Still troubled after all these years: The messy history of Israel and Palestine

A Jerusalem newspaper on May 14, 1948, announcing the modern state of Israel.

Israel was a nation full of heroes.

That’s what I concluded as a teenager when I nurtured a fascination with the new nation of Israel. The nation seemed to be a modern miracle brought into existence by faith, ingenuity and courage.

A lot of history has passed since then. May 15 was the anniversary of the nation’s founding in 1948, when Britain ended its post-World War I “mandate” as Middle East caretaker, in theory leaving Arabs and Israelis to sort out their own problems. It hasn’t worked very well.

Israel through adolescent eyes

My interest in Israel sprang partly from family: my father was Jewish. But long after my parents divorced and I had converted to Christianity, I clung to a thin claim to Judaism. As the Yom Kippur War raged in 1973, my brother and I even discussed the merits of fighting for Israel, should the war last several more years. (Our Israel-loving pastor assured me that we could be good Christians if we fought for love of Israel, but not if we hated Arabs.)

My early adolescent eyes saw an idealized story, enhanced by biblical quotations: A long struggle to gain a Jewish homeland, historically justified after the Holocaust. A bold underdog fighting for survival against the surrounding Arab foes. A new community carved from a sliver of land, finding a noble form in the kibbutz. The new Israel was transforming Palestine from a chaotic, barren desert into a fertile, blossoming society.

This straightforward reading was inspiring to a sort-of-Jewish boy whose own country was militarily and morally bogged down in Vietnam.

Winners get to write history

But as the cliché says, the winners get to write the history, and my lopsided view of Israel omitted the plight of the Palestinians. I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago, during a conversation with Hanna Massad, pastor of Gaza Baptist Church. (See last week’s column.)

Massad’s parents were Palestinian, living in Jaffa in 1948. Overnight they became refugees, forced from their homes along with 700,000 other Gazans, including more than 50,000 Christians. Many of their ancestors had lived in the same places a thousand years earlier. Masses of displaced people scattered around the region, landing in camps in Syria, Jordan, the West Bank or beyond.

All this was part of a maze of political dealing and double dealing that started as the old Ottoman Empire, which had controlled the region for centuries, was defeated by the Allies during World War I.

During the next 30 years, declarations and agreements among European powers, Arab leaders and Zionist organizations – Jewish groups committed to establishing a national homeland in Palestine – tried to balance their various interests. Religion, ethnicity, economics and property claims only complicated matters, as both Jews and Muslims cited Scripture and history.

The British, given control of the region in 1922, sometimes favored Arab interests, sometimes Zionist. Zionists and Arabs occasionally appealed to their common heritage and tried to cooperate and make room for each other. But those times grew less frequent as time passed, as frustrations grew and as sometimes deadly violence flared among both Palestinians and Zionists, usually in reaction to changes in British policy.

By 1947, when the British government referred the matter to the newly formed United Nations, reconciliation seemed impossible. The UN finally recommended forming two states, Arab and Israeli, with Jerusalem designated as an international city.

After the British left on May 14, 1948 – a day earlier than scheduled, which caused chaos – the tensions erupted into war. But Israel secured its foothold and took over most of Palestine. The 61 years since have spiraled into bigotry, terror and vengeance, occasionally punctuated by hopeful attempts at peace.

No one is clean

My first inclination still is to sympathize with Israel. Given the history of the Jews – repeatedly driven from place to place over three thousand years – it’s easy to understand their sense of insecurity even as they established a modern homeland.

But if I take a step back, I can begin to see more of the Palestinian complaints, how their own claims to law, history and religion were set aside 61 years ago. I can see past the stereotypes and meet real people in this story, such as Hanna Massad and his family.

I can see that my adolescent view, with its easy heroism and uncomplicated morality, isn’t adequate. I can see, as the Scripture says, that no one is clean. No, not one.

 Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 16 May 2009.

Palestinian Christians stand ‘between two fires’


Here’s one measure of just how heated the subject of Israel and Palestine can be. When the Christianity Today Web site reported in January that the Palestinian Bible Society, located in Gaza City, may have been hit by an Israeli missile during the brief but intense winter war, some readers were anything but sensitive.

“And my response is … so what?” wrote one. “Lots of buildings have been hit. Is this an attempt to move Christian sympathy for Hamas?”

“If I choose to live among the enemies of freedom,” added another, “I shouldn’t be surprised that I might be destroyed when the friends of freedom respond to threats.”

One reader took offense at this remark, calling it “sickening” because it ignored the fact that Palestinian Christians were living in their own homes. No one said “amen.” When another commenter criticized Israel, however, others piled on.

