An old friend called me this week asking what I thought about the current administration’s plans to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Before I answered I told him that my experience in the Holy Land brought me into touch with Jews and Palestinians alike, and that I found people of good will on both sides. Sadly, it is the peacemakers - like Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin - who have often paid the highest price: both men were assassinated by extreme factions among their own people. The key to understanding the current conflict and the struggle over Jerusalem is that Jews and Arabs have both been pushed around for centuries, and at times treated cruelly and deceitfully. The Jews look back to the destruction and occupation of their lands by a series of empires...Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman...and in more recent times, the ghettos, the pogroms and the holocaust. The Arabs/Palestinians look back to their oppression under the Ottoman Empire, the broken promises of the Western powers, the founding of the State of Israel and their dramatic defeat in 1967.
Understandably, they both want to establish a sense of freedom and national identity. The irony is that Jews and Arabs are actually Semitic cousins, children of Abraham, and share many cultural traits and traditions. Jews trace their governance of the land to around 1200 BC while Arabs have been in the land continuously since at least 700 AD, living alongside populations whose roots can be traced back to the Canaanites, Phoenicians and Philistines. Their struggle intensified after World War II as both groups sought to put an end to the suffering and their status as oppressed peoples. In the process, as The Quaker Report puts it, “they ran head on into each other.”
Some Christians look to the prophets as unqualified justification for the Zionist movement, arguing that this is fulfillment of scripture, and the precursor to Jesus’ return. Yet we must be fair and note that when Isaiah and other prophets speak of a renewed people and land, they speak of one in which every nation, tongue, and tribe is welcomed and enfolded into the family of God’s people, “a house of prayer for all nations” (see Isaiah 2: 1-5, Isaiah 56: 1-8; Jeremiah 7: 2-11), just as God’s covenant with Abraham prophesied (Genesis 12:1-2). Moreover, Isaiah’s vision of Israel as a Light to the nations (Isaiah 51:4) is one of infiltration, more than ethnic purification; and thus Jesus’ message of kingdom inclusion as he preached to Jews and Gentiles alike seems a more fitting parallel; as was his call for truth, justice, and mercy (Amos 5: 21, 24).
Along these lines God reminds his people repeatedly, “Do not oppress an alien; for you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt” (Ex. 22:21, 23:9, AV). Imagine if both Jews and Palestinians could live as “People of the Book,” having experienced firsthand what it is to be oppressed and alienated, and began to treat one another as the stranger who they are called to accept and even love. Colin Chapman in his excellent book, Whose Promised Land? offers this insight from Isaiah's prophecy in ch. 53 where he foresees the coming of the Servant who by willingly suffering injustice is in some mysterious way able to bear the sins of his people, and the world. The Servants actions are seen by Christians as fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, but they also speak in a wider sense of how reconciliation happens. There is no way to be just to one party in the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict without being unjust to the other. Therefore, the only hope for reconciliation is for both sides to be willing to suffer some measure of injustice, to repent of wrongs done on both sides, and thus to be peacemakers and enemy-lovers as Jesus taught us.
Years ago I stayed with an extraordinary Palestinian Christian by the name of Elias Jabbour. He lives in the northern Palestinian town of Shef-Amr, outside of Haifa and there established “The House of Hope.” His continuing work has brought Jewish and Arab adults and youth together through Peace Camps and the House of Hope Kindergarten where they can play together and get to know one another in a safe environment. Elias is a voice for the peaceful resolution of conflict and the hope of reconciliation between peoples.
Some say moving a national embassy will help the peace process, and others that it will destroy it. My conviction: It is only when God’s embassies of sacrificial love are established in Middle Eastern hearts, and our own, that we will see in Jerusalem a lasting salaam-shalom.