Saturday, March 24, 2012

Is Supporting Palestine Anti-Semitic?

            I recently heard a Christian radio DJ say that every Christian had a responsibility to support Israel. I can buy that.

            But as I continued listening, it became clear to me that the announcer wasn’t just asking for Christians to pray that Israel would be a just, prosperous, happy nation, like others. No, he thought that Christian support for Israel required lobbying President Obama to go easy on Israel’s West Bank settlements. He thought that Christians had to support Israel by lobbying American’s Congress to support a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. And he seemed to suggest that anyone who supported the Palestinian right to self-determination was probably anti-Semitic.

            Earlier this year, six hundred clerics, activists and academicians gathered in Bethlehem to critique current Israeli policies. They published a “Christ at the Checkpoint Manifesto,” that called on Evangelical Christians to help bring peace and justice and reconciliation to Palestine and Israel. They said real injustices are taking place in the Palestinian territories, and the suffering of the Palestinian people can no longer be ignored. They said that all forms of violence must be refuted unequivocally.

            But rather than discuss the merits of their critique, this group of mostly Christian activists was simply roundly dismissed as promoting racist doctrine and policies. The B’nai B’rith said the event was anti-Israel and anti-Jewish. A Wiesenthal Centre spokesman writing in the Jewish Post said the participants were working with toxic theology. Jurgen Buhler of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem said that the conference could easily lend itself to “anti-Semitism and anti-Israel propaganda.”

            Really? Since when is it wrong to argue public policy or human rights in democratic nations? Since when is it wrong to call for peace and reconciliation between warring peoples? Especially if you are a Christian?

            In our democratic society we’re encouraged to have intense public policy debates about hot-button issues like homosexuality, the war in Afghanistan, and how we treat Native-Canadians—who, after all, have as much and as long a historical claim to this country as the Israelites do to Palestine. But the minute we debate similar issues with respect to Israel’s security, or the West Bank Barrier, or the aspirations of Palestinians born into occupation, some supporters of Israel insist we must be racist.

            But that is ridiculous.

            I believe in Israel’s right to exist as a nation. I believe that the holocaust was so evil that modern Israel deserves a nation-state with secure borders to call its own. I have no problems with the West guaranteeing Israel its security. I reject terrorism of all kinds.

            But by the same token, that doesn’t justify the second-class citizenship of Palestinians in Israel, or the continued military occupation of their territory, or the building of illegal settlements on the West Bank, or the stranglehold on Gaza, or some sort of Israeli carte blanche right to occupy all of Jerusalem all of the time. Defining support for Israel as unquestioning support for policies that have, for fifty years, done nothing to bring peace to the Middle East doesn’t make sense. I’m not saying I know the best way forward on any of these issues. But that is what public policy debate is for.

            Some Christians muddy the waters further by thinking of Israel not so much as a modern secular state, but as kind of special Biblical protectorate. They say Western support for Israel is required because Biblical prophecies about the State of Israel’s role in apocalyptic end-time scenarios demand a powerful Israeli state. I very much doubt the wisdom of making a highly controversial, nineteenth century doctrinal innovation called premillennial dispensationalism the basis for Canadian or American foreign policy, as the Christian radio announcer I was listening to did. But even supposing there are apocalyptic prophecies that are yet to be fulfilled in the modern State of Israel (something I don’t believe for a minute), why would anyone really think God needs a pro-Israel lobby in Washington or Ottawa to get those prophecies done? If God has a plan for Israel, he’ll figure it out how to get it done without our trying to set it up, first.

            If there is anything in the Old Testament that does seem relevant to the modern State of Israel, it is that God and his prophets often did call Israel’s public policies into question. There was far too much oppression of the poor, rejection of the stranger within the gate, and militarization of Israelite life to suit God back then. He warned Israel, over and over, not to depend on horses or chariots for their security. I’m not sure God would think much differently, today, about the modern State of Israel or any other country.

            So what is the Christian’s responsibility to Israel, today? I’d say it is using whatever peaceful means we have at our disposal to bring about an equitable, lasting peace in the Middle East, for the Israelis and Palestinians both. We are, after all, ambassadors of reconciliation for the whole world (2 Co 5:18-21) rather than champions for one country over another.

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