the "holy land" - quarterly published by the franciscan custody of the holy land

1999 - online version


Part I - Part II - Part III
by Rev. Thomas F. Stransky, Paulist
Rector of Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies, Jerusalem.

I had first experienced the Holy Land in 1963, 35 years ago. But only for the past eleven years have I been daily living here and sharing the Israeli and Palestinian emotional whiplashes — during the Palestinian intifada (uprising) of hurled stones, rubber bullets and "the breaking of bones"; during the Persian Gulf War with nightly overflights of deadly skud missiles from Iraq, and our always carried gas masks; during the post-war increase in the strategic building of new settlements and access roads on confiscated Palestinian family lands in the West Bank; during the brief over-optimistic era of the Israeli/Palestinian National Authority post-Oslo peace accords, including the wounding of Israel’s soul with Yitzhak Rabin who had fought on the battle lines of five wars, yet lost his life because he even more bravely championed peace; the surprise of the May 1995 elections when Benjamin Netanyahu’s anti-Oslo platform, winning by a margin of only 20,000 votes, brought in a new coalition government, and soon the fragile peace-process was spiraling downwards; during the trauma, the rage and frustration caused by the terrorist bombings, the shredded corpses and bloodied wounded of the innocent on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; the retaliatory closures of the Territories and thousands of innocent Palestinian workers unemployed; and then a bungled attempt of Mossad secret agents to assassinate a Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal, in the capital of Jordan, whose king may still be the only true Middle East friend Israel has, but now very suspicious of its prime minister.

Indeed, some events rush at such a dizzying pace that even veteran analysts find it difficult to formulate a coherent interpretation before sudden new events demand a total reassessment. It is as if in this long-running drama, the Great Producer decides that the old script was going nowhere too fast, and he orders his writers to revise the story while the same central characters still remain on the stage.

Yes, I live in one Land, blessed and cursed. The Land bears two confronting histories, two peoples and cultures, the three faith-communities of Abraham, several ideologies, many conflicting sides on each side, and so many ethnic and religious prejudices. Euphoric dreams mingle with the worst of nightmares, milk and honey with blood and tears. And in recent months, too many shrugs of fatalism. We live daily with death too close to us.

As the Rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, I reside with Christian scholars, parish clergy, religion teachers, and other church workers from many countries, cultures and church traditions. They come to Tantur for three to eight months to experience an international, intercultural and ecumenical community of study and prayer, in living dialogue with the local Christians, Jews and Muslims of Israel and of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Gaza.

Tantur rest on a hilltop exactly on the border and its military checkpoint between southern Jerusalem of Israel, and Bethlehem of the West Bank. Neutral but not indifferent, Tantur has become one of the very few oases of sane discourse in the troubled Land. Here meet Palestinians and Israelis, Jew and Arab; religious or not too religious; educated or not so educated; men and women; young and old. Despite the odds, the Tantur environment tries to help such local people search for and discover in each other the human face and heart.

Off the Tantur campus, I oscillate my working and recreational time between Jews and Christian and Muslim Palestinians. I am humbly privileged to share their trust and friendship in their own environments where there need be no coverup for frank conversation, open expression of fears and hopes, angers and bewilderments. But I am neither Jew nor Arab. Sp please understand that I dare not claim to speak in their names. I can only articulate my own limited experiences and reflections on political Zionism and the State of Israel ... not in angelic fantasy, but in the ambiguous reality of now.

I try to share with you as a Catholic of the local church of Jerusalem who tries to be faithful to the Vatican II Church in all of its demands: "the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men and women of our times, especially those who are poor and afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ" (Gaudium et spes, n.i). For me, this means: the legitimate aspirations of the Jewish people — in Israel and in the diaspora, of the Palestinians — whether Christian or Muslim, the defense and promotion of human rights — especially to justice, security and peace, the ethical use of political, economic and social power in its manipulative misuse -- in particular by using God as a self-serving idol, and religion as a weapon for pathological justifications of such power ... or powerlessness.

The development of political Zionism over one hundred years, and of Israel for five decades, easily leads to ideological and historical generalizations. Especially during the past ten years, Jewish and other historians are revising this century-long development. They are uncovering new facts, nuances myths, and rearranging former syntheses. And as historians are wont to do, they hotly argue over who has the story correct. All of them should heed the warning of the historian Walter Raleigh: "any writer of modern history who treads too closely on the heels of events may get his or her teeth knocked out." Perhaps more pertinent is the answer of Mao’s successor in communist China when asked what he thought of the 18th century French Revolution: "It’s too early to tell."

