A Christian Perspective On the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


Here’s a guest post from Peri. -BZ

A Christian Perspective On the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
by Peri Zahnd

There can’t be a holier place than the Holy Land, can there? We first visited the land of the Bible nearly twenty years ago, and it was a life-changing trip, 1996. Brian and I had gone on a Christian pilgrimage trip while we were in the midst of building our sanctuary and church building here at Word of Life. This building program that had stretched on for nearly two years had turned into a nightmare. We had given all our savings to the building program, and could never have even considered the trip if complete strangers had not arranged to have our way fully paid.

The trip was a surprise gift that came right out of heaven, a chance for a true rest from the relentless stress. From the very first day we were somehow able to forget everything we had left behind. (Even our three boys!) We both went asking God to speak to us and renew our hope — to do something special for us. And he did. I remember walking through the woods of the northern Galilee to an archaeological site that was being excavated — the ruins of the ancient city of Dan, the northernmost point of the land to which Abraham had been called. Archaeologists had found the gate, the four thousand year old gate of that ancient walled city and had exposed it to view. I stood in awe, looking right at the very stones that the Patriarch Abraham had walked on when he first set foot in the land of the Canaanites, the Promised Land.

Something deep inside me shifted when I saw that gate. My perspective changed. I had always believed in Abraham, I believed the Bible, I believed it was possible to walk by faith and do by the help of God what we could not accomplish on our own. But when I saw that gate, I somehow knew it more deeply than ever before. Four thousand years ago, a man had heard the voice of God deep in his soul, and in obedience to that voice had somehow taken the world to a new place. Much more than the astronaut Neil Armstrong, his was “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The ability to know and interact with God in a new way, the way of faith. The man Abraham emerged from the pages of a book and I perceived his humanity, that he was subject to the same limitations as I was but somehow transcended them. He was real. And he lived and walked by faith. Abraham, by faith, did what he was called to do, and somehow, by faith, Brian and I would do what we were called to do. Brian had his own moment of divine connection on the trip. That’s his story, not mine to tell here, but the bottom line was that we would return back home and finish this building to the glory of God. We left with a resurrected hope that we would and could walk with God, and God would help us. And we did, and He did. So help me God!

That first trip in February 1996 hooked us. We went home, and what had been so hard, what had been so impossible, was suddenly easy — it was as if the building completed itself. We moved in here mere weeks later, finishing within a few months, and celebrated by bringing a busload of our church members back to the Holy Land in November of that year. And we have continued to do so over a dozen times since. We go again and again, and I’ve found that because we are always taking new people to see the same places we’ve seen again and again, those places never get old, because we get to see them again for the first time through the eyes of others. The Galilean villages where Jesus healed the sick and cast out demons, the Sea of Galilee where he calmed the storm and walked on water, the Mount of Beatitudes where he preached the most famous sermon of all time. The ancient city of Jerusalem founded by King David three thousand years ago, the same city where Jesus would be crucified, buried, and three days later resurrected. No, it never gets old, it’s the most magical and engaging place in the world.

A month ago today, I returned, not leading a group with Brian, but as a participant in a group of Christian women leaders. We were going on a pilgrimage not to places, but to people. The Holy Land is home to the most diverse peoples in the world. It is populated by Jews, Christians, Muslims — by Europeans and Arabs and Americans and Africans, and everything in between. Our tour was sponsored and led by a former White House staffer and State Department employee whose specialty was the Middle East. After his job ended in 2008, he formed an NGO to educate Americans on the complexities of the Israeli/Palestinian divide. He put together an itinerary for our group meeting with and talking to a huge range of people, from a retired career military Israeli general to Palestinian mothers to Jewish settlers who have befriended their neighbors in Palestine.

On the very first day we were scheduled to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. I have visited Yad Vashem many times, and we always take our groups there. It is important that we never forget the unbelievable suffering inflicted by what was considered the most educated, advanced Christian nation in the world at that time, Nazi Germany. It’s important that we never forget that those who claim to be followers of Jesus can be horribly deceived — can do horrible things. It’s important that we remember that it wasn’t just the Holocaust that led to the need for a Jewish homeland, but two thousand years of anti-Semitism and persecution of Jews throughout Christian Europe. The Zionist movement calling the Jews to the Holy Land began in the late 19th century in response to unrelenting persecution, and the Holocaust only increased the sense of urgency.

