worldview gives too much power to the few.
Is it possible to have peace in the Middle East now, or will it happen only when Christ returns? I say, Yes, peace is possible now, and I’m not sure why peace is put in such negative terms. The conflict in the Middle East is extremely convoluted, but so is much human conflict. The conflict in Northern Ireland was for decades a furious and fatal battle over religious, political, and territorial concerns, and yet that has been resolved to a great extent, as we shall see below. Israel and Egypt have been at peace, albeit an uneven one, for 40 years. Why not Israel and Palestine?
To sum up: in my opinion, Israel has the right to exist in peace as a nation, but should withdraw from occupied Palestinian territory and stop building settlements in it. Israel has pushed Palestinians off the land, occupied Palestine, and annexed land. It has no God-given right to immediately annex that land or other territory. Israel does have the right to defend itself. Palestinians also have the right to live on their territory, unoccupied by Israeli troops and with their own government. Both Israel and Palestine need to drop their persecution of Christians – and there is persecution from both Jews and Muslims, according to The Voice of the Martyrs.[vii] Both sides need to drop this “you go first” approach to diplomacy. The Arabs need to drop the revisionist dismissal of the Holocaust. Israel through its expansion and economic oppression and Palestine through its use of terror are both obligated by God to drop their injustices. And on practical terms, it will be a lot easier to reach a peace settlement with Palestine now than it will be in the future, given the population demographics.
3. What is a Christian plan for the Middle East?
I do not know that there is one unique Biblical plan for this or any other complex situations; nevertheless I believe that at least one plan is both biblical and sound: I am in agreement with the plan that the Israelis have a state and the Palestinians have a state, that is, I believe that the Two-State Solution is the wisest and practical strategy. It is the strategy that, at least in their public statements, Likud and PM Netanyahu say they believe in.
I know of no biblical reason for prohibiting the Palestinians from having their capital in East Jerusalem and Israel in the West part of the city.
At one time or another, there have been Israelis and Arabs willing to concede all of these points; the difficulty is that it is hard for everyone to be aligned in agreement at the same time, in particular after the conflicts in Gaza in 2014.
But the way of peace is also hindered by a group that should be seeking peace and pursuing it, that is, evangelical Christians. But in the USA and Israelis, who say that any concession in any way is a betrayal of God. This is the path of zealots that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70, by the way, as Josephus so carefully describes in Jewish Wars.
To give but one example of Christian Zionism, Pat Robertson of the 700 Club has said to a group of Israelis: “The Holy City of Jerusalem is our spiritual capital. And the continuation of Jewish sovereignty over the Holy Land is a further bulwark to us that the God of the Bible exists and that His Word is true…”[viii] Thus, or so runs this logic, if Israel makes any kind of concession on land, it will be a betrayal of God in favor of Allah. Well, I’m sorry, Pat Robertson, but the Holy City of Jerusalem is not my spiritual capital, nor does my faith in the Bible diminish because of peace negotiations.
The North American group “Christians United For Israel” (CUFI) and its leader John Hagee, the author of this book about the “Four Blood Moons,” states that his group exists to “interact with the government in Washington” and persuade it to, by his own faulty logic, “stop pressuring Israel to give up land for peace.” Why? Because, he argues, God gave them the land, therefore a human treaty cannot work.[ix]
Beyond this there is a lot of interest in the building of a Third Temple on the site of the other two, perhaps on the ruins of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Some rabbis think it must be done now, others that only when the Messiah comes will he build it. My opinion? The topic simply doesn’t interest me, and if it encourages people to believe that animal sacrifices are the way to atone for sin, it does them more harm than good. Personally, I am busy enough trying to figure out what it means for me to be a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19) to worry about a temple in Jerusalem.
Let’s look at this idea that one hears everywhere, that “The Middle East will never have real, lasting peace until Christ returns.”[x] This is repeated often, but just as often it is an unexamined belief. The assumption is that Jews, Muslims, and Christians cannot live side by side, whereas history has shown that that for long stretches they have.
Part of the issue is that many Christians read the Bible apocalyptically, and miss much of its real meaning. I believe in Bible prophecy, but, about 98% of what I read from online “prophecy experts” has nothing to do with Bible teaching. For example, the common notion that “Gog and Magog” are Russia is without evidence; Magog was in Western Turkey, but the Russia view became popular during the Cold War.[xi] Someone just told me that the destruction of Babylon in Jeremiah 50-51 is a nuclear attack on USA by Russia, even though in Jeremiah, Babylon is Babylon in the Middle East, and its destruction already happened 2500 years ago, as Jeremiah plainly stated, at the hands of the Medes.
