It is a over a year since we returned from our sabbatical term in Jerusalem - and we miss it. A year in which everyone’s attention has been held by repeated instances of extremist or radicalised Israelis or Palestinians killing others, and of the personal and structural retribution meted out as a result mainly on individual Palestinians and Palestine but also on individual Israelis; a year culminating on Human Rights Day in the tragic army dispersal of olive tree planting in part of Palestine designated as soon to be inaccessible to Palestinians.
There is a feature of our stay about which we talk but which hasn’t yet appeared in this Blog. Whenever we were in a group which visited a Christian community off the beaten track in the West Bank (which isn’t a claim at intrepid travel – the area is small and we were there for three months), the people we visited always began a welcome by expressing at length disproportionate thanks for our having come to see them. They clearly felt that Christians on hurried visits to the holy sites simply bypassed them. They clearly imagined that any news we would take away, for example, about the restrictive implication for them of living near Israeli settlements would inevitable fuel effective international demands to change the situation.
On this last point, I don’t know how right they are. Perhaps the sudden flow of European parliaments expressing the wish to recognise the state of Palestine indicates they are right. My own experience suggests they are wrong. Expressing their situation and concerns is as likely to provoke a hostile reaction as a supportive one. Even setting out those two opening paragraphs as carefully as I can will be viewed by some neutral readers and most partial readers as being loaded against the state of Israel and its need for security simply for having not yet named them. The fact that I haven’t begun ‘a year in which everyone’s attention has been held by the Islamic fundamentalist take over in Iraq and Syria and the related persecution of Christians there’ would be cited as some as evidence of priorities skewed by latent anti-Semitism.
There are those whose attention to the communities of the West Bank is not as casual or fleeting as ours. Some are Jewish and/or Israeli Human Rights organisations which can hardly be anti-Semitic. Others externally include ‘ecumenical accompaniers’: ‘ international Christian volunteers to the West Bank to experience life under occupation, provide protective presence to vulnerable communities, monitor and report human rights abuses and support Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace’. It is perhsp telling that the General Synod’s expressing explicit support for this programme in 2012 resulted in a degree of rupture in relations with formal Jewish bodies in England. These bodies and other critics of the programme see it as politically naive or slanted (hence the rupture in relationships) - while in turn many Palestinian Christians, including many promoters of non-violence, fear that their plight is actually an embarrassment to those seeking to keep inter-faith relationships in good repair elsewhere.
Which relates, but only tangentially, to another aspect of this whole complex situation about which I have been thinking but which hasn’t yet appeared in this Blog. Those in church leadership in liberal western Christianity are likely to be aged 55-75 and are thus likely to have studied Theology in the 1960s and 1970s. Their (our – just, I am 54 and began a University course in Theology in 1979) theological formation is therefore strongly orientated by awareness of just how anti-Semitic our tradition has been and how strangely neglectful of the essentially Jewish roots of Jesus and the New Testament. From the shifts in teaching of the Vatican II (1963-5) to the publication of Geza Vermes’ classic Jesus the Jew in 1973, a whole new perspective emerged; a perspective centred on essential repentance for the anti-Semitism deeply, disturbingly and destructively embedded in most of the history of Christendom; a perspective centred on the obvious but somehow airbrushed, concealed or forgotten kinship with Judaism.
This is a perspective which flavours what we teach all the time (for example perhaps, provoking visits to concentration camps in Germany and to places marked by blood libel in England, and ensuring awareness of everything from the Jewish shape of Jesus’teaching to the Jewish heritage of our own town). Such a perceptive is obviously not incompatible with support for Palestine - but it is really messy (emotionally, theologically and politically) unpicking why this is so.