A few days before I was to leave for Jerusalem last July, two suicide bombers blew themselves up on streetcorners in the city. My brother, who had lived in the Middle East for nine years, urged me to cancel my trip. But I felt compelled to go. I had been invited to deliver a paper at an extraordinary conference of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian scholars, gathering to discuss land and peace in the most volatile city in the world.
The cast of characters that awaited me seemed larger than life. Perhaps this was my reward, I thought. There was Vincent Cornell of the University of Arkansas, erstwhile Episcopalian and now distinguished (believing) Islamic scholar, telling a Muslim Palestinian leader that he was "doing violence to history" by claiming that neither Jewish temple had been on the Temple Mount. At another point Cornell remarked, "Muhammad said the two most important things in life are religion and reason. The problem with Islam today is that it has too much religion and not enough reason."
Then there was Abdelsalam Mennasrah, a Sufi sheikh1 from Nazareth, who joined ten of us exploring the tunnels under the area surrounding the Temple Mount (and the Dome of the Rock). It was there, in 1996, that eight Israeli soldiers and 26 Muslims died in a riot sparked by Muslim fears that the Jewish tunnels sought to collapse the Mount from below so that a new temple could be built on its ruins. When we came to the end of the tunnels, which clearly followed the outside of the subterranean walls supporting the Mount, the sheikh announced gravely, "Now I see that we were told a lie, and that 26 of my brothers, as well as eight Israeli soldiers, died in vain."
One of the most colorful characters was Ed Sheldon, an American clinical psychologist who is also an Orthodox rabbi and Israeli citizen. Rabbi Sheldon moved with his wife and two small children from the United States to a settlement two years ago because he felt Israel is "the place of my people, my history, my heart, and my soul. It is the only place on earth where a Jew can really live in a Jewish context." He bought a townhouse in a settlement because Jerusalem prices were prohibitive and the settlement's small-town amenities seemed ideal for a young family. Shortly after we met, Ed asked me if I had ever experienced Jesus. When I related some of my spiritual history, he said that it is utterly alien for a Jew to think that God would ever have a son, let alone kill his own son in order to forgive. Muslims have told me the same.
Perhaps the most memorable face was Yuri Shtern's. Shtern, who looks remarkably like Vladimir Putin, was an economist at Moscow State University before he emigrated to Israel and eventually was elected to the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. Shtern told me that he thinks the current intifada is a "war of attrition" that is actually international in scope. Shtern believes Israel faces not simply local demands for Palestinian autonomy but international revolutionary Islam—directed from London, funded by a host of countries, and intent on taking over many more countries.
Khaled Abu Ras is a 26-year-old Arabic teacher from Nazareth who looks ten years his senior. At the beginning of July he and ten other Muslims founded the Prophetic Tradition Helpers Association, a new moderate Muslim attempt to oppose Muslim "militancy and extremism." As one rabbi familiar with the group told The Jerusalem Post, this effort by Muslim moderates to speak publicly against Muslim extremists is "very impressive, very brave, and very dangerous." When I asked Khaled if he was afraid, he replied with a smile, "Every one of us will die at the time God decides, and not one day before."
Another Muslim Arab whom I befriended (name withheld) is principal of a Muslim high school in Israel. This father of four is an Israeli citizen and has achieved a modicum of success: he drives a better car than my own. He told me he came to the conference because he believed in peace, and tried to teach it to his students—but his students didn't believe the Israelis are really interested in peace with justice for Palestinians. When I asked him what he thought of suicide bombers, he said he sympathized with their frustration and desperation. But is it right to target innocent women and children? "They are all human beings, just like soldiers," he replied. He could not bring himself to condemn the bombings.
If the speakers and attendees were arresting, the conference itself was even more remarkable. Put together by Alon Goshen-Gottstein (an Israeli Orthodox rabbi who earned his Ph.D. in religious studies from Stanford), "Religion, Territoriality and Peace: An Interreligious Conference" was cosponsored by Goshen-Gottstein's Elijah School for the Study of Wisdom in the World Religions, a German foundation, and McGill University. It was one of those rare occasions when Muslims and Jews and Christians addressed each other, and perhaps the first to discuss so directly the current conflict in Israel/Palestine using the medium of comparative theology.