Two years ago commemorated the one-hundredth anniversary of Theodore Herzl’s Der Judenstaat, literally The Jews’ State but translated as The Jewish State with its subtitle: An Attempt at a Modern Solution of the Jewish Question [Vienna, February 1896]. In 1896, this 34 year-old Viennese journalist, in Isaiah Friedman’s phrase — "a statesman-prophet in a hurry", judged that anti-Semitism was incurable, and that in the new era of nation-states, unless a mass exodus of European Jews took place, persecution and pogroms would overwhelm them. "Juden raus" — "Jews out." The nightmarish specter called for a radical solution that would "normalize" the Jewish homeland in the Palestine of the Ottoman [or Turkish] Empire into a political movement, a force of collective survival to be reckoned with in diplomatic negotiations and financial organization.

Although a fellow Viennese publicist, Nathan Birnbaum, had coined the term Zionism in 1890, and Moses Hess had anticipated the ideas for a Jewish state in his Rome and Jerusalem (1862), the first international Congress by the Zionist name, in Basle, 1897, initiated the organized political movement. It adopted the program: "Zionism strives to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law (offentlich-rechtlich)". Among the means: "the promotion, on suitable lines of the settlement of Palestine by Jewish agriculturists, artisans, and tradesmen" and "steps toward securing the consent of governments which is necessary to attain the aim of Zionism."

The movement as Zionism initially built on the idealism that drew strongly on modern revolutionary ideals of democracy, socialism, romantic utopianism and ethnocentric nationalism. The Zionist political methods had much in common with other nationalist movements, and would exploit the self-interests of the European Great Powers, in particular Great Britain which judged a friendly beholden Jewish presence in Palestine as a means to destabilize the Ottoman empire. The movement drew only weakly on ancient religious visions of a messianic return to the biblical homeland. In fact, with his secular rationalist convictions, Herzl and most of his followers, refused recourse to any divine justification for the nationalist movement — which led most leading rabbis to spurn or keep a holy distance from it.

The Vatican was not aloofly indifferent. The papacy of Leo XIII (1878-1903) was still reacting to the loss of the papal states, the secularization and political liberalism of European nations, and the principal errors of the age: socialism, communism and nihilism (confer his first encyclical: Quod apostolici muneris, Dec. 1878).

Shortly after the 1897 Basle Conference, the semi-official Vatican periodical (edited by the Jesuits) Civilta Cattolica gave its biblical-theological judgement on political Zionism: "1827 years have passed since the prediction of Jesus of Nazareth was fulfilled ... that [after the destruction of Jerusalem] the Jews would be led away to be slaves among all the nations and that they would remain in the dispersion [diaspora, galut] until the end of the world." The Jews should not be permitted to return to Palestine with sovereignty: "According to the Sacred Scriptures, the Jewish people must always live dispersed and vagabondo [vagrant, wandering] among the other nations, so that they may render witness to Christ not only by the Scriptures ... but by their very existence" (italics mine).

Despite this negative, scornful judgement in Rome, Theodore Herzl hoped for direct papal goodwill and support for the Zionist dream and program. In late January 1904, after the sixth Zionist Congress (August, 1903) and six months before his death (July 3), Herzl travelled to Rome, and crossed the Tiber to the Vatican.

Herzl first met the Secretary of State, Cardinal Merry del Val (Jan. 22). According to Herzl’s private diary notes, the Cardinal replied that "the history of Israel is our own history, it is our foundation. But in order that we should come out for the Jewish people in the way that you desire, they should first have to accept conversion." Three days later Herzl met Pope Pius X (Jan. 25 — a public holiday in Rome celebrating the Conversion of St. Paul!). Again from Herzl’s diary: the Pope replied to Herzl’s outline of the Jewish Return: "We are unable to favor this movement. We cannot prevent the Jews going to Jerusalem, but we could never sanction it ... The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people."

That was in 1904. Most likely the Zionist movement would have fallen apart but for a succession of events which neither Herzl nor anyone else could foresee: World War I, the collapse of the Ottoman empire, the British conquest of Palestine and its being placed by the League of Nations under the British Mandate (1922), and the 1924 immigration quotas by the American government. The British would try to be loyal to the pledge of the 1917 Balfour Declaration: "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."

In the Vatican, Pius X’s theological underpinnings for the opposition to political Zionism were still intact. In 1922, the Civilta Cattolica complained. The Zionists returning to Palestine had "forgotten that more that 1,800 years had passed since their faith, smitten by the divine malediction, or if this sounds unpleasant, subjugated by a hand stronger than theirs, were expelled and dispersed over the whole earth."

