If you follow the news, one of the topics that has come up quite a bit recently has been (among other things) the state of Israel. Israel, as well as its conflict with its Muslim neighbors, has been a major point of concern in America for decades, but in the last few years there seems to be a growing intensity on the subject. While certainly not the most controversial issue in American politics, interest in Israel runs quite deep in some circles in America and it’s not hard to find people with strong opinions on Israel and the conflict in the Middle East. (After all, we all want peace in the Middle East, right?)
However, despite the prominent role Israel and the Middle East play in US international policy discussions, few people actually know the origins of the tensions in this region and why Israel has such a hostile relationship with its neighbors. So today, I’d like to talk a little bit about how these hostilities in the Middle East came about and shed some light on why clear solutions remain so elusive.
If we are going to get to the heart of this matter we need to go back in history, way back, to biblical times. As many of you know the Bible tells the story of how the forefathers of the Jewish people, the Hebrews, came to settle in what was their ‘Promised Land’ or as it was called at the time, the land of Canaan.
This area along the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean is essentially where modern day Israel resides today and includes what would become the capital of the Hebrew people, the city of Jerusalem. So, from a Biblical perspective the idea of modern day Israel existing where it does makes perfect sense, as that is where the Jewish people trace their origins. But things are not so simple. As the Bible also tells, the Hebrew people often were subject to invasion and domination throughout their history, and in 63 BCE Israel once again fell victim to outside forces when Rome made it a part of its empire. The Hebrew people, however, were not particularly keen about this arrangement and resentment and rebellion boiled beneath the surface throughout the Roman occupation.
The Romans, for their part, were well aware of the region’s rebellious tone and kept a close hold on the politics there stamping out anything they saw as a threat to their control. Most famously, around 33 CE the Romans crucified a man they considered a radical preacher, a fellow by the name of Jesus, as they feared his teachings might stir up trouble in what was already an unruly area. Yet, despite Rome’s best efforts rebellion did come to Israel in 70 CE with a fairly significant portion of the Jewish people in the land taking up arms against Rome. Rome would prove too powerful though, and by 73 CE had essentially crushed the Jewish rebellion. But even more so, the Romans had grown tired of the rebellious Jews in this area and decided they wanted no more of it.
In the fallout of the failed rebellion, the Romans destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem (the center of Jewish religious life) and began displacing the Hebrew people from their homes and sending them all across the Roman Empire (completing what is known as the Jewish Diaspora). By the time the Romans were finished, few Jews remained in their homeland and the kingdom of Israel no longer existed.
The Jewish people did live on, though, scattered in small clusters across the Mediterranean, particularly in Europe. Banding together into tight-knit communities, they did their best to preserve their customs and religious traditions and managed to maintain a degree of autonomy in culture and identity. But it was not an easy road for the Jewish peoples over the millennia. Through the middle ages, through the early modern period, and even into modern times, Jewish groups were singled out for persecution for one reason or another, and even in good times faced some degree of antisemitism from their neighbors across Europe. All the while, many in these Jewish communities dreamed of a day that they would return the land that had been promised to their people in the Bible and reestablish their own kingdom once more.
By the 19th century this desire for a land of their own became much more prominent among many influential Jews. Mixed with notions of nationalism developing in Europe, desire for a Jewish homeland fomented into a movement known as “Zionism.” Basically, this movement stated that because of the poor treatment of Jews and general anti-semitism that was widespread in Europe during the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews needed their own homeland/country (i.e. their own Zion). Several ideas emerged as to where this new Jewish state could be formed, but the consensus among many Jews, especially the most conservative, was that it should be in the old Promised Land. However, this was not a realistic solution at the time seeing as this territory, now known as Palestine, was under the control of the Muslim Ottomans, and they were not receptive to allowing European Jews to migrate into their empire to create a Jewish state. Zionists remained committed to creating a Jewish state but without a clear idea of where or how they would do it.
All that changed after World War I. The Ottomans, having sided with the Axis powers, found themselves on the losing end of the conflict and much of their empire parceled up between the victorious Allies. In 1920, Palestine would come under the official control of Great Britain. The British had no qualms with allowing Jewish migrants into Palestine and even encouraged Jewish Zionists to move to and settle in the region. Over the next decade nearly 100,000 Jews would make the journey. In the process, these Jewish migrants would buy land, build homes, and set up their own communities in and around the already existing Palestinian (often Arab Muslim) inhabitants. At first, things were somewhat peaceful, but as time went on more and more Jewish settlers began to displace the Palestinians and tensions between the two groups began to flair. The British, however, had little interest in such issues and made little effort to try to avert the growing crisis, merely putting down the open conflicts that would emerge and letting animosity between the two groups continue to fester.
As tensions escalated in Palestine, conditions for Jews in Europe began to deteriorate as well. The rise of the Nazis as well as increasing anti-Jewish sentiments across Europe encouraged more and more Jews to flee and many set off for Palestine. World War 2 itself, however, would serve as the turning point. The horrors of the Holocaust convinced many a Jew and non-Jew alike that a Jewish state might be the only way to prevent such tragedy again and numerous individuals in positions of power became more sympathetic to the Zionist effort in Palestine. Additionally, despite British attempts to restrict Jewish immigration in the 1930s, by 1946 Jews accounted for more than 1/3 of the population in Palestine and pushed for greater control of the region.
As the conflicts continued to escalate between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine following WWII, the British, who were scaling back their colonial responsibilities in the post-war world anyway, decided they wanted no more part of Palestine and made plans to leave by 1948. As the British were preparing for their departure, the Jewish leadership worked to organize and gain international support for their cause and began to set the foundations for creating their own independent state. In the hours after the British withdrawal, the Jews in Palestine declared the founding of the state of Israel and sovereignty over large portions of Palestine. More importantly, the preparation efforts had ensured support of this move by many in the international community including the US which recognized this new Israeli state and gave legitimacy to its existence.
Needless to say, the Arab Palestinians, along with neighboring Arab countries who supported Arab sovereignty in Palestine, were horrified by this turn of events. Quickly, these neighboring countries invaded the newly formed Israel in an effort to counter what it considered an illegal political action. The Israelis, however, were ready and with arms they had been stockpiling were able to repulse the invaders and even expanded their control of the region. In the Armistice that followed in 1949 Israel gained sovereignty of the majority of the territory that had been Palestine with the exception of the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza Strip (which were all now under the control of neighboring countries). Many Palestinian Arabs found themselves effectively displaced and forced to either flee their homes or live under Israeli rule.
The mood remained extremely tense in the region and war once again broke out between Israel and its neighbors in 1968. The Israelis, however, were again prepared and defeated their invading neighbors in only six days. As a result of this conflict (known as the Six Day War) Israel expanded its territorial control taking the Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and the West Bank from Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan respectively. Making matters more complicated, many of the Arab Palestinians who had been displaced in 1949 had moved to these regions and now found themselves once again under the authority of Israel.
And so that essentially brings us to where we are now. Arab Palestinians have a deep animosity for the Israelis who they feel took their land from them and whose general control they have since had to live under. The neighboring Muslim countries feel a similar animosity toward Israel for what they see as the unlawful taking of land and rights from their Muslim, Arab brothers. And the Israelis face a chorus of hostile neighbors who have challenged their right to exist as a country since Israel’s re-inception, a country Jews feel owed to them based on religious teaching and the innumerable injustices they have endured over the course of history. It is an issue with a complex past and no easy solutions (and far more intricacies than I have provided here), but hopefully better understanding of these past events can lead to better solutions.