Here, in contrast to other religious studies conferences I have attended, there were no obsequious bows to what "we know" from the historical-critical method about the history behind and before scriptural texts. Instead it was enough to quote a text of Scripture for authority—whether from the Qur'an or hadith (compilations of sayings and deeds attributed to Muhammad), the Hebrew Bible or rabbis, or the New Testament. Professor Cornell was not alone in equating the words of a sacred text with God's words: "We have other verses [in the Qur'an] where God says … " This was a conference of religious leaders and academic scholars—most of the latter of whom were trained in some of the best of the world's universities—who regarded their own Scriptures as divine revelation and (for the most part) treated other traditions' claims to revelation with respect and sometimes approbation. At the same time, most clerics and scholars at the conference clearly did not believe that the three Abrahamic traditions were saying the same thing in different words. Nor did most of them believe they were three equally valid paths leading to the same destination.
This was the sixth summer conference that Goshen-Gottstein has organized for his Elijah School, but the first to which he had invited an evangelical scholar to make a plenary presentation. He, and nearly all the other Jews and Muslims there, seemed surprised that the evangelical theological approach to Israel was so different from that of mainline Protestants and Catholics.
I told the conference audience (which included religious leaders, politicians, and a host of interested onlookers from Jerusalem) that evangelicals played important roles in the modern history of Israel. According to Paul Merkley, evangelical William Hechler was Zionism founder Theodor Herzl's "first … most constant and most indefatigable follower." It was Hechler who helped open doors for Herzl to Europe's palaces and corporate boardrooms, and Hechler who helped Herzl formulate his vision for a Jewish state. In the quarter-century that led to the creation of Israel in 1947-48, "the sturdiest champions of the restoration of the Jews to Israel were the evangelicals and fundamentalists. In the years when Britain was turning away from her commitments under the Balfour Declaration, and was supported in so doing by mainstream Christianity, evangelicals sustained the Zionist cause."2 According to David Rausch, "the [evangelical] movement on the whole recognized at an early date that the Holocaust was impending and believed that six million Jews had been murdered at a time when most liberal Christians were denouncing 'Jewish atrocity propaganda.'"
When Israel was founded in 1948 and then prevailed through the ensuing war to establish her independence, evangelicals and fundamentalists were ecstatic, seeing these events as the fulfillment of biblical prophecies. Mainline Protestants and Catholics, however, "shifted into the ranks of those denouncing the new state."
President Harry Truman, an active Baptist who had something of a conservative view of the Bible and its prophecies about Israel, defied the State Department and nearly all his advisers both when he supported the American-led United Nations resolution to establish the state of Israel in 1948, and when he declared American recognition of the fledgling state. When he was introduced at the Jewish Theological Seminary as "the man who helped create the state of Israel," Truman protested, "What do you mean 'helped to create'?! I am Cyrus! I am Cyrus!"3
The June 1967 war was a watershed in Christian attitudes toward Israel. Evangelicals saw this once again as a confirmation that Jews and Israel still had a role to play in God's ordering of history. From this point on, Merkley reports, Christian Zionists were generally but not exclusively theological conservatives while Christian anti-Zionists were generally but not exclusively theological liberals. World Council of Churches (wcc) documents typically moralized about the human weakness for raising mere geography ("real estate") to a spiritual status, and "invariably" treated the creation of the state of Israel as problematic—never as the solution to a problem. The National Council of Churches (ncc) denounced the 1978 Camp David Accords for allegedly ignoring the national ambitions of the Palestinian Arabs. According to Merkley, the mainline Protestant churches of the West joined the churches of the East in an attitude of resentment "shading over into active hostility."4
The Roman Catholic attitude was more positive, notwithstanding initial skepticism. The May 14, 1948, issue of the semi-official daily of the Vatican, L'Osservatore Romano, declared, "Modern Israel is not the heir to biblical Israel. The Holy Land and its sacred sites belong only to Christianity: the true Israel." Yet the effect of two papal pronouncements that same year was to support the un partition plan, which did not resolve the status of Jerusalem, and to therefore resist Jordan's claim to the city. In 1967 the Vatican stopped calling for "international status" for the city and began to urge an "international statute" that would protect the rights of two peoples and three religions, and guarantee access to holy places. Vatican II's Nostra Aetate stated that the Church's relationship with Jews cannot be like its relationship with any other religion because of Judaism's special relationship to Christianity. Catholic seminaries angered Muslims by beginning to teach more of the Jewish context of the gospels. The Vatican negotiated its own agreements with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the last decade, and in 1994, under Pope John Paul II, ambassadors were exchanged between Israel and the Vatican.