So applies that Christian anti-Semitic tradition of divine punishment of the Jews, for the killing and rejection of Jesus the Messiah, Lord and Savior. The Jews have forsaken all rights to God’s promises, and thus to Eretz Yisrael, the biblical land of Israel. They should continue to wander the earth, as did Cain, to be vagabondi. God providentially sustains the dispersed existence of the Jews, in order to remind Catholics of the blessings of God to the New Covenant which has completely replaced the Old Covenant. The synagogue kneels before the new Qahal identified as the Roman Catholic Church, whatever numbers and power the Jews may have, in Palestine or elsewhere.

One reads these texts of what Jules Isaac had called Christian contempt (mepris) in the light of Pope John Paul’s address (Oct. 30, 1997) at the Vatican symposium on the Christian roots of anti-Semitism: "... the wrong and unjust interpretations of the New Testament relating to the Jewish people and their supposed guilt [in Christ’s death] circulated for too long, engendering sentiments of hostility toward this people."

The Zionist movement as political reached its enfleshment in the 1948 creation of the sovereign State of Israel. The Jews commemorate 1948 The Year of Independence; the Arabs call it The Year of the Great Catastrophe (Al-Nakba). The Zionist catchy phrase: "A people without a Land to a Land without a people" had a basic flaw. A 100 years ago, besides a minority of about 75,000 Jews, the majority already on that small piece of real estate were about 600,000 Arabs. Competing utopias collapse in the face of borders and neighbors. And so for a century, the bloody conflict has been raging between Jews and their immediate neighbors, the Palestinians, and other Arabs of the surrounding nations.

For the last 50 years, the Jews have their sovereign Israel, and control its governance. After more that 1900 years, this majority status is new for them, as new is the power they wield over themselves and the goyim minorities within its borders, and over the two million neighboring Palestinians under Israeli military occupation. Yet the Jewish majority is all too conscious of being a national, ethnic and religious minority in the Middle East. The Jews desire to be at least tolerated, if not equally respected, yet not at the expense of their own identity and "particularity" as a Jewish people in its own State, and even more so, never, never at the cost of its own national security.

In 50 years the new State never enjoyed the luxury of floating on the world’s margins until it could enjoy a child’s quiet innocence, then endure the minor growing pains of trial-and-error adolescence, then become politically mature with a seasoned democratic tradition. Israel never had an innocence to lose. Military and political power means visible responsibility, and that inevitably means making mistakes, often stupid ones. No other State in the Middle East has faced both constant threats to its very existence and constant criticisms for actions against such threats.

On the one hand, in a peculiar type of anti-Semitism, some western Christians claim to respect and defend the Jews, but they cringe at Israeli mistakes and downright sins, or they prefer to ignore them or to blame the Arabs for the obvious imperfections. These Christians look back wistfully upon what they idealize as the perfect morality and exemplary religiosity of the Jews as long as Jews were meek and passive, persecuted and defenseless. Or Christians hold the Jews to a far higher moral standard of nationhood than any other State in the world. On the other hand, in a peculiar type of anti-Gentile racism, some Israeli Jews compensate by openly playing out ethnic and religious superiority complexes vis-a-vis their Arab neighbors — Christian or Muslim.

The reflex is familiar: build oneself up by tearing the others down. One does this by controlling the memories of both. In the Holy Land and elsewhere in the semitic Middle East, memory so dominates that centuries do not succeed one another, they co-exist. All-hungry history consumes the present, and dulls the imagination and its appetite for dreams of the future. Look at my own experience in the immediate context of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Whether at Palestinian and Jewish family dinner tables, or in academic rooms of Israeli or Palestinian universities, or at Tantur, I hear the ever-interrupting imperative which frustrates future projections: "But remember!"

