[Skip to Content]

31 July 2014

The Holy Land - recollection, hope and reality

The Holy Land - recollection, hope and reality

Earlier this week, quite unplanned, I found myself sitting opposite Jeremy Bowen on a train. Mindful of Bowen's long and distinguished record as the BBC's Middle East correspondent I was itching to engage him in conversation about the current round of hostilities in the Holy Land. However, he was busy with his phone and I had plenty of emails to answer, so I waited until we were nearing the end of the journey to strike up a conversation. He'd just collected a deserved honorary doctorate from Nottingham Trent University, and was enjoying a brief respite from covering the latest bloody clashes between Israel and Hamas. He will be back soon enough to report on a tragedy that seems interminable. As we spoke I recollected my own first-hand encounter with that tragedy, when I visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority back in March 2005 as part of an ecumenical team that included my then colleague Don Horrocks, with whom I had worked closely over the previous eight years in the Theology and Public Affairs department of the Evangelical Alliance. I also recalled an unprecedented and highly challenging conference I had organised for the Evangelical Alliance two years before that, which brought together a broad spectrum of Christian organisations representing a diverse range of positions on modern Israel and its role in the purposes of God. In the last few days since that brief unscheduled conversation with Jeremy Bowen, I have gone back over my notes and papers from the 2005 trip and the conference which preceded it, and have been struck again by the fact that while the finer details have changed, the same basic, underlying issues persist.

If Christians are deeply divided on the Holy Land, evangelical Christians are more divided than most. In nearly a decade at the Evangelical Alliance, I helped steer it through a number of controversies which seriously threatened its unity —from debates on homosexuality to the nature of hell, from the Toronto Blessing to prosperity teaching, from penal substitutionary atonement to identificational repentance. Yet of all the conferences and 'summit meetings' I organised to broach such vexed questions, the tensest and most volatile was that day meeting in June 2003 on how Christians should regard the state of Israel, and on how they should understand the condition of the Palestinian people in relation to it. The atmosphere was uneasy, fragile, disconcerting. Many polarised positions were simply reiterated, many deep-seated doctrinal divisions rehearsed. Yet it did at least manage to model an active and measured dialogue between parties who had long criticised each other in print but who had rarely, if ever, met under the same roof. I no longer work for the Alliance, but given more recent developments in the Middle East, it might be time for a follow-up conference along the same lines…

Far from entailing abstract theological concerns, the Israel-Palestinian problem comprises urgent, life-and-death realities: suicide bombings, house demolitions and rocket attacks. For years the Middle East has commanded considerable time, energy and resourcing from the administrations of the USA, Britain, Russia, the European Union, the United Nations and others. When I visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2005, international involvement in the so-called 'Road Map to Peace', and in the Israeli government's 'Disengagement Plan' to withdraw Jewish settlers from Gaza, were underlining that what goes on there affects the whole world. The latest armed exchanges across the Israel/Gaza frontier only reinforce that point. They also amplify a message that has become ever louder and clearer since 9/11 and the second Iraq War –that religion and politics are inextricably, and often intractably, linked. As Jeremy Bowen stressed when we spoke, the notion that they can be disentangled is both peculiarly western and relatively new in terms of world history. As in most politico-religious disputes there are various shades of opinion, but Evangelicals basically split into two camps on the Holy Land: 'Christian Zionism' and 'Supercessionism'.

In keeping with many Orthodox Jews, Christian Zionists maintain that God's biblical covenants with elect Israel hold good today in respect of the 'promised land'. The precise borders of this 'biblical Israel' may be debatable, but Christian Zionists insist that it is the duty of believers to back the modern state of Israel in its control of the territory it gained at its inception in 1948 and in its subsequent conflicts with surrounding Arab states. In particular, they support retention of the key areas occupied by Israel in the pivotal 1967 war: East Jerusalem, 'Judea-Samaria' (more widely termed the 'West Bank'), and the Gaza strip. Admittedly, while most Christian Zionists are evangelical, not all Jewish Zionists are theologically motivated. Zionism began in the 19th century as a response to successive anti-Semitic pogroms dating from the early medieval period, and many of its founding figures promoted the idea of a 'safe homeland' on secular humanitarian grounds rather than from scriptural conviction. The most influential of these, Theodore Herzl, even contemplated a re-gathering of Jews in East Africa rather than the Middle East. However, when the state of Israel was founded in the wake of the Nazi holocaust, secular and religious Zionist aspirations had effectively converged on the area defined in 2 Chronicles 9:26 as 'west of the Jordan' and south 'to the border with Egypt'. When this territorial vision was largely realised in 1967, the UN condemned Israel for its 'land grab', and for its eviction of those who had lived on that land for centuries—the Muslim and Christian peoples known collectively as Palestinians. Christian Zionists have joined conservative Jews in rejecting such criticism from the international community on the grounds that biblical prophecy cannot be trumped by secular resolutions.

