I have been to Israel three times. I have stayed in the West Bank, and I have stayed in Israel. I have talked with Palestinians in a refugee camp, and I have spoken with Israeli settlers in the West Bank. I have met Palestinian Christians and Palestinian Muslims. I have heard from former Israeli soldiers who decry the treatment of Palestinians, and I have heard the presentation of the birth of the State of Israel in Independence Hall in Tel Aviv. I have traveled in Israel with a wonderfully insightful Modern Orthodox rabbi, and with mainline Protestants who sympathize much more strongly with Palestinians.
While I am not an expert on the State of Israel or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I do have opinions based upon my limited experience in the region and my study of relevant history. One thing that has become very clear to me is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no simple two-sided dispute. There is a broad spectrum of opinions and perspectives driving this conflict, and most Americans have no idea of the complexity of the issues. With regard to the recent article published by Ministry Matters, “There’s Only One Side to Pick in Israel vs. Palestine,” yes, I agree that we should be on the side of peace. But what would that look like, and how can it be achieved?
Israel engages in actions that are unnecessarily brutal and oppressive, as many of my mainline sisters and brother are quick to point out. Quite a number of them are in favor of divestment from companies that support the Israeli occupation (itself a loaded term) of Palestine. I am 100% with them in their claim that Israel should back off of these tactics, which have been well-publicized over the last several years. By the same token, I would like to see more denunciation from mainliners of acts of terrorism committed against Israel. As we mourn the unnecessary loss of Palestinian lives, let’s not forget the many Israelis who have died at the hands of terrorists. If we had to live with the threat of bombs going off in buses and marketplaces, or rockets being lobbed into our neighborhoods, perhaps the Israeli perspectives would be more understandable.
All this having been said, we must reckon with the elephant the room in any discussion of Israeli politics: between 1933 and 1945, 6 million Jews were systematically rounded up, imprisoned, and murdered. This amounted to about one-third of the Jews in Europe. One of the greatest atrocities in human history was perpetrated against the Jewish people, and the Holocaust itself was the end result of a long trajectory of European anti-Semitism. When the Holocaust was finally brought to an end, it was more abundantly clear than ever before that Jewish people could not rely upon the international community to protect them. If they did not protect themselves, no one would. And to this very day, this conviction stands as a bedrock doctrine of the State of Israel.
What happened to Jews in the holocaust will never happen again. Never. This really hit home for me the first time I went through Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum and research center in Jerusalem. This is an emotionally devastating place. If you go, you will leave feeling emptiness, despair, anger, and confusion–but you should go anyway. As part of their training, IDF soldiers are taken through the museum, learning once again the story of the Shoah and the core conviction of Israeli politics: Israel must stand as a beacon of hope and an iron wall of protection for Jews.
Apart from the existence of the State of Israel, could the Holocaust ever happen again? Think of Bosnia. Think of Rwanda. Yes, it could happen again. The Israelis know it. They are constantly aware that they are surrounded by countries that that range in their attitude toward Israel from begrudging co-existence to extreme hostility. They are aware of Arab leaders and Muslim clerics who deny the Holocaust. They remember the Six-Day War of 1967, which resulted from the aggression of Arab countries around Israel and brought about Israeli control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to begin with.
To hear some of our mainline Protestant sisters and brothers talk, you would think that what Palestinians want is simply equal rights, perhaps through a two-state solution. In some cases this is true, but in others it is not. Many Palestinians want their ancestral lands back. They want the “right of return.” The only problem is, they lost this land either by decree of the UN or through warfare (that Israel did not initiate). There are Israelis living on it now. Some Palestinians wish for the total dissolution of the State of Israel, which is not unrelated to the right of return.
When I see some of the tactics employed by the Israelis against Palestinians, I cringe. I am not suggesting for a minute that the Israelis are without blame in this conflict. But before we begin to fly the Palestinian flag in the name of social justice, let’s remember how we got here to start with. Let’s also proceed with a bit of humility. Without living there, or at least spending significant time there, it is virtually impossible for us to understand the complexity of this conflict. Unlike many of my mainline Protestant sisters and brothers, I’m not interested in divesting from Israel. Yes, I want the abuses and excesses to stop, and I don’t know how or when that is going to happen. A sufficient concept of social justice regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, should involve cognizance of the complexity of these matters.