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A Holy Land for Peace

Sermon - 2/28/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Genesis 15

The text for this morning describes the making of the covenant with Abraham, which establishes the origin of the Hebrew people as a people of God.  So reading from Genesis 15:

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ 2But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ 3And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ 4But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ 5He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord  reckoned it to him as righteousness.

[And then there's a description of the ritual of the covenant-making ritual involving the slaughter of some animals, and after which it concludes:]

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.’


This promise to Abraham of a homeland for his descendents brings up the whole issue of the existence of Israel today. And through the wonder of modern technology I can now control our slide projector with my iPhone :) I was in Israel and two years ago, many of you know this picture looking out at the Golan Heights:

When I went on that trip, that was sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, and we met with a staff member of AJC at the international chapel in the airport at JFK before flying out. A rabbi Noam Moranz was his name. And he said to us that just the idea of a homeland for the Jews is the most important idea in Judaism. 95% of Jews identified that as their highest value.

I asked Rabbi Maurice Harris, one of the rabbis here locally, about that, if he agreed, and he said "Well, I wouldn't put it that way, but I would say that Jews have great diversity -- they rarely agree on anything :) -- except for the existence of Israel. That is the one thing that unifies nearly all Jews".

And even that is beginning to be challenged by some, as witnessed Wednesday in the op-ed published in the Register Guard by a young Jewish woman, describing the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. The IJAN opposes Israel as a colonial power and is calling upon Israel to allow the return of all refugees. And to cease its existence as a Jewish state. An idea that is gaining acceptance on many campuses across the country, and as such it is then an idea that has a great majority of our Jewish cousins deeply worried.

And so the challenging question I think for us, that I invite you to consider this morning is this: is the existence of Israel as a Jewish nation import to us as Christians? Or, should we advocate for a single state in Palestine with no single religious affiliation as a vision of peace and justice for all of God's people?

And I want to share with you my own struggle with that question, especially as I continue to reflect on that powerful experience I had while visiting Israel and the West Bank, and where I've come out on it. Now, 20 minutes cannot adequately cover all of that, so get comfortable, we'll be here for awhile :). But seriously, I do invite you to join me Tuesday afternoon in our "theology on tap" at Cosmic Pizza at 5:15 p.m. where we're going to converse on this topic. And I've invited a couple members of J Street, the new Jewish lobby organization, to come and be in conversation with us. J Street seeks to offer a different voice that is both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli, a voice for peace.

I want to do three things: I want to briefly summarize the issue at stake, secondly, I want to give a few arguments for the whole idea of two states versus one state, and thirdly where I have come out on the topic and why I believe it is important for us as Christians to be involved in this issue -- not simply to say 'you know, it's their problem, let them work it out'.

So, what are the issues? Why is it so dang hard to bring peace to the Middle East?

Well, consider first of all the history of the region. In this text from Genesis 15, we have a kind of a nice summary of the origins of that conflict, in which God speaks to Abram and says 'Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there and they shall be oppressed for 400 years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace, you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete".

And so I asked my friend, Rabbi Maurice, about that passage, and he replied to me that he does not view that as the actual words of God as if God spoke to Abraham, he says "Instead, for me these passages tell me that my ancestors in ancient Israel found a sacred bond between themselves, God, and their homeland, and those were the words they used to express that truth. It's still a powerful truth, but it doesn't negate the fact that Palestinians and others also have had that kind of experience in the same land".

And so the conflict, when have two different peoples that contest the land as something God has given to them.

And so from the very beginning there has been this conflict. Those conflicts, of course, would continue for over a thousand years and would not come to an end until the greatest imperial power the world has ever seen destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70, and exiled the majority of the Jews from the holy land 60 years later. And so it was, under Roman rule in the second century, at the long Diaspora began and Jews became a people without a land. Treated with suspicion and mistrust in most of the places where they lived, and often expelled from many of them, they remained a people without a country to call their own, until 1948.

And so the Zionist movement began in the late 19th century, and many, especially European Jews, sought to emigrate to Palestine to flee the anti-Semitism prevalent in Europe. And little did they know that the greatest persecution was yet to come, making the dream of a Jewish homeland not just a luxury but a necessity.

