I spent two weeks in Palestine and Israel. They were an amazing, wonderful, challenging, life-changing two weeks, but they were still only two weeks. I’m nervous about saying anything about the situation given how little time I spent in the two countries, or one country and one territory, but I also spoke with many, many Palestinian Christians who asked me to share their situation with my congregation and other Australians and I promised that I would. So here I am sitting in a Spa in Pertisau, Austria, trying to put some thoughts together.
Several speakers we heard from, particularly from the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land and the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, talked about the two meta-narratives that exist in Israel and Palestine.
For the people of Israel, and for Jews around the world, the meta-narrative is one of liberation. A people who had spent centuries in exile, persecuted in almost every country in which they lived, the victims of an appalling attempt at genocide in the Shoah, established the State of Israel with the Declaration of Independence in 1948. The Jewish Diaspora once again had a homeland. Through the Law of Return of 1950 Jews from around the world have the right to citizenship in Israel and at a time when anti-Semitism is once again growing that must be profoundly reassuring. (It is interesting that an amendment to the Law of Return in 1970 allows people like me, a non-Jew with one Jewish grandparent, to be olehs too, but I guess I would also have been Jewish enough for the Nazis and would have been caught by the Aryan clause, even as an ordained Christian minister.) All this is a reason to celebrate!
But there is another meta-narrative. For Palestinians what happened in 1948 was the Nakba, the catastrophe. In 1948 750,000 Palestinians were driven out of their land, including 50,000 Christians. We visited the Ayda Refugee Camp in Bethlehem and saw the world’s largest key over its gate, a symbol of the keys to the houses from which they fled that many refugees still hold. We saw the paintings on the Refugee Camp walls of the villages from which the refugees had come, and the list of villages that had been destroyed in 1948. There are three or four generations of people living in refugee camps like Ayda; Palestinian refugees are the oldest unsettled group of refugees in the world. Groups like the Pontifical Mission for Palestine were established in 1949 as a temporary measure to help Palestinian refugees. They are still in existence because they are still needed. This is to be mourned.
My very tentative conclusion as an Australian is that part of the problem is that countries like Australia only recognise the first meta-narrative and not the second. This is why one Palestinian Christian told us that Australia was part of the problem and not part of the solution. Our joy at the establishment of the State of Israel and our support for it means that we do not criticise Israel when we should. We accept and support the continuing establishment of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land; we refuse to condemn Israel’s occupation of the West Bank (since 1967); and we were one of only six nations who refused to adopt the ICJ judgement that the route of the Separation Wall is illegal. 85% of the Wall is on Palestinian territory. I’ve now seen the Wall in Bethlehem; seen the way it twists and turns through the city, the way it separates Palestinians from their land, the way it winds around houses and isolates people. On my last morning, as a taxi took me to Ben Gurion airport, the huge metal gate in the Wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem was closed and as we waited for an Israeli soldier to deign to notice us and open the gate so that I could catch my flight I understood how the Wall makes people in Bethlehem feel that they are in prison. It is embarrassing that Australia joined with Israel, the USA, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau in the vote in the UN General Assembly. Our support for Israel should not mean that we support it when it breaches international law.
I have returned from Palestine and Israel a more fervent supporter of the two state solution than I was when I entered it. There must be two states in the Holy Land, where Jews, Christians and Muslims can live in peace. There is no alternative. In support of this, countries like Australia much condemn all breaches of international law, whoever commits them. Our support for the State of Israel must include encouraging it to be better than it is now, encouraging it to end the Occupation and withdraw to the boundaries of 1967. This is the most friendly thing that the friends of Israel can do. In the same way, I want the international community to encourage Australia to be the best country we can and to condemn us when we breach international law as we currently are in our treatment of asylum seekers. Even free and fair democracies like Australia and Israel can make dreadful mistakes and our friends should call us on them.
As for Christian churches, we need to remember that the Palestinians include Christians who have lived in the Holy Land since the time of Christ and support them in their struggle for human rights. We need to condemn the Christian Zionists whose very strange reading of the scriptures leads them to ignore the mistreatment of their Palestinian brothers and sisters in Christ. And, most importantly, we need to support the moderates of all religions against the religious extremists of all religions (or the “crazies” as Lutheran Bishop Munib A. Younan and Rabbi Ron Kronish described them).
I fell deeply in love with Palestine and Israel. I enjoyed every second of my time there, even the difficult and challenging parts. I will definitely return. But just because of my love for the Holy Land I am now going to advocate for the two state solution with all my heart and soul. Australian politicians, get ready!