Time collapses, as if last month, last week, yesterday occurred the devastating Persian (present-day Iranian) invasion of 614 AD; the western Christian Crusades in the 1100's; Salah al-Din’s Egyptian Muslim reconquest of Jerusalem in 1187; the Ottoman takeover in 1517; the British victories and occupation in 1917; the Palestinian slaughter of the Jews in Hebron in 1929 and nearby Kfar Etzion in 1936; the April 1948 premeditated massacre of Palestinian women and children of Deir Yassin by the Irgun and the Stern Gang, then led by future Israeli prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzak Shamir; between 1948-67, the Israeli take-over of thousands of Arab homes in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Beit Se’an, Haifa and elsewhere, even the destruction of over 400 villages never to be rebuilt; the thousands of Palestinians becoming fleeing permanent refugees into the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan; Jordan’s deliberate destruction of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter, including 52 synagogues, and Jordan’s denial of the Jews even to enter the Old City and pray at the "Wailing" Wall; the 1972 killing of Israeli athletes at the Olympic games in Munich; Baruch Goldstein’s machine-gunning Muslims at prayer in Hebron’s Machpela cave of the Tombs of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in February 1994; a few months late, the blowing uup of a bus full of innocent Jews on the main-street of Tel Aviv; the January 1996 Israeli secret service murder of the elusive Hamas chief "Engineer" Yehha Ayyach; and in retaliation a month later, suicide-carriers of smart bombs, recruited by the militant wing of Hamas (Ezzedin Al-Qassem) demolish public buses in Jerusalem, in Ashkelon, and in Tel Aviv, more bombings ; and finally, most recently, the bombing at the marketplace in New Jerusalem. All these event co-exist in that commanding phrase: "Remember!"

What breeds distrust of the future is this strong memory of selective past events which are the true and false memory-myths at the core of religious, ethnic, and national self-perceptions, self-identity, and self-dignity. That is why in the diffusion of historical data and of images and myths which reinforce the past are so powerful in all forms of literature, theater, cinema, printed media, textbooks and educational materials. Whoever controls the data and images, analysis and interpretation, wields power equal to military might. Quasi-wars center around who controls history and memory, including the history of political Zionism, and the foundational myths of the State of Israel. Truth is usually the first casualty, and exaggerated statistics, fragmented narratives, and selective indignations become false intimidations which are, in the word of W. A. Auden, "like a frost that halts the flood of thinking."

To replace the true myths with false myths is to touch far more that cold truth. "Tread softly," the poet whispers, "for you tread on my dreams." Thus, the understandable reaction of those when others deny the history of their central myths of identity.

On the one hand, an example on the Jewish side: the Holocaust (or Shoah) in Europe and the emergence of the State of Israel enter as two inseparable events in the modern self-definition of the Jewish people, everywhere. So destroy that identity by these claims: the Shoah was a "minor event", or even a "hoax" which the Jews have exaggerated to give credible legitimacy to the State of Israel. Or: the desire of Jews to return to their historic homeland is of recent 20th century vintage, and "next year Jerusalem" was but a lackadaisical prayer muttered in a few Easter European shtetls. Or: Jews are and should be at home everywhere else but in Israel, where in the Middle East, they are only temporary unwelcomed "colonialists" or unwanted "tourists".

On the other hand, an example on the Palestinian side. Destroy their identity by this claim: all Palestinians are only recent employment-hungry arrivals in the once barren backwater of the Ottoman Empire, quasi-nomads whose deepest longings and true home is anywhere in the Arab world but Palestine. Or as one prominent Israeli recently pronounced, the so-called Palestinians are a "fictitious people with fictitious claims."

The Tantur bus-driver is of the Siniora clan. Around 1140 AD, a few Siniora Crusaders came from Naples to Palestine. They did not return to Italy. They married local women, and over 950 years have become completely Arabized on their own family lands in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. They stubbornly remained Latin Catholics in faith and practice, as do other Italian Crusader-originated clans which I know, such as the Quanavati (Venice) and Katan (Catania). Members of these clans resent being called homeless newcomers who long for the Bay of Naples, Venice, and Reggio Calabria.

With these frequently hear examples, each tries to confiscate the memory of the other, to prevent the other from expressing its own view of how it has lived and remembers its history. "Only our history is the history." So often the confiscation of the other’s histories leaves us with opposites: "Israel born in sin" or "Israel conceived immaculate"; every murdered Palestinian resister to Israeli military occupation is a guilty terrorist, or a holy martyr; clean divine hands fight dirty demonic hands; all the justice and humane acts on one side, all the injustice and inhuman acts on the other; "good guys" verses "bad guys" — a Holy Land replay of the classic American western film.

One has to decide: either remain captured by distorted, selective and one-sided memory until Jews and Palestinians together sort out and accept the objective story of the Holy Land, which is one of the most complicated, messy segments of the 20th century; or become liberated from the past by common compassion on a common history, and by the shared imagination which can project the realistic common future. In this "hang loose" way about the past, I suggest, can the future become not what the future used to be? If one can confirm future peace with justice only after all past injustices have been perfectly righted and retributed, there will never be even a half-loaf peace-of -sorts.

Part I - Part II - Part III

copyright 1999

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