I have been wary of writing anything about the situation in Israel and Palestine. Mainly because I didn’t sense I had anything much of value to add, if I’m being honest. I don’t think I’ve got anything new to say that hasn’t been said before so far as the situation is concerned. So I won’t really say much about that here. But because there is something I do want to say that pertains to it, I suppose it would be right to put my broad position here before going on. So here it is.
I am quite happy to call Hamas a terrorist organisation as the UK, EU and US all legally determine them to be. I am quite comfortable calling their recent actions – which sparked the latest issues – a terrorist atrocity that warrants a specific response from Israel. I am sad – as anybody should be sad – that there will now be loss of life both in Israel and Gaza, of both Israelis and Palestinians. I see no contradiction between viewing Hamas and their recent action as terrorism that warrants a response, the legitimacy of an Israeli response and recognising that the death that will occur is necessarily sad. I do not think anything Israel might do is necessarily legitimate, but I am fairly confident (unless they choose to indiscriminately carpet bomb the entire surface area of Gaza without warning) what they will do is not morally equivalent to the actions that have most recently occurred against them.
I am not an ideological Zionist. I do not think Jewish people – any more than Black, Caucasian or Asian people – have an inherent right to their own land. I am, I suppose, what you might call a pragmatic Zionist inasmuch as I cannot see how Jews – who have faced such Jew-hatred and hostility against them – can possibly feel safe apart from a land of their own. I am, I guess, somewhere close to the position that Danny Finkelstein described his grandfather held here. He says:
My mother’s father, Alfred Wiener, had been one of the leaders of Germany’s Jews in the 1920s and 1930s and articulated the view of most German Jews at that time, though by no means all of them. He supported those Jews who wanted to settle in Palestine, but he didn’t support the creation of a Jewish state there.
As I relate in my recent family memoir, Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad, in 1927 Alfred published a highly successful book based on his travels in Palestine. He argued strongly against the Zionist project. There were, he said, too many Jews in Europe to fit into such a tiny area, the economic ideas of the settlers were utopian, and (he was a considerable Arabic scholar) peace with Palestinian Arabs would be hard to come by. His critics said that his survey of the area was biased and described him as “one of the leaders of German anti-Zionism”.
The great tragedy for the Jews is that while Alfred was right about the difficulty of Jews living safely in Palestine, the Zionists were right about the impossibility of Jews living safely in Alfred’s Berlin. The tension between Alfred’s view that Jews belonged in Germany and the reality of the rise of the Nazis contributed to the nervous collapse he suffered in 1933. It was a challenge to all he had stood for. A challenge to his very identity.
By the end of the war he had gone beyond this. The death and displacement of millions, including so many who were close to him, made him a pragmatic supporter of a state of Israel. It seemed to him obvious that there had to be an answer to the question asked by the Brinnlitz prisoners. Where do we go now? My paternal grandfather, also not a Zionist before the war, felt the same.
So we became a Zionist family, having never been one. We did not move to Israel because (unlike many others) we had alternatives. But we supported its creation, regarding it as an obvious necessity. A century of slaughter and oppression of Jews, culminating in the Holocaust, had made the case for a safe space for Jews unanswerable. And the repeated failings of other states to open themselves to Jews, even when they knew of mass murder, meant that this safe space would have to be a Jewish state.
If you are able (it is behind a paywall) I would encourage you to read the article. He says more than this and, by and large, it is where I stand. That is what I mean by not being so much an ideological Zionist so much as a pragmatic one.
I equally support the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination too. I think the answer (if there is to be one) has to be a two, or even three, state solution. How that is to be achieved is beyond my ken. I am not unaware of the various offers of an independent state for Palestine that have been rejected. I am similarly conscious that Hamas in particular are not, when all is said and done, open to a two-state solution. They do not chant ‘from the river to the sea’ for nothing and that does not leave any room – despite the protestations of some – for Israel to exist. Unless that can be addressed, a two-state solution seems unattainable.
