There have been glimmers of hope. In the lead up to the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, the Zionist philosopher and politician Martin Buber argued for the right of Jews for a homeland, yet also believed the moral test of that homeland was going to be the way they would treat their Arab neighbours. For him, the call on the new Jewish state was bigger than just to provide a safe place for Jews to live, but, in alignment with the Old Testament call on the people of Israel, was to be a blessing to the nations. As he wrote in his visionary book A Land of Two Peoples:
“A true Zionist wants not to rule over his Arab brothers but to serve together with them.”
If his vision of Zionism had won out over the more aggressive version of David Ben Gurion, might this long history of conflict have been avoided?
In the 1980s, Anwar Sadat moved from being the leader of Egypt’s attack on Israel in the Yom Kippur war of 1973 to the architect of a ground-breaking peace treaty with Menachem Begin, Israel’s Prime Minister at the time. Later still, the Oslo Accords of the 1990s offered the possibility of a resolution – land for peace. Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat shook hands on the White House Lawn, as hopes began to rise of a new dawn for the Middle East.
Yet in both cases it cost these leaders their lives. Sadat’s assassination by an Islamic extremist in 1981, Rabin’s assassination by a Jewish militant in 1995 and the subsequent refusal of both sides to build on these delicate beginnings effectively put an end to the fragile hopes for peace.
Over many visits to that extraordinary land, I have experienced two communities with much in common, living alongside one another, yet with little direct interaction, and often living in fear of the other. Many Jews believe all Arabs want to kill them. Many Gazans think all Israelis want them dead. Of course, some do on both sides, but most people simply want to live in peace without the threat of explosions or being killed, or home demolitions and feeling like second class citizens.
If I have a prayer for the land of Israel/Palestine, it is for bold, imaginative leaders. There was once such a Jewish leader in Israel. There were at the time, as now, fights over who really owned the land - the Jewish people with their roots in the story of Abraham, Moses and King David or the Gentile Roman empire, with might on their side. The question of how should you deal with your enemy was a live one. Different Jewish groups argued that you should hate the Gentile enemy and kill them (the Zealots), blend in with them (the Herodians), avoid any contact with them (the Pharisees), or feel superior to them (the Sadducees). Jesus of Nazareth came up with the crazy idea that you should love them and pray for them, and thus be true children of the God who made both you and your enemy.
Unrealistic? Maybe. And also today, perhaps much too early to talk about such a thing when emotions are so raw. Such a call doesn't deny Israel’s right to reasonable self-defence and the Palestinian right to legitimate protest. But this was the basic idea that lay behind the revolutionary leadership of Nelson Mandela, FW de Klerk, Martin McGuiness and Ian Paisley. Here were leaders who were prepared to take the bold path away from violence and bloodshed.
In each case, it took leaders on both sides to find a way forward. A commitment to such a path on one side alone is not enough. If that is all you have then you get killed, just as Jesus did. And of course, such a path does not avoid the possibility of suffering and even death, as both Sadat and Rabin found out. Yet, in the strange mystery of God’s working, even that - especially that - was the path to peace.
In the depressing cycle of hatred and death, the grieving families of Israel and Gaza, the weeping sons and daughters of Isaac and Ishmael, we can only pray for new leaders who will walk the difficult yet fruitful path of making enemies into friends.