And so I went to Yad Vashem. To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t actually toured Yad Vashem in a while. It had become just too painful. I rationalized that I had spent enough time seeing pictures of all those people hauled off like sheep to the slaughter. I once devoured Holocaust literature, but there came a time when I hit a wall emotionally. I just couldn’t do it anymore. For several years as the people we led on pilgrimage visited Yad Vashem, I snuck away and avoided it. The Holocaust was the very worst atrocity of the bloodiest, most violent century the world has ever seen. The twentieth century is testimony that is time for humanity to deal with their violence, the violence that not only destroys victims, but ultimately destroys the perpetrators.

I hadn’t been in a while, but I decided that if I was here to understand modern Israel, I needed to see this pictorial history of their suffering once again. So I went to Yad Vashem that day, and saw and felt once again the awful violence and the tragedy of so many lives lost in such a beastly, inhuman way. People acting as less than animals, cruelly torturing and taunting, maiming and finally killing, filled with hate towards human beings bearing the image of God. They killed indiscriminately, even and especially children, babies, the elderly, the crippled, and the handicapped.

Yad Vashem. The building the museum is housed in is a marvel of architectural genius. As you begin to walk through, and as the displays chronicle the buildup of anti-Semitism and German nationalism, the floor slopes lower and lower into the earth, until finally you are walking on bare cement, surrounded by ugly cement walls on all sides, simulating the prisons that the Jewish people found themselves trapped in. The lights are dim, there is no exposure to sunlight, and you feel trapped. For two and a half hours we walked through the displays with a very knowledgeable guide giving us commentary. It was a chronological pictorial history of the years of anti-Semitism, the buildup of the Nazi party, and the systematic killing of six million Jews. There was nothing enjoyable about the exhibit, but at the end a sense of hope that after all that evil, the Jews would emerge and once again live and thrive in the world. At the end, the floor began to slope up, we moved off the hard cement onto soft carpet, the dim lighting began to grow brighter, and then the walls opened up as we exited outside to a beautiful wide-angle vista of the modern state of Israel. It was inspiring, dramatic, and beautiful. And the triumph of the Jewish people is precisely that — inspiring, dramatic, and beautiful.

I love the Jewish people. I love the state of Israel. There is something wonderfully unique about that land — it’s holy, it’s mysterious, it’s beautiful. But there is something deeply troubling about Israel, something you just can’t ignore. It’s the fact that there is another people — another ethnicity, encompassing two other religions — who live in the land in a way eerily similar to the museum that so inspired me. They live trapped behind walls, imprisoned. They live in Gaza, they live in the West Bank, they are the Palestinians. They are, for the most part, not citizens of Israel, but subjugated, victims, and suffering.

I’m going to give a little history here, and I’ll try to make it as non-complicated as possible. But the truth is that it is very complicated. It is confusing, and there are a million ways to tell the story. It’s challenging, in fact impossible, to tell the story in a way that another can’t argue with and contradict. I’ll do my best, please give me some grace.

There have always been at least a remnant of Jews living in this land, and there have always been Arabs. In 1900, Arabs made up well over 90% of the population. In the late 1800s, the Zionist movement was born in response to that unrelenting anti-Semitic persecution throughout Europe. Jews from all over the world began to migrate to the land which had been ruled for the past 400 years by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. That empire disintegrated in World War I, and the British Empire took their turn running Palestine. From 1917 to 1948, the British mandate ruled.

In 1947, there were 400,000 Jews living in Palestine, and 800,000 Palestinians — Arabs —  a mix of Muslims and Christians, ruled by their British occupiers. Britain had been devastated by World War II and were retreating from their colonies all over the world — India, Africa, Asia, and also Palestine. In 1948 came a bloody War of Independence, the Jewish forces gained the victory, and the new state of Israel was formed. 700,000 of those 800,000 Palestinians became refugees in camps registered with the United Nations. They were forced into the area known as the West Bank, and a much smaller area known as the Gaza Strip. The border between Israel and the Palestinian territories was established and called the Green Line.

Here’s a quick, four-minute video that I think is really helpful:

Today, the population of Israel is 8.2 million, 20 percent (1.6 million) of that population is Arab Israeli, mostly living in the Galilee and in mixed towns like Jaffa and Nazareth. Keep in mind that the 1.8 million people living in Gaza, and the 2.8 million living in the West Bank are NOT included in that number — they are NOT citizens; if they were, Arabs would be much closer to 50% of the total population. There are huge political implications to those demographics in a democracy.

