Growing up in a Houston, TX neighborhood with a large Jewish population, I have been on the fringe of Jewish society since I was seven years old. In my high school (San Jacinto), many classes were reduced in size by two-thirds or more on Jewish holidays.
One summer I went to Scout camp with the troop from the nearby temple. I spent a lot of my free time talking with a lovely old Jewish patriarch named Mr. Mittelman from “the old country. ” He increased my insight into traditional Jewish religion and told me moving tales of the Nazi persecution he had survived. I continue to have the deepest respect for and interest in traditionalist Jews and their religion.
I grew up assuming that the Jews had a God given right to the land of Israel. After all, isn’t that what the Bible teaches? But in my late teen years, as an Anglo-Catholic (“high church Episcopalian”), I learned the traditional Orthodox Catholic teaching that the Church, not some modern secular political entity, is the “New Israel.”
The New Testament teaches that through and in Christ, the Church is the continuation of ancient Israel. Baptized into the Body of Christ, we Christians become Children of Israel by adoption and grace. This teaching, also traditionally accepted by Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans, is roundly denied by large numbers of fundamentalist Protestants, who see the secular state of Israel as the fulfillment of Old Testament Prophecy. That view has contributed significantly to American foreign policy.
Still, until I was in my 40s, I continued to believe that there was certainly nothing wrong with the Jewish state of Israel, and I believed the Jews had every right to it. I couldn’t fathom what those crazy Arabs were upset by. A bunch of fanatic tent dwellers, I thought. I realize now that this mental image of the Palestinians was engendered by the American media. It certainly appears the media bias is pro-Israel, and favors the Palestinians only when their mistreatment is so blatant it can’t be ignored.
I’m still in favor of the Jews having a homeland. The Church’s belief that She is Herself Israel, renewed in Christ, does not imply we would deny the Jews their rights as a people. And Israel is an accomplished fact: let it stand. But now that I know in detail the story of this modern Jewish state, I’m very disheartened by the way the Israelis have accomplished their purpose.
My change in thinking was the result of a dinner party conversation in 1983 with an elderly Palestinian immigrant who attended the same church I did. Aziz, a fun to be with roly poly Orthodox Christian, now departed this life, remarked he had once met Yasser Arafat and thought of him as a great leader. He even showed me a picture of himself and Arafat together. I was horrified.
“But he is such an evil terrorist,” said I.
“No more so than Menachem Begin,” replied Aziz.
“Begin!?” I cried. “But he is such a spiritual man. I remember how when he met with President Carter at Camp David he prayed in Hebrew on television. I was very moved by that. How can you call that beautiful old man a terrorist?” I asked, while thinking to myself, these Arabs sure are fanatics.
“It’s a matter of history, ” he replied. “Go to the library and look it up.”
So I did.
Looking It Up
I started with the encyclopedias, first the Encyclopedia Britannica. Looking up “Begin, Menachem, ” I learned that Menachem Begin “joined the militant Irgun Zvai Leumi, and was a commander of that group from 1943 to 1948. ” (Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 2, page 47.)
What exactly was the Irgun Zvai Leumi? So I looked that up. The Irgun was “an extreme nationalist group … whose policies called for the use of force, if necessary, to establish a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan. Irgun committed acts of terrorism and assassination against the British … and it was also violently anti-Arab. . . ” (Encyclopedia Brittanica, Volume 6, page 382.)
According to Colliers Encyclopedia (Volume 3, page 782), “Another such group was the Stern Group, or Stern Gang, headed by Yitzhak Shamir. ” In Volume 13, page 343, Colliers speaks of “the terrorist groups, the Irgun Zvai Leumi and the Stern Group.”
In the Encyclopedia Americana, contributor J. C. Hurewitz of Columbia University tells us “the Irgunists claimed that their acts of terrorism against the Arabs and British largely forced Britain’s decision to end its mandate in Palestine. ” (Volume 15, page 438.) These terrorist acts included the murder of the British representative, Lord Moyne, in Cairo in November 1944 and the murder of Count Folke Bernadotte, the UN-appointed mediator, on Sept. 17, 1948.
