Sunday School, Colonization, Ethnic Cleansing, and the Holy Land

Group of Israeli soldiers stand at attention in Jerusalem
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

The year is 1948. America is realizing just how bad the Holocaust really was. England is realizing they probably should have accepted more Jewish refugees. Everyone is feeling like a failure. Jews are scared. The Germans just tried to wipe them out of existence and no one came to their defense fast enough. They are looking for safety.

It’s a point of sorrow, of fear, and of opportunity. The US and Western Europe has a chance to make guarantees and restitution, a chance to elevate and secure Jewish rights. So what did we do? We encouraged them to go to a small strip of land called Palestine, which we offer to divide into two countries — one for the Jews and one for the Arabs.

Why? And how was doing that even an option?

The “why” is found in Sunday School. The “how” is colonialism.

Sunday School

Any student of the Bible knows that God promised the Jews a Holy Land, containing at the very least the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. The promise is for perpetuity. And in order to secure that promise, the nation of Israel is commanded to commit genocide against the inhabitants who were there at the time of the Exodus. The book of Judges repeatedly scolds the Jewish nation for not completely wiping out their idolatrous neighbors. The promise is from God; the means of securing it rely on the political will of the Israel to wipe out their neighbors.

(I will note that many modern Jews have a vastly different way of interpreting these passages. The above is the Evangelical and Zionist interpretation.)

By the late 1800s and early 1900s, it had been over 1700 years since Israel had held the Holy Land. This created mental discord in the minds of Bible students. It was resolved in one of two ways: 1) Blaming Israel for their sin of killing the Messiah, then shifting the promises into a spiritualized reality of world dominance for Christendom. 2) Minimizing the disruptions in Jewish occupation of the land, prophesying that Jews would reclaim the temple before the return of Christ, and trying to turn that into a reality in order to bring about the second return of the Messiah.

German Christianity had by and large gone with the first interpretation, so had the Church of England and many of the other colonial powers. A large chunk of American and British Evangelicals, however, were going with the second interpretation.

Post World War II, blaming the Jews for anything started to feel unpalatably sour. The repercussions of that theology were too evident to be ignored. The repercussions of the second theological approach were untested, but that approach now gained in popularity.

Zionism allied with Evangelicalism. We would rebuild Israel. The temple would be restored. The Messiah would come or return. All would be right with the world. Or at any rate, with the Christian and Jewish worlds.

Colonization

There was a small problem, of course. Someone else was living in the land that we thought of as Israel — the Palestinians. Many of them were actually Christian. There had been a Bishop of Jerusalem for most of the last two millennia. But they were Arab Christians, affiliated to the church of the East not the West, and easy to ignore from London or New York. They were Brown and agricultural. Easy to dismiss as backwards or perhaps as “not true Christians” and therefore a group that Europeans and the US felt no obligation to protect. Oh, and England owned their land.

Until 1917, most of the land had been part of the Ottoman Empire. Some of the southern end belonged to Egypt. In the late 1800s, England began to hold greater and greater sway over Egypt and made repeated attempts to bring the Arab world under British dominance. It largely failed. But during WWI, it briefly succeeded. Aggravating Arab discontent against the Turks in charge, England weakened the Ottoman Empire which had allied with Germany. As Germany was defeated, so was the Ottoman Empire. That land was then divided among the conquering colonizers. England got control of Palestine.

British and American Zionist Jews saw their chance. They started angling for the creation of an Israeli state for Jews. Zionism had gained strength as a movement in the 1880s, in large part as a response to Russian pogroms against the Jews. They wanted a country of their own to be safe in, a reasonable enough desire. Some 70,000 plus Jews had already emigrated from Russia, Europe, and Yemen into Palestine. When England gained control of Palestine, the British foreign minister sent a letter, now known as the Balfour Declaration, declaring that the British government “view[ed] with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

This was awfully convenient for England. As pogroms continued in Ukraine, England needn’t take the Jews into its own land as refugees. It could redirect them to Palestine. And redirect it did. Another 40,000 Jews entered Palestine by 1923. Another 80,000 by 1929. As Germany began its campaign against Jews, the Jewish Agency in Israel arranged for 50,000 to go there for refuge. Each wave displaced more Palestinians.