In case you’re not confused enough, I’ll try a little harder to get you there! (Remember I said this story is extremely complicated, confusing, and, just in case you didn’t know, it’s WAY controversial.) There are four different political statuses that Palestinian people living in Israel and the occupied territory have:

1) Arab Israelis have citizenship and passport to travel, but feel like second class citizens because of the Jewish Law of Return that may strip them of land and because of uneven allocation of resources to areas with high Arab populations. (1.6 million people)

2) Residents of Arab East Jerusalem can vote in Jerusalem municipal elections, but not in national elections. They do not have citizenship or passport, just a green card-like status. They can work and travel freely within Israel, but if they go abroad to work or study, they risk having their rights revoked and not being allowed to return. Many work in the restaurants and hotels we’ve stayed in with our groups. (200,000 people)

3) West Bank Palestinians are not free to travel in Israel, and must have papers to go through checkpoints within the West Bank. They can only work in or visit Israel by receiving a permit from the Israeli military. They cannot vote, and do not serve in the military. They are treated as a foreign and potentially threatening population. They have no political or civil rights in Israel. (2.8 million people)

4) Gazans are essentially imprisoned within Gaza, and are only allowed to leave with military approval for extreme reasons. Israel grants very few exit permits. Gazans have very little access to the outside world, including the West Bank. Families have been separated for years. (1.8 million people)

Most Palestinians live at a far lower standard of living than their Israeli neighbors. The provision of basic utilities, water and electricity, is extremely inconsistent. I visited a refugee camp in Bethlehem — it was cold. Imagine a concrete house with no heat and temperatures in the 40s. Imagine no water for days in a row — routinely shut off by the government. I tried and tried to get an answer for this — and every answer from anyone was unacceptable and politically charged. But imagine having to get up in the middle of the night when you once again hear the water running in the pipes, unexpectedly turned on by the authorities. You have to do your laundry right then, fill water pots right then, because you never know how long it will be on. Imagine raising your family in those conditions — not for a weekend, but a lifetime.

And this is Bethlehem. Gaza is far worse. Brian and I were there in 2006 and it was awful. The streets are so full of big potholes you can’t drive more than a few miles an hour. Bombed-out buildings and half-finished construction projects, abandoned for lack of building materials. More children than I’ve ever seen anywhere. More people crammed into fewer square miles than anywhere else in the world. And the people were……just people. We went to a restaurant where we had one of the best meals of our lives. We met wonderful people very committed to peace, working hard to raise their families. We met Dr. Zuhair, a pharmacist running an NGO committed to peace. He’s a Muslim. He has a wife and two young children. Dr. Zuhair has a passport and received his education in Libya. But his wife has no papers, no country. She can never leave Gaza under existing laws, and neither can his children. It’s heartbreaking, and there is nothing fair about it. That was 2006. There have been two wars since then. Bombs have fallen. There has been very little reconstruction. It is hard to imagine what it might be like. We can read news stories about it, and we should. We can become friends, online, with people all over the world. With the internet, the world is a much smaller place.

What’s the solution? I don’t know. I’m not a politician. No one agrees. It’s complicated. When people talk about a two-state solution, they mean giving Palestinians the right to rule themselves independently, to have a nation of their own. When people talk about a one-state solution, they mean giving citizenship and equal rights to the Palestinians in Israel. The status quo is that these people are without nationality, without rights, without representation. There are many, many Israelis who believe a two-state solution is the right way to go. There are those who believe in a one-state solution. There are those who say the only way Israel can be safe is for it to continue to keep Palestinian people under their control and that to give them more freedom is to threaten national security. There are those who say that the greatest threat to the viability of Israel is the continued oppression which will eventually end in war. Jesus says something like this in Luke 19, as he wept over Jerusalem, saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace!” Jesus warned them of their impending destruction by Rome— he saw it coming. And it came to pass forty years after Jesus’s death —  70 AD —  utter destruction.

I met a retired Israeli military general who essentially said the same thing — failure to find a path to peace and a resolution to the conflict is the greatest threat to Israel’s viability. He was over 80 years old, and said it had been a long painful journey for him to arrive at the point of being critical of his government, but he is now. Does that make him a traitor to Israel? No! He was simply speaking out of love in the tradition of all the Hebrew prophets who were constantly calling Israel to repent and forsake injustice. That is what a prophet is, that is what a prophet does — out of love for his people. A prophet criticizes from the inside, as one who belongs; a cynic criticizes from the outside, coldly and without love.

