Photo illustration by John Lyman

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No State, Israel Included, Has a Divine Right

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo caused a stir on a podcast recently when he claimed Israel has a biblical claim to Palestine and a divine right to ownership. Pompeo argues, therefore, there is no “occupation” illegal or otherwise. For some Israelis, because of divine blessing, there is a longevity of ownership that is unmatched by any other group. This is a view shared by many conservative Americans, and tacitly – if not often openly – supported by some far-right Israeli politicians.

“[Israel] is not an occupying nation. This land, as an evangelical Christian, I am convinced from my reading of the Bible that 3,000 years onto now, in spite of the denial of so many, is the rightful homeland of the Jewish people,” Pompeo said.

The accounts in the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament lend less support to the claim of greatest longevity than is often assumed. Most biblical scholars agree that the Exodus from Egypt, if there was such an event (and there is no other record outside the Hebrew and biblical scriptures), took place in or around 1290 BC.

Leaving Egypt in 1290 didn’t mean the future Israelites reached their promised land immediately. They took 40 years wandering in the wilderness, partly because they were ambivalent about leaving Egypt, and partly because they had to agree or be given laws to unite them – the Ten Commandments being uppermost in the Torah and biblical accounts.

This means a settlement in Canaan gradually consolidated itself as Israel in a period that lasted only 1,250 years until the birth of Christ. Take away 70 years in Babylonian captivity, and the rebooting of Israelite nationalism under Ezra afterward. Add back in 70 years to account for the survival of the Jewish state until its destruction in 70 AD by the Romans, and then the dispersal of the Jewish peoples throughout the known world marking the beginning of the long era of the “wandering Jew.” Accounting for this history, there is a total period of Israelite national organisation of only 1,250 years.

It is a short time on which to hinge a claim that the land “has always been ours.” Other majority populations lived there from 70 AD until the formation of the modern Israeli state in 1948, 1,878 years later. And before the arrival of the Hebrews in 1250 BC, earlier inhabitants had established urban settlements, including a city of upwards of 3,000 inhabitants, the ruins of which were recently discovered by Israeli archaeologists.

That there were cities in Canaan before the invasion of the Hebrews is recounted in the Bible and Torah as the first conquest they had to make was to capture the walled city of Jericho. But, in terms of the contest of timelines, this means that organised urban populations of non-Jewish peoples have existed in the territory, without any Jewish national presence, for several more thousand years than all Jewish or Israeli states put together.

The claim of a modern nationalism established on ownership has therefore to have a range of foundations and rationales, not all of which can be anchored in biblical history.

The claim to a divine right is one which is convenient because it allows a refusal to enter complex debates about rights, sharing, accommodation, and above all, long-term peace and stability based on agreement and consent.

It allows refusal to grasp the hugely thorny issue of rights for all on an equal basis – Israelis and Palestinians. The question of inequality, inescapably and consistently raised in the struggle between the two groups, lends ammunition to those who characterise Israel as an apartheid state.

The far-right coalition that forms the basis of Netanyahu’s latest government has no interest in equal rights and both objects to a two-state solution or even a graduated timeline for equality in a single unitary state. What may emerge is a string of “free’ Palestinian cities where the inhabitants have municipal rights, cities without hinterlands as Jewish settlements dominate the majority areas of non-city space, and cities without connectivity’s in terms of guaranteed movement from city to city as all connecting space can be cut off by Israel.

In this sense, the apartheid analogy becomes even more pertinent as such cities become Bantustans in the old South African configurations of separate development, with domination if not control over one people’s development, and rights and capacities for intervention by the dominant side at any time.

None of the frankly awful views of the future are sustainable. People rise up, and there is never a guarantee of security and safety.

Israel’s Middle East diplomacy is working as numerous Arab states have “normalised” relations with Israel and lessened support for the Palestinians and their representative government, the Palestinian Authority – which consistently handicaps its claim to respect by maladministration, nepotism, and outright corruption. There is a feeling within Netanyahu’s government that Israel can “tough it out.” But with what end goal in mind?

In the midst of all these complex worldly problems which require both realpolitik and compassionate policies, arguments for Israeli settlement expansion based on divine right and flawed histories is not helpful. This part of the Middle East is a massive problem area that, in an alarming way, begs questions of the Christian compassion of Americans.

Pompeo isn’t helping at all.