Seventy years ago today, the British Mandate over Palestine ended and the state of Israel was declared. Christadelphians were delighted, seeing in this the fulfilment of promises made thousands of years ago that one day Israel would return from exile. It was expected that Jesus would soon return, an expectation that was heightened 19 years later by Israel’s victory in the Six Day War.
However, while much has changed about Israel since then, there has been no return of Jesus and no establishment of world government from Jerusalem with compulsory religious teaching. While Israel has religious elements, it is a secular state which has made major contributions to the technology of the world. And one of the consequences of that new technological world is that many former believers, including me, have found it easier to discover the problems with our religion.
Last year I wrote about the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War and the hundredth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, so I’ll try to avoid rehashing too much of those posts. Hopefully this will be the last anniversary I have to write about for a while.
Interestingly, it turns out that I’m late to the party, since Israel celebrated the anniversary on 20 April. Why? In the Jewish calendar the original declaration occurred on 5 Iyyar, and this year 5 Iyyar fell on 20 April. What can I say? Christadelphianism is a Western religion, not a Jewish religion, so they (and I) will naturally focus on anniversaries in the Gregorian Calendar. Better late than never.
As I wrote last year, the most common question I’ve been asked by Christadelphians since I quit has been “How do you explain the return of Israel?” Israel certainly had been an important part of my upbringing: Even though we weren’t as heavily into prophecy as some, Israel was a special nation because they were God’s chosen people and because they had returned to their land.
The most common prophecy we looked at was the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37, typically interpreted to show Israel’s return as a secular state before Christ’s return. However, I no longer think that this or similar prophecies apply to our time.
Ezekiel (and other similar prophecies) were written around 2,500 years ago, at a time when the nation of Israel was first in exile. Why would we think that it applies now when it had a much more immediately relevant application back then? These scriptures did encourage Zionists to try to return to their land, but I don’t think they predicted that return.
Elpis Israel (“the hope of Israel”) was published in 1849 by John Thomas, the Christadelphian founder. It is considered a foundational work by most of the conservative side of the religion, and is rarely read on the more liberal side (I personally have never read it).
However, one of the most commonly quoted sections predicts the return of Israel under British protection. It is clear that it has been a fundamental belief of the denomination long before the establishment of the state of Israel seemed likely (though I still think it’s a bad interpretation of the relevant prophecies).
Consider this quote, for example:
I know not whether the men, who at present contrive the foreign policy of Britain, entertain the idea of assuming the sovereignty of the Holy Land, and of promoting its colonization by the Jews; their present intentions, however, are of no importance one way or the other; because they will be compelled, by events soon to happen, to do what, under existing circumstances, heaven and earth combined could not move them to attempt.
This quotation does indeed have some similarity to what happened under the British Mandate, though I’m sure John Thomas expected it to be earlier than the 1920s, and of course Jewish colonization was commenced under the Ottoman Empire long before the British got involved.
But other sections are less fortunate:
The pre-adventual colonization of Palestine will be on purely political principles; and the Jewish colonists will return in unbelief of the Messiaship of Jesus, and of the truth as it is in him. They will emigrate thither as agriculturists and traders, in the hope of ultimately establishing their commonwealth, but more immediately of getting rich in silver and gold by commerce with India, and in cattle and goods by their industry at home under the efficient protection of the British power. And this their expectation will not be deceived; for, before Gogue invades their country, it is described by the prophet, as “a land of unwalled villages, whose inhabitants are at rest, and dwell safely, all of them dwelling without walls, and having neither bars nor gates; and possessed of silver and gold, cattle and goods, dwelling in the midst of the land” (Ezek. 38:11,12,13).
Surprising as it may have seemed to John Thomas, the British Raj was finished before the establishment of the state of Israel, and in fact the nation was only established when the British withdrew and left them to their fate. After some years it was the US who stepped up as Israel’s patron and protector on the international stage.
Finally, right now Israel’s “land of unwalled villages” contain major walls around the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. It is possible that this promised time of peace will come later, but nothing in the current climate suggests future peace. And both John Thomas and Ezekiel were too busy talking about silver, gold, cattle and goods to mention the importance of silicon or of the Mediterranean gas deposits that some now predict will lure Gog down from Russia.
