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ISRAEL – PALESTINE 2012 (ROCHESTER)
Preacher: Canon John Armson, Canon Emeritus
21 October 2012, 10:30 (TWENTIETH AFTER TRINITY)
ISRAEL – PALESTINE 2012 (ROCHESTER)
21st October Sunday Eucharist 10.30
Reading a biography the other day, it struck me again how true it is that we make people better by telling them – not how bad they are, but how good they are. That insight certainly fitted my boyhood experience. The masters at my school whom I respected, and from whom I learnt most, were those who encouraged me, not those who mocked or bullied me.
It’s quite a step from that insight to how I’ve come to regard the troubles between Israel and her neighbours – principally the Palestinian Arabs. I’m sure there’s right and wrong on each side, and I’m keen not to be thought of as someone who has taken a harsh line, or sides with either camp.
You will know the basic facts, I’m sure. That small piece of land, between the Mediterranean Sea in the west and the River Jordan in the east – about the size of Wales, on whose border I now live – was divided by the United Nations in 1948. Israel was established in the western part; Palestine in the eastern part. It was the first time Jews had a land of their own.
Of course, Jews have lived there for millennia: right back to the beginnings of recorded history. It is no less true that they have been pushed out of it for the same length of time. Famine drove them to Egypt millennia ago, where they were enslaved. When Moses led them out of that captivity, they lived in the Sinai desert for a generation of more before returning to Palestine. There the Persians made slaves of them and carried most away east to the valley of the River Tigris for a few generations. When kindly Cyrus became emperor, he let them return to the home land – but the Romans soon enslaved them afresh. This was the time of Jesus. (Yes, we’ve only just reached the boundary between BC and AD.)
Roman power dwindled – as all power does sooner or later. But peace was not infinite and Ottoman empire soon stretched south to enclose that little land, and the Jews within it. But the Ottomans, too, were not divine, and their grip eventually loosened. Only to be replaced by – yes, you’ve guessed it – ours. The British Empire was in its heyday. Modesty forbids me to boast of our administration there, but truth, rather than pride, makes think it was pretty good. I was very impressed by the diary of Sir Ronald Storrs who was governor in Jerusalem for a while.
Sir Ronald’s remit did not extend to safeguarding the Jews who were not in Israel, but in places like Germany and Russia. The story of the Shoah, the attempt to eliminate Jews from our planet must rank as one of the most appalling events known to humans. We shall never know how many millions were put to death in the most cruel and appalling circumstances. The words over the gates of Auschwitz were, ‘Arbeit frei’ – work liberates. They’re still there. But they were cruel words, truly cruel. Only gas chambers released people from their slavery – men, women and – yes – even children. Science and technology were harnessed to make the cruellest stroke of all.
In 1948, the United Nations established a new state: the State of Israel. Brave new world? Yes – and no. History – especially a history like that of the Jews – cannot be forgotten. And must not be. It has – in my view – inevitably shaped Israel. ‘Never again,’ is their unspoken motto. And we can understand that. And – if you’re like me – approve.
But ‘never again’ what? Here we come to the most ironic and distressing aspect of the story so far.
I can’t tell you how sad – and yes, at times, how angry – I feel about the way in which the State of Israel is making sure it never again succumbs to submission, or outside rule. The politics are complex, too complex to spell out in detail here. (Perhaps tomorrow evening’s discussion may offer more opportunity.)
The politics may be complicated: the fruit is not. I’m sure you are well informed about the situation facing the Palestinians. At the moment, their lands – mostly to the east of the river Jordan (as Israel is to the west) – are controlled by the Israeli army, and being increasingly settled by immigrant Jews. The stories of hardship and rough justice – or even injustice – are plentiful and widely known. Nor does Israel deny them.
Israelis are encouraged to establish settlements (villages, small towns) in what is technically a foreign land, an occupied land – Palestine. The sites are usually on hill tops (they are more secure), often not bought but stolen (and so, by any international standards, occupied illegally), cleared of vegetation – the olive trees in particular (the oil from which is a major element in the Palestinian economy) and serviced by new roads cut rough-shod through other lands, and accessible only to Israelis. The remaining Palestinian lands, which have mostly been held by generations, are often isolated from each other.
All human beings are fallen creatures. (As even Lady Bracknell acknowledged, “I am myself peculiarly susceptible to draughts.’) But one might have supposed that a people like the Jews, who have known persecution for so long – thousands of years – would now be able – and eager, indeed – to identify with the sufferings of others, and seek to heal them, rather than impose their own aggressive will upon them.
But perhaps the psychologists understand this better than the clergy – better than this clergyman, anyway. ‘Those to whom evil is done do evil in return’ is a cynical – but sadly often true – observation. How different from, ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’
Having spent some time in Israel, and having got to know a few Jews, I long with the Psalmist for the peace of Jerusalem. How to promote that? The psalmist’s own answer was, ‘ O pray for the peace of Jerusalem.’ I’m sure you do that. But as well: if you can, get to know some Jews. As I remember, there aren’t many in these parts (there’s probably a story there) but there is a synagogue. So there must be some. And I was here, there was at least one family living within a stone’s throw of this church – though I feel ‘stone’s throw’ is an unfortunate reference in the circumstances.
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