Were David, Mary and Jesus Colonialists?

In their latest publication, the Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) makes an outrageous claim that Palestinians are the “indigenous” people in that region while the Israelis are “colonialists.” For a moment, just think about that assertion from a biblical perspective. If Israelis today are “colonialists,” have Israelis always been colonialists? Do we declare the major characters in the Old and New Testaments colonialists? Were Moses and Miriam colonialists because they sought to return to their homeland after being enslaved in Egypt for generations? Was David? Were Jesus and his family members colonialists because they lived in that region as Jews?

Of course, the colonialist argument comes directly from the secular Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement, not from a group that thinks biblically or theologically about peacemaking. But for Presbyterians, the Bible matters. One cannot read the Bible and declare Israel to be a “colonial project.”

The Jewish presence in the region today called Israel-Palestine goes back thousands of years. There has never been a time when Jews did not live in the area we call Israel. In the middle of the 19th Century, Jerusalem was a majority-Jewish city. Even in 1936, a decade before the modern state of Israel was created, there were almost 400,000 Jews in Israel. The entire idea behind the creation of the modern Israel in its current location is rooted in the historical presence of Jews in the Israel-Palestine region. To claim that Israelis today are colonialists is, on one level, preposterous and, on another level, profoundly insulting to the Jewish experience.

The IPMN claim ignores the reasons many Jews were forced to leave their homelands throughout history. Shortly after Jesus’ death, Jews were driven from Israel by the Romans. In the Common Era, Jews didn’t migrate from one part of the world to the next because they wanted to leave. They were driven out by brute, lethal force in Europe and Russia. IPMN totally ignores the church’s primary role in driving the Jews out of Spain and elsewhere. Despite being forced out of their land, the Jewish people never stopped praying at the Seder, “Next year in Jerusalem.” They continued to dream of being able to return to their homeland.

The IPMN claim ignores that Jews were driven out of Middle Eastern countries in modern times. When the world community recognized the Jewish claim to their homeland in 1948, over 850,000 Mizrahi Jews were forced to leave Arab countries and Iran. Today, they represent approximately 50% of Israel’s population. Does that history transform these immigrants into colonialists when they arrived in Israel, the only nation that welcomed them? We think not. Indeed, the history affirms the need for a Jewish state to which Jews can go when oppressed elsewhere.

The secular Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) and its allies, who seek the elimination of the Jewish state, make wide use of the inflammatory “colonialist” terminology. Describing Israel as a “colonial project” is an overt attack on Israel’s right to exist; a right to exist that was reaffirmed by the PCUSA as recently as the last General Assembly. The Jewish people have the same roots and connection to the land as the Palestinian people, and this basic fact has been repeatedly recognized by PCUSA support of the “two states for two peoples” position.

The PCUSA will never be considered a responsible peacemaker as long as we make assertions which are irresponsible. The idea that today’s Israelis are colonialists is the definition of irresponsible. Such revisionist history does nothing to help us address the gross injustices many Palestinians experience today. It does nothing to embolden the voices of Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers. Instead, it deepens divisions with inflammatory assertions.

Hopefully, by the time we arrive in St. Louis in June, the conversation about Israel-Palestine will be rooted in terms that create common ground rather than patently ridiculous assertions about all Israelis being colonialists. The last General Assembly found that common ground when it rejected talk of a one-state solution in favor of commissioner amendments that reaffirmed the PCUSA’s strong commitment to two states.