However, I am not blind to various wrongs committed by Israeli governments. It bear saying, I can understand the twitchiness of a nation, surrounded by those who do not want them to exist, who have rockets permanently trained on them and who have terror organisations – like Hezbollah and Hamas – sponsored by other states in the region *cough* Iran. It doesn’t take a genius to understand how heavy-handedness and disproportionate responses might end up being a feature of such a nation. I can have some sympathy with that, whilst acknowledging some of what is and has been done is not justifiable. Again, acknowledging such things more generally ought not to be contentious nor diminish Israel’s legitimate and justifiable right to respond to the terrorist atrocities recently committed by Hamas.
Those are my broad views. In sum, I think there are good pragmatic reasons for the State of Israel to exist and I think there is no legitimate way to totally unpick what has been internationally recognised for 75 years. Israel is a legitimate nation, we cannot displace all of its people no matter how sympathetic we may be to the Palestinian cause and we must defend its right to exist. I long for a two (or three) state solution. I, sadly, can’t see a realistic prospect of that happening, certainly not as long as Hamas exist. Even if they did not, it saddens me all the more that the future does not look bright in that regard.
Now, as I said at the top, I had nothing new to say. I don’t think any of that is unique. You will find those views available, in one form or another, in lots of other places. What I wanted to speak into is some of the bad argument that sometimes gets us to the same place. As I see it, there are essentially three angles cited in support of any given position. There is the political, the moral and the theological. These are the bases on which people argue for or against Israel, for or against an independent Palestine.
My argument for the existence of Israel and the legitimacy of their state is essentially a combination of political and moral arguments. You can hold my view on Israel and come at the question from any or no theological viewpoint and land in the same place. My case is essentially a pragmatic, political case with a moral edge. If you recognise the moral case for a place of safety for the Jewish people, especially in light of their historic treatment, the state of Israel is a pragmatic political solution. We need no reference to the scriptures to make it. We might feel the need to reference scripture to make the moral case that killing Jews is bad, and not allowing them to live in safety is unbiblical, but I’d venture general revelation, the existence of universal moral norms and conscience should suffice.
But I do notice some, in hoping to bolster their case for Israel, also co-opt the scriptures to make their case. Often, in my view, co-opting them in ways they were not intended to be used. There are, of course, the dispensationalists who do so. Much as I disagree with their approach to scripture, I am not really talking about them because they do at least have a system on which they are relying to make their case. I don’t agree with their framework but they are at least being consistent with it when they make their case on Israel. I am talking more about those Reformed believers who start sounding remarkably dispensational or begin using scripture in ways that, on any other issue, they would think the bible handling to be shoddy.
I suspect the cause is an emotive desire to strengthen their case. And let’s be honest, we are dealing with emotive issues here and I understand the heavy investment. But I don’t think we should badly handle the scriptures in order to bolster a case we want to make. I think those of us who are of a Reformed bent – who believe in an Old and a New Covenant – need to make sure we aren’t mishandling the Word of God in order to bolster what is essentially a political argument, albeit a potentially right and legitimate one.
I do not think it is antisemitic to apply our theological understanding and framework to the Old Testament and argue that it may not be intended to apply today. I don’t think it is anti-Israel to insist that typological scriptures that we believe have been fulfilled in Christ, or are types of a particular thing, may not apply to the situation in front of us today with the State of Israel. I do not think it is being very careful with the Word of God to co-opt it to make a case about modern Israel by using scriptures that we would, in other circumstances, insist have been fulfilled in Christ or point in some way to the church.
It is perfectly possible to support the State of Israel’s right to exist, to support a homeland for modern Jewish people, without making those arguments. Indeed, I do not think it helps us to make those sort of theological arguments to bolster our case. Such arguments – if they are taken out of context – undermine our regular teaching and evangelistic witness. We cannot expect people to trust us with the scriptures if we employ poor hermeneutics publicly and regularly on this issue.