Yet Mordechai Waxman complains that what is missing from virtually all Church documents is the recognition of the state of Israel as the "reaffirmation of the covenant with Abraham and his descendants." To be fair, one must say that since the Holocaust both the Catholic Church and mainline Protestant theologians have worked hard to affirm their solidarity with Jews and confidence that God's covenant with the Jewish people is ongoing. But two issues have been notably absent in most official church statements: the possibility that the restoration of the state of Israel has theological significance, and the notion of land as integral to Israel's covenant.5
While evangelicals were generally more convinced of the significance of land and the modern Israeli state, not all evangelicals were political conservatives. One prominent evangelical, who for two decades has criticized Republican approaches to Israel, played a critical role at the beginning of the peace process. Jimmy Carter, who campaigned for the American presidency in 1976 as a self-declared evangelical, was the architect of the 1978 Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.
Evangelical support for the state of Israel is based, in part at least, on a distinctive theological understanding of Jews and the land of Israel. Most Christians for most of the last two millennia have believed that the land has no theological importance. According to the general story line, God stopped exercising special care for Jews or their land upon the advent of the Christian church, which became the New Israel. This is what is known as "supersessionism" or "replacement theology." It first arose after the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 C.E., was promoted by second century Christians such as Justin Martyr and Melito of Sardis, and soon became the "standard model" for understanding Judaism's relationship to Christian faith.6
According to R. Kendall Soulen, there are three types of supersessionism: economic supersessionism, which holds that Israel's function was to prepare for the spiritual and universal form of salvation in Jesus, so that once Jesus had come Israel was unnecessary; punitive supersessionism, which argues that God abrogated Israel's covenant because she rejected Christ; and structural supersessionism, which stands for all versions of the Christian story that make the history of Israel only tangential to the narrative. This means that every rendering of faith is supersessionist which moves from creation and fall to redemption through Christ without making Israel's story integral to the main story.7
Significant revisions to this story first appeared among the Puritans of the 17th century and then among certain of their theological heirs such as Jonathan Edwards, who argued for a coming, literal millennium whose story featured a signal role for Jews.8 In the late 19th and through the 20th century, premillennialists envisioned a future for Israel based on their literal reading of Old Testament prophecies.9
After the Holocaust, a rereading of Scripture and particularly of Paul led to a new vision for Israel's future (and hence the land) among some theologians and New Testament scholars, such as Karl and Marcus Barth, C.E.B. Cranfield, Peter Stuhlmacher, and numerous evangelical scholars. Cranfield, for example, concluded that an impartial reading of Paul's epistle to the Romans demanded a revision of supersessionism: "These three chapters [9-11] emphatically forbid us to speak of the church as having once and for all taken the place of the Jewish people," he wrote. Like Cranfield, scholars began to notice that Paul seemed to believe that Jewish rejection of Jesus did not abrogate God's covenant with them, for in Romans 11 he says explicitly that "God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew" (v. 2, nrsv). As W.D. Davies noted in his landmark work on the biblical concept of land, "Paul never calls the Church the New Israel or the Jewish people the Old Israel."
If Paul research has shown new hope for the future of Israel and its land, so too has research into the historical Jesus, with E.P. Sanders, John P. Meier, and Ben F. Meyer among the most important scholars showing that Jesus was far more interested in Israel than had previously been acknowledged.
In a recent book, evangelical Scot McKnight has pushed this further by arguing that Jesus intended to renew Israel's national covenant, not found a new religion.10 McKnight argues that Jesus wanted to restore the 12 tribes, which would bring the kingdom of God in and through Israel. By his death, Jesus believed the whole Jewish nation was being nailed to the cross, and God was restoring the nation and restoring its people. Hence salvation was first and foremost for Israel; if the nations wanted salvation they would need to assimilate themselves to saved Israel. By his claim to dispense forgiveness of sins and create a new community of restored Israel that would inherit the kingdom of God, his disciples saw Jesus as the savior of Israel, as God coming to them through Jesus, leading the nation out of exile to regain control of the land. Jesus himself seemed to anticipate the day when Jerusalem would welcome him: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord'" (Matt. 23:39).
