If it’s a matter of who got there first, the Israelites have a case against the Palestinians. If it’s a matter of who has held control of the land most recently and for the longest period of time, the Palestinians have a case against the Israelis.
If it’s a matter of who has held control of the land most recently and for the longest period of time, the Palestinians have a case against the Israelis.
And if those were the only two questions to answer, the Middle Eastern conflict between Arabs and Jews still would be a tough nut to crack.
By some accounts, the current conflict in the Middle East is about land–a relatively small piece of real estate bordered by Egypt, Syria, Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. Palestinians and Jews both claim the land as theirs. And historical facts can be cited to support both claims.
On cable TV broadcasts, representatives of Israel and the Palestinian Authority may be heard “using history like a stiletto,” noted Christian historian Tim Weber, dean at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Illinois.
“The land has been contested for thousands of years. The different parties point to different historical periods, but ignore the rest, to make their case for ownership.”
Both sides agree the land’s history begins with early civilizations thousands of years ago. The first known inhabitants were the Canaanites, a collection of Semitic people who developed complex societies administered through city-states.
The Canaanites, according to biblical and historical records, worshipped fertility gods and engaged in all manner of illicit sexual practices and mystical wizardry as part of their religious rites. Jewish and Christian Scriptures record the Canaanite practices as “detestable to the Lord.”
The children of Israel, acting on the promise of God, took possession of the land from the Canaanites sometime around the 13th century B.C. Ancient Scriptures say God instructed the Hebrews to wipe out the Canaanites because of their wickedness.
For the next 500 years, Israel flourished and expanded under the leadership of patriarchal figures, judges and then kings such as Saul, David and Solomon. David made Jerusalem Israel’s capital around 1000 B.C., and Solomon built the first temple there around 960 B.C.
By 720 B.C., however, Israel was crushed by the Assyrians, and 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel were lost in the ensuing dispersion. The remnant of Jewish people held on to parts of the land for several more centuries, suffering under the rule of Babylonians, Greeks, Hasmoneans and Romans.
Israel held together in some form through the time of Christ until 70 A.D., when Roman troops destroyed Jerusalem and scattered the Jewish people far and wide in what is known as the Diaspora.
For the next 900 years, control of the Holy Lands went back and forth between various occupying forces, including the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Christian Crusaders, the Mamluks and the Ottoman Empire.
Muslims were the third major religious entity to lay claim to the land, not arriving as a distinct faith group until the seventh century A.D. Their founding prophet, Mohammad, was born in 570 A.D. and wrote the Koran in 610 A.D. By 691, Muslims had built the Dome of the Rock on the site of the destroyed Jewish temple. This is the third-most-holy site in Islam because according to Islamic tradition it is the site from which Mohammed ascended into heaven.
Jews and Muslims claim a common heritage through the patriarch Abraham, with Jews tracing their lineage and faith through Abraham’s son Isaac and Muslims tracing their lineage and faith through Abraham’s son Ishmael. Jewish Scripture records Ishmael as the child of Abraham and his wife’s servant, Hagar. Islamic tradition considers Hagar Abraham’s second wife. Isaac was the child of Abraham’s wife, Sarah.
Jews and Muslims co-existed in the land, although Muslims had the upper hand through most of the latter half of the first millennium after Christ. They coexisted largely because of outside domination and because the Jewish people had not yet begun returning to the land in large numbers.
Four hundred years of rule by the Ottoman Empire ended in 1917 with a British conquest, with the British prime minister pledging support for a “Jewish national home in Palestine.” That never fully materialized, however, despite Britain’s declaration of a “Mandate for Palestine” in 1922.
Only after World War II and the Holocaust did European and American sentiment for a Jewish state lead to concrete action. And that, undertaken at the authority of the United Nations, set the stage for the wars that have raged between Arabs and Israelis from 1948 to the present.
With consent from the British, the victors of World War II carved out a new Israeli state, hoping to create a place of refuge for persecuted Jews worldwide. To do this, however, they made hundreds of thousands of Palestinians homeless.
So whose land is it anyway?
Jews claim historical rights to the land and a divine mandate given to Abraham to possess it. Muslims claim more recent possession of the land and a divine mandate as well.
“There are two types of reality going on,” explained Paula Fredriksen, professor of Scripture at Boston University and an authority on ancient Christianity.
While the Israelis claim the land was theirs first, the Palestinians claim they have the latest revelation from God. In their view, Fredriksen said, “Mohammed trumps Jesus or Moses.”
The Muslims have no basis to claim they were there first, because Islam wasn’t founded until after the Holy Lands had been occupied by both Jews and Christians, she explained. “They know perfectly well that Islam is sort of the third-comer into the neighborhood.”
Nevertheless, some Palestinian leaders have attempted to draw a connection between themselves and the Canaanites from whom the Jews originally captured the land. This rhetoric says, “Just as Joshua seized the land from the people who were the original natives, so the Jewish people are trying to do it again,” Fredriksen said. “It’s very clever rhetoric.”
But it doesn’t wash with history, she said. “The Palestinians are no more or less related to people in that area than Jews are. By referring to biblical narrative and identifying themselves as Canaanites, they are making a political claim to prior ownership, and those are two different things.”
Nevertheless, the Palestinians make a strong argument on the point of most recent possession, argued Weber, who sees the Jewish demand to reclaim its land as unprecedented in world history.
“Are you aware of another people group that returned to ancestral land centuries after losing it and succeeded in establishing its rightful claim?” he asked. “I’m not. Western support and sympathy, often fueled by particular readings of biblical prophecy, made it all possible.
“Of course, few worried about the 700,000 Palestinians who were displaced to make the new state. Few worried about the long-term consequences of Israel trying to occupy and control Gaza and the West Bank after the 1967 war.”
Fredriksen, who was raised Roman Catholic but converted to Judaism, noted Christian dispensationalism, an end-times theology that places great emphasis on the restoration of Israel, has played a large role in American support for Israel as a state. But that’s not the only form of Zionism within Christianity, she added.
Guilt over the events of the Holocaust sparked another kind of Zionism, combined with guilt over other mistreatment of the Jewish people at the hands of Christians through the centuries, she said. “It’s owning that and being responsible for it that feeds that kind of interest in the state of Israel.”
That argument is lost on the Palestinians, however, she explained. “You have Arabs saying, ‘Look, that’s a European problem. Just because Europeans killed Jews doesn’t mean we have to have them in our neighborhood.'”
Of course, the Jews have been in the land all along. The difference today is the large numbers of Jews who have returned to the land the shift in the balance of power that has occurred in the region since 1948.
Within Israel’s borders, 80 percent of the population is Jewish, 15 percent is Muslim and 2 percent is Christian. In the West Bank, largely controlled by Palestinians, the population is 75 percent Muslim and 17 percent Jewish.
With 6 million people in Israel and 3 million in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel currently has the upper hand in numbers. But the number of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem is growing rapidly. In that region, Palestinians are predicted to outnumber Jews by 2050.
Yet still, the arguments boil down to differing perspectives on history. And that reminds Weber of a favorite saying of one of his own history professors.
“History,” the professor said, “is an argument without end.”
Mark Wingfield is managing editor of the Baptist Standard, from which this article was reprinted with permission.
Executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global and the author of Why Churches Need to Talk About Sexuality.