Israel, Palestine and the intractability of political judgement

israelSince coming back from Israel I’ve been trying to come to some view on the political situation there. This has been hampered by my feeling unqualified to have an opinion, due to my ignorance and then, as I’ve done a little research, hampered by my confusion as to what criteria of judgement one would apply to the facts.

The current position both in Israel and in the occupied territories is extremely complicated and if one advocates a course of action it is unclear, at least to me, at whom one is directing that advocacy. The current government of Israel is a coalition of four parties with significantly different bases and policies. If one argues that the government should follow a particular path which it is inconceivable this coalition could follow then one must, presumably, either be envisaging its replacement by a different coalition or imagining what a government of which one would approve more would do, without reference to the possibility of such a government coming to power in Israel in the short term.

The latter approach (imagining what one’s ideal policy would be in abstraction from a path to its enactment) is not illegitimate, but its connection with politics is one I find difficult to trace. And that’s the big problem I have with political life in general and with the issues surrounding Israel/Palestine in particular.

I would like to see a peaceful region in which all its people, Arab, Jewish, Kurdish, Syriac, and other co-exist in polities that respect the law and operate according to democratic principles within borders and under frameworks that all recognise and accept. I do not, though, see any realistic prospect of that happening so that any course of action I argue for would have to be within the constraints of the existing state system, including that of Israel.

This means that the opinions and prejudices of the Israeli electorate can’t be ignored. They are. for the most part, supportive of parties that prioritise the security of Israel as a Jewish state and are suspicious and defensive with respect to the Palestinians. In this they are not unreasonable. Palestinian hostility towards the Jewish immigrants dates back at least to the 1920s and for most of that period has had as an element the desire to see the Jewish population of Palestine reduced or eliminated.

We can differ about the attitude we take to the Zionist project of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine but it is too late to reverse it without mass expulsions which I would find impossible to support, so the reality that the powerful Israeli state will take the actions it deems necessary to preserve its existence is unavoidable.

It makes perfect sense to try to hold that state to account for actions against the Palestinians that go beyond what is required for its security but that will involve difficult and complex arguments about what is, in fact, required. This in turn is bound up with the perception of many Israelis that they face a serious and permanent threat of violence that they need to guard against.

At that point I start to feel absolutely lost and incapable of forming a meaningful judgement, and that’s before I begin to think about the questions from the point of view of a person of Christian faith. To do this means to take a position of some sort about the nature of Zionism as a religious phenomenon, which it has now, to some degree become.

Religious Zionists and their Christian sympathisers take a view of the situation in Israel that I can’t share, but that doesn’t put an end to the problem. Even though my take on the nature of Biblical authority is such that I would be doubtful about the line of argument that says that some Biblical books contain promises of possession of certain territories and we can apply those promises straightforwardly to the contemporary world I wrestle with the political existence of the Jewish people.

If we take seriously the idea of Christianity as a revealed religion this revelation stands in a close relationship to the status of the people of Israel as the people chosen by God. This status always had as an element the political ordering of that people. The modern state of Israel must have that as part of its background and constitution. Christians can’t ignore it, however difficult we may find to think about it.

That doesn’t help, though, if anything it just makes the whole thing harder. If Israel is not a state like any other (which we sort of knew anyway) it is even more puzzling to figure out what standards of judgement should apply to it. And even if we could work that out it would remain impossible to make a connection between those standards of judgement and anything “we” (whoever we are) could do to make a difference.

All in all I feel at once obliged to come to view and totally unable to do so. Yet again the only recourse is prayer.


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