Prior to the beginning of Holocaust, that began in 1938 with what in Germany was called Kristallnacht (the night of the broken glass) there were 18 million Jews in the world. Seven years later, 6,000,000, one out of every three worldwide, were dead. Today, 65 years later, Jews comprise 15 million people. In other words, they are still 3 million below that pre-World War II number. Compared to 2 billion Christians, nearly 2 billion Muslims, and you can understand why Jews feel so greatly outnumbered in our world. And therefore are worried whether or not Israel will remain a Jewish country.

Now, I'm not going to go into the recent history since 1948 and the wars and all the controversy around that, the expulsion of somewhere between 400,000-800,000 Palestinians, in what Palestinians call the "the catastrophe". One of the Jewish professors that we spoke with in Jerusalem said that 1948 represented for Jews a return home, but for Palestinian it was the equivalent of rape.

So secondly, consider the geography:

The Middle East is a predominantly Muslim area of the world, represented in this map by the green. The light green being the Sunni Muslims, the darker green being the Shia Muslims. The irony of Genesis 15 is that it names the area between the Euphrates River, which of course is in the middle of Iraq, and a river in Egypt, presumably the Nile, although it had a different name, and so if you look at that region in between those two rivers it is predominantly today Muslim.

Well, of course, if you include Ishmael as one of the descendents of Abraham, his first son by Hagar (Sarah's handmaiden), who is considered to be the father of Arabic people, then that promise has become true. But of course, most Jews would not see it that way.

And Israel today is of course a much smaller nation than that:

And just how small it is became very evident to me when we went to you an area on the border between Israel and the West Bank, in the narrowest area of Israel. We were standing there at the border, and this soldier is pointing out areas of the West Bank and the security barrier that has been erected there:

And when you turn and look to the west (so I'm the eastern border of Israel, looking west) and you can see off in the distance Tel Aviv:


Here is the same picture "zoomed in" a bit:

So there's Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is on the coast -- on the Mediterranean coast. So I'm standing on the eastern border looking at the western border of Israel. That's how narrow the country is. Then, if you overlay a map of the state of Oregon, you can see that the entire area -- including the West Bank -- would fit in between I-5 and the Oregon coast:

That's how small the entire region is -- it's not a very big country.

And lastly, consider the demographics. 15 million Jews in the world today, as I said. 5.6 million of them living in Israel, roughly the same number living in the United States. That leaves somewhere around 3 1/2 million Jews in the rest of the world. There is no country with more than 2% of its population Jewish (even the United States -- about 2% of the United States is Jewish). And there's no country that has a greater percentage of Jews.

And when you look at Israel itself, with 5.6 million Jews, 1.8 million non-Jews in Israel (who are full citizens with the right to vote), and 500,000 citizen settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Compared to Palestinians -- 1.5 Palestinians living in Israel (who are citizens of Israel, have voting rights, members of the Knesset), 2.3 million Palestinians in the West Bank, .2 million in East Jerusalem, 1.5 million in Gaza, for a total 5.5 million. In other words, in the holy land today, there are roughly the same number of Jews as there are Palestinians. And if you allowed the right of return for a couple million Palestinians living outside of the holy land, you can see immediately that area would lose its Jewish majority.

Hence the fear and suspicion of many that what Israel is really trying to do is ethnic cleansing -- to remove the Palestinians from that area so that they may maintain their Jewish majority. Now, there are many reasons for a single state where Palestinians and Jews have equal status as full citizens. It sounds very appealing, especially in this country where the separation of church and state is commonly accepted as the norm of democracy. True democracy, after all, requires that all people be given equal voice. And the Palestinians have just as much claim to the land (this text notwithstanding) as do Jews, and in many cases even an older claim. Further, by international law, those who fled during the war in 1948 have the right to return. And so a one state solution would allow them that right.

And perhaps the best rationale for a single state of Palestine is that the holy land should be a place of peace where the three Abrahamic faiths can live together in harmony as a witness to God's intention for the whole world, instead of divided so dramatically.

Now, there are many more reasons for sure, there's a prominent Palestinian proponent of the one state solution who is going to be in Eugene on Friday, speaking on the campus of the University of Oregon at one o'clock if you're interested, the details are here.