By contrast, Supercessionists argue that the territorial manifestation of Israel has been superseded, or replaced, by the 'new covenant' predicted in Jeremiah 31:31-4, and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. This covenant, they argue, is realised in the hearts of Jewish and Gentile Christians all over the world, and should no longer be associated with a particular race, land mass or temple. Indeed, on the basis of Hebrews 8:13, they maintain that it has rendered land-specific aspirations obsolete. Also known as 'replacement theology', this outlook holds that the Church has taken over the role of Old Testament Israel. Since this Church is a worldwide body, partisan support for the modern state of Israel qua Israel is deemed to be unjustified. Indeed, citing the human rights abuses levelled against Israel by the UN and others, Supercessionists typically accuse Christian Zionists of letting misguided eschatological commitments override basic moral precepts, such as are taught in the Sermon on the Mount—and, for that matter, in the Law and the Prophets. In fact, they stress that prophets like Micah saw Israel's possession of land as subject to moral and spiritual criteria which she did not always meet, and whose neglect resulted her forfeiting that land (2:4-5). In response, Christian Zionists contend that Supercessionism has often gone hand-in-hand with anti-Semitism, that it unduly spiritualises God's covenant promises, that God's land-pledges to Israel are never in fact revoked, and that at various points in the New Testament (e.g. Matthew 24, Romans 9-11) the Jews maintain a distinct role in God's purposes.

On my trip to the Holy Land in 2005 the schedule was largely geared to inspecting Christian Aid-supported relief work among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, but balance was provided by meetings with representatives of the Church's Ministry among the Jewish People and the Israeli Foreign Ministry. We also had discussions with joint Israeli and Palestinian human rights organisations, and with members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Included on our itinerary were exposure to YMCA rehabilitation and educative programmes in Bethlehem for those disabled by the conflict, to the work of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society in Ramallah and the West Bank, to the refugee support programme of the Culture and Free Thought Association, and to the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees near the Egyptian border in Gaza. We were privileged to meet many Palestinian Christians, including the Christian bishops and Patriarch in Jerusalem, and a gathering of the committee of the Near East Council of Churches in Gaza City. While in Gaza, we also visited medical clinics and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.

The entire 2005 visitation team, especially those who had not previously visited the Palestinian territories, were shocked by what we saw and heard. Even the never-ending stream of media reporting could not have prepared us for what we encountered. We unquestionably witnessed intense suffering on both sides. However, there was a discernible humanitarian disaster mounting in Gaza and the West Bank. With the Palestinian birth rate set to outstrip the population of Israel by 2030, it seemed impossible to see how the confinement of Palestinians within enclaves behind walls could ever pretend to offer Israel lasting peace or security. Few people on either side left us with any sense of optimism for the future. Rather, we encountered either entrenched antagonism or a general air of resignation to the ongoing conflict. Cynicism greeted mention of 'road maps' and so-called Israeli 'disengagement' –a cynicism which has since sadly been borne out by the rise of Hamas in Gaza and by Israeli retaliation against Hamas's relentless, barrage of rocket attacks on Israeli towns and cities. Our group returned home then with an overwhelming desire that core gospel ethics should not be obscured by entrenched political, racial, geographical or eschatological dogma;that desire remains, but its realisation seems even farther off now than it did then.

Most Israelis are supportive of the of the 'security wall' that was being built when I visited the region nine years ago, and that is now one of the starkest symbols of division between Israel and its Palestinian neighbours. Back in 2005 I and my companions had dinner with David Pileggi, an Italian American working with the Churches' Ministry among the Jewish People. He had lived in Jerusalem most of his adult life, having studied at the Hebrew University there as the only Christian in a class of Jews. He explained that every day, his and his wife's children travelled to school on a bus route which had been subject to suicide bombing. More than once, they had found themselves frantic with worry that the children had been killed. The security wall had reduced such attacks by two-thirds, they said. If we were in their shoes, would we not support its construction, for all the hostility it symbolised and provoked? Like many Israelis then and now, the Pileggis had thought deeply about their country's situation, and were not afraid to criticise its harsher actions towards the Palestinians. But they also made the point that they were free to level such criticism, whereas many Muslims in surrounding Arab states were not similarly at liberty to protest against their leaders.

