Ask Dr. Cobb

February 2009 Question

Do Jews have a divine right to the land of Israel?

Dr. Cobb's Response

A January issue of The Christian Century, a mainstream Protestant magazine of news and opinion, featured articles about this issue. The writers even held that Jews have a “supernatural” right to the land because God promised it to Abraham for his descendants, and Paul confirmed the validity of God’s promises to the Jews. I expected this sort of thing in right-wing Christian literature, but was surprised to find it in this magazine. Of course, the authors did not take this as sanctioning all the policies of contemporary Israel. Some regarded the promise as conditional. Nevertheless, the implication was that if there is a story in the Bible that includes a divine promise to Abraham, then the promise has eternal validity.

Christian process theologians, along with many biblical scholars, approach matters quite differently. God plays a role in all that human beings do, and that role may be quite prominent. It is not meaningless to speak of divine inspiration of a story. But every human act, including the telling of a story, has many other causes. The fact that there is a story of God promising Abraham the land does not mean that either Jews or Christians should straightforwardly assert this as historic fact. Since the story was included in the scriptures of both Jews and Christians, it does mean that Jews make a strong claim to the land, believing, in many cases, that God wills that they have it, and it does mean that the issue is an important one for Christians as well.

Surprisingly, the authors seem to assume that it is the Jews alone who are heirs of the promise to Abraham. Paul insisted that the heirs of Abraham are those who share his faith or faithfulness, and that Christians are thus engrafted into this community. Muslims also belong to the Abrahamic community. That all who are descended from Abraham genetically and only those can lay claim to this promise is not a Pauline position, and if it were, many contemporary Jews would still be excluded. Although the authors are careful not to take an extreme position based on their acknowledgment of a supernatural right to the land, they open the door to what is, from a process perspective, the wrong kind of discussion, one in which religion functions to give an absolute ground for taking a position on an issue in which there are competing valid claims all of which should be considered.

For Christians, and for many Jews as well, the issue should be one of justice and not, primarily, of the application to a current political issue of an ancient story. At the end of World War II, the great majority of Christians, including those adhering to process theology, were convinced that justice required that Jews have a homeland. We had to confess that Christendom as a whole had failed them. Indeed, Christian teaching had an important role in bringing about the Holocaust. The United States may not have directly supported the genocide, but it was one of those countries that refused to admit Jewish refugees. Jews had no reason to trust any predominantly Christian nation.

Many Jews had placed their hope in the secularization of Christendom. Secular governments were expected to be religiously neutral; so Jews should be treated equally with Christians. However, the rise of nationalism was just as bad for Jews as domination by Christians. Jews were not recognized as truly French or Italian or German or English, even if they were thoroughly loyal to the state. And worst of all, as the influence of Christianity waned, pagan tribalism returned, especially in the form of Nazism, free from inhibitions that had somewhat limited persecution by Christian and secular governments. Clearly it was imperative that Jews have some land that they controlled and where they could escape persecution.

Although other locations were mentioned, the only real option was Israel/Palestine. This was their ancient homeland and was associated with Jews in the minds of all members of the Abrahamic faiths. It was the only place where they had ever had a state. The scriptures of both Jews and Christians told of their claim to this land. The Zionist movement was well established and had already begun to re-populate the land with Jews. For process thought it is highly relevant that individual Jews identify themselves as part of a community that traces its history back to a time when they lived in Israel.

Another factor played into support of the establishing the state of Israel. Christians, and post-Christian secularists as well, recognized that the Jews were a peculiar, and peculiarly important, people. Their reflections about their history with God gave birth not only to Judaism but to Christianity and Islam as well.

Over centuries, even millennia, they survived and even flourished in unfriendly environments, maintaining a strong sense or their identity despite lack of communication with most of the widely scattered communities. Further, when given a chance, they have contributed disproportionately to civilization. In anyone’s list of the ten most influential Western thinkers of the past two centuries, at least three Jewish names would almost certainly appear: Marx, Freud, and Einstein. In the United States, Jews are disproportionately represented in the professions, in the sciences, in business, and in politics, especially in leadership positions. They are a truly extraordinary, a uniquely gifted, people. These special talents have drawn jealousy and persecution upon them – but also admiration and wonder.

Many Christians had great hopes for a Jewish state. Within Christendom, especially in recent times, we counted on Jews to be a voice for justice more than we counted on our own Christian communities. We had largely given up on the idea of Christian nations, but we thought a Jewish nation might indeed be a light to the peoples of the world.

Sadly, we must now recognize that we were not equally sensitive to the Palestinian reality. We were swayed by the Zionist slogan: “a land without people for a people without land.” We had long allowed ourselves to justify the European conquest of what became the United States by thinking of it as largely empty. Only gradually have we come to recognize the true nature of our theft of the land and of our near genocide of the earlier inhabitants. Similarly we have come to recognize that our support of the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel/Palestine imposed a horrendous injustice on the Palestinians who had been living there. To justify this injustice by an ancient story about Abraham does not help.

There have been other troubling developments. The Jewish state has turned out to have the same drawbacks as the Christian states of the past. On the whole, the distinctively Jewish passion for justice has not shaped its policies toward non-Jews any more than the Christian commitment to justice shaped the policies of Christian states. Only a secular state can give equal rights to all its inhabitants. Being “Christian” contributed more to legalism than to justice, and the same seems to be true of being “Jewish.”

The failure of both Jews and Christians to recognize that the land was already occupied has created terrible dilemmas for the State of Israel. The state was established first and foremost for the secure survival of the Jewish people. This is a goal that process theologians fully endorse, no less now that half a century ago. But the result has in fact endangered Jewish survival. This is clearly recognized by the leaders of the new state, and their policies have been geared to counter this danger. Sadly, while these policies have succeeded in the short run, they have intensified the danger in the long run.

First, Israel has enlarged the area it controls beyond what was assigned it by the United Nations. This gives it more defensible borders. Second, it has secured these boundaries by planting settlements throughout the West Bank that make it impossible for that area to become an independent state. Third, it has made itself the dominant military power in the Middle East. Fourth, it has not hesitated to use this power to punish those who threaten it.

These policies ensure that no one is currently in a position to threaten the survival of the state. But the long-run danger has grown. From the beginning the Palestinians opposed the establishment of a Jewish state that either drove them out or made them second-class citizens in their own land. Their resistance led to Israeli security policies that have steadily worsened their situation. Their resentment and rebellious feelings have increased over the decades. The possibility of healing and reconciliation, that different policies could have fostered, has faded. Yet a state of oppressive control is not indefinitely sustainable. The people of the neighboring states have always sympathized with the Palestinians. Israel’s policies have led to agreements with some of their governments, but they have accentuated the hostility of the people. It is doubtful that Israel can forever survive in the context of massive hatred.    

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