Aggravated by this, many local Arabs aligned with the Nazi movement, revolting against British rule and Jewish settlement. The British responded by declaring that the Palestinian Arabs and the Jews should be confined to different areas of the land.

But as Germany’s campaign against the Jews intensified, England closed Palestine to Jewish immigration. Instead, they agreed to the White Paper of 1939, recommending an independent Palestine composed of both Jews and Arabs be established by 1949. In the meantime, England not only restricted Jewish access into Palestine, but also limited the number of Jewish refugees into England. The US similarly turned away ships of Jewish refugees. Six million Jews stuck in Germany and Poland were slaughtered.

While England had declared itself happy enough to give the Jews someone else’s land, it didn’t want to disrupt British operations with massive migration. Nor did the US. We were pro-Israel. We were not pro-Jew.

Reading a US history book, you would think Jewish troubles in Europe ended with the conquest of Germany. But Anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe didn’t end with the Holocaust. A pogrom against Jews broke out in Poland in 1946. Many fled to Palestine. The British didn’t like the sudden influx. It was destabilizing their pet colony.

The influx could not be stopped. Zionist activists had organized. The movement had taken on a life-or-death urgency. The group was fighting for the survival of their race.

This should have been a moment for Europe and the US to step up with another answer: equal rights and guaranteed protections for Jews. We could even have carved out a portion of Germany for them while we were dividing it into East and West. We could have offered unlimited migration into our own countries. But we didn’t.

We punted the question to the General Assembly of the United Nations, which created a United Nations Special Committee on Palestine. They proposed an independent Arab state, and independent Jewish state, and a trusteeship of a jointly held Jerusalem. The British withdrew Palestine in 1948, agreeing to this “solution”.

Ethnic Cleansing

It was not a solution. What Europe, the US, and the Zionists themselves had done was set up a colony to which Jews could be shuttled. But the colony was tiny compared to the number of Jews who needed refuge. And it was surrounded by Arab people who were understandably upset at having had their cousins and relatives yanked off of their ancestral farms to make way for some people Europe didn’t want.

The UN had set up the makings of another genocide against the Jewish people. Before British defenses were entirely withdrawn, Arabs and Jews were engaged in war. The Jewish people organized an army in breakneck time and took over territory, rapidly displacing 250,000 Arabs. The Jews declared themselves the State of Israel.

They were determined not to be pushed out or wiped out again. They would do the pushing out and wiping out instead. Three years from the end of WWII, they had found their ground and flipped the script.

Things got messy quickly. Over 726,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled between 1947 and 1949. They have never been able to return.

But something else happened with Jews outside of Palestine around the world. Now that they had their own country, other countries used this to deem them “foreign agents” and kick them out. It was a facetious claim, but it was a perfect excuse.

The Soviet Union, now engaged in a Cold War with England and the US, declared the Jews within its border to be likely enemy sympathizers. Massive pogroms continued in Poland and the Ukraine. The Arab and Persian world, which had existed fairly peacefully with Jews for centuries, now persecuted and pushed them out in retribution for the crimes against Palestinians. England had not saved Jews by creating Israel. It had simply offloaded their vulnerability.

Between 1948 and 1951, over 700,000 Jews took refuge in Israel. In 1950, Israel passed the Law of Return allowing Jews from all over the world to move to Israel. The population rose to 2,000,000 by 1958. The land became crowded. The Jews needed more territory.