But they are also compelling arguments for two states, Israel and Palestine side by side. And the first of course is that because we only have one Jewish nation in the world. We have many Muslim nations, many predominantly Christian nations, but we only have one nation that is Jewish and one state would mean the end of a Jewish state. The importance, even the necessity, for a Jewish homeland I think was clearly established in World War II. That Israel is perhaps the one sure thing, and the only thing, that can prevent another Holocaust from occurring.

And as a witness to the survival of Judaism in the face of the Holocaust, Israel also provides a constant reminder to the world for the need to protect any and every people from genocide. But just as Israel gives Jews a collective means of self determination, dignity, and respect, so to a state of and for Palestinians is needed. A Palestinian state would restore dignity and respect for Palestinians and gave them the needed ability of self-determination. And would provide them with a greater voice in world affairs as a recognized member of nations.

And as I learned from my years of working with farm workers, true justice can never be achieved when one side has little power and is always at the mercy of the other side. And that became especially evident for me in visiting three different families in Bethlehem, in the West Bank, and hearing the stories of how they have suffered under the current conditions.

The creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, which fully recognizes the right of Israel to exist and vice versa, is the only way the balance of power can be restored and true peace and justice achieved.

So those are some the arguments that I would name for one state versus two states. So the question then comes: which should we as Christians support, if any. And these are difficult choices, many Christians will find themselves on opposite sides. So the first thing I have to say is the importance of respecting those who may be on the other side. Demonizing one side or the other, referring to Palestinians as terrorists or Israelis as Nazis, is not okay. It's never okay.

One of the organizations I belong to is Churches for Middle East Peace. I had an opportunity to hear Warren Clarke this week in a conference call, former ambassador of the United States, talk about a recent tour that he took, a congressional delegation that he led just recently to Israel. And the one thing that he emphasized from their perspective, from that organization, is that Christians must always be on the side of peace. We don't have to choose sides between the two, we simply have to choose the side of peace. I heard the same thing from a Palestinian Christian that we visited with in the West Bank, who said "Listen, I'm not asking you to take my side or the Israeli side, I'm just asking you to take the side of peace".

At the same time, and I don't think this is a contradiction necessarily, I have come down on the side of two states, for at least five reasons.

First and foremost, I believe that we should support Israel as a Jewish nation because it is one of the most important ways that we can make amends for 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism. Wherever anti-Semitism exists, the possibility for serious violence against Jews remains high. And we have witnessed some of that here, even in Eugene. And now with the prospects of the Aryan Nations forming a headquarters in John Day, it brings home to us the fact that anti-Semitism is very real and very threatening. And so the necessity for Israel to remain as a Jewish state.

Secondly, bi-national states, as proposed in the one state solution, that is 1 nation with two roughly equal populations, rarely works. Look at the historical record. Lebanon, deeply divided, often a failed state. Former Yugoslavia;, divided now between its Serbian side and its Muslim side. Rwanda. India, before the division of Pakistan (much to the chagrin of Gandhi, who wanted to see that remain as a united nation of both Hindus and Muslims).

The reason why most nations of the world are formed around ethnic identity and why so few countries have repeated the great American experiment is that it is simply very hard to do. And given the history of the Middle East, I don't believe a one state solution will work there, at least not yet.

And third, we have a unique and special relationship with Judaism. A Jewish homeland may not be important to us as Christians, but it is important to most Jews, and therefore we share that with them because of that relationship. That does not mean that we should not advocate for Palestinian rights to their homeland. Indeed, we should as a matter of basic human rights. The house demolitions, the expansion of the settlements and the like, simply has to stop.

Fourth, forming a Palestinian state will be the best method to restore justice for the Palestinian people, and enable Israelis and Palestinians to resolve their differences as equals. Therefore, the goal for us should be to empower Palestinians rather than to dis-empower the Jewish majority in Israel.

Lastly, it is important for us as Christians to recognize that the covenant between God and the Jews is still valid. But that covenant includes living justly in the land with all its residents. Even as we honor that covenant by respecting the rights of a particular people to a specific homeland, we must also recognize the validity of other claims by other people and reconcile the conflict between the two when it occurs for the sake of peace and security of the whole world.

For truly, only when there is peace in the land and respect for the rights of all its inhabitants, can we then call it holy. May it be.


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