Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for April 2019

It is a week since the terrible bombings of hotels and churches in Sri Lanka and the ensuing heavy loss of life. The economy, too, will take a long time to recover, dependent as it is on tourism and foreign investments.

Questions of motivation in suicide attacks like this always defy rational explanation. And speculation has been suppressed by a blackout of all social media in the country.

Such a blackout was sensible in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy as a measure to prevent anti-Muslim violence which has been a feature of Sri Lankan society in recent years (see my Blog post of 17 March 2018- ‘“Religious Violence” Sri Lanka-Style’- and the warnings I issued to the authorities in a newspaper article).

But the longer it continues, along with the sweeping emergency powers under which any criticism in print publications of the government and security forces is forbidden, the greater the danger to the political health of the nation. We fear a return to the dark days of authoritarian rule and the suppression of valid criticism. And, given an understandable zeal to redeem themselves, the security forces (now armed with powers to detain suspects without following due process) are likely to over-reach.

So the less I say the better.

As Israelis go to the polls, the world needs to remember that Israel is not a democracy by any modern understanding of that term. It officially declares itself to be a “Jews-only” state. Arab Israelis are second-class citizens; and as for the indigenous Palestinians, they are a beleaguered and oppressed population in their own land.

So Israel is no more a democracy than South Africa was under apartheid.

Theodore Herzl, the Austrian journalist often credited with the label “founder of the Zionist movement”, was rightly concerned that assimilation and sporadic persecution were destroying Jewish culture in Europe. The Jews need a “home” where they could preserve their traditional way of life. Herzl was not thinking of Palestine as the Jewish “home”- for Judaism had for the past two millennia reconfigured itself around the study of the Torah rather than the Land and Temple. He initially toyed with the idea of Uganda as a safe haven.

It was “dispensationalist” Christians in the US and UK following the teachings of John Nelson Darby, Henry Irving, the Moody Bible Institute- and later- the Texan Cyrus Scofield’s commentary on the Bible, who influenced the Zionist movement and the British colonial authorities to settle the Jews in Palestine. Wrenching Old Testament texts out of their historical contexts, they taught that the return of Jews to Palestine was foretold in biblical prophecy and would usher in the parousia, or “return” of Christ.

The creation of a Jewish state in 1948 witnessed what today would be called “ethnic cleansing”: from December 1947 till the early 1950s, a well-organized military campaign by the Jewish minority (numbering 660,000 out of a population of two million) destroyed five hundred Palestinian villages and eleven urban neighbourhoods, expelled seven hundred thousand people and massacred those who refused to give up their homes. Those expelled became permanent refugees, unable to return to their ancestral lands. But Jews anywhere in the world who have no Semitic ancestry and no ancient claim on the land are able to migrate to Israel and are granted automatic citizenship. (See Ghada Karmi and Eugene Cortran, eds., The Palestinian Exodus, 1948-1988)

This is what Palestinians remember as Nakbah– catastrophe. And if all moral persons should be horrified by attempts at Holocaust-denial, should we not also be horrified by Nakbah-denial by the Israel state and pro-Israeli academics and church pastors?

Israel continues to flout international laws with impunity (for instance, erecting permanent structures on lands seized by invasion). It does so because it enjoys the diplomatic and military protection of the United States.

The military occupation of Palestine encroaches on every area of peoples lives: restrictions on travel, high youth unemployment, poor healthcare and educational facilities, forcible annexation of houses and land.

More Jews live outside Israel than within it, and many are outspoken critics of the Zionist project. There are also courageous rabbis and human rights activists within Israel who are opposed to the abuses heaped on the Palestinian people by the Israeli army and right-wing Jewish colonists. So to be anti-Zionist is not to be anti-Jewish.

There is a single ray of light in the tragic history of Anglo-American Christian involvement in the affairs of Palestine. Henry King was the President of Oberlin college, a Christian liberal arts school in Ohio which was the first college in the US to admit women and also played a leading role in the abolitionist movement. King was a personal friend of President Woodrow Wilson. After the First World War he served with the YMCA in Paris. At the Versailles Peace conference in 1919, Wilson asked King to head a commission of enquiry to ascertain the aspirations of the indigenous Arabs in Palestine. Wilson knew that the British and French were eager to seize hold of the remnants of the Ottoman empire. In the Wilsonian vision of breaking up empires, the Arabs, too, were entitled to liberation and the independence denied them by four centuries of imperial rule under the Turks.

What became the King-Crane commission discovered that the majority of Palestinians were fearful of a Zionist presence and a British or French mandate. They wanted either independence or to be part of a Greater-Syrian Arab state. The King-Crane report troubled the governments in London and Paris. The report was shelved when Wilson became seriously ill and collapsed later that year. With it died the liberal vision of national self-determination.

This was the first and last time that any attempt was made, as one historian puts it, “to build a new Middle East according to the aspirations of the local population rather than those of Washington and its allies.”

I tell my British and American Christian friends that they can never be part of the solution to the Palestinian crisis until they recognize that they have been a huge part of the problem. And fundamentalist Christian preachers in the so-called American Bible Belt continue to be the problem as they refuse to accept any other reading of “biblical prophecy”, and spread misleading Zionist historiography around the world through the Internet and TV channels. There are many churches in Asia and Africa that have imbibed such views without ever examining Scripture as to what is being said is actually there (for example there is not a single reference to the land in the entire New Testament).

Ignorance of history has to be countered with historical facts. Bad theology has to be challenged with good theology. The Christian theologians of Palestine have come up with a Kairos theological statement similar to the seminal Kairos document of South Africa in 1985 that countered Afrikaaner state theology and mobilized the Church against apartheid. I commend it to you:



April 2019