The Common Good

Five Frustrations When You Debate Israel and the Palestinians

I've been fascinated watching an earlier blog hunker down into a strong debate about Israel and the Palestinians (February 22, "When Will 3.5 Million Palestinians Get Their Chance For Freedom?"). The discussion has certainly outrun the original post. I admire those who have shown civility and restraint in their language. One reason I don't enjoy debating this topic in public (on the radio or in person) is that the tone generally becomes acerbic. People really do say mean things.

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I've been in these discussions about Israel and the Palestinians for a very long time -- almost 25 years, I guess. And I've decided that there are five lines of argument with which I have an increasing impatience. I'll summarize them briefly, but anyone who knows this debate will know exactly what I mean. If someone wants to see where these debates end up just look at that blog post and its 60+ responses.

1. We were here first. I tire of Jewish claims that they were the earliest collection of tribes to claim the Holy Land. Why? Because the succession of tribal-claims will know no end (who preceded Israel? Palestinians are Philistines!). Moreover, it doesn't work as a justification for land claims. That is unless you're open to returning Chicago to Native Americans. If a Palestinian village has been standing someplace for 1,000 years, does a man from New York who says his "ancestor" was there in 2000 B.C.E. have a superior land-claim? I don't find it compelling or helpful.

2. Jews aren't really Jews. Another canard. There are some who think they can disqualify Israel by pointing to the dilution of the Jewish gene-pool for the last 2,000 years. Truth is, no one is "pure" (whatever that means) and "inter-tribal" marriage is normal among humans all over the world. Judaism's cohesion and integrity isn't based entirely on DNA anyway. Either way, if someone says they are Jewish (or Palestinian), let it be.

3. Palestinians only want to destroy Israel. This is something a person would say who (a) doesn't know any Palestinians, (b) only reads the fear-rhetoric of the Israeli (or American) Right, or (c) selectively cites Palestinian extremists. For heaven's sake. Israel has one of the strongest armies on the planet (plus it has the 'bomb'), and whatever happens, the U.S. has Israel's back. Israel isn't going anywhere. This is misinformation to stir western sympathies.

4. They started that war. Here the argument goes that Palestinians started the wars (particularly 1967) and Israel wins defensive battles. This one almost makes me lose my mind. In many of these conflicts, both sides were spoiling for a fight. But post-war propaganda has so permeated this argument that opposite sides can barely hear each other. (Personally, I'll grant that Egypt and Syria started the war in 1973, but it was in response to losses in 1967.) But listen to the professional historians who don't have a dog in this fight. Generally, you'll hear reasoned explanations for Israeli expansionism in order to secure its borders and gain "strategic depth." Otherwise why did Israel plot all of the Arab villages before 1948 and quickly destroy them once they were emptied?

5. [Name your side] suffered more, and their anger is more legitimate. Actually, there has been extraordinary suffering on both sides. No one gets off the hook here. But facts are facts: Since 2000, Palestinians have died at the rate six times higher than Jews in this conflict. (Some sources will make it four times -- but anything less is eccentric.) Occupied Palestinians get their homes bulldozed. They have their movement controlled. They are subject to settler violence regularly. And there are more than 4 million (UNRWA) Palestinian refugees in the Middle East. And when there is a direct fight such as Gaza in 2009, Palestinian small arms and home made rockets meet F16's, Apaches, and tanks. Just do the tactical math. Reprehensible Palestinian suicide bombers years ago were a shameful attempt to redress the imbalance.

These five issues always arise in these discussions. And when they do, one side just can't hear the other. And I haven't even opened the theological issues, which, as a theologian, frustrate me even more. (God gave the land to Abraham and his children! Israel is fulfilling prophecy! America must bless Israel or else lose God's blessings!)

There has to be a new way forward. Not with arguments about who is the greatest victim or who has prior land-claims. The realities "on the ground" now should face us. And I think this is likely what the Old Testament prophets would have said. The way forward is found somewhere in the pursuit of genuine justice for Palestine, genuine security for Israel, and in courageous acts of confession and forgiveness. Presently I see little of this going around.

portrait-gary-burgeGary M. Burge, Ph.D., is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. He is the author of numerous books both on the Middle East (Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to "Holy Land" Theology, and Whose Land? Whose Promise?) and the New Testament (Jesus the Middle Eastern Story Teller, The New Testament in Antiquity, and Encounters with Jesus).

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