Some Catholic and mainline Protestant theologians since the Holocaust have proposed an alternative to supersessionism known as "two-covenant" theology, in which Jews and Christians are related to God separately through two distinct covenants, one through Torah and the other through Jesus Christ. (This is the approach taken by the August 2002 "Reflections on Covenant and Mission," an unofficial but widely publicized document issued jointly by Jews and Roman Catholics.) Under this scheme, Christian evangelism of Jews is not only unnecessary but actually an insult. Evangelicals, however, find this impossible to square with the New Testament, where Jews and Christians are in the same church and saved in the same way, Jews are evangelized by both Peter and Paul (Gal. 3:6-14; Gal. 3:26-29; Acts passim), Paul says the gospel concerns "the Jew first and also the Greek" (Rom. 1:16), and Jesus tells his disciples, "Go nowhere among the Gentiles … but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt. 10:5-6).
Most religious Jews appreciate Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant affirmations that God's covenant with Israel is eternal, but wonder why they ignore or deny what is central to covenant in Tanach: the land. As the authors of "Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity" put it, "The most important event for Jews since the Holocaust has been the reestablishment of a Jewish state in the Promised Land." Yet most Protestant and Catholic affirmations of the Jewish covenant ignore this central component. A recent letter-writer to The Christian Century complained that the editors' approach to the land of Israel "is roughly equivalent to a Jew asking a Protestant teenager: 'Hey, what's up with the resurrection thing?' A Judaism without the [covenantal] component of the land of Israel is a faith shorn of most of its power." This is in part because, as the National Council of Synagogues argues, "God wants the nations to see the redemption of Israel and be impressed. … They will therefore learn, if they had not learned before, that the Lord, God of Israel, restores His people to His land."11
If evangelicals and fundamentalists see a future for Jews in the land of Israel because of their understanding of Paul and Jesus, they also see Old Testament prophecy pointing in the same direction. They take seriously God's promises in Genesis (12:7, 13:15, 15:18, 17:8) to give land to Abraham's descendants. They cite Isaiah's vision for the renewal of Zion, especially in 4:2-6, and for the perpetuation of a remnant. They believe that the promise of a kingdom for the new David in Isaiah 9:7 suggests a restored land, and note both Jeremiah's promise that the Jews would return to the land in chapter 32 and receive a new covenant (chap. 33), and Ezekiel's recurring theme of the ingathering of all the scattered Israelites in the land.
But many evangelicals also read the Old Testament as saying that Israel's enjoyment of the land is not guaranteed. With the gift of land come stipulations which must be met to continue on the land: cities of refuge must be established for murderers, religious and moral instruction must be given and carried out, dietary rules must be followed, Sabbaths and jubilees for both land and people are to be observed, and the following behaviors are proscribed: harlotry, shedding of innocent blood, child sacrifice, sexual perversion, and the remarriage of a husband to a divorced wife (Deut. 19:7, 6:9, 12:20ff; Lev. 19:29, 23:10-11, 25:2, 25:8ff; Num. 35:29-34; Deut. 24:4; Lev. 18:24-25). Disobedience would bring a curse on the land (Deut. 28:15-58), and the author of Leviticus explains that the Canaanites were expelled from the land because of their sins (18:24). Security in the land is guaranteed by Deuteronomy only by continuing obedience to God's law (5:32-33; 6:3; 8:19-20; 11:8ff, 13-15). The Psalmists especially emphasize the necessity of obedience to remain on the land (37:27-29, 34; 85:1-2, 8-10, e.g.). Proverbs sounds a similar theme, as in 2:10: "The upright will live in the land, and the blameless will remain in it." So do Isaiah (60:21, 62:4) and Jeremiah (3:16-18).
Indeed, far more than fundamentalist writers, evangelicals have emphasized the conditionality of these promises. Gary Burge, New Testament scholar at Wheaton College, has noted that one line of conditions is the repeated commandment of the covenant to "love the alien as yourself." The Israelites were not to "oppress the alien," who "shall be to you as the citizen among you … for you were aliens in Egypt" (Lev. 19:33-34). Moses commanded that tithes be collected from Israelites to help poor aliens (Deut. 14:29, 26:12); wages were not to be withheld from aliens (Deut. 24:14); aliens were to use the same system of justice which was provided to Israelites (Deut. 1:16, 24:17, 27:19).12
This was remarkably demonstrated by biblical patriarchs and kings. For example, the Canaanites were not displaced when God promised the land to Abraham and his descendants. Instead Abraham and the Canaanites became neighbors and trading partners. Abraham refused to accept parcels of that land as gifts from the natives, but also insisted on paying (Gen. 23). Joshua included aliens in public recomittals to the covenant (Josh. 8:33-35), and kept his agreement with non-Israelites, even when that agreement had been made under false pretenses (John 9). Then he went so far as to risk the lives of his men to protect those non-Israelites in battle (Josh. 10:6-8).
