In the Hebrew Scriptures there are two (at least) contrasting images of what Israel could be. The first is in chapter 23 of the Book of Exodus:
I will send swarms of hornets in front of you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild animals multiply against you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land……They shall not live in your land, lest they make you sin against me, for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you. (verses 28 to 30 and 33).
Some scholars argue that this vision of an ethnically cleansed Palestine was never real history, but only a myth (see note below). But even if so it remains a powerful myth of Israel’s origins, influencing politics to this day.
The contrasting image is found in Psalm 87:
Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God. Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon; Philistia, too, and Tyre, with Cush— “This one was born there,” they say. And of Zion it shall be said, “This one and that one were born in it,” for the Most High himself will establish it. The Lord records, as he registers the peoples, “This one was born there.” (verses 3 to 6)
Here is a vision of a multi-ethnic community, to which all can belong, the hope of at least some early Zionists, who naïvely and paternalistically thought that the “natives” might welcome the “benefits” of European immigration, and failed to see the resentment caused as land was bought up from Ottoman owners, with families who had worked it for years evicted to make way for settlers. And any such early hopes were soon swept away as refugees from antisemitism and Holocaust saw Palestine as their only haven of safety and security, with the rights of Palestinians pushed aside.
The present Israeli government (and a substantial proportion of its people?) has no interest in this vision, and the actions of Hamas on October 7th have only increased their intransigence. Even if Israel succeeds in permanently silencing Hamas (which seems extremely unlikely) the question of any future settlement with the Palestinians remains unanswered and even more remotely distant.
But perhaps we need to listen to RS Thomas’ poem “The Kingdom” at this point:
“It’s long way off…. But to get there takes no time, … if you present yourself with your need only, and the simple offering of your faith, green as a leaf.”
(Note: for example “The Bible Unearthed” by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, published by Simon and Schuster in 2002)