“Your what happens when dumb liberals think they understand Christanity,” one grammar-challenged reader replied.

No matter what someone thinks about the Israel-Palestine morass, this wasn’t a high-water mark for Christian solidarity.

Hanna Massad (center) with members of the Gaza Baptist Church (date unknown).
Hanna Massad (center) with members of the Gaza Baptist Church (date unknown).

Hanna Massad was not part of that discussion – it’s doubtful he’d want to be – but he knows Gaza better than any of those readers. Gaza is his home.

Massad is the pastor of Gaza Baptist Church, the region’s only evangelical congregation. His wife managed the Palestinian Bible Society – that is, until they, their two young daughters and several extended family members left Gaza for the West Bank in 2007.

They departed literally to save their lives, thinking they would be gone for a matter of weeks instead of almost two years.

The Bible Society building was firebombed at least twice, a repeated target of Palestinian extremists. The worst moment came in October 2007, when a close friend and colleague, 29-year-old Rami Ayyad, who managed the Bible Society bookstore, was kidnapped in broad daylight and later shot to death. Gazan authorities condemned the murder and promised an investigation, but without results.

Massad and his family came to the U.S. last August for a one-year sabbatical, so he could study at the Overseas Ministries Study Center in Connecticut. He visited East Tennessee last week, speaking at Milligan College and Emmanuel School of Religion.

Massad, who received a Ph.D. in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary in California, chooses his words carefully as he describes life for Palestinian Christians. His voice is sad, not angry.

“We are caught between two fires,” Massad said last week during a lull in his speaking schedule. “On one hand there’s the fire of the Israel occupation. Then there’s the fire of militant Muslims, who are not happy with us.” Massad, 49, is a master of understatement.

Since the Hamas party gained control of Gaza in the 2006 elections, the already stressed Christian community has become a more frequent target of Muslim extremists. Hamas officials condemn attacks but take no effective action. The entire Christian population of Gaza has dwindled to about 2,000 believers, living among a population of 1.5 million.

For its part, Israel doesn’t seem interested in a real solution, Massad said. The infamous 432-mile security wall, severe travel restrictions (which separated Massad and his wife for almost a year), the continuing construction of settlements – all stir up Palestinian resentments. Last winter’s conflict cost 13 Israeli lives, compared to 1,300 Palestinians, most of them civilians.

Against that backdrop, Massad stands in an awkward and dangerous place. As a Palestinian, he is suspect to the Israelis. As a pastor, he makes himself a target for Palestinian extremists who hate Christians and think he may be aligned with the U.S. because the word “Baptist” is on the church building and he won’t call Israel his enemy.

“Humanly speaking, it’s easy to be depressed,” he said. “There are militants on both sides. But you cannot live without hope. With good intentions, all things are possible.”

When Massad and his family return to Gaza this summer, he anticipates “a lot of rebuilding of souls” in the congregation and community. They plan to restart the library and school, and to open a health clinic. The role of the church, he said, is to help create a culture of peace.

“We’ll do work to reflect God’s love,” he explained. “We can continue to have love for Israel and for the Palestinians. Love for one should not make you hate the other.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 9 May 2009.

Rumors that just won’t die

Zombies_Ahead_610x479The rumors still sound ominous.

Atheists, inspired by the now-deceased Madalyn Murray O’Hair, are pushing the Federal Communications Commission to ban all religious broadcasting. If this request – petition RM-2493 – succeeds, then we can say good-bye to church services on the radio, televangelists and all religious programming.

If you want an example of what might happen, consider the fate of that popular CBS-TV series, “Touched by an Angel.” It was taken off the air because it mentioned God in every episode.

Christians can stop the atheists, however, by adding their names to a petition that would force the FCC to keep its big government paws off their broadcasts. The goal is to collect one million names. James Dobson of Focus on the Family endorses this effort to stop RM-2493.

But wait, there’s more!

Redesigned dollar coins and Lincoln pennies omit the words “In God We Trust”!

Jesus will be portrayed as a homosexual in an upcoming film!

Steak ‘N’ Shake restaurants won’t allow its customers to pray in public!

And of course, Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim!

One problem: Not one of these rumors is true. Not one.

According to, one of several Web sites devoted to researching and unraveling rumors and so-called urban legends, more than 40 religion-based rumors are currently blowing around cyberspace. Only a handful of them, however, are emphatically true. The vast majority are bogus in whole or part.

That FCC rumor about removing religious broadcasting? Various versions have circulated for more than 30 years, by chain letter before the days of Internet. It started after two men filed a petition, the infamous RM-2493, asking the FCC to investigate the operating practices of stations licensed to religious organizations and not to grant new licenses for new noncommercial educational broadcast stations until the investigation was complete.

