Prophecies, Perils, and Promises

(Maps of the Conflict, in the Landscape)

"Thus said God the Eternal One: When I have gathered the House of Israel from the peoples among which they have been dispersed, and have shown myself holy through them in the sight of the nations, they shall settle on their own soil, which I gave to my servant Jacob, and they shall dwell on it in security. They shall build houses and plant vineyards, and shall dwell on it in security, when I have meted out punishment to all those about them who despise them. And they shall know that I the Eternal One am their God." (Ezekiel 28:25-26)

The prophet Ezekiel spoke those words in the Divine name in the sixth century before the Common Era, when the land of Israel had been conquered and many of its people carried away into captivity by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia.

The prophecy echoed a more storied, ancient promise, repeated by God to Moses at the burning bush, on the outskirts of Egypt, as we also read this week:

"I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Eternal One, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for possession." (Exodus 6:6-8)

Year by year, we repeat the promise at our Passover tables, reliving the account of how the assurance was fulfilled in the days of Moses and of Joshua, in the exodus from Egypt and the long Israelite journey to the Promised Land.

In a time not long after Ezekiel, in the 5th century BCE, when the empire of Babylonia was superseded by that of Persia, the promise was seen to be fulfilled anew - as Jews were allowed to return to the erstwhile kingdom of Judah to rebuild a Temple in Jerusalem and a semi-autonomous province, Yehud, within the new Achaemenid Persian order of the region.

In our own times, too - after still other tribulations and wanderings, from the Roman conquest of Judea and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, through the violent persecutions of Jewish diasporic communities, culminating in the Holocaust of the mid-20th century - fulfillment of the ancient promise is perceived again in the creation of the modern State of Israel, its independence declared in 1948 following a United Nations resolution.

This week, various online outlets keen for Israel's security warn that rage against the new Trump administration is being exploited by groups whose aim is to further an anti-Israel agenda.

That is no doubt true with regard to some quarters and actions. It does not, however, answer the separate question of whether a new United States President, who appoints an Ambassador to Israel said to dismiss a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, will be good for the security of Israel.

I believe deeply in Israel. In spite of much there in the present political moment that disappoints me, Israel is indelibly in my blood and in my soul. And if I am disappointed with Israeli politics, I do not fall into the all-too-common Jewish proclivity for seeing everything as our own fault so as to believe that we alone can solve it.

We can't solve it alone - peace is made with neighbors. And I say that, in turn, without drawing moral equivalence between the sides in this long conflict. Historically, Israel responded to the United Nations resolution recommending partition of the British Mandate into Arab and Jewish states by building its country; its neighbors responded by committing themselves for decades to the demise of Israel - and, far and wide, some still seek that end.

Yes, there were displacements in Israel's war of independence in 1948 - and, without excusing misdeeds that also occurred, the territorial inclusions must be seen in view of the fact that defeat would have meant the end of Israel and another exile if not another Holocaust. By contrast, failing to end the Jewish state did not spell the demise of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, the countries that waged war on nascent Israel, along with volunteers from Yemen, Pakistan, and the Sudan. Israel's establishing a defensible land also did not mean the end of possibility for a Palestinian state alongside it - although an independent Palestine was not formed in the years from 1948 to 1967, when Jordan annexed the West Bank and called Jerusalem its own "alternative capital."

Like many, I have seen friends perish in this conflict. And since for me that happened principally in the time directly after the assassination by a Jewish Israeli extremist of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, of blessed memory, when terrorist attacks by extremist Palestinians ensured that a successor committed to the path of peace would not succeed, I cannot help but see totalizing factions as locked in a dance of death with one another.

Israel will not vanish, heaven willing; but neither will the Palestinians somehow go away. Annexation of the West Bank would mean the end of either Jewish or of democratic Israel. As to settlements, post 1967, we should not take a position similar to the one heard frequently from Israel's bitterest opponents, drawing no distinction between hilltop outposts far within occupied territory, on the one hand, and what they maliciously call the "settlement" of Tel Aviv. Former U.S. Ambassador Dennis Ross is right in what he has said here at Harvard and elsewhere: Israeli construction policy should draw clear and sensible borders and boundaries for the sovereign and fully democratic state of Israel, leaving clear room for a neighboring and viable Palestinian state.

That is the moral high road. To it, I believe, applies a prophecy like Ezekiel's: "On that day I will endow the House of Israel with strength, and you shall be vindicated among them, and they shall know that I am the Eternal One." (Ezekiel 29:21) It remains to be seen what the Trump administration seeks.