Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Invented People, Invented Futures
Let’s just admit it. Newt was right. Palestine is an invention. It’s the invention of several millenniums of migration, settlement, and habitation, the invention of Ottoman and European colonialism, the invention of League of Nations and UN mandates and various peace processes and proposals over recent decades. It’s the invention of the courageous imagination of a displaced people living under occupation. Newt was right. But what Newt failed to acknowledge is that the other key players in the Middle East drama are also inventions.
Israel is an invention. It’s the invention of a Zionist imagination, fueled by pogrom and Holocaust, the invention of post-colonial European treaties and U.N. mandates, the invention of occupying expansion and US foreign aid, the invention of countless “pilgrims” who ignore its diverse people as they visit the Holy Land. The notion of Israel as “a Jewish state” is its own invention, forged by the imagination of ancient Biblical writers who crafted narratives of chosenness and in these later days by Christian Zionists whose own narrative of chosenness requires the restoration of the Jewish nation as a precursor to a decidedly “Christian” culmination of history.
And, of course, the United States, the other key player in this agonizing drama, is an invention. It is the invention of colonial migration, the Atlantic slave trade, Articles of Confederation and Constitutions, 19th and 20th century immigration, Native American removal and genocide, purchases and treaties, Civil War and Reconstruction, and, in Hawaii, the overthrow of a monarchy. It is the imaginative invention of Puritan visions of a “city set on a hill” and of 19th century Manifest Destiny fueled by economic and military interests.
Newt, the historian, is playing a decidedly selective game. And it’s not only an unjust game, but a dangerous one as well. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is already a contest of unequal parties, militarily and economically. To dispossess a people of their legitimacy when they are already dispossessed of ancestral lands and villages and regularly dispossessed of their dignity and human rights under the Occupation is to invite the kind of despair that fuels bitterness, rage and violence. To relegate Palestine to the world of invention while Israel and its patron are granted either historical or divine sanction is to coddle and encourage right wing Israelis and American Jews and Christians clinging to the status quo of the Occupation, a state of affairs that most Israelis and most American Jews recognize is ultimately portending disaster for Israel, both morally and politically.
The views of a second rate historian would not normally be of much significance. While offensive, the denial of Palestinian claims to being a people and a nation is as foolish and irrelevant as denying the Holocaust. But now we face the possibility that this historian could occupy the Oval Office. The United States is already justifiably suspect as a fair broker of peace in the Middle East. Newt’s historical fictions would confirm the fact that we are part of the problem rather than part of the solution. And as long as we remain part of the problem, the future for Palestine and Israel alike looks bleak.
This week Palestinian Christians will once again gather in Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas. The concrete walls surrounding this holy place serve as a painful reminder to Palestinians that 63 years after the establishment of Israel created their “catastrophe,” their “Nakba,” and 44 years after the beginning of Occupation, their aspiration for peace, security, and statehood remain for many an open question. The encircling concrete wall hems these Christians in, but does not block their view of expanding settlements on what had once been their orchards and what they someday hope might be their nation. That these Christians gather to worship on Christmas Eve rather than sit in despair or rail in anger is remarkable.
I wish Newt and those like him would come to worship with these Christians on Christmas Eve, stooping before the cave where tradition places the manger, or visiting the fields where the shepherds heard the angels, or singing in the Lutheran church under a blue dome with the angelic chorus’ promise of peace written in Arabic. And I wish he’d visit the schools being built by Palestinian Christians for their communities, or the International Lutheran Center where artisans learn to create beauty amid so much ugliness, or the YMCA/YWCA where those traumatized by the systemic violence of the Occupation receive treatment. And I wish he’d arrive not on a tour bus, whisked easily through the checkpoints, but walking with the residents of Bethlehem through the metal stalls, turnstiles, and gates under the sullen gaze of armed Israeli teenage soldiers. It seems to me that it would be hard to relegate a people merely to the status of invention after being with them to celebrate the Incarnation.
But frankly I harbor few illusions about Newt’s capacity to alter his world view. I just hope we don’t bless this view at the ballot box. Meanwhile, on Christmas Lydia and I will light candles on our table held in olive wood stars made by Palestinian women in Bethlehem. And we will imagine a future of peace and justice for Palestinian and Israeli alike, a future we believe that will be of God’s invention.
John H. Thomas