I am grateful to our senior pastor, Timothy Peoples, for suggesting I write something to you about the terrible ordeal in Israel and Palestine right now. To begin, words fail to express thanks for your prayers and messages to me and our group, which included several Wilshire members — John Gillis, Linda Lyles, Betty Ackerman, Linda Martinez and Susan Braden. About half our intended group of 30 did not make it to Israel because the war broke out before their flights took off. This included my beloved partner, Rabbi Nancy Kasten, who with the others left behind have had to bear their own sorrows from a distance. We all have been sustained by your love and care during these trying days. We have experienced God’s peace in the midst of anxiety and chaos all around us.
Now, to set some context for what is taking place. The Islamic militant group Hamas launched a full-scale invasion of Israel on the morning of October 7 from their base in Gaza, a small strip of land that borders Egypt to the southwest and Israel to the north and east, with the Mediterranean Sea to the west. Hamas has been the elected ruling party of Gaza since 2006, when it launched a bloody military campaign against Fatah, its Palestinian political rival, and took complete control of Gaza. Their charter, which was revised in 2017, blames Jews for both world wars as well as the French and Russian Revolutions; claims Jews control the global media; and explicitly demands their deaths. Their stated intent is to conquer Israel and install an Islamic State from the Jordan River to the Great Sea. They are backed by Iranian funding and weapons, as is the Lebanese militia, Hezbollah, that threatens Israel from the north. For 15 years, as a response to suicide bombings and other terror attacks, Israel has tightened its embargo on Gaza, to the point where it has essentially become an open-air prison. Two million people, mostly Sunni Muslim Arabs, live in a 141 square mile area without the ability to leave due to the land, sea and air blockade. These conditions have become intolerable, and for years Gaza’s civilians and human rights advocates in Israel/Palestine have appealed to the Israeli government and the international community for help.
The modern state of Israel was founded as a Jewish nation and a democracy in 1948, achieving the goal of modern political Zionism. Modern political Zionism was a response to the persistent persecution of Jews and Jewish communities around the world. The Kishinev pogrom of 1903 is just one such example. During that pogrom, which began on Easter Day, 49 Jews were killed and hundreds injured. Jewish women were raped, and homes were destroyed.
After World War I, Jews, whose ancestors were dispersed since their exile from the Kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BCE and deportation from the Kingdom of Judah in the 6th century BCE, began returning to what was then British Mandate Palestine, working to establish a Jewish national home in their ancestral land. Indigenous peoples of Palestine, who had not been exiled and who had inhabited the land without disruption, believed the Jewish claim to the land to be a violation of their natural and inalienable rights and an infringement upon the promises made to them for independence from the British. They resisted the Jewish presence in Palestine. During and after World War II and the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were exterminated in Europe, Jews began to return in greater numbers, not necessarily because of their commitment to Zionism, but because they had nowhere else to go. This influx inevitably led to greater conflict with Palestinians.
In 1947 the British, unable to work out an agreement for partition between Arabs and Jews in Mandate Palestine, turned the issue over to the U.N. After failing to convince the Arab League to accept any Jewish state, an ad hoc committee of the UN General Assembly adopted a partition plan by a vote of 33-13, with 10 abstentions. The plan allocated 62% of the land to a Jewish state, even though there were twice as many Arabs as Jews living in the land at that time. A civil war broke out between Jewish forces and Palestinian Arab forces, setting the stage for a series of wars that have endured until the present day. Palestinian Arabs fled and were expelled from Palestine. Jews fled and were expelled from Arab states in Africa and the Middle East.
Israel today is the only country in the world where Judaism is the national religion and Jews have the authority and power to control their culture and fate. 1948 is a year that is celebrated by those who believe that Jews have the right to this power and authority. And that same year is seen as a catastrophe, or Nakba, by those who mourn the destruction of Palestinian society and the permanent displacement of a majority of Palestinian Arabs. It is hard to hold both those truths together, but Rabbi Kasten and I believe that it is important to do so, nonetheless.
There have been times when Palestinians and Israelis have tried to find political solutions to the ongoing conflict, but these efforts have been undermined by fear, distrust, and the influence of bad actors on both sides. Israel’s Declaration of Independence declares that “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and the ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” The most recent Netanyahu government sparked a massive protest by Israelis who saw extremists threatening this democratic vision. Yet since the establishment of the state in 1948, Israel has confiscated Palestinian land, expanded Jewish settlements and instituted physical, political and legal barriers to the development of Palestinian civil society, often in violation of Israeli and international law. Palestinians, whether in Israel, Gaza or the West Bank, have become increasingly despairing of their future and desperate for change. Almost none of the recent Israeli opposition to the Netanyahu government addressed discrimination against or concerns of Palestinians or Arabs.
Many Christians reflexively believe they must support the State of Israel no matter what. Much of Christian Zionism is based on claims that God’s end-times clock will bring about the Rapture of Christians and the Great Tribulation of the earth. According to this faulty biblical interpretation, the final victory of God depends upon Israel conquering its neighbors and rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. Other Christians, like me, celebrate the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish homeland and at the same time decry human rights violations against Palestinians, which undermine the moral authority of the state and deny the hopes of Arab Christians and Muslims to live freely and peaceably in their own homeland, alongside Jews.
Christians have a spiritual duty to care for the oppressed and seek their liberation, to support the vulnerable and center the marginalized. This is how the good news is received as good news to those whose hopes are crushed. This is true for Jews and Arabs alike, for Israelis and Palestinians both. While Israel is a small country in a sea of Arab neighboring powers, their U.S.-supported military might gives them unique dominance internally over the indigenous population. No one is all good or all bad, always powerful or powerless, forever victim or victimizer. It takes wisdom and compassion to love Every Body, as we say at Wilshire. It also takes courage to hold authorities accountable for how they use their power.
It is possible to say two true things at the same time without talking out of both sides of our mouth and losing all passion for justice. So, first, Hamas’s actions were evil and unjustified. They cannot be excused. Israel has a right to defend itself. But it also has an obligation to conduct itself according to international law and humanitarian principles. If Israel responds without moral restraint, it will undermine its legitimacy in the eyes of its own citizens and the world and further expose itself to existential threat.
For our part, sympathy for human life cannot discriminate. In our private prayers and public policies, we must remember all who suffer and work for a just peace.