David used foreigners (men from today's Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey) as soldiers and leaders in his army. Some became his trusted advisers (2 Sam. 23; 1 Chron. 11:10-47). Like Abraham, he insisted on buying land even when the land had been promised to him. Ornan, a Canaanite who owned land in pre-Israelite Jerusalem when it was called Jebus, offered land to David for what was to be the site for God's temple. David refused the gift and paid Ornan 100 shekels of gold (1 Chron. 21).
By contrast, when King Ahab stole land and murdered its owner, Naboth, God arranged for both Ahab and his wife Jezebel to be "executed," thus suggesting that God intervenes to avenge the defenseless (1 Kings 21). The prophets continued this refrain: Amos prophesied exile because Israelites were oppressing the poor (7:17), Jeremiah criticized the abuse of aliens (7:5-7), and Ezekiel declared that when the Jews returned from exile, they were to make provision for aliens: "They shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel" (47:22-23).
The upshot of all this is that keeping the terms of the covenant includes treating aliens with justice, indeed love. Covenant keeping is not only a matter of avoiding idolatry and treating fellow Jews with justice, but extending that justice to non-Israelites living within Israel. If Israel was disciplined for violating the covenant, some of those violations were against aliens living in the land.
Therefore, I told the conference audience, as time goes on there has emerged a certain divide over where fundamentalists and evangelicals place emphasis. Fundamentalists tend to stress more than evangelicals the biblical promises of land and future to the Jews, while evangelicals tend to place more stress on the need for justice to make peace. Hence more fundamentalists than evangelicals would agree with Gush Emunim supporters who defend all the West Bank settlements on the grounds that the land occupied in 1967 was returned to its rightful owners and not one square centimeter should be surrendered. They would also argue that the land seizures of both 1948 and 1967 occurred after wars started by Arabs to destroy the (vastly outnumbered) Jewish state, and after turning down the un partition plan (which Jews had accepted).13
Conversely, more evangelicals than fundamentalists would argue that while Israel has a right to its pre-1967 borders and must be guaranteed security, Israel should not control the lives of Palestinians, and the Palestinians have a right to a compact and contiguous state, unlike the patchwork created by the Oslo Accords. Many also deny a one-to-one correspondence between the modern state of Israel and the prophetic promised return of Jews to the land—because the return is to be accompanied by widespread spiritual renewal triggered by recognition of Jesus as Messiah—while at the same time affirming a connection between the two (although some evangelicals would deny the connection altogether).
Such evangelicals, like their mainline counterparts, are disturbed by reports of death squads without arrests or trials (conducted by both Israelis and Palestinians), torture used routinely in prison camps, denial to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians opportunities for employment, good schools, and health care—and bombers who target non-combatants. They agree with Burge that "God's people cannot make a religious claim to the land without exhibiting religious devotion to [the terms of] the covenant." And they wonder, as many Orthodox Jews have wondered, how a secular state can ground territorial claims with religious warrants.
Some would challenge their Jewish brothers and sisters (while recognizing in a very real sense they are presumptuous after two millennia of anti-Semitism) to consider whether Israel is at a point of spiritual crisis. Can she still believe that God's covenant is to be taken with absolute seriousness? Is this the time to consider both the biblical promises and the conditions attached to these promises, particularly those governing the treatment of aliens? Could this be the time for Israel to realize its spiritual destiny: to show the world the remarkable and glorious kingdom that Israel's covenant calls for, a land of justice and respect for Jews and non-Jews alike?
Over and over again the conference returned to the subject of territory: who can make rightful claim to the land? Jews? Muslims? Arabs? Arab Christians?