Much weight is put on Daniel 9:27, which is not an easy passage to interpret, that “He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering.” And since I can remember, many presidents of the US has been thought to fulfill this, every time they seek to push through a peace treaty with Israel – thus Carter, Bush père, Clinton, Bush fils, Obama, Trump – this ought to make us wonder whether we are following the wrong method.
This is the “apocalyptic” method, whereby whatever the Bible says about the End Times must be about us, if not in 2017 than at least in the next decade. That Obama is antichrist, or Trump, or Prince Charles, or up until a few months ago King Juan Carlos. Or that Gog and Magog must be Russia, or Iran, or Syria.
The apocalyptic logic runs like this: if according to Daniel the anti-christ will want to promote peace, then any move toward peace is by definition anti-christian. If Israel pursues any sort of treaty with Palestine, it is a deal with the devil, just as it was wicked to make a deal with the Canaanites under the conquest by Joshua. This hasty generalization fails to take into account that peace in itself is hardly a satanic ideal, but a godly one; and that means that all things being equal, peace is a more desirable state than war.
4. A Modern Parallel – Northern Ireland
There are parallels that we could cite, of peace treaties that come about between nations in conflict. One example, of course, is close to home: in 1858 there was an agreement between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, el Tratado Cañas-Jerez to determine the boundary between them. There has been friction over the meaning of the treaty every since, especially in the last five years. Is it a perfect, permanent peace? No! Every few years someone invades a tiny island, someone claims to right to send boats up and down the Río San Juan. Like all peace, it is untidy, it is tangled. But don’t you see that, this is what peace looks like – it doesn’t mean that everyone joins hands and hugs each other and passes around cold beers; that’s not reality, because like war, peace is a messy business. But every day that we in Costa Rica are not exchanging rockets with Nicaragua, that day is a relative success.
Ireland and Britain had had problems for decades, especially from the 60s to the 90s – there were 3500 fatalities. Both sides had terrorists and bombings. The Troubles, as they were called, were thought to be unsolvable, in part because it was a war between Protestants and Catholics. “You are of the devil,” shouted one side; “You follow that antichrist, the Pope,” shouted the other. How in the world can you reconcile two groups, when each is sure that a treaty is a treaty with the Evil One? Finally, they signed the so-called “Good Friday Agreement” in 1998. It was not perfect, but casualties dropped precipitously. They still have to deal with violence, a lesser amount, and also poverty, especially among Catholics.
One of the leaders of the Protestants was a pastor named Ian Paisley. When we lived in Britain, we often saw him on the news. In a typical speech he spoke of “that “bloodthirsty, persecuting, intolerant, blaspheming, political, religious, papacy” with its “beads, holy water, holy smoke and stinks.” Later, he interrupted Pope John Paul II in the European Parliament with cries of “I denounce you as the Antichrist.”
He eventually changed his mind: “I believe that Northern Ireland has come to a time of peace, a time when hate will no longer rule. How good it will be to be part of a wonderful healing in our province.”[xii] He came to believe in effect that, I still think Catholics are completely wrong – but I don’t think we need to kill them, not today.
Is there perfect peace in Northern Ireland? No. Lasting peace? Maybe, maybe not; one can hope. But the basic fact is, that every year in which you have 3 fatalities instead of 300 – and those are the numbers we are talking about – that is relatively good news and to be embraced.
Can God bring about this sort of relative peace in Israel and Palestine, now, before the Second Coming? Yes. Because we have a God of power and of peace, and it is never naive to ask him for a miracle in the here and now.
[iv] Supposedly the whole world and its press are anti-Israel, but I noticed on CNN Monday morning [in November 2014] a news report that condemned certain Palestinians who had killed five people, including four rabbis, with an axe. “After the attack, Netanyahu ordered the demolition of the alleged attackers’ homes and arrested multiple members of each man’s family. He told reporters he would also demolish the homes of other Palestinians accused of recent attacks against Israeli citizens. ‘We will respond with a heavy hand to the brutal murder of Jews who came to pray and were met by reprehensible murderers,’ said Netanyahu.” See http://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/Netanyahu-orders-demolition-of-terrorists-homes-after-synagogue-attack-382155
[x] For example, http://www.evenatthedoors.com/nopeaceinisrael.html
“Israel and Palestine and a Hope for Peace,” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica