Biblical Scholarship and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

By Julia M. O’Brien
Lancaster Theological Seminary, Lancaster, PA
January 2010

What role do--and should--biblical scholars play in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

That’s one of the questions I face after returning from 17 days traveling in the West Bank and Israel. I was co-leading a group of 21 theological students from my institution on a required international cross-cultural experience of Christianity in a minority or otherwise tenuous situation.

I had not visited the area since 1999 and was shocked by the deterioration of the situation. This was my first experience of the “separation wall” and “warrior fences,” and while I had visited Israeli settlements in the West Bank before I had never seen so many or witnessed so much active construction. Jerusalem stretched much further into Bethlehem than during my last visit; I remembered Tantur Ecumenical Institute as right beside a checkpoint between the two cities, but now Jerusalem stretches beyond Tantur to a new checkpoint and “terminal” which provide Palestinians the only access between the wall surrounding Bethlehem. In East Jerusalem, I saw a new settlement on the Mt. of Olives and another near the American Colony Hotel. While 11 years ago Hebron was a city on edge, I was unprepared for the current level of hostility between Israelis and Palestinians and to hear that Shuhada Street had been declared “sterile” of Palestinians. During previous trips Palestinians were curious about life in the U.S. but now most have at least one family member living in Michigan or Florida or Virginia: rampant unemployment and daily humiliations at the checkpoints have dramatically increased the rate of emigration.

Of course, this situation is a political one and requires a political solution. The legitimacy of settlements in the West Bank, water rights for all people, a viable Palestinian state, the right of return, the Jewishness of Israel, the status of Jerusalem—these matters and others must be hammered out through political processes. But, as long as Jewish-only claims to the land are justified by an appeal to the covenant with Abraham, it is also a matter of biblical interpretation and thus one in which biblical scholars play a role—intentionally or not.

I find it a painful irony that the important gains of post-Holocaust biblical interpretation have made this issue harder for Christians to discuss. While anti-Judaism by no means has been eradicated, there was a significant shift in Christian discourse about Jews in the late twentieth century. In many theological schools, professors took on the explicit task of combating Christian supersessionism, and “Old Testament” became “Hebrew Bible” to avoid the suggestion that the first testament is outdated. In my own two-semester Introduction to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, one of the stated learning goals is for students to grow in their appreciation of Judaism and Jewish interpretation of the Bible. Each year, more students come to class already assuming that “Jesus was a Jew,” an affirmation not shared by my grandparents’ generation.

Combating anti-Judaism is necessary, important, and will continue to be part of my mission as a teacher. And yet, this trip has further convinced me that it is also my mission as a theological educator to challenge an uncritical identification of biblical Israel with the policies of the modern Israeli state. The current situation is the product of empires and post-colonial responses to empire, not simply a divinely-decreed continuation of the conflict between Ishmael and Isaac. Just as my teaching underscores the difference between ancient and modern constructions of gender, sexuality, and economic justice, it also needs to establish a critical distance between past and present in terms of just distribution of land. And just as I point out the diversity of voices within the biblical text itself on matters of ritual, the purposes of partnership, and the will of God, I also need to draw greater attention to its diverse perspectives on the importance of land and of community homogeneity.

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