This month will mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, writes Rev Sydney Maitland, and despite the traumas of regathering the remnants of European Jewry from the charnel houses of the Holocaust, (as well as those dwelling in but expelled from North African and other Arab lands), and then in defending themselves from the assaults of their neighbours, the State of Israel was proclaimed on 15 May 1948. It was then attacked by the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, but somehow held out and in the process extended and consolidated its frontiers. Contact with Jerusalem was maintained at great cost however direct contact with Hebron was lost.
For the Palestinians this event/process has been called the ‘disaster’ and many left their homes for refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt (the Gaza Strip). Some however stayed and are Arab Israelis, alongside Druze and of course Jewish Israelis. The narrative of loss of the Palestinians is familiar to us, although many have moved to other parts of the world and found work, and indeed, prosperity. Whereas refugee Jews from Europe found sanctuary in Britain and the USA in the 1930s and 1940s and were able to find their own way, sadly most of the Palestinian refugees have remained in their camps, un-integrated into their host communities.
In 1964, 3 years before the 6-day war, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation was founded by Yasser Arafat, and saw Palestine as the whole of the Mandated area, with no place or provision for Jewish migration or settlement, let alone self-government. And so the story goes on, with each generation of Jewish and Palestinian leaders having to make sense or each other’s existence, or not, as the case may be. Yet there is all the difference between recognising the State of Israel and its right to exist within defensible borders, and endorsing every aspect of its policies, whether on housing or security or national defence. If we cannot endorse all of our own country’s policies, then we can scarcely be expected to endorse uncritically anyone else’s.
But there are some profoundly serious Christian grounds for welcoming and celebrating the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel. First of all, Jesus was and still is, a Jew. The first disciples and apostles were Jews and the New Testament is a Jewish book even if parts were written by a Greek: St Luke who was a companion of St Paul. Needless to say we read the Old Testament scriptures as part of our worship and the Book of Psalms is a vivid part of that worship.
But then there is something else, for in looking at Jesus we do so through the eyes of the Old Testament prophets, who were writing to and for Jewish readers. If the OT passages that we see as pointing to Jesus are invalid, then so are those promises which as Christians we receive from the OT and in which we rejoice. We cannot separate for ourselves the OT passages which are congenial to us while denying their relevance and application to Jews in every generation. Either the Word of God in the OT is valid or it is not and we cannot cherry-pick its passages according to our convenience. Moreover, if we receive the promises to the Jews, then there are also warnings and judgments that we dare not neglect or take to heart.
And so I believe that what God promises to His people, whether Jew or Gentile, are valid for all time and have not been repudiated. And if God were to repudiate any of His promises to His chosen people then just how secure are His promises to me or to us? And no, I do not see the church as replacing Israel or the Jews in the providences of God.
That brings me to my next point, for in writing to the Christians in Rome, St Paul has a lot to say about his own people. This was at a time long before the church started persecuting them and it was Jews in the Roman empire who were more likely to feel threatened by the action of the early church in claiming to be a Jewish offshoot, and so claiming its own protection under the empire. It was Jews in the Roman empire who were more likely to resist the church and if need be complain to the empire about it.
Chapters 9-11 of Romans address the Jewish situation, and I recommend that these chapters be read as a whole. Here Paul points out that he grieves for his people (9:1-5) to whom were committed the covenants, the law, the service of God and the promises. God is sovereign in making His choices and is answerable to none, (9:6-29). Israel needs the gospel message as much as anyone else, and has stumbled in not receiving it, but not fallen headlong: ‘Has God cast away His people? Certainly not!’ (11:1) ‘Have they stumbled that they may fall? Certainly not! … Now if their fall is riches for the world and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness!’ (11:11-12) ‘For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?’ (11:15). In short God has by no stretch of the imagination finished with His people. Rather it is incumbent on the church to maintain some humility, for if Israel is the natural vine and the church are wild branches grafted it, then it is supported by the stem of the natural vine and not the other way around. Indeed, if God was willing to punish those of the natural stem and branches then why should He not discipline the wild branches that have been grafted in? (11: 16-25).
So yes, Israel has a definite place in the economy and providences of God, and is not replaced by the church, certainly not by the church as an institution. The gospel message of grace remains for all, but it is a message from God and in Jesus Christ. It is proclaimed by the church – but not initiated or conceived, let alone manipulated by it. It belongs to God but it is historically enabled and underpinned by Israel. And so I rejoice in the endurance of the Jewish People and the State of Israel.