Alain Epp Weaver
The prophet Micahs vision of a day when Gods people will sit under vine and fig tree with no one to make them afraid (Mic. 4:4) provides the title for this book. The topic: how Christians should understand Palestine-Israel today in light of what Scripture has to say about right living in the land. Today neither Palestinians nor Israelis enjoy security. Both peoples yearn for peace, yet the conflict between them intensifies. As Christians, we often dont know what to think about this conflict. We are troubled by the ongoing violence and death we hear about through the mass media, but we dont know how to respond.
Our confusion about how to respond to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict tempts us to turn away in despair (or at times, if we are honest, in numb apathy). But we find that turning away isnt so easy. Christians, particularly in the United States, are deeply enmeshed in the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict, whether we want to be or not. Each year the United States provides billions of dollars of assistance, directly and indirectly, to Israel, including massive military aid. American taxpayers, Christian and non-Christian, thus help support Israels ongoing practices. At the same time, the cultural reach of Christian Zionist theology is wide, with organized Christian lobbies influencing national politics and with apocalyptic images of Armageddon and the rapture suffusing popular culture (witness the phenomenal publishing success of the Left Behind novels). Try as we might, we cannot escape the conflict.
Moreover, we know that there are good reasons why we should care about what happens in Palestine-Israel. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict creates unrest throughout the Middle East and beyond, a matter of global concern. Furthermore, as Christians we have compelling reasons to care. We should care about the fate and continuing witness of the church in Palestine-Israel, about the faithful but often forgotten Palestinian Christians who worship and glorify God in the Occupied Territories and inside Israel. As we Western Christians become aware and repent of anti-Jewish attitudes and practices in the churchs history and today, we are driven to care about what Zionism and the state of Israel will mean for the future of Jewish life and witness. And as a people who await the coming of new heavens and a new earth, we should pray for the land in which Gods victory over the powers of sin and death was assured to give humanity a foretaste of Gods kingdom of justice, peace, and reconciliation.
This book seeks to focus our minds and our hearts on the contemporary realities of violence and dispossession in Palestine-Israel by grounding us in Scripture. We seek to read biblical texts about land alongside stories from Palestinians and Israelis, trusting that Gods Word holds good news for both peoples. Throughout the following chapters, we struggle with questions that often arise regarding the Bible and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. What does the Bible tell us about land that might illuminate the ongoing conflict between the two peoples? How do Gods promises of land to Abraham and his descendants connect to contemporary claims over the land? What is the relationship between todays events in Israel and the end times? What are ways Scripture is used to justify dispossession and unjust practices in the land? What are ways we can receive as Gods Word portions of Scripture, such as the conquest narratives of Joshua and Judges, which trouble us with their apparent divine justification of ethnic cleansing? What positive visions of justice and reconciliation in the land does the Bible offer us?
For nearly six decades Mennonites have lived and worked alongside Palestinians and Israelis, hearing from friends, neighbors, and colleagues about their stories of violence and dispossession and their hopes for futures of secure dwellings. It was the massive dispossession of Palestinian refugees in 1948 that first brought Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) to the region. Mennonites have also, however, heard from Israeli Jews about the Jewish history of violence at the hands of Western Christians and about how many Jews, Israelis and non-Israelis, view the state of Israel as a safe haven from anti-Jewish persecution.
While Zionism pre-dates the Holocaust by several decades, one cannot, as the late Palestinian writer Edward Said underscored, understand the visceral attachment of many Jews to the state of Israel without the context of the Holocaust. Many Holocaust survivors ended up in Israel (in large part because many Western countries, including the United States, admitted limited numbers of Jewish refugees). The Holocaust does not, of course, justify or excuse particular actions of the state of Israel, but it must be acknowledged if one is to understand Israeli fears and Jewish attachment to the state of Israel. Many Jews, meanwhile, find it tragic that the Jewish people, subject for centuries to mistreatment, violence, and most recently genocide by their supposedly Christian neighbors, now carry out policies that dispossess another people. Both Israelis and Palestinians are marked by histories of violence and dispossession, and yearn for security under vine and fig tree.
Over the past decades, Mennonites in the Middle East have also learned from Muslim friends and colleagues about the hostilities and suspicions created by Western crusades and more recently by various forms of colonialist domination. Finding creative ways to repent of Western Christianity's checkered past toward Muslims (and toward Middle Eastern Christians) is a vitally important task. Reflections on Mennonite experience in various global contexts of forging bonds of friendship across Muslims-Christian divides can be found in a forthcoming(2007) Cascadia book I have edited with Peter Dula, Borders and Bridges: Mennonite Witness in a Religiously Diverse World.
This book grows out of MCCs decades of work alongside Palestinians (and more recently Israelis). MCC was one of the first international organizations to respond to the Palestinian refugee crisis of 1948what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe. Mennonite volunteers distributed relief supplies to the tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees who had congregated in the refugee camps around Jericho. Later MCC established Christian schools in Hebron and Beit Jala and organized self-help projects for Palestinian women.