The FCC denied their petition in 1975. O’Hair had nothing to do with it, but her name got attached because she was then America’s most famous atheist.

But the story just won’t die. The FCC still gets mail and phone calls.

 “Such rumors are false,” the FCC Web site bluntly states. “The FCC has responded to numerous inquiries about these rumors and advised the public of their falsehood. There is no federal law that gives the FCC the authority to prohibit radio and television stations from broadcasting religious programs.”

For their part, Dobson and Focus on the Family have never been involved in any controversy over RM-2493, except for efforts to distance themselves from it.

The “Touched by an Angel” Web site also set the record straight in 2001, just after it was renewed for a seventh season: “A chain email has been floating around the internet and our message board stating that the FCC is forcing CBS to take ‘Touched By An Angel’ off the air because we mention the word ‘God. … This is a new variation of an old hoax. If you are a recipient of this email, please ignore it.”

The series ran a total of nine seasons, a long and successful lifespan for any program, and the scripts mentioned God from the first episode. The show ended for the same reason most do: it no longer appealed to the audience advertisers wanted.

Ironically, the same Internet that makes it so easy to spread rumors makes the truth more accessible than ever. Viewers can check out sources directly, such as the FCC, or locate information on sites such as Snopes and Urban Legends.

That being the case, then why do such stories persist, some for decades? Why don’t people check for themselves?

Maybe they don’t know how. Maybe the stories confirm what we already believe or what we want to be true. Maybe it’s a reaction of fear and insecurity, prompts for people who feel threatened by the world around them.


For now, let’s just take the pledge to check the facts and find the truth before we risk passing along a lie.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 2 May 2009. (This column is an updated version of one that was published on April 29, 2006.)

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The politics of conscience and health care

I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to walk into a pharmacy with a prescription for, say, a contraceptive and be refused because the pharmacist believes contraception is morally wrong. In most areas I would be just inconvenienced because I could speak to another pharmacist or take my business elsewhere. In some places, however, I might be standing in the only drug store in town, and then what?

I’m also trying to imagine what it would be like to be a pharmacist whose faith or church teaching opposes artificial contraception – which would lead me into acting unethically if I filled that prescription. Even referring the customer to another pharmacist could be considered a disguised form of cooperation. And then what?

Last fall the Bush Administration started a process that resulted in a rule that protects health workers, particularly those who receive Medicare or Medicaid funding, if they refuse to provide treatment that goes against their consciences. The new rule took effect on Jan. 20, the day Bush left office.

Six weeks later, the new Obama administration declared its intention to reverse that rule, opening a 30-day public comment period that ended April 9. Now the Department of Health and Human Services is reviewing the comments and, come June or July, is likely to rescind the “conscience rule.”

The debate, in effect, pits the rights of patients against the rights of care providers, especially when it comes to birth control, abortion and end-of-life treatment.

“There are two schools of thought,” according to Walter Fitzgerald, adjunct professor of pharmacy practice who teaches law and ethics at the Gatton College of Pharmacy at East Tennessee State University. “One says that (providers) should not be forced to do something in conflict to their religious or personal moral values. Another says that if you are given a license by the state and in essence have sworn an oath to serve fellow man, then you don’t have the right to object any longer, because of your professional obligation.”

Opponents of the Bush rule say it limits access for care to patients. Supporters of the rule say it safeguards the freedom of conscience for doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other healthcare professionals that dates back to the Hippocratic Oath and the First Amendment.

Opponents say that laws enacted during the 1970s (soon after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide), which allow providers to refuse treatment as long as they provide information and access by other means, have worked just fine.

Supporters of the conscience rule, such as David Stevens, executive director of the Bristol-based Christian Medical and Dental Association, say those laws are toothless, opening the door to a kind of “ethical cleansing” in the medical field, aimed at practitioners who oppose abortion.

“There’s a lot of discrimination going on,” he said in a phone interview last week. A recent survey found that almost one-fourth of the CMDA’s 15,000 members said they had been “discriminated against” because of their opposition to abortion. “They’ve been fired from jobs or failed to get a promotion or weren’t able to get into an educational program,” he said.

But no lawsuits are pending, according to Stevens, because the laws don’t provide for legal action.

Tennessee, like most states, has a conscience clause, allowing health workers to refuse treatment as long as patients can get treatment elsewhere. So far, Fitzgerald said, the matter of conscience hasn’t been a problem, at least not for pharmacists. That’s not the case in some other states. In Illinois, for instance, pharmacists must dispense.

