I am appalled at the terrible attacks on innocent citizens in Israel by Hamas and at the ensuing retaliation which is killing innocent Palestinians. Governments and civil rights and peace groups have expressed their outrage at what has happened and is happening, and my in-box has been filled with statements of support for Israel and cries for Netanyahu to desist from a war of revenge. The one that touched me most, probably because it expresses so well my own feelings, comes from the Board of Interfaith Scotland:
There are no adequate words to express our grief, despair and horror at the events unfolding in Israel/Gaza over the past 5 days. We stand in solidarity and are praying for all the innocent lives lost or forever damaged by terrorism, war and violence and will do all we can to support our beloved communities in Scotland as we navigate this difficult time.
For centuries the Jewish people were without a homeland. Expelled from the land of Israel after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the Fall of Masada a few years later they lived in the diaspora and set up thriving communities centred, not on the Temple in Jerusalem but in the synagogue at the heart of their community life. They were a people with a sense of community and home wherever they found themselves. Always a minority, however, they were aware of their exile from a homeland where the Jewish way of life was the norm, and they were in the majority. Through the reading of the scriptures, the celebration of festivals and prayer they remembered that land of milk and honey, how it had been promised to them by God and longed to return. For some Christians this lack of a homeland was seen as God’s punishment. Jews were destined to wander the earth because they had refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah. Over the centuries they suffered persecution, death, expulsions, the burning of their sacred books, forced sermons, the destruction of synagogues. It was these pogroms instigated by Christians that led to the creation of Zionism and a political movement to establish a homeland where Jews would feel safe which resulted in the Balfour Declaration that promised a homeland in Palestine. It was the horrors of the Holocaust and the tardiness of countries to accept Jewish refugees that led to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 – a moment of great rejoicing for Jewish people and, my teacher of Judaism would suggest, a challenge to Christian antisemitism that had seen the destiny of Jews to forever wander the earth.
There was of course another story – that of the people living in the land. How could they cope with the large immigration of Jews after the Holocaust? How is it possible for two people to occupy the same land? The United Nations’ answer was to pass a resolution that partitioned Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. The Arab world rejected the plan, Jewish militias attacked Palestinian villages, forcing thousands to flee and with the end of the British Mandate in Palestine and the departure of British forces, the establishment of the State of Israel and the invasion of neighbouring Arab armies the situation escalated into a full-blown war. The result of the war was the permanent displacement of 750,000 Palestinians more than half of the Palestinian population and the territory being divided into 3 parts: the State of Israel, the West Bank (of the Jordan River), and the Gaza Strip. For Palestinians these events are remembered as The Nakba which is Arabic for catastrophe. Like the Holocaust the Nakba was a deeply traumatic event still alive in the collective memory of the people. It shapes their struggle for justice and the right to return to their homes as the Holocaust shapes the struggle of Israelis for safety and security.
The horrific attack by Hamas on 7th October was the worst suffered by Israelis since the holocaust and will have raised deep fears that even in their own homeland they are not safe. But the bombing and starving of Palestinians in Gaza will not secure their safety or peace. We have two people, two stories, both legitimate when seen from the different perspectives. But how to overcome the enmity that exists between them? The situation is made even more dangerous by the fact that other countries and nations tend to affiliate with one side rather than the other as people do here in Scotland. I don’t know of any other situation of conflict where people polarise so quickly and strongly as the Israel/Palestine one. And yet there are many, many people who long for peace and work for peace – both Israeli and Palestinian who, I think, are let down by their governments whose only recourse seems to be in violence and the desire to destroy the enemy who, as Thomas Merton has said, is seen to be “the cause of every wrong … the fomenter of all conflict. If he can only be destroyed, conflict will cease, evil will be done with, there will be no more war." We know this does not work and, in the end, when violence ceases there will need to be dialogue. We either live together or die together. Let us hope and pray we find a way to do this.