I once had an argument with an American atheist Jew, who insisted that being a Jew was a matter of ethnicity and had nothing to do with “religion.”
Later, I found that I had on my side Jonathan Sacks, perhaps the most articulate and winsome spokesperson for Judaism in today’s world.
“Judaism is not an ethnicity and Jews are not an ethnic group,” writes Sacks. “Go to the Western Wall in Jerusalem and you will see Jews of every colour and culture under the sun, the Beta Israel from Ethiopia, the Bene Israel from India, Bukharan Jews from central Asia, Iraqi, Berber, Egyptian, Kurdish and Libyan Jews, the Temamim from Yemen, alongside American Jews from Russia, South African Jews from Lithuania, and British Jews from German-speaking Poland. Their food, music, dress, customs, and conventions are all different.” (Future Tense, 2009)
The late Arthur Koestler believed that most Jews today are descendants of the semi-nomadic Turkic people from the Caucasus, the Khazars, who converted to Judaism in the seventh to 10th centuries.
The latest theory, advanced by Tsvi Misinai, a retired Israeli computer expert, is that the Palestinians are actually the people who may be ethnically Jewish.
They are descendants of Jews who remained in the land when, under Roman rule, most Jews went into exile in Babylon and elsewhere.
The Jews who left continued to practice Judaism. Those who stayed became first Christian, then Muslim. It is a theory once held by none other than David Ben Gurion.
So the Palestinians at war with Israel may be “Jewish,” while the “Jews” may not be genetically “Jewish” at all!
I wish I could say this to those fundamentalists in the American “Bible Belt” and elsewhere, who are uncritically pro-Israeli even as the Israeli state bulldozes Palestinian homes, forces thousands of men, women and children into dehumanized camps, and appropriates land to which it has absolutely no right.
Selecting isolated texts from the Old Testament, and bypassing the New Testament entirely, they fail to see that the modern state of Israel has nothing at all to do with the ancient covenant people, the Israelites.
There are more Jews living outside Israel than within. But, if you do believe that Israel today is an answer to biblical prophecy, then speak to the leaders of Israel the way the biblical prophets did: “If you continue to commit oppression and atrocities against others, I will spew you out of the land.”
Last month, an Iranian university professor, 32-year-old Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, was killed when unidentified men on motorcycles attached a magnetic bomb to his car in a Tehran street.
He was the fourth Iranian nuclear scientist to be assassinated in recent years by what every reasonable observer knows are Israeli agents, with at least the tacit approval of the CIA. These are blatant acts of terrorism.
If committed on Western soil, they would evoke outrage in the American and European media. But, instead, they are met with apathy.
In typical fashion, the U.S. administration is now bullying the rest of the world to boycott Iran economically and isolate it politically.
Iran has a scientific and intellectual culture greater than that of any of the West’s allies in the Middle East, excepting Israel.
Thus, the murder of its top scientist engaged in their nuclear energy program is an attack on Iran’s ability to function as a society without dependence on Western technical hegemony.
And why should Iran not have nuclear weapons to match Israel? American-Soviet relations in the Cold War were conducted under the morally perverse doctrine known as MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction): as long as two hostile states could keep match with each other’s capacity for annihilating the other, they will not go to war. Why not apply MAD to the Middle East?
For all the bluster that comes out of Tehran, the real terror has been inflicted in the opposite direction, beginning with the interference in 1953 by the U.S. and Britain to install a dictator who would protect their oil companies.
And have Americans forgotten the shooting down of an Iranian commercial airliner in Iranian airspace by a U.S. guided missile cruiser, the USS Vincennes, in 1988?
All 290 passengers on board were killed. To this day, no U.S. government has apologized to the Iranian people.
Much of the American public, including many American church leaders, are profoundly ignorant of the history of the Middle East, let alone what is still being done by American soldiers and citizens in other parts of the world.
I have nothing but disgust for their culpable ignorance, culpable because the facts are in their computers and libraries if only they take the trouble to look.
And I have nothing but disgust for those who know the facts but are too uncaring to speak out and hold their governments accountable for war crimes and other human rights abuses.
But I have nothing but deep admiration for those Israelis and Iranians who courageously seek to bring moral and political change in their nations; as well as for those Palestinian Christians who continue to show patience and goodwill to their American brethren who have betrayed them and the Christian faith by their guilty silence.
Let me end with Rabbi Sacks who writes that “at some stage Jews stopped defining themselves by the reflection they saw in the eyes of God and started defining themselves by the reflection they saw in the eyes of their Gentile neighbours … obsessed by the Holocaust.”
And he calls on them to “take a stand, not motivated by fear, not driven by paranoia or a sense of victimhood, but a positive stand on the basis of the values by which our ancestors lived and for which they were prepared to die: justice, equity, compassion, love of the stranger, the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person without regard to colour, culture or creed.”
Christians and Muslims can learn from him to do the same.
Vinoth Ramachandra is secretary for dialogue and social engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He lives in Sri Lanka.