Though it had been debated since the Balfour Declaration and the commencement of the Mandate, the state of Israel was largely formed in the backdrop of the Holocaust. This has led some Christadelphians to conjecture that Hitler and the Holocaust were part of God’s divine plan, or at least that they were used by him. For example, from an article in The Lampstand:
On this occasion the angels did not see fit to make a way of escape, perhaps because the wider scale of God’s prophetic plan required the horror of the Holocaust as a trigger to secure the establishment of an independent Jewish state after World War Two.
This is sometimes suggested to have been a fulfilment of Jeremiah’s “hunters and fishers” prophecy:
Behold, I am sending for many fishers, declares the Lord, and they shall catch them. And afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks.Jeremiah 16:16 (ESV)
Understandably, I think, I now find this interpretation troubling because of what it tells us about the Christadelphians’ “good God”, but I did accept it for many years. I now think it is clear that, in the context, Jeremiah is talking about punishment in the first exile for sins committed during the Monarchy period. While the Holocaust definitely played its part in the establishment of Israel, it is difficult for me to see this as a fulfilment of prophecy.
A secular state
While Christadelphians view the return of Israel as divine intervention, the early settlers would probably disagree. They didn’t just sit round waiting for God to save them - they chose to try and build a new life in their holy land. It was human ingenuity that made the deserts bloom, a promise that Christadelphians typically consider reserved for the future kingdom. And when war broke out at the end of the Mandate, it was Israeli soldiers and Israeli weapons that defended and expanded the state.
Though there was some debate over how much religious content should be included in the Proclamation of Independence, in the end very little was included. Consider these sections:
This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.
The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
Christadelphians would probably condemn this attitude as a rejection of God’s hand clearly working in the nation. While there is in practice some preferential treatment for Judaism, this sounds much more like the declaration of a secular state open to people from all backgrounds and religions. Even the reference back to the prophets was to establish the importance of social justice, not of a particular religion.
Similarly, I noticed that in his 70th anniversary video Prime Minister Netanyahu talked of:
Men and women from every walk of life— young and old, Jew, Christian, Muslim, religious and secular— Men and women that have worked hard to build our nation.
It seems difficult to tie down what proportion of Israel’s Jews are secular today: Percentages given in different places vary wildly, and partly because many retain some of the Jewish traditions and culture while not identifying as strongly religious. However, most recent governments have needed to form coalitions with strongly religious parties, and that has had an impact.
Finally, Israel is also generally considered the only consistently functioning democracy in the Middle East, which has sometimes been used to justify Western support of Israel.
Christadelphians, politics, and Israel
Officially, Christadelphians do not take sides in matters of politics, and that includes with Israel. For example, I saw the following note on a Christadelphian site in Melbourne: “Christadelphians have no political affiliation with Israel or the USA or any other country”.
However, in practice I think it is quite clear that they view Israel as the chosen people, and support them in any claim on the land. Coverage of the Israel-Palestine question would almost always be pro-Israel, with the assumption that liberals and/or the media were biased against Israel and in favour of Palestine. In fact, in spite of knowing that my upbringing was completely one-sided, I still find it difficult to read or accept criticisms of Israel today.
They would explicitly support Israel’s claim to territory captured in the Six Day War - a claim that is rejected by much of the world. And any attempt to pursue a two state solution would be viewed Biblically as “dividing God’s land” and a possible trigger for Christ’s return.
One of the most interesting parts of this is that not only are Christadelphians essentially supporting a secular democracy, they are also supporting a state with compulsory military service for Jews. For a denomination supporting conscientious objection, that’s a big step (though, to be fair, Israel does exempt many from military service for religious reasons).
It is an interesting question, though: If hypothetically Western Christadelphians were citizens of Israel and in the draft, would they be able to justify enlisting? After all, they do insist that they are not pacifists - they just refuse to fight without an order from God. Could this count?
A two state solution?
The idea of a two state solution has been talked about for years, but it has been difficult getting progress on it. Under Barack Obama the US had seemed to be moving away from support of Israel (leading many Christadelphians to expect Russia and/or the UN to swoop in). But under Donald Trump the US has swung back to supporting Israel, including moving their embassy to Jerusalem (the new embassy has been dedicated today).