All the Palestinians we met in 2005 –Muslim and Christian alike –felt deeply oppressed. Though none we spoke to overtly justified suicide bombing, some suggested that it represented the desperation of a people for whom there seemed no other solution. A similar suggestion was made last week by the Liberal Democrat MP David Ward in relation to Hamas rockets. He was rightly condemned for his appalling remarks. Yet the contrast between prosperous, fertile, westernised Israel and the wretched poverty of Gaza and the West Bank was stark then, and is starker now. We met many Palestinian Christians who had not seen members of their families living elsewhere in the region for years. Bethlehem resembled a ghost town. Close to economic collapse following its virtual encirclement by the wall, visitors to it were either unable to travel or unwilling to face the traumas of getting through checkpoints. In response, Israel emphasised that necessary exclusion zones were being violated. It also warned that tunnels were being dug beneath the Israel-Gaza border to transport weaponry for attacks on Israeli positions and settlements. That warning, of course, was true, and the tunnels in question have been at the centre of the latest iteration of military conflict. However, back then we saw hundreds of Palestinian homes bulldozed or dynamited by the Israeli army, with many refugees living in the ruins for want of any alternative accommodation. There also seemed little excuse for the Israel's razing of greenhouses on arable land, other than that they were visible from Jewish settlements, and that Israel wished deliberately to undermine Palestinian economic sustainability. True, it made good on its promise to withdraw from Gaza soon afterwards, but in doing so it was well aware that such economic sustainability would, if anything, recede further beyond the horizon.

Our visit to the Israeli Ministry for Foreign Affairs in 2005 proved interesting, not least for its spokeswoman's frank admission that Israel was acting as an occupying power, that human rights were being abused, and that massive injustice and potential humanitarian disaster were involved. However, all this was explained by the fact that Israel was in a state of war. Given this position, it seemed hard to accept her later assurance that the security wall was a 'temporary measure', especially when we had seen for ourselves just how massive and permanent it looked. Our scepticism then has, of course, been vindicated by the persistence and extension of the wall. Then again, the stunning design and sophistication of the Israeli government buildings brought home the extraordinary achievements of the Jewish people in developing a First World democracy so soon after 1948, not least in the face of such fierce hostility from neighbouring Muslim regimes. Indeed, the contrast between our visit there and our trip to the Palestinian Legislative Authority HQ in Ramallah was stark. Despite considerable international support and funding, the PLA was still struggling to establish itself as a credible governmental body. In its meagre parliamentary chamber, in its iconography, and in the minds of its officials, the figure of Yasser Arafat still loomed large. He was revered as the 'Father of the Nation', but as his own countrymen at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights later attested, he had left a legacy of corruption and factionalism which his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, would find it hard to dismantle. As we later drove through the streets of Gaza City, the varied uniforms of the eight or nine different security forces which Arafat had sponsored at his whim presented a vivid symbol of how far the PLA still had to go.

The demise of the PLA's and Abbas' power since, and the corresponding rise of Hamas, has proved this prognosis right.

One abiding memory we brought home with us in 2005 was the plaintive cry of Palestinian Christians everywhere throughout Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank, that we should tell their Christian brothers and sisters in the West about their struggles and challenges. Without exception, they maintained that they and their fellow Palestinians were being deprived of their historic land, liberty and sustenance. Of course, their fellow believers in Messianic Jewish and Christian Zionist congregations in Israel and elsewhere firmly disagreed. No doubt we did not see the full picture. Having said this, beneath all the resentment, fear and despair, it was possible to detect a genuine desire for peace in those we met—an honest hope that Palestinians and Israelis might live harmoniously together. Indeed, as well realising that we needed to grapple in greater depth with the theological issues, we were left with a commitment to pray more earnestly for the 'peace of Jerusalem', and to explore more urgently what we could we do to help bring that peace nearer to reality. That commitment remains, but events since then have made peace seem yet more distant and more elusive.

As Jeremy Bowen and I got off our train, I asked him whether he had found it hard to step away from the Holy Land when it was once again so emphatically leading the news. Yes, he said, but the conflict was continuous, and would be there sure enough when he went back. As I bade him farewell, I resolved to go on praying, hoping and working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But I was also reminded of the prophet Jeremiah's sober critique of those who too readily cry "peace, peace" when peace is, in fact, far off.

David Hilborn is principal of St John's College, Nottingham, and former head of theology at the Evangelical Alliance. He is also a member of the Alliance's Theology Advisory Group (TAG)

This article first appeared on his blog.