History does not confer clear title. While Jews were in the land long before Christians or Muslims (Jews trace their ancestry to Abraham, whose travels with his family from Haran to Canaan were probably at the beginning of the second millennium BCE), the question of title is ambiguous because of, among other things, the extent of the promise. The land promised to Abraham and his descendants was said to have extended from the Nile to the Euphrates (Gen. 15:18). If this is taken literally, it follows that the state of Israel must expand beyond its current borders—which is what some Muslims fear is Israel's intent. If, on the other hand, the promise is taken symbolically to refer to Abraham's entire known world, the notion of land based on biblical promise changes considerably.
Palestinian claims are no more decisive. The name "Palestinian" was Roman, not Arab, chosen to insult Jews by memorializing the long-vanquished Philistines, who have no relation to present Palestinians. The name was not used again until the Balfour Declaration (1917), and it was the British—not the Arabs—who revived its use. Arab rule of the land was fairly brief, from the 660s to 750 under the Ummayads. Then the region was controlled by a succession of conquerors: European Christian crusaders, Kurds under Saladin, and Ottoman Turks. Even under Muslim rule, Jews and Christians still worked the land because Arabs had contempt for settled farming. So we can speak of many centuries of Muslim rule but not (accurately) of many centuries of Arab rule.
Palestinians have thought of themselves as such for less than a century. Bernard Lewis explains that the notion of a group of people "with a common homeland, language, character and political aspirations derives from the West, and came into the world less than a century ago." Before that time the majority of people in the region thought of themselves primarily as Muslims and only secondarily in territorial terms. Many thought of themselves simply as Muslim Arabs (lit., "nomads"). This is why Zaheir Muhsin, a member of the plo Executive Council, could say in 1977, "The existence of a separate Palestinian identity serves only tactical purposes."
The Palestinian claim to Jerusalem is also less than conclusive. Only in recent times did Muslims start speaking of Jerusalem as a holy place (al Quds), and the third holiest site in Islam. Jerusalem is never mentioned explicitly in the Qur'an, and no Muslim ruler ever regarded Jerusalem as his political or religious capital.
In his marvelous chronicle The Land Called Holy, Roman Catholic historian Robert Wilken shows why Christians can feel some claim to the land.14 Palestine, he writes, was a Christian country for more than three centuries (from the late fourth through the seventh century and beyond), and the Latin crusaders had a kingdom for 200 years (12th and 13th centuries). In the earlier period, "Christians began to think of Jerusalem as their city, indeed as the Christian city, and Palestine as a place set apart." Wilken suggests that if Muslims had not conquered Jerusalem in the seventh century, Jerusalem might one day have challenged the authority of the church of Rome.
Palestinian Christians make their own claim to the land based on residence from the very beginning of the Christian church. As Pastor Raheb of the Lutheran church in Bethlehem puts it, Arab Christians were among the first Christians at Pentecost (Acts 2:11), the first Christian communities originated in Palestine, and Palestinian Christians see themselves as the descendants of the first Jewish and non-Jewish Christians.
Speakers at the conference made reference to much of this history. One could see theological support for now-familiar political claims. For example, in response to the question whether Jerusalem is more important than a human life, Rabbi Daniel Shilo, chief rabbi in Kedumin, asserted that human beings have the right to defend their property, and sometimes justice is more important than life—otherwise there would be no just wars. Professor Mustafa Abu Sway of Al Quds University (in Jerusalem) implicitly agreed, and added that Muslims are obligated to fight to protect any territory over which Islam was once sovereign, which includes both Israel and Spain. "Yet we must fight not with the sword but with pen and tongue."
But one also saw theological moves that could support new political positions. Two Muslim academics challenged the notion of an Islamic duty to defend and regain onetime Muslim territories. Vincent Cornell insisted that territoriality in the sense of sacred lands or nations is foreign to the Qur'an, while Paul Ballanfat of the University of Lyon argued that sacrality in Islam is dynamic not static. Neither matter nor space is sacred in itself; it is only certain activity that can make a space sacred, and only as long as that holy activity is continued. "Islam is therefore ambiguous on the sacrality of land." In fact, Islam was not obliged to gain sovereignty over a land, he maintained, but simply to worship there. Blessing without sovereignty was enough.
Cornell even suggested that Muslims already have their equivalent to the old Jewish temples in the Qa'ba in Mecca (the black square building which Abraham and Ishmael are believed to have built). Therefore "there still is a sacred center," which functions as a "quasi-temple." Prof. Cornell believes that Muslim denials that Jewish temples stood on what is called the Temple Mount (and on which stands the Dome of the Rock, from which Muhammad is believed to have ascended to Paradise) arise from fear that Jews will destroy the Dome and erect a new temple. But the Qa'ba in Mecca, he argued, was built by Abraham long before the temple in Jerusalem was constructed.