Jerusalem has always been a sticking point in negotiations, since both sides want it as their capital, and the moving of the US embassy has been widely considered a strike against any two state solution. Similarly, Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank, much of it religiously motivated, would make it more difficult to reach any eventual two state solution.
Is Israel innocent?
As I’ve already stated, I find it difficult criticising Israel, but it should hardly be news that I think the pro-Israel view I was fed was biased. However, while I know all the talk about Palestinian terror attacks, firing rockets, etc., I also know that Israel is the side of the relationship that holds the power. It isn’t a surprise to me that those with power will commit atrocities - sometimes individual soldiers, and sometimes at the command level.
Don’t get me wrong: I haven’t cast Israel as the villain just because I quit Christianity. I doubt either side can claim to be unqualified heroes or unqualified villains, but the current power dynamic certainly favours Israel as the villain. But I know there are people from both sides living close to each other who are very scared, and it is much easier to judge them from a comfortable home in Australia than to imagine what I would do if I were living in Israel, the West Bank, or the Gaza Strip.
While I’m not expert, I think this recent article shows some of the problems with Israel’s policy on Gaza: problems that Christadelphians may be unaware of. I find it a very troubling read, both because the actions highlighted feel wrong and because of the risk of strong security measures helping to radicalise the area and continue the cycle of violence.
A Hebrew-Arabic interlude: Compassion
Yesterday, I attended a concert at Monash University which included Westlake & Lior’s Compassion. It is a song cycle which includes Arabic and Hebrew texts on compassion, drawn from the Tanach, the Mishnah, and the Hadith.
Trust me, it’s an awesome collection of songs, particularly when performed live with full orchestra.
Lior actually grew up in Israel before moving to Australia, and discussed some of his experiences here. He talks of the seed of the project coming from the Hebrew hymn Avinu Malkeinu (here): attaining a greater sense of freedom through being a more compassionate person.
Last year the songs launched me onto a discussion of whether compassion was the true essence of the sacred texts (spoiler: no, I don’t think so). Some have suggested the song cycle could help heal the divide, and, honestly, it would be great if Israelis and Palestinians could come together and be friends. However, I don’t think it’s a realistic hope. In fact, arguably religious claims over the land have helped increase the divide rather than helping to bridge it.
Whose land is it really?
Country borders are a human construct, and I don’t think that the pre-1967 borders are somehow inviolate. But right of conquest is not as popular as it used to be, so I’m not sure Israel will gain anything by defying the international community. And, again, I can’t make a serious judgement as I’m not at all expert.
What I can say with confidence is that a holy book alleging the land was promised to Israel by God does not make their claims valid. They do not have God on their side. Period. There is no good reason to expect a future judgement where God reproves the nations for dividing Israel’s land and welcomes Christadelphians as the new ruling class.
It is sad that there are people dying on both sides as a result of these competing religious claims. Yes, I know the debate is not just about religion - but it sure doesn’t help…
Next year in Jerusalem?
Some Christadelphians make pilgrimages to the Holy Land. When I was a believer, I said “I don’t need to visit it now. I’ll see it properly restored in the kingdom.” And since we always thought the return of Jesus was just round the corner, it really would have been “next year in Jerusalem”.
I have no expectation of visiting Jerusalem in a future age for reward or judgement. And I no longer have a need to go there on a religious pilgrimage. However, what this means is that I might be more interested visiting Israel now than I was then. Because of its many religious and cultural connections it could be a fascinating place. However, it wouldn’t be the Holy Land to me. I would be viewing the country in the same way as I viewed Hadrian’s Wall, the Reichenbach Falls, Sarehole Mill, or the Monument: a historic place containing settings for stories that I know well.
This is part of what I think some Christadelphians miss: By focusing on the literal interpretation of the Bible and trying to find fulfilled prophecy, they miss all the interesting stuff on the edges that doesn’t fit their mold. Israel is a fascinating story of a nation who took their future into their own hands rather than waiting for their too-often absent God. And it shouldn’t need us to understand the mighty plan of God at work to appreciate this.