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Ask Dr. Cobb

July 2009 Question

President Obama has signaled his intention to make a serious effort to find a solution to the problem of Israel/Palestine. Can process theology throw any light on this?

Dr. Cobb's Response

            Obama has rightly judged that any significant progress toward world peace must include improvement in the situation in Israel/Palestine. He is a convinced Zionist, in the sense that he fully supports a Jewish state in the Holy Land. He rightly supposes that the attainment of a peaceful situation along with maintenance of a Jewish state is possible only with a two-state solution. These views obviously do not depend on a process perspective.
            I doubt that my viewing the world through process glasses leads to conclusions that are not shared by some other Christian theologians. However, some features present in Christian theology generally are likely to be more prominent in process perspective. Two seem important here. (1) Process theologians recognize that there is a great deal of coercion, often violent, in the world and that some of this is inescapable. But we emphasize that the most important form of power is empowering, liberating, and persuasive. (2) Process theologians emphasize that each decision that is made changes the nature of what is possible thereafter, so that goals that were once worthy of vigorous efforts may have to be given up and replaced by others.
            Like most American Christians, I enthusiastically supported the United Nations vision of two states in Palestine, one of which would be a homeland for Jews. The lack of a homeland and the refusal of the United States and most other countries to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany made the creation of such a state necessary. Obviously, since there were other people already living in Palestine, they must have an equal right to create their own state.
            Like most American Christians, and like most Jews as well, I underestimated the extent to which the land assigned to Jews was already well settled, mostly by Muslims and Christians. We underestimated the depth of resentment of these inhabitants at having their land turned over to rule by others. So we attributed evil motives to the sometimes violent opposition. We sympathized with the Jews as they took over the land assigned to them, and we admired their military prowess.
            We believed then, and for many years thereafter, that the two-state solution originally envisioned could work and bring peace to the land. We were distressed by the enormity of the obstacles that arose to its implementation, each obstacle making the eventual achievement of two states more difficult. But we kept hope alive, and this was re-inforced from time to time. Jimmy Carter negotiated peace between Israel and Egypt. Thoughtful representatives of Israel and Palestine met at Geneva and produced a set of accords on which they could both agree. And Israel dismantled its settlements in Gaza and withdrew its troops, apparently leaving the Gazans to govern themselves.
            It is my belief that at each of these moments the possibility of moving to a two-state solution was real. If Carter had been re-elected, real progress might well have followed on what he began at Camp David. If the United States government had thrown its considerable influence emphatically behind the Geneva Accords, an agreement along the lines there envisioned might have been possible. If Israel had played the role of generous neighbor in Gaza and also allowed it to make its own mistakes, a model for a two-state solution would have been provided.
            At a deeper level, we can ask, why has Israel not acted in such a way as to make the two-state solution possible? The answer is that Israelis are like everyone else. Their first priority is personal and national security. Further, the universal human concern for security has been heightened for them by the insecurity that characterized so much of Jewish life for so long in the Diaspora, and by the terrible climax in the Holocaust. It was heightened also by the animosity of the inhabitants of the land and their kinsmen in neighboring countries. Even if we take the whole land of Palestine, its size is not such as to provide buffer to external attack. The area assigned the Jews by the United Nations is still less defensible. The priority of concern for security was built into the situation.
            From a process perspective there are two ways in which security can be increased. One is the dissipation of the animosity that leads to violence. It has been rare in human history that nations have given priority to this approach, but it does sometimes play a role. American policy in the War on Terror, has done little along these lines. The same must be said of Israel throughout its history.
            The alternative is military strength and the use of force to crush resistance. Israel has used these methods brilliantly and with great success. In almost every military encounter, it has thoroughly defeated its foe. It has weapons of mass destruction that could inflict unimaginable damage. And it has responded to resistance by conquered people with overwhelming force. In this way it has made day-to-day life for Israelis, both within Israel and in their settlements in the occupied territories, remarkably secure.
            But these same methods have made the two-state solution virtually impossible. They have made the state of Israel disliked, resented, and even hated by the vast majority of those people living in Israel/Palestine who are not Jewish. It will be almost impossible for Israel to trust that none of the citizens of a new Palestinian state will take hostile actions if they have the freedom to do so.
            We may rejoice that Obama is prepared to expend much of his political capital on another serious attempt to bring about a two-state solution satisfactory to both sides. I hope he proves me wrong in my pessimistic expectations. But in order to create a viable state on the West Bank, Israel would have to reverse long-established policies, abandon a complex highway system, deconstruct a huge network of settlements, and tear down, or at least relocate, a wall that it has just recently built.
            Even more difficult would be to assure the Palestinians of the West Bank that treatment of their prospective new state would not be like that of Gaza. To avoid that fate, the new state would have to have control over its own borders so that it can trade with other countries without interference by Israel. It would have to be assured that Israel’s troops would not enter at will to punish whole communities for crimes by individuals against Jews. Since Israel will certainly not allow it the ability to defend itself militarily, its security would require international safeguards. Can a people, hypersensitive to their security and independence, make these concessions?
            If there cannot be two states, then there can only be one. That is, virtually, the situation at present. There is a temporarily secure and prosperous Jewish state and there is a large population of Palestinians living in abject and deepening poverty with no security at all. The more oppressed these people are, the greater the danger that some of them will express their anger violently against Israel when they can, and the more the oppression is intensified so as to deny them that opportunity.
            This is not a sustainable situation. The anti-Zionist feelings of those who were initially displaced or made second-class citizens by the establishment of the State of Israel are now shared by many who long supported the Zionist project. Human sympathy for the underdog is inevitably transferred from Israel to the Palestinians. Israel may be able to influence the policy of the United States for the indefinite future, but the American empire is already receding. Israel will need other friends.
            The only viable solution, it seems, will be a single, secular state in which Jews, Muslims, and Christians will all be citizens on an equal basis. The change will be difficult, and I, for one, am not happy that the dream of a Jewish state will end. However, it is important to expend energies toward genuinely possible solutions, even if, as of now, the government of Israel and its most faithful followers in this country condemn the proposal.
            Forming a single secular state will immediately reduce the hostility of the Muslim world. And the maintenance of law and order within such a state can provide security for its citizens without massive oppression. In a secular state, all the inhabitants can have basic rights and dignity. It is a worthy goal.

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