Rabbi Yehuda Gilead, a member of the Knesset, seemed to capitalize on this Muslim concession when he reasoned that while for Jews the Temple Mount is first in order of all sacred spaces (for it is where Abraham, the first Jew, offered everything—his promised son—to God), it ranks only third in the Muslim order after Mecca and Medina. But Cornell quickly retorted that Jerusalem is not third for Muslims because Abraham lived long before Muhammad. Ballanfat added that Muhammad would not have been a prophet without Jerusalem because of its link with Abraham. "You are not a Muslim unless you sacrifice your soul, and this is where Abraham, the true founder of Islam, sacrificed his soul."
Several Jewish speakers suggested that while Jews need the freedom to worship at these historic sites, space and temple are not indispensable to Judaism. Barry Levy of McGill University, an Orthodox Jew, said that it was a mistake for Moshe Dayan to give control of the Mount's sacred spaces to Muslims in 1967, but Jewish Orthodoxy has yet to learn that ritual is not necessarily spiritual, and therefore Judaism does not require a temple. One rabbi, citing a Talmudic source, went so far as to suggest that insistence on a new temple is a sign of theological immaturity.15 Moses, he pointed out, was not involved in the construction of the tabernacle in the desert "because he was so spiritual that he didn't need it."
Since September 11, 2001, it has often been said that Islam is at war with itself. The conference illustrated this vividly. Mustafa Abu Sway remarked, to audible gasps from Jews in the audience, that he wished the state of Israel "would disappear." Mahmoud Massalha, principal of a Muslim school in Israel, alleged that Abraham was neither Jew nor Muslim but simply a hanif, a pre-Islamic monotheist. Yet other Muslim leaders offered contrasting visions. Khaled Abu Ras averred that Islam is in danger because the vast majority of Muslims are not educated at universities and so are vulnerable to demagoguery. Half the mosques in Israel, he said, are controlled by extremist Muslims. Many Muslims disagree with the extremist vision, but "have nowhere to speak." His new organization plans to hold talks in Israeli villages to give these silent dissenters a place to voice their concerns.
Abdelsalam Menasrah exclaimed, "The Wahhabis [extremist Muslims who influenced Osama bin Laden] hate me, not just Christians and Jews. They say Sufis are infidels." Cornell added that Islam must learn a new tolerance. "In principle," he said, "Islam is liberal, allowing internal differences and the freedom to be wrong. Unfortunately, however, Islam has not demonstrated this too often in its history."
Dr. Goshen-Gottstein, conference organizer, summed up the sentiments of many of the assembled: "Many have lost hope in dialogue, but we have no other choice." By the end of the conference, many felt that the dialogue itself was a sign of hope. Goshen-Gottstein himself apologized to his Muslim friends that he had never learned Arabic, and vowed to do so. Ed, the Orthodox rabbi, was so touched by Khaled's openness and courage that the two embraced. Jason, an Orthodox Ph.D. student studying in Jerusalem for the last two years, exulted that for the first time he had talked personally to an Arab.
Many had been moved by Rabbi Gilead's public call to use peace as a hermeneutical criterion. "We all [Jews, Muslims and Christians] have harsh statements in our texts," he said. "That means that we all face choices as we read and interpret our texts. Which parts of the text will we put in the mainstream of our tradition? Which need to be interpreted differently? We have a duty to privilege those passages that speak of peace and forgiveness." Rabbi Gilead said that he felt "ashamed" of the ways some of his fellow Jews had used and abused passages from Torah.
For some Jews, this conference was the first time they had heard Muslim self-criticism. They were astonished to hear the likes of Cornell, who declared that Muslims have slaughtered more of one another than non-Muslims, and that "we have a dismal history of this."
Just before the conference started, some of the speakers and attendees had gathered for singing. At one point Sufi Muslims sang in Arabic while Jews and Christians clapped their knees and hummed along. At another point a Sufi sheikh joined an Israeli folksinger to sing Psalm 23. Remembering this, and hearing the surprising statements made by representatives from all three traditions, I wondered if this could ever be repeated on a larger scale in "the land called holy."
