What we in the West see as ancient history is contemporary day-to-day reality in the Middle East.
“Today in history” matters today. On November 29, 1947, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly voted in favor of Resolution 181, the plan for the partition of Palestine.
That UN resolution ended the British Mandate adopted by the League of Nations following World War I after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire which had ruled the region for 600 years. The Ottoman Empire was a transcontinental empire that claimed to be the last Sunni Islamic Caliphate which began its spread in 632 A.D.
Ancient history, right?
Under the British Mandate the Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917. That allowed for the return of the Jews to the land they had inhabited thousands of years before. It also ignited the continuing conflict we witness in the region today.
Following WWI, the Ottoman or Turkish Empire was divided up by the League of Nations into Turkey, the Balkan states and the various states of the Middle East. The lines drawn then continue to be disputed by the Arabs in the region today. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) is the contemporary claimant to the caliphate which was destroyed 100 years ago. Just last year on June 29, 2014, ISIL proclaimed itself to be an Islamic state and worldwide caliphate, with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as its caliph.
This is not ancient history; it is modern reality.
The continuing chorus of calls to destroy Israel heard today were heard in the hours leading up to the departure of the British on May 14, 1948. As the UN partition plan was to go into effect on May 15, and the British planned to leave Israel by midnight on May 14, seven surrounding Arab nations made public their plans to attack.
Having just begun to process the horrifying realities of the Holocaust, the world now braced for another slaughter of the Jews. But while the world prepared for a bloodbath, a handful of Jewish leaders convened in Tel Aviv and formed the nation State of Israel.
Hours later the war began. And in what is now considered militarily inexplicable, Israel won the war but lost a full 1% of its population in the process. It was 6000 of 600,000 but it would be like losing 300,000 U.S. casualties today.
Fast forward to 1967
While Americans are protesting the Vietnam war, dealing with race riots, experimenting with drugs, free love and obsessing over Elvis’ marriage to Priscilla, on June 8th the 19 year old state of Israel was dealing with another extermination effort by its neighbors. Israel not only thwarted the efforts of five Arab nations to wipe it off the map, but the Israeli army was able to push out in every direction beyond the pre-1967 borders. Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt all lost land to Israel in the Six Day war.
What began with 66 families who purchased a series of sand dunes north of Jaffa is today the city of Tel Aviv in the nation of Israel where more than 6.5 million Jews reside. But they are surrounded by 300 million people, the majority of whom would welcome the disappearance of the State of Israel from the map.
How to make peace?
In a recent conversation with Dr. Tal Becker, an Israeli diplomat who has participated in every peace negotiation in the Arab-Israeli conflict since Oslo, I learned about the problems preventing peace.
Imagine that you are sent into a negotiation by a people whose religious convictions prefer a head-on collision to any form of compromise. The only deal you’re authorized to make is 100% “my way or the highway.”
Now imagine a victim/villain narrative in which both sides see themselves as the victim.
Becker said, “People have the idea that there should be peace in the Middle East but all those involved see the problem as starting when their sibling hit them back.”
Becker recommended that we get over what he calls solutionism, the idea that everything has a solution and that your preconceived idea of the solution can be accomplished fully now. He said, “Countries are not math problems, they don’t have solutions, they have people with needs.”
He acknowledged that the Middle East is actively breaking down: there is no functional nation state of Syria, Iraq or Yemen. The existential anxiety naturally drives people to shrink back into tribalism. That means that they are out of dialogue with neighbors and neighbor states, they are out of relationships with those who are different, out of pluralism and into differentiated, segregated protectionistic camps.
Getting people talking across those ancient lines of division where there are stories of exile and oppression and memories of crusades in every person’s family tree is nearly impossible. Consider how difficult it is even in America to talk across racial or political or generational or even regional lines today. And America’s problems only date back 300 years. In the Middle East we’re talking about divisions that date back 3000 years.
Once your wagons are circled in a protectionistic posture the only question that gets asked of a person approaching your group is “are you with or against the bad guys?” You must pause and consider who exactly the group you’re approaching considers the “bad guys” before you answer. Because if you’re not against the bad guy as defined by the person posing the question then you are irrelevant.
So, how is the United States and the United Nations defining the “bad guys” today?
Yes, everyone is against ISIS but that’s not the day-to-day threat to the people in Israel. The facts on the ground are that every day there are dozens of attempts to kill Israeli citizens, police and border agents by people living within their own country. It’s the kind of terrorism we saw in Paris and it’s the kind of terrorism that had Belgium locked down for the better part of a week.
As that kind of terrorism continues, anxiety will spread and the issues in the Middle East will be replicated throughout the world.
- The security fence that everyone has maligned Israel for building is now the focus of European nations who are building fences as fast as they can against a refugee flow that the U.N. cannot manage.
- The European Union is reconsidering the open borders that EU nations have enjoyed with one another and tensions among EU nations are rising over economics and refugees.
- The people of the United States are protesting the reception of refugees without assurances that they have been fully vetted, fearing to welcome a Trojan horse into their midst.
- The U.S. President whose first act in office was to declare the closure of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba has just signed a Defense Reauthorization Act that keeps the facility operating.
- The word “homeland” has reemerged in daily parlance and nationalism is on the rise worldwide.
The wagons are being circled. Who’s in and who’s out is being decided based on judgements of religion, national origin, and shared history because the common concern is about the shared future.
Drawing and blurring lines
Becker said something profound at the very conclusion of our conversation. He said, “you have to draw lines before you can blur them.” Suffice it to say we are in an era of line drawing brought on by people for whom the lines that were drawn after WWI have never been accepted.
The United Nations has been blurring lines ever since but without the participation of those for whom the lines of religion and separation matter at an existential depth. The “melting pot,” blurred lines, pluralistic mentality of the United States is not shared by people for whom the distinction of a “people group” or the distinction of a specific religious identity or bloodline matters. The Western value of “peace at any price” is not shared by those whose families and religious groups have paid the price innumerable times over thousands of years.
If your grandmother survived Auschwitz, if your grandfather died in a Russian gulag, if you were smuggled out of Iraq as a teenager, if your family was personally responsible for the resurrection of the Hebrew language, if your family is among a handful of people in all the world who still speak the Aramaic language of Jesus, if your child was one of 19 on a school bus killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber, if you are an orthodox Jew or a convictional Muslim… segregation, differentiation, education, and protection against the other matters. Integration is not an option if integration means sacrificing the distinctive nature of who you are as a person in the midst of a people.
On this anniversary of the 1947 UN resolution that resulted in the establishment of the State of Israel, let us remember just how nascent a nation we’re talking about. But let us also remember that for the Jews, there’s nothing nascent about Israel, it’s as old as the promise of God to Abraham.
For many in the midst of the conflict peace is something that is in their hopes but not on their calendars. So, today, let us not imagine that we have the answers or that we know the timeline. Let us simply pray for the peace of Jerusalem as those who live and labor there consider what it will take to make peace.