You Can’t Say We Didn’t Know:
Some Perspectives on Israel, Palestine, and the Conflict

Episcopal Bishop’s Committee for Israel/Palestine
Diocese of Olympia
October 2016

By Randolph Urmston

Zionism is variously looked at as a salvation or as a catastrophic power. Yet all agree that Zionism was and is at the center of the conflict that has now raged for over 100 years in the Land of Canaan. No lasting solution can be approached without an honest examination of the origin and consequences of this phenomenon that still shapes events, not only locally in Palestine/Israel, but in the region and the world.”[1]

If the powers-that-be discriminated against you, persecuted you, forced you to live in ghettos and murdered you, because of your religion or ethnicity, would not you want to start a new country where you were in charge? Zionism, the political mechanism to create a nation of and controlled by Jews in Palestine, is what Theodor Herzl advocated in the late 19th Century.[2] Argentina and Uganda were considered for the new country, but despite the fact that early Zionists were secular Jews, Palestine was thought to be an ideal area for settlement. The remaining tribes of Israel had resided in Palestine before their defeat by the Romans in 70 CE.

In Europe and in Russia, in the age of Christendom, Jews were persecuted for not converting. Jews were used by the rulers of emerging nations as a common enemy, a scapegoat, to unify their populations. In the early 20th Century, even Great Britain encouraged its Jewish population to immigrate to Palestine for this and other reasons. Thus, the emergence of nationalism in Europe fanned the flames of discrimination against Jewish people and fostered the birth of a nationalist movement within the Jewish community that only became a colonial movement when it excluded the rights and aspirations of the indigenous Arab peoples.

Not all Jews, however, favored Zionism. The only Jewish official in the British Cabinet — who voted against the 1917 Balfour Declaration, a commitment by the British Government to recognize a Jewish homeland in Palestine — thought the creation of a Jewish state would magnify anti-Semitism. On the other hand, some anti-Semites thought Zionism was the answer. The National Socialist movement (the Nazis), for example, took advantage of Zionism to move Jews out of Germany during the 1930’s.[3] There were Zionists who favored a binational state and warned of the dangers of Jewish exceptionalism and militarism. And then there was the impact of the Holocaust that stimulated a belief in the need for Jewish military power and a Jewish state for Jews to survive.

Today, liberal Zionists are torn by the inconsistency of their belief in human rights on the one hand and support of a “democracy” that discriminates against its non-Jewish citizens and has a policy of apartheid and ethnic cleansing in the West Bank and Gaza. Some argue that criticizing these policies of the state of Israel is anti-Semitic.[4] Central to this charge by the current right-wing government of Israel, under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is the assertion that Israel represents all Jews.

Today, the historical persecution of Jews that fueled Zionism is being used by Zionists to justify Israel’s possession of the whole of Palestine. A feeling of permanent victimization justifies the need for “security” at any cost. On the other hand, many Jews, particularly younger Jews, feel that Zionism (the national political movement) has corrupted Judaism (the religion) and neither should be confused with Israel (the state). It is our hope and the hope of many of our fellow Christians that Palestine will continue to be a place where Jewish people and culture flourish. However, we are convinced that the current policies of discrimination and ethnic cleansing of the Israeli government are undermining this possibility.

[1] Mazin Qumsiyeh, Sharing the Land of Canaan; Human Rights and the Israeli-Palestinian Struggle, Pluto Press, 2004.
[2] Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State: An Attempt at a Modern Solution of the Jewish Question, 1896.
[3] Jonathan Cook, “Once, most Jews viewed Israel as the anti-Semite’s best friend,” Mondoweiss, May 10, 2016, http://mondoweiss.net/2016/05/viewed-semites-friend/.
[4] Jonathan Ofir, “Don’t say the Z-word,” Mondoweiss, May 10, 2016, http://mondoweiss.net/2016/05/dont-say-the-z-word/.