During the 1970s, following the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, MCC worked with Palestinian farmers, introducing drip irrigation and distributing seedlings as ways of helping Palestinian farmers protect their land from Israeli confiscation. From the 1980s onward, MCC has worked in partnership with Palestinian and, more recently, Israeli initiatives. Today MCCs work focuses on maximizing Palestinian access to water resources, supporting the ministries of the Palestinian church and encouraging Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilding initiatives.
Mennonites in Palestine-Israel, along with workers serving other international Christian organizations, such as World Vision, Lutheran World Federation, and Catholic Relief Services, are routinely asked about how the Bible relates to the continuing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Some who ask this question believe that criticism of the state of Israel is wrong; they are convinced that Israel is playing a key role in the events leading up to the end of time and Jesus second coming. Others ask because they are struggling with the Bibles different theologies of land, including, for example, parts of Scripture that disturb many Christians, such as the depictions of the violent conquest of the land of Canaan.
Given the frequency of such questions, MCC decided that it would be valuable to put together a short study about biblical theologies of land and their relationship to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In autumn 2005, the MCC Palestine peace workers, Timothy Seidel and Christi Hoover Seidel, were joined for three months by Esther Epp-Tiessen, MCC Canada peace and justice coordinator, and Dan Epp-Tiessen, professor of Old Testament at Canadian Mennonite University. Listening closely to the voices of MCCs Israeli and Palestinian partners, particularly the voices of Palestinian Christians, these writers, with input from MCC workers Sonia and Alain Epp Weaver, compiled the reflections that follow.
After an initial chapter sketching the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the authors proceed to tackle such matters as biblical perspectives on land ownership; the character of biblical promises of land; experiences of dispossession viewed from a scriptural angle; and ways to understand end-times, or apocalyptic, material in relationship to contemporary events. Most chapters include discussion questions and suggestions for action; resources for further reading, learning, and action are included at the end of the book, along with a glossary of frequently used terms.
We have sought in this book to give voice to our conviction that the Bible speaks a word of hope to Palestinians and Israelis, a hope that a shared future in the land is possible in which both peoples might live securely under vine and fig tree. This is our answer to the questions we receive from concerned Christians about how the Bible and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict relate. We recognize that for Christians for whom the state of Israel is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and a sign of the imminent end of the world, our readings of Scripture and our understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict may be jarring, perhaps even offensive. Christians disagree about a wide variety of matters, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one that generates heated passions. We pray that this book might be a way to begin, rather than end, a conversation about a hotly contested issue among Christians.
Palestinians and Israelis with whom we have worked have often stressed that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is at root a political, not a religious, conflict. This claim captures the important insight that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should be understood in comparison with other global instances of colonialism. That said, many Palestinian Christians, Palestinian Muslims, and Israeli Jews do give a religious interpretation to the conflict. In conversation with Palestinian Christians, we have sought here to offer theological reflections on land grounded in the Christian story which celebrate the gift of land as a place where all of God's children might live together in equality and security. Having been privileged to work together with deeply committed Palestinian Muslims, and Israeli Jews, we know that similar positive visions of land could also be offered by Jews and Muslims.
Some comments on names are in order. Names of countries and territories in the Middle East can be matters of fierce contention. Following international usage, we use Occupied Territories to refer to the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, all territories militarily occupied by Israel since June 1967. Palestine-Israel refers to the strip of land from the Jordan River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, from the Upper Galilee in the north down to the southern Negev (Hebrew)/Naqab (Arabic) desert in the south. Part of the Ottoman Empire before World War I, this strip of land was called Palestine during the years of the British Mandate (from the 1920s until 1948). Following the war of 1948, the land of Palestine became home to the new state of Israel (in seventy-eight percent of historical Palestine), with the remaining territory occupied by Jordan (the West Bank and East Jerusalem) and Egypt (the Gaza Strip).
Today, when some people say "Palestine," they refer to the state that may or may not emerge in some form in all or parts of the Occupied Territories. In this book we speak of Palestine-Israel to recognize that the historical land of Palestine is today home to two nations. These two national groups live in conditions of marked inequality. In the future visions of reconciliation, they may live together, side-by-side, in two separate viable states, or they may live together in one binational state as equal citizens before the law. Using the name Palestine-Israel signals our hope that such reconciliation will one day materialize.
As Christians from the United States and Canada, the authors of this volume recognize that we can make no claim to special knowledge about what makes for right living in the land. Our communities and our nations have often failed, quite dramatically, to practice justice in the land and have turned away from stories of dispossession, especially of indigenous First Nations/Native North American peoples among us. We are acutely aware that Mennonite congregations in Canada and the United States are no freer of the sin of anti-Judaism than other Christian bodies, and we are also mindful that Mennonites in North America, like other Christians, have too often failed to remember (or even be aware of) the existence and witness of the Palestinian churches.
It is in a spirit of humility and repentance, then, in awareness that we have much to learn about right living in the land, that we offer this study to the wider church. Our prayer is that Palestinians and Israelis might soon experience in reality Micahs vision of all persons sitting securely under vine and fig tree.
© 2007 by Cascadia Publishing House