Several days after the conference ended, a bomb exploded in a cafeteria at Hebrew University, killing seven students, five of them Americans. Ed wrote me an email from his home at the settlement. "Perhaps the new hope I gained from the conference is for naught. The Muslims I met there are not representative at all. On Israeli tv I just saw thousands of Arabs in Gaza City dancing for joy over the killings at Hebrew University."
An elderly German woman once told me that when she was growing up in the 1930s she felt a power of evil in the air "so thick you could cut it with a knife. We Germans made many evil choices, and are responsible for the horrors we produced. But there was also an evil force driving us on." During my visit to Jerusalem, I sensed that something similar may be at work in this holy and fear-filled city. Not Nazism of course, but sinister spirits (of hatred? unforgiveness? murder? deception?) that seem to prevent good people on both sides from making headway. The words of Saint Paul in his epistle to the Ephesians took on uncanny relevance: "For our fight is not against human foes, but against cosmic powers, against the authorities and potentates of this dark world, against the superhuman forces of evil in the heavens" (6:12, neb).
Yes, I concluded, we need more dialogue, and particularly among theologians and religious leaders. And the politicians ought to listen to these dialogues, as was reiterated often at the conference. But people of faith must also pray—and not only for peace but also against the dark powers that want war.
—This article is the first in a series by various authors.
2. This and some of the next few paragraphs are based on Paul Charles Merkley, The Politics of Christian Zionism 1891-1948 (London: Frank Cass, 1998), and idem, Christian Attitudes towards the State of Israel (Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen's Univ. Press, 2001).
3. Cyrus was the Persian king who defeated the Babylonians in 539 BCE and then allowed the exiled Judeans to return home and restore the Temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1; 2 Chron. 36:23). Second Isaiah refers to him as a divinely designated agent for the liberation of Israel.
5. Catholic theologians are more willing to acknowledge Jewish concerns for the land, and some even talk about a "redemptive dimension" to the state of Israel, but there is a general reluctance to speak of land won in 1948 as connected to a fulfillment of covenantal promises. See Dr. Eugene J. Fisher and Rabbi Leon Klenicki, eds., A Challenge Long Delayed: The Diplomatic Exchange Between the Holy See and the State of Israel (Anti-Defamation League, 1996), esp. pp. 16-17.
8. Peter Toon, Puritans, The Millennium and the Future of Israel: Puritan Eschatology 1600 to 1660 (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1970), pp. 23-26; Christopher Hill, "Till the Conversion of the Jews," in Millenarianism and Messianism in English Literature and Thought 1650-1800, pp. 12-36; Zakai, "The Poetics of History and the Destiny of Israel," pp. 313-50. On Edwards and Judaism, see McDermott, Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods: Christian Theology, Enlightenment Religion, and Non-Christian Faiths (Oxford Univ. Press, 2000), chap. 8.
9. This and the following two paragraphs are based in part on Craig A. Blaising, "The Future of Israel as a Theological Question," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 44, No. 3 (September 2001), pp. 435-50.
11. "Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity," Pro Ecclesia, Vol. 11, No. 1 (2002), p. 6 (this statement first appeared as a full-page ad in The New York Times in the fall of 2000); Jeffrey K. Salkin, The Christian Century, Oct. 23, 2002, p. 52; "Reflections On Covenant And Mission," issued by the National Council of Synagogues and Delegates of the Bishops' Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs (August 12, 2002), p. 8.
13. The "new Israeli historians" are revising this picture somewhat. They argue that Israeli troops outnumbered Arab forces at each stage of the war, and that land was sometimes taken by coercion. Benny Morris, perhaps the best-known of these historians, argues that Palestinian refugees lost their homes and lands not only because Arab leaders told them to leave but also because of IDF expulsions at some sites, fear of wartime shelling, and Israeli atrocities and fear of them. Morris notes that the Arab states' invasions in May 1948, their refusal to accept proposed compromises, and their failure to absorb Palestinian refugees were also contributing factors. See Avi Schlaim, "Israel and the Arab Coalition in 1948," in Eugene Rogan and Avi Schlaim, eds., The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001), pp. 79-103; Benny Morris, "Revisiting the Palestinian Exodus of 1948," in Rogan and Schlaim, pp. 37-59.
Gerald McDermott, professor of religion at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, is resident fellow at the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Collegeville, Minnesota. One of his recent books is Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods (Oxford Univ. Press).
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.