The Americana tells us, “Shamir was believed to have played a prominent part in planning the murders of a British minister and a UN diplomat.” (Volume 24, page 665.)
I’m very disheartened by the way the Israelis have accomplished their purpose.
In the Britannica Year Book for 1948, page 577, under the entry “Palestine” I read, “Meanwhile the [Jewish] terrorist attacks in Palestine continued, taking almost every conceivable form. Attacks on airfields and radar stations, armories and military posts, the wrecking of railway lines … and bank holdups all bore witness to organization on a larger, dangerous and ingenious scale, and were by general admission made possible chiefly by the active or passive support which the terrorists received from the great majority of the Jewish population [in Palestine].”
Returning to the Britannica (Volume 6, page 382), 1 learned that “On July 22, 1946 the Irgun blew up a wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 soldiers and civilians … On April 9, 1947 [remember Menachem Begin was at the time leader of the Irgun], a group of Irgun commandos raided the Arab village of Dayr Yasin [also spelled Deir Yassin] killing all 254 of its inhabitants. ” That massacre occurred some 60 years after Wounded Knee, about which we all know. But how many Americans know about the massacre at Deir Yassin and its direct contribution to the conflict in the Middle East today? How many Americans realize that “this highly publicized act terrorized the Arab villagers, who began a mass exodus from Palestine”? (Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 22, page 143.)
Twenty minutes of study and I realized Aziz’s remark that Begin was a terrorist was hardly a symptom of Palestinian fanaticism. And not only Begin, but Yitzhak Shamir, his friend and successor in the Israeli government. I had to dig to get this information, but there it was. Why hadn’t I ever read about this in the papers? Heard it on TV or the radio?
With my tail between my legs, the next Sunday after Liturgy I apologized to Aziz for not believing him. He laughed and said Americans usually react the way I did. Now he told me more, about how his family moved to Ramallah (now in the occupied West Bank) in the l3th century (!) from Syria. They owned a sizable piece of property upon which they had established a lovely orange grove which the Israelis confiscated shortly after moving into the area in 1967. He told me how after the massacre at Deir Yassin and the consequent Palestinian exodus, the Israelis simply took title to the real estate of the fleeing Palestinians as “abandoned property. ” When Palestinians tried to return home, they found they had nothing left to their names.
Ramallah, along with Bethlehem, Nazareth, and a number of other Palestinian towns, have long been predominantly Christian. Aziz told me that some 25 percent of the Palestinians are Christians, of whom half are Orthodox. I have read that figure in several other places. But you get the impression from the media that all Arabs are Muslims. Have you ever seen a documentary or even a news story focusing on the Christian Palestinians?
The Anguish of the Dispossessed
He told me that the Zionist slogan “A people without a land for a land without people,” was sheer nonsense, for a very large population of Palestinian Arabs had lived there for more than a thousand years. Arab fury at Israel is based not on some sort of wild hysteria: it is the anguish of people who have been systematically and ruthlessly dispossessed from their homeland and personal property.
The Zionist movement began sponsoring Jewish settlement in Palestine early in this century. At first the Arabs and the Jews got along well. But more and more Jews began to move in before World War 11, and the idea spread among the Arabs that the Jews were planning to take over Palestine completely for themselves. The rapid influx at the end of World War 11 increased Palestinian Arab fears. To take over completely was in fact precisely the plan, and still is. The actions of Begin and Shamir, now recognized as great statesmen and, unlike Arafat, welcome in the United States, have made that clear.
So of course the Palestinians were and are upset! You would be too! The irony of all this is that the Zionists claim all of Palestine on the grounds God gave it to them 3,000 years ago, but the majority of Israeli Jews are “not religious.” Probably most of them are agnostics or even atheists. So it’s as if they are saying, “There is no God, but He gave us this land, and we intend to take it all.”
In any conflict it takes “two to tango,” and there are of course two sides to this issue Arabs have certainly committed their atrocities, starting before World War II. The Arabs have made their mistakes, and in several cases have failed to take responsibility. Both sides have refused compromises, and at this date, compromise they must, or we’ll all be destroyed in a new holocaust. Also, I hate “Jew bashing,” and I’m at pains that this admittedly forthright criticism of the state of Israel not be construed as that.
