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.