How President Obama’s trip to Israel makes me wonder . . .

By the time this gets posted, President Obama will have wrapped up his brief visit to the Palestinian West Bank on day two of his Middle Eastern tour.

On which occasion, I’d like to ask:

Where else in the world would we not just accept but actively promote the idea of two separate states formed along ethnic lines?

Almost everyone talks about the two-state solution — which appears less viable with every new Israeli settlement in Palestinian territory — as the only path toward peace.

While it may be the best (or perhaps only) way forward at this point, it seems worth pausing to ask: Would we accept such a solution elsewhere? Would we accept it on our own soil?

Would we accept a state or community in our own backyard that was defined largely on the basis of ethnic homogeneity (or at least the apparent desire for such homogeneity)?

What would happen if someone proposed carving up America into three separate ethnic states: a black state, a white state, and a Latino state?

We would immediately reject any such proposal with all due revulsion, that’s what.

And yet we don’t even blink at the thought of carving up 25,000 square miles of Mediterranean soil along ethnic divisions.

Why not?

I know the counterargument: that Israel isn’t entirely homogenous, that there are many Israeli citizens who are Arab. And there are. But they are often treated as second-class citizens and spoken of as a threat to the rest of the population — Israel’s “demographic bomb.” Besides, the price of their citizenship is that they have to acknowledge and submit to a state that defines itself according to one ethnicity.

To put that into perspective, let’s imagine a parallel a bit closer to home. What if someone said it’s only OK for blacks to live in the United Stated if they affirmed it to be fundamentally a “white state”? Or what if someone said it’s only OK for Catholics, Muslims, and Jews to live here if they affirmed it to be fundamentally a Protestant Christian nation?

Sadly, there are people who have thought along these lines before. You’ll recognize them by their white hoods and their flaming crosses.

So where did those of us who are Christian get the idea that such thinking could ever be part of God’s plan for the world?

How can we defend policies of apartheid-esque nation building — wherever they may be found — while praying to a God whose aim was to “[destroy] the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” between nations?

If, as we read in Scripture, God intends to bring all nations (Greek, ethnos) back together — and in fact began doing so the minute Christ ascended to heaven — then how do we justify our support for policies that seem geared toward doing the opposite?

One final question . . .

Let’s say you believe the modern-day state of Israel is somehow connected to the biblical version. Let’s say your interpretation of Scripture leads you to the conclusion that they are forever entitled to the land because of a promise God made in the Old Testament. Setting aside for a moment the dangers of basing foreign policy on one religion’s sacred text at the expense of another’s . . . what are we to make of the prophet Ezekiel’s directive to his fellow Israelites returning home from exile some 2,500 years ago?

You are to allot [the land] as an inheritance for yourselves and for the foreigners residing among you . . .

Can this be reconciled with the current state of affairs otherwise known as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

If you’re a Christian, this is not just bad policy. It’s bad theology.

5 thoughts on “How President Obama’s trip to Israel makes me wonder . . .

  1. Hi Ben,

    I appreciate your most recent post which explains the purpose of your blog, that you’re on a journey etc etc. So these comments are made in the light of that post as well as this one…

    Firstly I disagree that settlements are the main reason the peace process is not moving forward. (I appreciate that you did not state they are the main reason, but it’s the only reason you cite therefore I’m assuming you believe – like many – that settlements are a major stumbling block). Here are my reasons:

    1) When Israel withdrew settlements from Gaza the result was more violence, not less. 2) The settlements in the West Bank could easily exist next to a future Palestinian state. 3) Palestinian negotiators have in private face to face talks said that settlements are not a practical obstacle to peace.
    4) The conflict pre-dates settlements by generations.

    I share your concerns about a 2 state solution. But while I arrive at the same outcome as you (doubting a 2 state solution) I do so for different reasons.

    Your assertion that Israeli Arabs are treated as second class citizens is completely wrong. Over 20% of the Israeli population are Arabs and have 100% equal rights as their Jewish friends. The word “friends” is important because by and large that is the attitude in Israel itself. If you wander around Jerusalem for example you will see Jews and Arabs living side by side with very little conflict.

    I’m sad to see you use the word “apartheid” and it makes me put you very much in the “extremist” camp on this issue: It’s only the hardliners who throw that word around. Those who have been to Israel will be aware that there are hospitals which treat Jews and Arabs alike. There are schools that teach Jews and Arabs alike. How is that in any way comparable to what happened in South Africa?! If you really want to look for Apartheid, why don’t you complain about Jews being barred from entering many Arab nations or the fact that women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia?!

    God does indeed intend to bring all nations together. But your argument assumes that this means all nations should within in them contain a totally equal and balanced number of ethnicities. For example let’s say there are 100 nationalities in the world. Your argument if taken to its logical conclusion would say in the UK (and in all countries) we must have 1% Polish 1% English 1% Scottish 1% German etc all the way up to 100% as the ideal demographic!

    No. When God talks about bringing all the nations together he doesn’t mean that each country must contain people of all other nationalities. There’s nothing wrong with having 80% of Israel being Jewish and 20% being Arab. After all let’s remember that Jews are barred from a lot of the Arab world. THAT is the real injustice – not the fact that Israel are aiming to keep a majority Jewish population.

