There's no visiting the Holy Land without reflecting on the sad reality of divisions and bitter memories of hurts and injustice that never die, and that are fed constantly with promises of impossible resolution.
I am speaking, of course, of the conflicts between Jew, Muslim and Christian; of Israeli and Arab. The hostilities and hurts that stalk this land. Only the land itself is older.
First, let's be very clear: this is a deeply complicated situation. Lots of people will assure you how clear the facts are, the obvious wrongs and manifest justice. I make no such claims.
Let me approach this from several angles. Bear with me.
For about two weeks, we had a tour guide who accompanied us everywhere. He is an Arab Christian; in time, we discovered he is Armenian, but his family came to be here under the Ottoman Empire. It didn't take long before we could pick up his biases, but he tried to keep them to a minimum.
Several times, however, he spoke about the various conflicts between Israel and the Arab states since 1948; and he pretty much blamed Israel. As he saw it, the 1948 war was because "Israel declared independence." And he made a startling admission: "if all the Arabs had been united, there wouldn't have been a State of Israel." I call that startling, because it didn't seem to me that the idea bothered him in the least.
In my younger days, I've have argued with him. But I didn't come here to argue, and I wasn't going to change his mind. Arguing with him would only cause a big distraction. So I let that (and other comments I thought were biased) go.
But before you judge him too harshly, consider this. He told us his personal story: of "the great cost" he has paid for remaining in the Holy Land. "I lost my family." He has five children, and even though they were all born here, they are not allowed to return--except for visits.
Now, it may be his version of his story leaves out key details. But if he is an honest, albeit biased, man, then his story stands for what it is.
Next let me share some comments some friends made on Facebook. One said, in response to one of my posts there, "there is no Palestine." Another friend said this: "They aren't Palestinian lands! Palestinians didn't exist! It was Israel for thousands of years!"
Now, I offer what follows, mindful that these friends may read this.
There are people who live between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, who are not Jews, are not Israelis, who are Arabs. If they are not Palestinians--which they call themselves--what are they?
They are here; they aren't ghosts. And many of them have had family here for quite a long time. And they have legal deeds that say they own the land they live on. The land they live on isn't their own?
I might point out that many of these folks have lived here far longer than nearly any citizen of the U.S. has had family living in the states. Do we Americans owe our land to others?
God gave this land to his Chosen People, Scripture says. But the very same Scriptures say he allowed them to be exiled; and then some of them to return. The same Scriptures tell us what the Lord said would happen to Jerusalem after his death and resurrection.
Many who take the Zionist cause--including many of our fellow Christians--will argue that the Jewish title on this land is perpetual. I will argue, first, that that is a misreading of Sacred Scripture; second, as a subset of the first point, that God is not interested in real estate, but in relationship. What did our Lord say to the woman at the well?
Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You people worship what you do not understand; we worship what we understand, because salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him (John 4:21-23).
Jesus Christ is the new temple; no other temple is needed! And according to Saint Paul (see Romans 11-13), those who are baptized are grafted into the Olive Tree planted by God, that is, his Holy Nation. And, Paul said with intense sorrow, there are members of his own people who--for lack of faith in Christ, have been cut off. But, he assures us, in God's Providence, they will be grafted back. And the Jewish People, whether they believe or not, continue to have a role in God's Plan.
So I simply don't buy the notion that Jews--because they are Jews--have a right to dispossess anyone else of the land they live on. My point is not that they shouldn't have a home; only to rebut the notion that no one but Jews can have any legitimate claim to any land here. That is simply not moral to claim.
Let's develop this. If the so-called Palestinians have no right to any land here--even if they were born here, even if they have legal deeds--then who says this? God? What makes them the cursed of God? And more to the point, how does one support this assertion--about what God thinks? Tread carefully.
You do realize, don't you, that these folks are not Israeli citizens? Yes, many Arabs are; but we're talking about people who live here, in the Gaza strip and in the West Bank, who are not Israeli citizens. And they cannot become Israeli citizens. Israel will not accept them.
Israel has said, however, that it will recognize a Palestinian state; and it will agree to Palestine having its own territory.
But if they are not to be Israelis; and if they cannot have their own country, what is to become of them?
I am not taking sides on the question of a "right of return"--that is a demand of the Palestinians and the Arab countries who support them, in their on-again, off-again negotiations with Israel. I understand both sides.
Just as I understand the arguments the Israeli government makes for building the walls and fences that divide the West Bank from Israel. But that doesn't make the existence of this wall a good thing. Perhaps a necessary thing (Israel says yes; Palestinians say no.) We are all very aware of the violence that has gone on here, particularly against Jews.
But let me tell you something about the barrier (a combination of wall and fence); it does indeed slice up the West Bank, as the Palestinians point out. And they report that they are frequently subjected to humiliations when they try to cross over. They may be liars. But unless the state of Israel is without sin (credit to Mark Shea for that line), then it is entirely believable that the more powerful will abuse the less. It's a common trait of humanity.
Monday we attempted to go along the Road to Emmaus; and then to Shechem, the place where our Lord met the Samaritan woman at the well. Unfortunately, that's no longer possible. The wall prevents it. You can get there, but not along a direct route as our Lord did.
And let me share something else. Do you realize who is leaving these lands? Not Jews and not Muslims. Christians. The reasons are many. But when Christians say, there are no so-called Palestinians, and any so-called Palestinians have no right to be here--they should get out--remember, this includes nearly every Christian who lives here, in the place where Christianity began. Is it actually your claim that Jesus Christ has decreed that his followers be banished from his own land? Chapter and verse on that one, please.
Now I offer another angle, keying off a visit several of us paid Sunday to Yad Vashem*, the museum and memorial in Jerusalem to the Holocaust. I didn't write about it and I won't, at least not anytime soon. A quote I heard years ago from Elie Weisel, a Holocaust survivor, came to mind--except now, when I search for it, I can't find it. What I recall is, that when we are face with such horror, such evil, in the end there are no words...only silence.
But as we walked away from that solemn place of witness, I said to one of the priests with me, "if people don't come here and see this, they won't understand what's going on here"--meaning, coming not just to learn about the Holocaust; but also, to see what the memory of it means to the state of Israel.
Had I chosen to argue with our tour guide, I would have said some of the following things:
> You can't talk about the Jews coming here without talking about all that happened to them in the decades leading up to it. Not just about the Holocaust. Even that you can't understand--as Israelis do--unless you notice what is displayed at Yad Vashem: how in the decades leading up to the catastrophe of the 1930s and 1940s, Jews in Europe--and above all in Germany!--had integrated themselves very successfully into the larger society in which they lived.
You need to think long and hard about that. In Germany circa 1930, Jews weren't some alien threat at the periphery; they were woven deeply into the fabric of society.
Also think about the episode of the Saint Louis, which sailed from Germany, filled with Jewish refugees, to port after port, seeking asylum. One by one, countries turned them away--including the United States. Eventually, several nations in Europe were shamed into offering refuge; alas, that meant that a number of the passengers fell into the Nazi's hands after all, and died in the concentration camps.
You can be very sure the Jewish people took the lessons of these things. And there you have the imperative--without any reference to any theories about what Scripture promises or God intends (although I'm not dismissing those things)--for a Jewish state.
And now we come to the present tragedy. There is more I could write, about missed opportunities and promises made--for Jew and Arab--that cannot be fulfilled: "we will drive them out."
If ever the people here--Christian, Muslim and Jew--can find peace together, this place, from the river to the sea, will be a garden. But it is not, not yet.
* Update: I corrected a misspelling here.