What would Jesus say? What does the Bible say? It is absolutely true that the Bible says that God gave the land to the Jewish people through Abraham. No one can argue with that.

God spoke to Abraham, “I will give the entire land of Canaan, where you now live as a foreigner, to you and your descendants. It will be their possession forever, and I will be their God.” Genesis 17:8

It would be easy to stop right here with the popular evangelical aphorism “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” (which is not in the Bible, just in case you didn’t know) It is sometimes very comforting to pull a single verse out of scripture and to use this trite little statement so that we don’t have to wrestle with hard and complicated issues. We could all close our Bibles and go home. We don’t have to think — we can wash our hands and be done with it. It’s much easier, but… is it the Jesus way? Is it the whole of the message being imparted to us by the Bible?

Yes, God gave Abraham the land, but he did it so that Abraham could eventually bless all the nations of the earth!

And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great — and so you shall be a blessing!!! Genesis 12:2

And this one?

Through you, Abraham, all the nations of the earth will be blessed. Galatians 3:8

Deuteronomy 7 says it wasn’t because Abraham was mighty that he was chosen — he was chosen when he didn’t even have a family, and when that family grew they were still the most insignificant of all the peoples — in fact, they were slaves in Egypt. God is always about raising up the oppressed, bringing them out of bondage. The Jews are blessed to be a blessing. We can never use the Bible to justify injustice. The Jews are constantly reminded throughout Scripture, never forget that you were strangers in a strange land. Never forget what it was like. The message of Jesus was “Never forget to treat others as you would like to be treated.” There is nothing like our own experience of oppression, our own pain, to teach us love and compassion.

The Jews were horribly persecuted and the Holocaust was one of the worst sins every sinned. I’m so glad they have a place to live free. But Jesus shows us that the oppressed must never become the oppressors. God calls all the world to REPENT, to RETHINK. It’s not a matter of those on the bottom finally getting their chance to be on top. God calls us to another way of living, the Jesus way.

One of the best examples of this happening in a national way is what happened in South Africa following apartheid, when Nelson Mandela, following 27 years of imprisonment with hard labor, was released and elected the first president of the new republic. It required prophetic imagination on the part of the new leadership, and it is a shining example of what could also happen in Israel. This story is told in a fabulous book by Brian Zahnd — Unconditional? in the chapter, “No Future Without Forgiveness.” (anybody ever heard of him?) ?

I met so many wonderful men and women of God who are working for peace in Israel. I wish I could introduce you to the people involved in the Parents Circle — people who have come together around their shared pain — Israelis and Palestine ans who have lost beloved family members to the violence — Jews, Christians, and Muslims who have found a very sad reason to come together, and who have learned the only way forward is to come together and forgive, to lay down their anger and their violence and their desires for retribution. I wish I could introduce you to the women of Musalaha — Jewish followers of Jesus who are joining together with Palestinian followers of Jesus to find common ground and to get to know one another. You can’t love someone you don’t know.

More crazy stuff — it is very logistically difficult to find places in the land where Palestinians and Israelis can meet together. That’s hard for Americans to understand. But this is a very divided land. We drove on highways through the West Bank that are for Israeli vehicles only, joining Israeli settlements to one another. Palestinian vehicles are not allowed. Palestinians vehicles are often forced to drive for hours around these roads to go to another Palestinian town which is only a short distance away. I saw a curious sight as we were moving slowly through traffic on one of these highways — two ambulances pulled over to the side of the road. Attendants were transferring an old man on a stretcher from one ambulance to another. What?? I asked the Palestinian man we were traveling with. He shrugged his shoulders and said it was hard to tell — maybe an Arab ambulance that was not permitted on that road. This is inconceivable to us, this was commonplace to the man I was asking.

I wish I could tell you about so many, but I only have time for a few. I went two days early with a friend who had never been to Israel, and I spent two days showing her the Old City of Jerusalem. We struck up several conversations with people we met there. One man who was trying to give us directions to a particular church asked if we were Christians, and when we said yes, he said enthusiastically that he was a Jewish believer in Jesus! That’s always exciting to hear. We talked about Jesus for a few minutes — and he told me his testimony of coming to faith in Jesus. I said, with complete sincerity, “That’s so awesome, and now that you’re a follower of Jesus, tell me about the fellowship you have with your Palestinean brothers and sisters in Christ?”