    Your final remarks regarding Ezekiel puzzle me. The land is for the Jews and also for the Arabs. This is what Ezekiel and you are getting at. And yes, I agree. And Israel’s policy of allowing Arabs to be fully fledged Israeli citizens clearly fulfils this Biblical mandate. So what’s the problem?

    Now if we’re talking about the Arab % in Israel going up to 30% or 40% then fine. But I see nothing in the Bible that commands Israel or any other nation to have a 50-50% split, a 70-30% split, a 1-99% split or any other split!


    1. Sam, a few points in response.

      If you’ve followed this blog much, then you probably know that I have pacifist leanings. So hopefully it won’t come as a surprise to hear that I find violence on all sides reprehensible. That includes every single rocket fired into Israel.

      I find your claim that the West Bank settlements could easily exist alongside a future Palestinian state baffling. These settlements and the wall surrounding many of them have carved up the West Bank like Swiss cheese. The E1 plan which the Israeli gov’t is currently pursuing would all but cut the West Bank in two. I’ve known Palestinian Christians who live (or have lived) in the West Bank, and their experience trying to get from one village to the next — heck, their experience just trying to go to church — is nothing like the freedom of movement you and I enjoy in our respective countries.

      While I would not be so naive as to say that settlements are the ONLY barrier to peace (that is, peace under the terms of a two-state solution), they sure seem like a big obstacle. You can’t claim to negotiate in good faith while building settlements on territory which belongs to the other side. (To be sure, the Palestinian leaders haven’t always negotiated in good faith, either.)

      I take your point about the apartheid comparison, but I reject your suggestion that merely using this word puts someone in the “extremist” camp. That’s a cheap shot. Come on, you’re better than that. For what it’s worth, I don’t equate the Israeli gov’t with apartheid in every way. But I do believe that SOME aspects of its treatment of Palestinians are reminiscent of some aspects of apartheid. Anyway, shortly after uploading this post, I made further edits which I hope help to articulate this a bit more carefully.

      And yes…of course the Saudi government’s treatment of Jews is unacceptable (as is their treatment of, well, practically everyone). I’ve noticed a recurring tactic in this debate: whenever someone challenges an injustice perpetrated by the Israeli gov’t, the other side points to an injustice somewhere else in the world and accuses the questioner of hypocrisy for not challenging it with equal fervor. This is a ludicrous diversionary tactic. Sure, if I had about a hundred years and nothing else to do with my time, maybe I could speak out against every injustice in our world. As it is, we do the best we can.

      I think you’ve missed the point behind my argument that God is bringing the nations together. It assumes nothing remotely like what you’ve said it does. Your description of its “logical conclusion” borders on caricature.

      What matters is not an equal distribution of ethnicities but how different groups treat each other — and most importantly, how the majority (whatever ethnicity that may be) treats the minority. You admit that the Israeli gov’t is aiming to keep a majority Jewish population, which gives the lie to any claim that the Arab minority is being treated with full respect and equality. If Arab Israelis really were being treated with equality, I could understand your confusion over my reference to Ezekiel. But as it is, I think the point stands.


  2. Ben, Jews don’t want to live in a Jewish state because of ideas of racial superiority. It’s simply that a Jewish homeland will provide Jews with a safe and secure home, which the Diaspora traditionally has not been. Surely you can sympathise with this.


    1. Yes, Joseph, I do sympathize with that. The Jewish diaspora has endured centuries of hardship and persecution – and I’m ashamed to say that much of it came from my own faith tradition. No one can fault a group who endured the Holocaust for desiring a home where they could guarantee their own safety and security. The problem, as I see it, is that several hundred thousand people were forcibly displaced in order to create that home. Both Jews and Palestinians have a deep attachment to the land. I just wish they could find a better way to share it with each other.


      1. Thanks Ben. I agree – and it happened in both directions.

        Consider Iraq. By 1951, over 100,000 Jews had fled to Israel. Was Zionism the reason to blame?

        In 1941, a group of Nazi-sympathising officers staged a coup and overthrew the Iraqi regent.

        Inspired by the pro-Hitler cleric Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, they accused Iraqi Jews of being pro-British or pro-Zionist.

        Their threats came to a head with the “farhud” of 1st June, in which 128 Jews were killed and over 200 injured.

        This led to huge Jewish insecurity in Iraq for years, which explains why most Jews chose to leave. Clearly then, Nazi influence – not Zionism – was the main reason to blame for the Jewish exodus from Iraq.

        I think this is unfair on those Arab Jews forcibly exiled from their homes. They were forced or pressured to leave their own homes.

        Whilst the UN has a separate body to look after Palestinian refugees, it ignores Jewish refugees.

        Surely, many would have been happy staying put, yet were not given the option – the same being true for the Palestinian Arab exiles, who fled amidst fear and despair. And still, thousands of these exiles in Lebanon and Jordan are without homes, a situation in urgent need of rectifying.

        Palestinian and Jewish refugees have both been victims of conflict beyond their control, largely.

        Israel is the only country that gives Palestinian refugees full rights, which they do not have in countries like Iraq or Syria.

        Israel is not the only country with a Biblical responsibility to manage its affairs according to the principles of justice – all nations do.

        To be Zionist is not to excuse Israel this responsibility, rather it is to call for Israel and her neighbours to all live up to this.


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