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Today, May 15, is known as The Nakba, the day 900,000 Palestinians became refugees when the state of Israel was formed in 1948.

Today I am thinking about how both Israel and the United States often identity as a chosen people (“City on a Hill”), and as we’ve watched the swift backlash to recent student protests, I think something deeper is revealed in the anger toward protesters, deeper even than the money that seems to be motivating the decisions of university leadership.

To question the actions of one chosen people is to question the actions of the other. To hold a mirror up to the ways in which the State of Israel has treated its neighbor is to hold a mirror up to the ways in which we have treated ours.

On March 3, 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood in front of a joint session of the U.S. Congress, and he was tasked with crafting a speech that would unify Democrats and Republicans around the defense of the State of Israel. In order to to do this, Netanyahu appealed to our “promised lands,” declaring to thunderous bipartisan ovations:

I know that no matter on what side of the aisle you sit, you stand with Israel. The remarkable alliance between Israel and the United States has always been above politics. It must always remain above politics: America and Israel, we share a common destiny. The destiny of promised lands that cherish freedom and offer hope.

(C-Span, timestamp 24:57)

Netanyahu knew that an appeal to a common identity as ‘inheritors of promised lands’ would be the ticket to success, and thunderous bi-partisan ovations affirmed that. He appealed to America’s identity as a ‘Chosen People,’ chosen to inherit a promised land, a concept known by many names over the years: American exceptionalism, “America First,” or more colloquially: “I just can’t believe that [insert complaint] is happening here! It’s like a third-world country!”

To form an alliance around “promised lands” is a strange and questionable assertion, even from a religious perspective. I don’t believe most Zionists would readily declare that European gentiles conquering indigenous land were inheriting a Promised one. Moreover, most theological traditions of Christianity see themselves as inheritors of salvation because they believe God’s promise is not tied only to the land of Israel, but rather see in scripture a widening of God’s promises to a new Jerusalem where all would dwell together in peace: both Israel and its historical enemies—Egypt, Assyria, and even Babylon. The sacred texts of both our traditions also repeat over and over the dangers of forming military alliances with powerful foreign nations.

Tim Mackie, of the Bible Project, lays out the fundamental message of the Biblical prophets, and it’s eerie to see how far our two nations have come from the scriptures many claim. Tim summarizes the core words of the Prophets: “[First,] I’m Yahweh: I’m the one who rescued you from Egyptian slavery, so don’t follow any other god. [Second], you were poor, mistreated immigrants, so don’t ever treat immigrants and the poor like that here in Israel. And third, I rescued you from the military machine of an ancient empire, so don’t you dare become one of those.”

Israel and the United States do seem to share a common destiny of perception: we both believe we are chosen inheritors of a promised land, and we do not wish to see this belief prodded. I wonder if this may be a root to the outsized media coverage of student protests: student voices have for decades called our attention to those suffering now, exposing our incomplete origin stories that cause the grief and suffering which neither of our nations have fully named or lamented.

I am not just speaking of those in our country who have direct ties to our history. The privileged haven of ‘Chosen Promised Land’ has been gradually extended to many groups: straight men of most races, first, then to almost anyone with enough money, and to particular cultures associated with money, and to cultural minorities who effectively harness the language of “America’s Chosen identity” in order to fight for their own. Even the civil rights movement is littered with claims to America’s exceptionalism. Many civil rights activists harnessed the rhetorical power for America to live up to the freedom written into its founding documents, though our Declaration of Independence names Native Americans as “Merciless Indian Savages.”

A solution is hard to reach, and the Jewish people have suffered and continue to suffer greatly with anti-semitism on the rise. But my sense is that we need a greater humility and deeper awareness about what our nations have done and are currently doing in the name of freedom and promise. True healing and real peace can’t begin until we acknowledge the weight of our history and those we have destroyed and displaced. Put another way: if we are to, as Netanyahu claims, ‘cherish freedom and offer hope,’ we must tell our story to include those to whom freedom and hope are still being denied.

* * * * * *

The Mennonite Central Committee, an organization that has been on the right side of history more times than I can count, has marked the Nakba with valuable truth-telling and action steps for us to practice today.

Nathan Groenewold

Nathan Groenewold is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church and founding director of Cohort Detroit, a ministry which aims to raise up a new generation of young leaders who love God deeply, work for justice, and humbly serve marginalized Detroit communities. He fills the cracks in his summers with disc golf and gardening. 

4 Comments

  • Stan VerHeul says:

    Nathan, I do not know you…but I am so thankful to hear a voice daring to expose the very heart of Gospel. (Judy and I began our work in Detroit in 1968, and retired from decades of trauma work, ministry and community organizing in South Central LA). We participate now with MEJP. The children must know we did not keep silence!

  • Ruth Boven says:

    Thank you, Nathan.

  • Kirk Vanhouten says:

    Israel and the United States, as imperfect as they may be, are representative democracies that recognize freedom of speech, property rights and the rule of law. Many nations in the word, especially in the Middle East, do not.

  • Tom says:

    It might be helpful to remember, though, that the Palestinian people, partly because they were eager to be free of British rule (understandable), but also because trey found a shared value in their opinion of the Jews, we’re eager supporters and collaborators with Adolph Hitler, quite certain that the Nazis would be victorious and help them in their twin goals: their own nation and wiping out the Jews.

    It’s not clear to me that their goals are much different 75 years later.

    A thought experiment. Imagine that one side of this conflict woke up one day, tired of the conflict, laid down their arms and said “we’re done, no more fighting”, and let the chips fall where they may fall.

    If the Palestinians did that, I expect that peace would slowly ensue. I think we all know what would happen if Israel did it.

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