The tone of the conversation immediately changed. He was no longer happy and excited, but angry. He said, “Well, I guess they’re all right, as long as they don’t think they have claims to the land. It’s ours!” and then I watched him get all worked up and he shouted a little bit and said, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars (a snippet of Scripture) that’s GOD!! God’s doing that! God’s stirring it up! God’s about to come back and clean up and set things right!”

The man was angry. And the man believed in an angry God. It was obvious. And when you believe in a God who will resort to violence in the end, you can justify just about anything, you can justify your own violence. I saw so very clearly on this trip how eschatology matters. Your beliefs about God’s eternal purposes and what will happen in the future form your image of God, and we will ultimately act in the way we imagine God acting.

I had a similar experience the next day. We met a man on the street who identified himself as a Messianic believer. He was an old man, had lived in the Holy Land his whole life, even before 1948. He told me the story of having an experience in prayer where Jesus was made real to him. It made me happy! We were all smiley together. ? And then I asked him the same question I’d asked the man yesterday — “now that you’re a follower of Jesus, tell me about the fellowship you have with your Palestinian brothers and sisters in Christ?”

He stopped being smiley. He got angry. He said, “they’re not real Christians, they’re just fakes!” I said, “Oh, I know many wonderful Palestinian Christians — who have dedicated their lives to following Jesus.” He said it again — “Fakes!” and then he yelled it. “Fakes!!!” He was really working himself up, and I saw there was no arguing. I said it was nice to meet you, and then he lowered his voice and said, “Before you go, maybe you’d like to buy a nice Jerusalem cross?” He pulled some necklaces from his pocket and tried to sell me one. I understand, we’ve all got to make a living. We got away as soon as we could, but my heart was really troubled. I wondered, “What good has this man’s relationship with Jesus done him?”

Later, when we met with the women of Musalaha, I told one of the leaders about these two men I met. I was hoping she’d tell me that was an unusual and unfortunate incident. But she told me that the vast majority of Israeli messianic believers are anti-Palestinian. She told me their nationalistic identities run deeper than their Christian identities do. That’s very, very sad.

But the hopeful thing is the wonderful people I met who are followers of the Prince of Peace. I met the president of the Arab Bible Society. She is a marginalized among the marginalized among the marginalized. What do I mean about that? She is a Palestinian in a Jewish state. She is a Christian in an ethnicity that is largely Muslim. And she is a woman in a world that frequently considers women to be inferior to men. She is a great woman of prayer and humility, and I believe it is through women like her that beauty will save the world.

We were in Israel right before the biggest elections in a long time. We were in Israel while Benjamin Netanyahu was in America addressing Congress. I think that the message that Americans hear is that he represents all of Israel. No one I talked to in America knew there was a demonstration the Saturday night after his address, where 50,000 people gathered in Tel Aviv to protest Netanyahu’s policies. Fifty thousand is a huge number in a country the size of Israel. They are part of the peace movement there, and there are people from all walks of life.

I’m not sure what’s going to happen in Israel. But I will continue to pray for peace. I’m praying too for the peacemakers in Israel and the West Bank, may they be strengthened and encouraged, and increase in number. I’m praying especially that the frustration and anger of the Palestinian people will not be channeled into further violence.

I’m excited about taking another group to Israel in November. We won’t change much of the itinerary. I was encouraged on this trip that we do a lot of things right. Our primary goal for our pilgrimage trips is to show people the land where the events of the Bible took place. But it’s also important to know what the current situation is, and to be workers for peace rather than simply perpetuating the status quo.

I want to reiterate how deeply I love Israel. I want to reiterate how shameful the fact that it was Christians down through the ages who have persecuted the Jews the most, setting into motion the need for a Jewish homeland. I want to set the record straight that I am pro-Israel. But I am also pro-Palestine. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Christians are not called to take Israel’s side, but to imitate Israel’s Messiah.

I know that being a peacemaker includes speaking up, and not being silent. It’s opening oneself up to criticism, something I’m very sensitive to. It would be so much easier to close my eyes and ignore those suffering in the world, but that’s not the Jesus way. Jesus didn’t close his eyes to the sin in the world. He came to show us the way out, the way of peace. He made a way where there seemed to be no way. And He can show the world a way out of the mess that is the Middle East, if we will only follow it. I want to do my part.

Peri Zahnd

????? ?????? ?????  BLOOMBERG NEWS