But it seems “Arab bashing” is quite okay in this country, and we only faintly hear the Arab side of the story. It’s okay to caricature Arabs unkindly, but no one would dare so abuse the Jews. We all remember how Leon Klinghoffer was thrown into the sea in his wheelchair by Arab terrorists. But how many remember that Alex Odeh, a spokesman for the Arab viewpoint, was also murdered that same week by Jewish terrorists in Los Angeles! Alex also had loved ones; his murder was as tragic as Klinghoffer’s.
Up until the intifada, the media created impression was that the Jews are always the good guys, and the Arabs the bad guys. Media coverage of the intifada, however, has brought home to Americans how brutal the Israeli military very often can be. I sometimes wonder if it has sunk into the brains and hearts of the American public that most of the Palestinians killed by the Israeli troops have been teenage boys. Two I have read about were shot in the head for writing slogans on the wall! Can you imagine the outcry if American soldiers were shooting down rock-throwing Black or Hispanic youthful protesters or gunning down young boys writing antigovernment slogans on a wall! Ironically, American Jews would be the first to protest, and justly so!
Raising Jewish Voices
I have no negative agenda for the Jews. I do indeed wish them well. But in the name of integrity and decency, let’s have more prominent Jewish voices raised, confessing the Israeli part in the Middle East mess. The whining of some columnists, “We’re always innocent victims, first it was Hitler, and now it’s the Arabs” is being consciously used to manipulate public policy, and that is disgusting. The Jews were innocent in Nazi Germany. But the Israelis are hardly innocent of great offenses.
I see some Jewish leaders setting themselves up for backlash, and I wish they’d take heed. The perception is growing that powerful Jewish interests wish to control our politicians’ votes on, and media coverage of, Israeli questions. I don’t know if that’s the truth: but it would help dispel that perception if vocal and courageous Jewish leaders would encourage both dissemination of media information about Israel’s dark side and public debate on Israeli issues. We certainly know plenty about the Arab dark side!
We’re told by Israel that its policy is none of our business, but we American taxpayers are asked to foot Israeli bills. Israel now wants more dollars, and I’ll be very surprised if that gets debated in public. What a subtle form of taxation without representation! Why shouldn’t we publicly debate this like any other multi-billion dollar issue?
The Arab world can only become filled with rage when virtually every person in the street knows full well the US has tolerated Israel’s continued incursions into foreign territory and other violations of international law, but has attacked Iraq, ostensibly for its violations of international law. For the life of me I don’t know how any of the liberal Jews I knew in the days of the civil rights struggle and the antiwar movement in the ’60s and ’70s can stomach these double standards. Today some have become Jewish jingoists, saying, “My Israel, right or wrong.”
The war in the Gulf was certainly not simply a long-term result of the way the Zionist movement has proceeded in the past 50 or 60 years. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not the only serious issue afflicting the Arabs. But only if you are blind to or ignorant of history can you fail to recognize the destabilizing effect Israel’s policies have had on the Middle East. In response, demagogues like Saddam Hussain will continue to emerge unless wrongs are redressed and apologies offered.
I believe that if the Zionists from the beginning had been willing to share Palestine with the native Arabs, without wanting to take over completely, there would have been no major strife. Contrary to popular opinion, at several times in history the Jews and the Muslims have gotten along very well. The Jews rose to great heights in Islamic Spain. When, after the Reconquista, Isabella and Ferdinand exiled the Jews, the Muslim sultan of Turkey sent ships to bring them to his domain! A Sephardic rabbi in Atlanta once told me the sultan wrote Isabella thanking her for sending him her crown jewels.
I believe if Israel today will quit its ruthless expansionism and begin to respect the God given civil rights of the Palestinians, the strife will be reduced to the point where there is no physical violence. I would like to see more American Jews who would like to see Israel change its tactics speak up openly and loudly, because their voices will be heard in Israel.
Let us pray for peace in the Middle East, that justice and love will prevail. Let us pray that the Palestinian-Israeli issue will become a matter of open discussion in this country.
This article was first published in Doxa (PO Box 16286, Santa Fe, NM 8 7506), a quarterly review serving the Orthodox Church, edited by Mr. Mehan.