A Brief History of Israel
David’s 5th Blog from Israel
The modern nation of Israel was birthed on May 14, 1948. We might like to imagine a handful of smiling Jews being handed a deed to their uninhabited ancient homeland by United Nations dignitaries on a sunny day. But that wouldn’t be an accurate history. The birth of modern Israel was preceded by hundreds of years of birth pangs. And the birth itself was bloody, to put it mildly. Let me share a short history, because it would seem that, before we take sides on a political issue that has existed for hundreds of years, we ought to at least have a basic understanding of the issue.
It is difficult to know where in history to begin. We could start with the Middle Ages, when for example, exiled Jews were slaughtered by the Crusaders, expelled from England, France and Austria, and blamed for the Black Death, resulting in the destruction of hundreds of Jewish communities by vengeful mobs. 900 Jews were burned alive in Strasbourg, for example.
But let’s jump to the 16th century, when we find an explicit example of the kind of antisemitism that ultimately led to the mass migration of Jews to their ancient homeland hundreds of years later. The example to which I’m referring is found in a booklet published in Europe in 1543 titled, The Jews and Their Lies. As you read a few excerpts from that book from which I’m about to quote, you will likely conclude that the author may have been a Christian in name, but certainly he could not have been a true follower of Christ:
What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing and blasphemy. Thus we cannot extinguish the unquenchable fire of divine wrath, of which the prophets speak, nor can we convert the Jews….
I shall give you my sincere advice:
First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians….
Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues. Instead they might be lodged under a roof or in a barn, like the gypsies. This will bring home to them that they are not masters in our country, as they boast, but that they are living in exile and in captivity, as they incessantly wail and lament about us before God.
Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.
Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb….
Fifth, I advise that safeconduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside, since they are not lords, officials, tradesmen, or the like. Let them stay at home….
Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping. The reason for such a measure is that, as said above, they have no other means of earning a livelihood than usury, and by it they have stolen and robbed from us all they possess….
Seventh, I commend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam (Gen 3:19). For it is not fitting that they should let us accursed Goyim toil in the sweat of our faces while they, the holy people, idle away their time behind the stove, feasting and farting, and on top of all, boasting blasphemously of their lordship over the Christians by means of our sweat. No, one should toss out these lazy rogues by the seat of their pants….
If this does not help we must drive them out like mad dogs, so that we do not become partakers of their abominable blasphemy and all their other vices and thus merit God’s wrath and be damned with them. I have done my duty. Now let everyone see to his. I am exonerated.
The author of that vitriol? Marin Luther, revered Protestant reformer, at age 60.
Of course, Martin Luther’s convictions were not uniquely his, as witnessed by the persecutions, pogroms, inquisitions, massacres, restrictions, harassments, and expulsions that Jews suffered over the next 400 years, culminating with Hitler’s “Final Solution.” (Incidentally, Hitler tipped his hat to Luther in his book, Mein Kampf.)
The 19th and 20th Centuries
Long before the Holocaust, there was a growing movement among Eastern Europe’s persecuted Jews for an independent state in their ancient homeland. In the late 1800s, waves of European Jews began immigrating to the region. By 1890, Jews were a majority in Jerusalem, although the region as a whole was primarily populated with Arabs.
Growing sympathy in Britain towards the idea of an independent Jewish state in their ancient homeland was expressed in the Balfour Declaration of 1917. At the close of World War I, when Middle East boundaries were being drawn, Britain was granted a mandate from the League of Nations to administrate a region carved out of Ottoman Southern Syria—which was named Palestine—with a view towards ultimately creating an independent Jewish state. Encouraged by these developments, more waves of persecuted European Jews made the journey to start their lives over in the homeland of their ancient ancestors. By 1928, Britain began allowing the Palestine Jewish community a significant degree of self governance through its elected Jewish National Council.
But during this very same time period, a movement towards Palestinian Nationalism emerged among Palestinian Arabs. It was clear to them that the British were favoring the Jewish minority.
The 1930s saw increased persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe, and another wave of 250,000 Jewish immigrants arrived in Palestine during that decade. That only increased tension with Palestinian Arabs, whose subsequent protests, riots and revolts compelled British authorities to make attempts to limit Jewish immigration and create a separate place in Palestine just for Jews—a plan that would have required relocating 225,000 Arabs. Those British attempts failed.
Then came World War II. Between 1939 and 1945, six million European Jews—men, women and children—were systematically murdered, mostly in Nazi gas chambers.
A post-war survey of surviving, displaced European Jews indicated that 95% hoped to emigrate to Palestine. In spite of British attempts to stop them, tens of thousands succeeded, many fleeing post-Holocaust persecution, and it was not long before Jews made up one-third of Palestine’s total population. In an effort to gain independence, Jewish militias started waging guerrilla warfare against the British. It was not a coincidence that the Arab League, first consisting of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, was born in March of 1945.
In April of 1947, Britain requested that the newly-created United Nations solve its problem in Palestine, with a view to fulfilling its original mandate. The result was a U.N. partitioning plan that created two separate states, Jewish and Arab, with Jerusalem under an “International Trusteeship System.”
