A few years ago I met with an Episcopal bishop to discuss his church’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mainline Protestant denominations at the time were flirting with selective divestment from companies doing business with Israel.
This bishop, in particular, was not known for his Zionist sympathies. He was highly disturbed that Palestinian farmers were being affected by the Israeli security barrier. “A Palestinian is like an olive tree,” he said wistfully. “He has such deep roots going back thousands of years to the land.”
At that moment, I wanted to shout out, “I am an olive tree, too!” but held back.
This bishop could easily relate to the plight of those he saw as indigenous people facing dispossession. But he didn’t seem to take seriously the connection of Jews to the land.
The problem is much larger than the views of a single Protestant bishop. Christianity, by and large, sees itself as a worldwide faith community, not bound or defined by a single geographic area or national identity. And Christians often see Jews as just another faith community. Consequently, many liberal Christians find the notion of a Jewish state decidedly odd.
But Jews are more than just a religious community. We are a people, intrinsically tied to a land. Liberal Christians, however, aren’t the only ones who fail to grasp this fact. Many Jews also don’t understand this basic reality.
When I spoke at a United Synagogue Youth program several weeks ago, one youth leader was incredulous that I claimed Jews are a people rather than strictly a religious group. Attitudes such as this are surprisingly widespread. It’s as if we forget that not only did we stand together at Sinai, where we forged a religious covenantal identity, but that even before that we were slaves together in the land of Egypt.
Avraham Infeld, the former CEO of Hillel, relates a hilarious incident on his first visit to the United States from Israel when he encountered the famous formulation, “Protestant, Catholic and Jew.” An observant Jew, Avraham felt it was strange to compare Judaism with Christianity in this way because, to him, Jews were primarily a people. He later argued the point with a non-observant American Jewish leader who insisted Jews were only a religious group.
If we aren’t clear in asserting our own identity as a people and a nation, we certainly shouldn’t expect others to understand it. So it’s no wonder that some liberal Christians ask why a religion — Judaism — would need a state.
Another danger is that failing to emphasize the Jewish people’s connection to the land of Israel makes it seem as if Israel is not making painful compromises, but is simply returning “stolen territory.” If this bishop and others had a better understanding of our identity as a people with deep roots in the land, perhaps they would be more sympathetic to the Zionist position.
There are good reasons why Israel’s supporters sometimes downplay the Jewish connection to the land. Asserting this claim to the land can make us sound like we aren’t willing to make territorial compromises. If, for example, we speak of Judea and Samaria when referring to the West Bank, then we sound as if we’re insisting upon permanent and exclusive control over the territory.
Indeed, some on Israel’s far right do say that it is a sin to surrender God-given land. This argument, while rooted in a distinct theological perspective, defies modern Zionist thinking. The Jewish people established a state because we wanted to become masters of our own destiny. Even if we say that in theory we have a right to sovereignty over every inch of the land of Israel, as a people with historic agency we can choose to relinquish portions of the land to others.
The chief rabbi of South Africa, Warren Goldstein, got it right in a recent open letter to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He wrote: “There is no nation that has a longer, deeper or more profound connection to its country than the Jewish people have to the land of Israel…. In spite of the deep historical and religious roots of Jews in all of Israel, generations of Jewish leaders have been prepared, for the sake of peace, to give up ancestral and covenantal land to establish a Palestinian state.”
The pro-Israel community must not be afraid to vigorously assert Jewish claims to the land while at the same time conveying Israel’s willingness to make hard, painful compromises for peace. That means affirming for ourselves — and for the rest of the world — that we actually care about this land.
It’s ours, but we are ready to give some of it up for peace.
David Bernstein is executive director of The David Project.