“There, it’s mandated. You don’t really have a choice,” Fitzgerald explained. “We don’t have anything nearly that strong in Tennessee.”

He isn’t sure yet how rescinding the federal rule would affect Tennessee.

“Giving information or referral is not required by law (in Tennessee), but from an ethical standpoint, that would be expected,” Fitzgerald said. “If a pharmacist refuses to dispense RU-486, someone could make an argument that it’s contrary to state Board of Pharmacy rule, especially if it’s medically necessitated or in case of rape.”

But that leaves a very complex, sometimes messy scene.

“Even if the federal law says that you have to honor freedom of choice, we have to balance that against our (professional) rules,” he said. “We don’t have a clear-cut answer.”

That pretty well sums up the whole debate.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 25 April 2009.

After the tea parties

With taxation on American minds this week – what with income taxes due and the so-called tea parties protesting government spending – I looked through some old notes and came across a column from Sept. 29, 2007.

I couldn’t help noticing how the voices in this column spoke mainly about fairness and justice for poor people, not about safeguarding their own pocketbooks.

If Tennessee were ever to inaugurate an income tax, Lee Davis, a tax attorney in Johnson City, knows he’d pay more to the state than he does now.

But that prospect doesn’t bother him.

“I don’t mind paying my fair share,” he said in a phone interview. “I think our system would be better with an income tax. Too many laws are written to benefit those of great wealth.”

This is more a matter of faith than finances for Davis, who describes himself as “a lifelong Republican who believes in capitalism and free enterprise.”

A member of Central Church of Christ, Davis points to an incident in the New Testament when two very different groups tried to corner Jesus with a tax question: the Herodians, who supported the local king, a puppet of the Roman Empire, and the Pharisees, Jewish purists who thought cooperating with secular authorities meant flirting with heresy.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” they asked, figuring that any answer would land Jesus in trouble.

But he frustrated their trap – and confounded future commentators – with a deceptively simple reply: “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).

People have tried to translate those words into good practice ever since.

But whatever Jesus meant, Tennessee’s tax system isn’t it.

“There’s a connection with all the social-justice aspects of the Old and New Testaments,” said Bill Howell, the Middle Tennessee organizer for Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, a statewide coalition for tax reform. “There’s a general preference for the poor expressed in the Bible.”

But the Tennessee tax system works exactly opposite, taking the proportionally biggest bites from its poorest citizens. At 11.7 percent, the total state tax burden on the poorest families, who earn less than $14,000 a year, is nearly four times the rate as for the wealthiest Tennesseans. This is according to a 2003 report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C.

The main culprit is the sales tax, among the highest in the nation overall and the highest for groceries (even after recent changes). A loaf of bread, for instance, costs the same whether someone earns $14,000 or $140,000, and so high-income households spend only about four percent of their budgets on groceries. Low-income households, by contrast, spend about 21 percent.

The stark bottom line: In proportion to their income, the poorest citizens get hit hardest by taxes while the richest get away easiest.

“It isn’t morally fair,” Davis said. “We have a regressive tax system.”

On many issues, Davis sits on the opposite end of the political spectrum from the Rev. Don Beisswenger of Nashville, a Presbyterian minister, retired Vanderbilt Divinity School theologian and left-leaning activist who once spent six months in federal prison for staging a nonviolent protest at an Army base.

But they agree about the inequities of the Tennessee tax system.

“The Bible strongly accents the importance of compassion and care for the poor,” Beisswenger said this week. “The Jewish law had harvesters not take all the grain from the fields, so poor people could get what was left. Jesus identified with the poor, spoke for them. I think he was killed (partly) because he advocated for the poor against the religious and economic powers.”

In his eyes, the tax debates reflect two competing “myths” in American society.

“One is the Horatio Alger myth – work hard and do your own thing,” he said, referring to the 19th-century author whose stories promoted self-reliance as the key to financial success.

The other storyline emphasizes “community connections (and) a responsibility to care for people who are unable to take care of themselves.” He believes that view is more consistent with biblical teaching.

 “Jesus said his mission was to bring good news to the poor,” Beisswenger said. “The gap between the wealthy and poor needs to be dealt with. That’s a necessary condition for the celebration of Jubilee, for the reign of God.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 18 April 2009.

That end-of-semester back-blog

The semester at Milligan has finally come barreling to an end, and the end-of-term crush of reading, meeting and grading is either an explanation or an excuse for my not posting for the last few weeks. What follows are the missing installments of “Face to Faith,” picking up where I left off and working toward the most recent.

I’m sorry for the backlog. I suppose we could call that a back-blog, but  ack-blog sounds more fun, like something Scandinavian.