The partitioning plan was never implemented by the U.N. Security Council or the British, the latter of whom were fearful of further damaging their relationship with the Arab world. The only tangible result of the U.N. plan was the civil war it sparked between Palestine’s Arabs and Jews.
The Civil War of 1948
Every adult Jew was conscripted to serve in the Jewish military, and Israeli forces focused on regions that were mixed with Arabs and Jews. Although outnumbered 2 to 1, the Jews were better armed.
In Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948, in the midst of the Civil War, on the day the last British forces departed from Palestine, the Jewish People’s Council announced the establishment of a Jewish nation, to be known as Israel. To the chagrin of the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab League, the world’s two superpowers at the time, the United States and the Soviet Union, immediately recognized the new state of Israel. And the Civil War in Palestine immediately escalated to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, as the surrounding Arab nations of Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan all attacked the new nation of Israel the day after it was born.
Israeli forces suffered initial setbacks but later overcame them, and by the time armistice agreements were signed some months later between Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, Israel had gained territories that had not been allocated in the United Nation’s proposed partition plan. It should be mentioned that the Arab countries also occupied some regions of Palestine that had not be allocated to the Palestinian Arabs by the U.N. But overall, Israel was the net winner in terms of land gained.
Both sides paid the price of war, with Israel losing 6,000 of its people. And during the two years of the civil war and Arab-Israeli War, as many as 700,000 Palestinian Arabs, Muslim and Christian, fled or were evicted by Israelis, uprooted from their homes and lands. Except in Jordan, Palestinian refugees were settled in large refugee camps in poor, overcrowded conditions.
I recently spoke with a Christian friend in Jordan, a Palestinian by birth, whose grandfather was a successful businessman who owned 75 acres of land near Beersheba. My friend’s Christian father, a church-planting pastor, inherited the land at the death of his father. When he and his family fled from advancing Jewish forces across the Jordan river in 1947, they thought they might return in a couple of weeks when hostilities settled. But their return was never allowed. My friend’s family still holds the deed to that 75 acres near Beersheba, and it is now worth millions of dollars. But their deed is worthless.
What happened to my friend’s family happened, to greater and lesser degrees, to hundreds of thousands of other Palestinian families, Muslim and Christian. Here are the questions I’m wrestling with: Were the events of 1947-48 in Palestine orchestrated by God to fulfill prophecy as so many Evangelical Christians believe? Was God returning to the Jews their ancient homeland by their confiscation of land that other people had been living on for generations, and in some cases, land owned by followers of Christ? Incidentally, in 1947, it is estimated that as many as 12% of Palestinian Arabs identified themselves as Christians (although the majority would have been most likely cultural Christians).
Some Final Thoughts
Of course, as we read of the centuries of persecutions suffered by the Jews (and many times at the hands of professing Christians), it is difficult to not feel sympathy towards their plight and wish for them a national homeland where they can live securely.
On the other hand, it is difficult to not also feel sympathy towards the plight of Arab Palestinians who’ve been expelled from the land on which they were living, in some cases, for generations. If you had been a Palestinian Arab who lost to Israel the home and farm that you inherited from your parents, might not you be tempted to harbor some resentment? Moreover, if you were a Palestinian Arab Christian who lost your land, and an American Evangelical told you that God was on the side of the unbelieving Jews who now occupied your land because the land belonged to the Jews by divine right, might you not question his opinion?
Why do so many Evangelical Christians cheer for modern Israel? It is only because (1) they’ve been told that God is always on the side of Israel, all based upon out-of-context scriptures, (2) they’ve disregarded what Scripture teaches about God’s morality, and (3) they’ve assumed that modern Israel’s establishment as a nation in 1948 is the result of divine orchestration rather than divine allowance.
No one other than Christians view the restoration of Israel as miraculous…everyone else sees it as a progression of history that has resulted in the world’s biggest political mess. And when we claim that God has been orchestrating the whole thing, to them it seems like we’re saying that God is the one who has caused the world’s biggest political mess.
What is worse is when Jews discover that many Evangelical Christians believe that two-thirds of all of Israel’s population will die during the battle of Armageddon (according to Zechariah 13:8). So it appears to them that our agenda is completely selfish: We want the Jews to regather in Israel to be slaughtered in order to fulfill prophecy so Jesus will come back.
So what should be the Christian view of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict? The issue is so complex, it has been going on for so long, there is so much we don’t know, and there is no way that anyone can rightly say that one side is significantly morally superior to the other. So we should not be taking sides. Our message to Middle East Arabs and Israelis should sound something like this:
What a mess this situation has been for hundreds of years. As Christians, we want to be on the side of what is right, but it is impossible in this case for us to say that there is one side that is clearly right and another side that is clearly wrong. We sympathize with both sides, and we love everyone. So we have to tell you that we can’t join you in your hatred of one another, and we would love to serve as peacemakers. But we know that peace will never come to the Middle East unless both sides are willing to humble themselves, admit wrongs, ask forgiveness, and then work to make wrongs right. That will never happen, however, apart from both sides first coming to Jesus. So that is why we are going to focus on telling you the gospel, just as Jesus commanded us. If you would all repent of your sins and follow Jesus, He will not only give you eternal life, but He will turn your hatred for each other into love. And in the end, everyone gets some land! (The meek shall inherit the earth!)