The focus has returned to the Middle East with rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel and Israeli military force being deployed against the Palestinians. Most commentary has been negative towards Israel with concerns and condemnation concerning the loss of civilian life. How should we respond and engage?
Well actually saying nothing might be the best response for some. If you are not in the habit of commentating on international affairs, if you don’t have particularly strong opinions about the experience of the Kurds or of the battle with drug cartels in places like Mexico then you don’t need to have a strong opinion on Israel either.
What I mean is specifically this. We may feel a pressure to have an opinion on what happens in Israel, particularly because of the status the land and the people hold in Scripture. This became particularly acute and remains so in some quarters where the modern state of Israel has been presented as a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy and New Testament Eschatology. So, it is important to be clear that it is not for two reasons.
First of all, Old Testament prophecy is concerned with God’s people under God’s blessing and rule in God’s place. The Old Testament starts with a wide angle view, the people of God are all of humanity as descendants of Adam and the place of God’s rule is the whole earth. This is narrowed down throughout Scripture so that from Genesis 12 the focus is on the land of Canaan as place and the descendants of Abraham, narrowing down to Israel as God’s people. Then finally the promise and covenant narrows down so it focuses on Christ, it is in Christ that we find the place of God’s rule and blessing and Christ IS the people of God. But the result of that is crossover so that from Calvary via Pentecost the promise broadens out “to you, your children and those that are far off.” This means that once again the promise extends to people from every nation and the whole of creation, this will eventually be realised when Christ returns. The focus of Biblical prophecy and eschatology is not on a political state. It is about spiritual fulfilment so that Gentiles who have faith are ingrafted into the people of Israel who also have/had faith in the promise.
Secondly, even if prophecy was promising a specific physical return of God’s people to the land, then the 1948 modern state does not come close to fulfilling those prophecies as it remains firmly a secular state which does not acknowledge David’s heir as king. This means that we should regard, treat and respond to Israel as we would any other country.
If we are going to say something, then the next important thing is to beware antisemitism. Antisemitism is racial hatred and discrimination focused on the Jews specifically. It has a long history. We immediately think of the horrors of the holocaust but it predates that. Jews have been exiled, discriminated against and murdered throughout history and throughout Europe and sadly the church on a misreading of Scripture and a faulty theology known as “replacement theology” has at times fuelled the fires of antisemitism.
Sadly, examples of antisemitism have arisen when people have used criticism of Israel and even of Israel’s existence to provide cover for racism and conspiracy theories. You may hear people talking about being against Zionism not against Jews by which they mean the specific project to provide a homeland for the Jews based on the historic boundaries of the land from which for centuries they were exiled. Sometimes also, well meaning people are drawn into its tropes out of a desire to speak up for the Palestinians.
But fear of antisemitism should not prevent us from challenging and questioning what the Israeli state does. It is a secular political entity led by fallible human beings and we should not be any more surprised when the leaders of Israel get things wrong and son than when our own leaders do. The Government is democratically elected and accountable through a form of proportional representation. It is therefore subject to challenge and scrutiny by the Israeli people. You don’t need to support the current government in Tel Aviv in order to be Israeli or Jewish. So, therefore you don’t have to support it to avoid charges of antisemitism.
However, we need to be careful too that challenges don’t stray beyond what we would expect in other contexts. This happens when the actions of Israel are portrayed using conspiracy theory language that betrays the stereotypes and tropes used by anti-Semites, particularly that Israel gets away with things because the world is controlled by a tight nit group of rich and powerful Jews. I would also further suggest that we risk antisemitism when we start questioning “Does Israel have a right to exist?” Throughout its history modern Israel has been surrounded by countries that denied its very right to exist and sought its utter annihilation. Imagine if we replaced Israel with any other country in that context. Imagine not merely saying that Scotland is better off in the United Kingdom but going further and saying “Should Scotland really have the right to exist at all?”
Finally, if we are going to comment, then like on any other subject we should seek to be properly informed. This means that yes we identify examples of where Israeli military action has stepped outside of international law and where forces have been heavy handed and indiscriminate. We may also identify examples of discriminatory legislation from her parliament. Where we identify those things they need to be raised and Israel needs to be challenged.
We also need to be informed about he context in which Israel finds herself as the only liberal democracy in the region, surrounded as I said before by enemies seeking her complete annihilation. That’s the context for her robust response to threat. I’ve seen comments to the effect that we never launched missile and air strikes on Northern Ireland to defeat the IRA. True, but nor were we subject to rocket strikes from Northern Ireland and nor were the IRA committed to our complete destruction through genocide.
Against that backdrop, it is worth then being informed at the lengths that the IDF go ot in order to protect life and minimise civilian casualties in a conflict where her enemies choose to hide and strike from in and among a civilian population. For example, there were reports of the IDF “roof-knocking” of Gaza’s tallest building this morning. That phrase refers to a single non explosive sent as a pre-warning that further strikes will follow to enable evacuation. Whether or not we agree with the over all strategy we need to be aware of the efforts made.
So, we should engage and comment on Israel to the same degree that we would about any other country. We should base our views on sound Biblical theology. We should reject and oppose antisemitism but this should not prevent informed criticism and challenge.