What are the social and political realities of the land of the Bible today?
It was my good fortune to have been in Israel for three months recently on a sabbatical programme at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies.
Tantur was the brainchild of Pope Paul VI and other enlightened Church leaders from the first flush of the ecumenical movement in the 1960s. Originally it was designed for scholars but, since the 1980s, it has been running general programmes for people from all Christian churches. It has also become a centre for inter-faith encounters.
Tantur is south of the old city of Jerusalem next to Bethlehem, but between there and Bethlehem lies the infamous wall. Hence there is no avoiding the political reality that exists there. Just recently, two women from our programme encountered a sad episode. Before they entered the checkpoint they saw a young woman with her toddler coming through from Bethlehem. The woman was crying.
As they went through the other side of the checkpoint they encountered an older woman also crying. They naturally sought to comfort her.
It turned out that the woman had come up from Hebron in the south with her granddaughter to visit family in Jerusalem. For some unknown reason the granddaughter was let through but the grandmother was refused.
People can be blacklisted for something as simple as a traffic offence, and they can remain blacklisted for years. Being blacklisted means they are unable to enter or work in the areas under Israeli control. On the plus side, a body of Jewish women has been monitoring these checkpoints and they have been instrumental in curtailing and exposing many abuses.
During the ’90s there was great optimism in Israel following the Oslo accord and the first intifada. The second intifada was a disaster and had a devastating effect upon the Israelis, primarily because of the suicide bombers. The outcome was the building of the wall — to the Israelis a “security fence”! Israelis are forbidden to enter areas such as Bethlehem for fear they might be kidnapped. Palestinians are able to enter areas such as Jerusalem only under permit.
Outside Tantur each morning are hundreds of Palestinian men lined up along the road hoping to be picked up for work — which the Israelis will not do.
Bethlehem is under the Palestinian Authority. Before 1948 it was a Christian town, but after partition it was flooded with Palestinian refugees. Now it is around 90 per cent Moslem.
From the 19th century there was a gradual emigration of Jewish people to Israel. The impetus was Zionism, a nationalist movement, which had nothing to do with religion but used religion to uphold the Jewish claim to the land. For religious Jews, the claim to the land is sacrosanct, but it is a selective reading of the Bible based solely on the Pentateuch, the first five books.
The exile to Babylon forced them to expand their theology of the land. Ezekiel 47:21-23 presents an inclusive vision of Israel where the “aliens” are also deemed citizens. Modern Israel simply ignores this.
At the time of Christ, about 50 per cent of the population of Israel would have been Jewish. The Palestinian people have been there all that time.
Arabisation was a gradual process that came with Islam, but that developed with a people who were already there, not from outside. Israel simply does not see the other. That is why the second intifada had such a traumatic effect and reinforced the paranoia around Israel’s security. The result has been political stalemate.
Initially, ultra-Orthodox Jews would have nothing to do with the state of Israel. Their time is spent studying the Torah. They do not work and are exempt from military service. At the time, Prime Minister Ben Gurion made allowances for them in order to resurrect Talmudic scholarship after World War II, which he saw as essential to Jewish religious life. However, in this part of the world there is nothing so permanent as a temporary arrangement. Now they are numbered in the hundreds of thousands and their political influence is considerable and behind the establishment of illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian land — a practice that has been continuing unabated since the Six-Day War in 1967. It amounts to ethnic cleansing in slow motion.
As ultra-Orthodox Jews have been pouring into Jerusalem, so secular Jews have been moving out, reinforcing the divisions within Jewish society.
At the birth of the Jewish state, the survivors of the Holocaust were looked upon as weaklings who succumbed meekly to the force of Nazi Germany. They came in their hundreds of thousands, along with Jews expelled from North Africa, and filled the spaces left by the Palestinians, who had been forced out of their homes. Now the Holocaust has been immortalised as the great crime against the Jewish people.
The problem here is that the state of victimhood has become enshrined to the point that anyone who criticises Israel is classed as anti-Semitic. Even visitors like ourselves are seen as the enemy. Israel, in feeding its young on this disinformation, is creating its own generation of people who see Arabs as inferior people with no human value or equal place in society. It is these young men and women who staff the checkpoints.
The long-term prospects for Israel, to my mind, are not good. They listen only selectively to America, which has been supporting them unconditionally. The initial nationalism that inspired the birth of the country has lost its momentum. Judaism as a faith that is focused primarily on the Torah is inward looking and has not the wherewithal to unite the nation. They await a Messiah and still understand this as a messianic figure who will lead the nation to greatness and power — which is so contrary to the Christian understanding of Jesus as the one and only true Messiah.
— Peter Murphy is the parish priest of St Mary’s, Papakura, Auckland.