The Holy Land: a vision rather than a nightmare

By Harry Hagopian
3 Dec 2012

Some years ago, when I was directing the Middle East Council of Churches in Jerusalem during the now-forlorn Oslo years, my colleagues and I used to welcome pilgrims and visitors into our offices almost every week.

Many of them were Christians from the USA, but we also received travellers from Europe or at times from Africa or Latin America, who travelled to the Holy Land in order to visit its indigenous peoples and institutions as well as witness its biblical shrines.

In the process, they also strove to learn a little bit more about a conflict that had begun to bedevil this small parcel of land almost a century ago and that had gradually increased in polarisation, flintiness and mounting injustice.

Most of those pilgrims and visitors usually spent an hour with me at the beginning of their trip and then almost two hours at the end just prior to their return home. During our first 'briefing' meeting, it was almost droll how often they would ask me to interpret the political situation for them.

They asked: How did I perceive the conflict? Did I think that one side was at fault and the other faultless? What was my vision for a peaceful resolution of this conflict? What could they do to help the living stones (1 Peter 2.4-5) of this land? Was it even possible for Christians to co-exist with Jews let alone with Muslims?

My answer was unerringly - and somewhat boringly - constant. I would suggest to them that they get on with their visits, meet with Christians as well as Muslims and Jews, visit those sites that were important for them, and that we could have a fuller and more informed discussion during our 'debriefing' session at the end of their stay in the country.

And what a revelation those 'debriefing' discussions were, too! It was invariably a period of learning for everyone - them as much as us - since I was often struck by their fresh insights and observations about a long-running conflict that has sown bitterness and resentment in the hearts of so many generations over long decades. But I was also struck by how well they had read the situation facing the ‘two peoples and three faiths of the Holy Land’ - as the Latin-rite Catholic Emeritus Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah would often remind me during our regular meetings.

As I read the (undated) letter addressed to our Foreign Secretary William Hague by two eminent bishops of the Anglican and Catholic traditions this week (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17521), those myriad recollections suddenly flowed back into my mind.

This letter, coinciding with the acquisition by Palestine of its non-member observer status at the United Nations, is a well-written document that embodies a corrective approach toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not only have the two bishops proven to be bold enough in their arguments, it seems that their advisors have helped them flesh out the details too.

However, it is perhaps helpful to put diplomacy to one side for a few moments and to emphasise the portent of this letter at a time when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to have lost some of its centrality as a result of the uprisings in the Middle East North Africa region where men and women are fighting daily for their dignity and fundamental rights.

Let me be clear: the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is not religious. Rather, it is one that traces its historical and ideological roots to a struggle over land. Whose land is it that Jews, Christians and Muslims - Israelis and Palestinians - are grudgingly sharing today? Is this not a land that was unpeopled by Zionist Jews who came to Palestine - initially aided and abetted by a British mandating power - and later decided not only to stay on but also to take it over and expand their territory so much so that just over 20 per cent of what was ‘Palestine’ in 1947 is now under negotiation?

I am quite familiar with the counterarguments - put ably by Israeli Ambassador Ron Prossor at the UN recently - that Israel had accepted the Partition Plan of 1947 and the Arabs had recklessly rejected it. It is also correct that the Arabs thought they could dislodge the Jews from their newly-inhabited lands by force - and they failed then as they have arguably failed almost every single time since then too.

However, the defeat of the Arab forces does not make the acquisition of territory by force any more admissible or legal under International law. Arabs were unseized of their lands, stripped of their rights, turned into wholesale refugees and the world has been suffering the consequences ever since.

But that was then and this is now.

What the two bishops’ letter informs me politely is that might is not right, that Palestinians are entitled to their rights and fundamental freedoms, and that settlements encroaching upon occupied lands are unacceptable let alone illegal.

Only the other day, the Israeli government mooted the possibility of building new houses in the E1 Development Area that would separate Ramallah and Bethlehem from Jerusalem and render the two-state solution even more recondite.

It is encouraging to note that the bishops are demonstrating both wisdom and resolve with this letter, particularly when it is almost elegantly inevitable that they will receive some criticism from those who would be unhappy with it. But then are church leaders meant to be so muzzled that they simply forsake their prophetic courage and fear to express their opinions in support of a just resolution that should come hand-in-hand with peace, dignity and security for both peoples?

Palestinians are human beings just as Israelis are human beings too. Both also exhibit strengths and weaknesses. So given the skewered nature of this conflict and the deep pain it has inflicted to date, is it not high time for Israel to abjure its ornery practices against another people seeking self-determination? Is it equally not time for Palestinians to show a commensurate tenacity and re-unite themselves around the dream of a new state that is as effective in practice as it is on paper? And does it therefore not behove upon faith leaders to overcome their finite calculations and speak out clearly and unequivocally - with love but without fear, favour or even subterfuge - about the hope for an irenic two-state solution?

Over the years, my political ethos - my faith-based one for that matter too - has spurned cryptic power games and opted instead for a roadmap that was highlighted by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5.3-12). Those Beatitudes resemble a fulgurous and ever-challenging political manifesto that is guided by an unqualified divine love.

It would perhaps be helpful for our Foreign Secretary William Hague to remember those Beatitudes, not necessarily as an article of faith, but more so as a practical reminder that if we hedge our bets or drag our feet too long over a two-state solution, we would eventually end up realising that the hopeful vision we had in our minds has metamorphosed into a squealing nightmare.

* Senior bishops regret UK failure to back Palestinian statehood - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17521

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

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