SANA’A, YEMEN – I treat most things said here in Yemen about Jews with skepticism. The latest gem came from a Yemeni colleague ranting, in an unpublished column, about the so-called Jewish conspiracy. He cited the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, purportedly Jewish texts from the late 1800s, describing Jewish plans to enslave the world.
The Protocols were debunked as early as 1921 as anti-Semite fabrications plagiarized in Paris with help from Russia’s secret police. Of course, the truth didn’t stop fascists like Hitler from using them. And today they’re still dredged up. Egyptian TV promoted the Protocols as fact as late as 2003.
Nonetheless, living in this region does help one see the age-old, Arab-Jewish conflict through a different, dare I say more accurate, lens. I was first awakened to this after meeting a Palestinian, Ahmed, here in Sana’a. A gentle spirit, he’s a pharmacist, exiled in Jordan since 1973. When modern Israel was birthed in 1948, his family was forced from its home by the newcomers, in this case Jews from Iraq.
What if that happened to you? At gunpoint. No questions. Just pack your memories, and don’t come back. Modern Jews wanting a homeland recognized this dilemma as early as 1898, when two rabbis from Vienna went to Palestine on a fact-finding mission. Their message back? “The bride is beautiful, but she’s married to another man.” Still, an estimated 700,000 Palestinians, like Ahmed’s parents, eventually left their homes to make room for incoming Jews. How did this happen?
Before the Holocaust, and subsequent world sympathies for Jews, two forces were working against the Palestinians.
One was political. Through statements like the 1917 Balfour declaration, the British supported the dream of a Zionist homeland in Palestine because they wanted an ally protecting their empire’s trade routes through the Suez Canal, particularly to their jewel, India.
Meanwhile, one view of Judeo-Christian eschatology, called premillennial dispensationalism, was roaring to life via British theologians like John Darby. This interpretation of ancient Biblical prophecies linked the birth of modern Israel to the end times and the imminent second coming of Christ.
Interestingly, experts like Colin Chapman, author of Whose Promised Land?, say at the time there were actually more Christian Zionists than Jewish Zionists wanting a Jewish state.
Dispensationalism has since become hugely popular. I recall reading Hal Lindsey’s blockbuster The Late Great Planet Earth in the 1970s. He predicted Christ would return by 1988, what he considered one generation after modern Israel’s birth. More recently, dispensationalists Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have sold 50 million of their end-time Left Behind novels.
The problem, besides pernicious date-setting, is that dispensationalist theory is just that: theory.
It’s one interpretation of mysterious prophecies, and it may or may not be proven the best.
But by taking theory as fact, proponents (tens of millions of evangelicals, including powerful policy-makers in Washington) see Arab-Jewish issues through certain blinders. And one wonders, to fit their particular interpretation of our times, who else, besides Palestinians, would so many Christians deny basic human rights to, while ignoring things like international law?
Chapman, a Christian and former lecturer in Islamic studies at Near East School of Theology in Beirut, uses Whose Promised Land? to support another view called covenant theology.
Recently visiting Sana’a, he told me: “When I read what was being written by the evangelical community, and how far off the mark it was of what was happening on the ground, I was appalled. I felt I had to offer an alternative.”
I, for one, appreciate his blending of history and theology, using justice as a starting point for understanding.
Another noteworthy expert is Palestinian-Christian scholar Elias Chacour. Like Chapman, he chafes at the long silence of Christians, especially in North America, about lingering injustices in Palestine.
In his home of Galilee, he’s responded by building peace centers inaugurated with the drama The Diary of Anne Frank, showing Anne could easily be a modern Palestinian girl.
It’s helped bring Jews and Palestinians together. And restore dignity.
It’s a shame, however, if such voices are left like calls in the wilderness. Certainly now, with new hope for the peace process, it’s time to carefully consider them.