Our first reading was Deuteronomy 7:1 to 9, where the people recently set free from slavery in Egypt are commanded to commit genocide on the inhabitants of Canaan, their new “Promised” Land. It was an injunction faithfully followed by Europeans, who similarly saw themselves as “God’s People”, when they invaded and settled in the Americas and Australia. Exodus 23:29 to 33 is perhaps more historically realistic: “I will not drive them out before you in one year, or the land would become desolate and wild animals would multiply against you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased and possess the land.”
This contrasts starkly with other passages in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially Psalm 87, where many peoples: “Rahab and Babylon, Philistia, too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia” are counted as belonging to Zion (Jerusalem), in fact are counted as even having their birthright in the city: “’This one was born there’, they say….. The Lord records, as he registers the peoples ‘This one was born there’”. (verses 4 and 6). This vision of the union of all peoples, Jews and Gentiles, in the “Promised Land” and its Holy City, Jerusalem, stands in constant tension with the other, exclusive, vision of Israel in its homeland.
It is very clear that the present-day State of Israel is determined to follow the first vision, in its Exodus form at least, and that it repudiates the multi-national vision of Psalm 87. After the centuries-long experience of anti-semitism at the hands of so-called “Christian” Europe, culminating in the Nazi Holocaust of the 1940s, this is hardly surprising. That many Jews now demand as their birthright a place of absolute safety- which means a land which they control securely and can dominate, however many people of other races and faiths they permit to share that land with them- has become a fact of history. While the State of Israel is supported by powerful nations (notably, but not only, the United States) that will remain the case.
Challenges to that birthright are met with accusations of continuing anti-semitism. This is perhaps the reason that Marc Ellis, the US Jewish theologian, says that Palestinians are the final victims of the Holocaust.
But is that a vision that can build peace and justice in the Middle East? Or is it more likely, as some of the more lurid versions of “prophecy” predict, to lead to an ultimate cataclysmic conflict? The Zionist vision was bound to lead to resistance (peaceful or armed) on the part of the existing Palestinian population, and suppressing it by force into a despairing and deep-rooted resentment does not ensure lasting safety for those who use their power in that way.
Some Muslims are equally convinced that history (ie God) gave that land to Islam thirteen hundred years ago. The People of the Book (including Jews and Christians) are welcome to live there, provided they accept the Law of God as revealed through Mohammed. But an exclusively Jewish State is to be condemned and resisted, just as the “Christian” Crusader states had to be in the past.
We are called to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6). But true peace can only be built on justice. And what does true justice mean for Israel/Palestine today?