First the Czech, then the French, and then (when they dropped out) the US agreed to fund military supplies to Israel. Egypt declared war on Israel. Algeria joined with Egypt. Israel called up its troops and launched a preemptive strike. Well supplied by the US, the Jews were able to take over more territory. Rather than losing in the war, they gained. They also gained confidence. But it wasn’t the last war. In 1973, there was the Yom Kippur War. Again, Israel held its ground. And this time, it forged a treaty with the Egyptians.

Shrinking territory held by Palestinians vs. Growth of Jewish held land
Credit: palestinepnc.org

It became obvious to Palestinians that they weren’t going to gain their land back through straight out war. Increasingly, they turned to asymmetric tactics: street side bombings, hostage taking, things we refer to as terrorism. It was, and is, their fight for survival. But Israel used the publicity to argue for increasing measures of “self-defense”.

Jewish groups also steadily “settled” in territories beyond what treaties agreed. Palestinians responded with uprisings. Israeli troops committed human rights abuses against Palestinians. Jews continue to move into Israel from all across the world. As of 2021, their population has risen to 6,870,000. All in a tiny strip of land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile the Palestinian population has also continued to grow due to high birthrates. It is currently above 5,000,000.

Israel keeps taking away Palestinian land, restricting movement, restricting basic services like water and medical care, restricting trade, and restricting access to religious sites.

The Conundrum of the Holy Land

That’s where the situation stands today. There are too many people competing for a tiny plot of land. (Yes, the below map is to scale.)

Map of Israel overlaid on NY state, taking up less than half the land.
Credit: Jewish Virtual Library. Israel to scale with NY map.

Jews still experience antisemitism in the rest of the world. Arabs also experience discrimination. Relatively few Palestinian refugees have been granted entry to England or the US despite nearly a century of displacement and statelessness.

The US funds Israel’s military almost as an auxiliary of its own. We exploit our military connections with Israel to make back-door attacks on Iran. Iran in turn hates Israel’s guts and threatens to wipe them out. Arab leaders who need the US for oil trade agree to look away from the plight of the Palestinians for now. But extremist Muslim groups use the grief of Palestinians as a rallying cry for recruitment.

In almost every place, the plight of Palestine/Israel is viewed more as a political tool than as a human problem. Various US leaders have used “Peace Agreements” as tools to prove their own negotiation power to their own voter base. But the agreements have never been complied with by Israel.

The US turns a blind eye to atrocities committed by the Israeli army that we would certainly condemn if committed by any Arab nation.

Israel is a country created out of British and American guilt to offload a problem within ourselves that we didn’t want to face. And it is doubtful that Israel could survive at present without Western military backing. We don’t dare pull out no matter what crimes they commit, for fear that the nation we have created and enabled will be destroyed, and we would — yet again — have Jewish blood on our hands.

The re-establishment of the State of Israel hasn’t brought about the return of the Messiah. It hasn’t made anything right with the world. And the theology that said it would is starting to lose ground.

At some point, political will to continue funding Israel’s army will end. Then what? If Israel can’t secure its own peace, it won’t survive despite its Iron Dome. And as many other nations can say from experience, ethnic cleansing won’t bring about security. Instead, it guarantees bitterness and war.

By moving European Jews onto Arab land, the Allies of WWII made enemies of the two groups. The proposed Two State Solution failed from the beginning. It’s time for the US to slowly back off, for our politicians to stop using Israel for their own aims and to start acknowledging the needs of the Palestinian people.

Solutions now depend on the ability of the Jewish people within Israel to imagine a different sort of existence, one that will secure peace through guaranteeing human rights to the Palestinians, returning at least some of the seized properties, and securing goodwill from their Arab neighbors. It may well be a matter of Israel’s survival.

About the author: I grew up as an American Christian in Turkey, seeing the coverage of Israel v. Palestine in Turkish, European, and US media. At various points, I have been a graduate student of Christian theology, the rise of terrorist groups, international development, post-conflict development, justice following genocides, and US national security and foreign policy. I maintain relationships with Palestinians living in the West Bank and with Jews living in Israel and the US.

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