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Alternative Biblical Facts

They gathered to celebrate the opening of the new American embassy in Jerusalem, marking America’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  A reported “800 religious conservatives and right-wing politicians from both countries sang ‘Hallelujah.’” Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu “exulted . . . ‘What a glorious day!’” He “spoke of peace with ‘all our neighbors,’ praising Mr. Trump and his team as truth-tellers for acknowledging what he called the fact that Israel’s capital was an ‘eternal undivided’ Jerusalem.” President Trump’s “beaming” daughter, “Ivanka . . . helped unveil a stone marker etched with her father’s name on the new American Embassy in Jerusalem.”  Ivanka’s husband and advisor to her father, Jared Kushner, “predicted that ‘when there is peace in this region, we will look back upon this day and will remember that the journey to peace started with a strong America recognizing the truth.’” (“Killings in Gaza, New Embassy in Jerusalem, and peace as Distant as Ever,”By David M. Halbfinger, The New York Times, May 14, 2018)  Trump himself appeared before the gathering, by way of video, and also spoke of peace: “The United States remains fully committed to facilitating a lasting peace agreement . . .  We extend a hand in friendship to Israel, the Palestinians and to all their neighbors.” (“Read Trump’s speech on the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem,”By Politico Staff, POLITICO, May 14, 2018)

It was left for two leading white evangelical American faith leaders to provide the alternative biblical facts for the occasion.  Pastor Robert Jeffress, a prominent supporter of President Trump, was invited to give the opening prayer at the U.S. embassy’s unveiling.  In his prayer, Jeffress told “the one true God . . . I believe . . . I speak for everyone of us when we say thank you every day that you have given us a president who boldly stands on the right side of history but more importantly stands on the right side of you, oh God, when it comes to Israel.”  Jeffress ended his prayer with, “Father, we are also grateful as we think about what happened 70 years ago today, at the very moment, when you fulfilled the prophecies of the prophets from thousands of years ago and regathered your people in the Promised Land.” (“Robert Jeffress prays blessings at opening of U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem,”By Bob Allen, Baptist News Global, May 14, 2018)

Pastor John Hagee, another strong supporter of President Trump, was invited to give the closing prayer at the ceremony of the new American embassy. Hagee sealed the alternative biblical facts deal. “Our most gracious Heavenly Father,” he began, “we gather here today to thank you for the joy of living and seeing this glorious and historic day.  We thank you,’ ” he prayed, “for the State of Israel, the lone torch of freedom in the Middle East.  It was You, oh LORD,” he continued, “who gathered the exiles from the nations and brought them home again.  . . . Jerusalem is where the Messiah will come and establish a kingdom that will never end.  We thank you, oh LORD,” he went on, “for President Donald Trump’s courage in acknowledging to the world a truth established 3,000 years ago that Jerusalem is and always shall be the eternal capital of the Jewish people.” (“U.S. Embassy Opens in Jerusalem, Massive Clashes On Gaza Border,”By Gary, UNSEALED, May 14, 2018)

Pastor Hagee must have flashed a knowing wink to God in praying, “Jerusalem is where the Messiah will come and establish a kingdom that will never end.”  He was referring to biblical prophecies about the end of the world, which will occur after the Jews have re-gathered in Jerusalem.  Then, a resurrected Jesus will come again, and his appearance will mark God’s final judgment on the world.  On that judgment day, believers will ascend to a heavenly paradise.  And the Jews – and all others — who do not profess Jesus as the Messiah will be condemned to eternal damnation.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, one people’s “glorious and historic day” marked another people’s anniversary of agony.  One people’s national creation was the cause of another people’s national “catastrophe” – or “Nakba”.  One people is believed to “stand on the right side of . . . God,” which requires another people to be massacred, driven from their homes and land, with almost two million in population later penned behind a fence.  Just a short forty miles from one people’s celebration, another people’s reality was trying to break through the alternative biblical facts.  (See “Palestinians – 70 Years of Suffering,”by Eric Margolis, OrientalReview.org,May 31, 2018)

That reality began showing itself weeks earlier, when thousands of the 2 million Palestinian refugees — confined in the Gaza Strip by Israel’s land, sea and air blockade — gathered at Israel’s barbed wired border to demonstrate their “Right of Return” to their homes and villages, from which Zionist militias  drove them seventy years ago.  The demonstrators were laying claim to the UN’s 1948 Resolution 194, which “states that Palestinian refugees ‘wishing to return to their homes and live and peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so on the earliest practicable date.’ ” (“ ‘We want to return to our lands without bloodshed or bombs,’ “by Maram Humaid, ALJAZEERA, Mar. 30, 2018)

Seventy years of forced separation from their land is an eternity for many Palestinians.  A reported “70 percent of the two million people in the Gaza Strip live in refugee camps just a few kilometres away from their original homes and villages across the border, where Zionist armed groups forcibly displaced them seven decades earlier.” Making their existence even worse is that Israel has turned the Gaza Strip into what “has been dubbed as the largest open-air prison, with Palestinians needing Israeli army permits to enter and exit the Strip.” (Ibid) In fact, one of the only things Israel doesn’t completely control is the air the Palestinians breathe – unless they get too close to Israel’s fortified fence that pens them in.  Recently they got too close.

The Palestinians’ annual “Right of Return protest near Israel’s confining border was reported to be peaceful – at first.  “Thousands of unarmed men, women and children” gathered in “makeshift tent camps erected 700 metres away from the border with Israel.”  There was a festive element: with “young girls dressed in traditional embroidered dresses . . . women sang Palestinian national songs and prepared lunch for their families and children.  The participants performed the Friday noon prayers,” after which “some played a football match amid a cheering crowd.” (Ibid)

The sight of thousands of unarmed Palestinians celebrating their humanityand their history, so close to Israel’s dehumanizing border, must have greatly threatened Israel’s “security”.  It was enough for Israel’s military snipers, reported as safely crouching behind big mounds of dirt, to try to deny that reality by “killing at least 15 Palestinians and injuring more than 1400.” (Ibid)

The viciousness of Israel’s response is seen not only in its reported“ ‘excessive’ and ‘disproportionate’ use of force that has killed at least 114 unarmed Palestinian protesters and wounded more than 13,000 since March 30.”  Even more revealing of the Israel army’s inhumanity is its documented targeting of medical personnel aiding the victims.  The Gaza Ministry of Health states that “during mass demonstrations on May 14, 17 medical personnel were injured by Israeli live ammunition, and one paramedic was killed . . . [and] seven ambulances were damaged that day.”  The World Health Organization reports that “since the start of the Great March of Return movement on March 30, 238 health personnel and 38 ambulances have been affected.” (“Palestinian medics struggle to provide healthcare amid attacks,”by Mersiha Gadzo, ALJAZEERA, May 28, 2018)

The deliberate targeting of healthcare workers is also revealed in the case of Canadian emergency physician Tarek Loubani “and three of his colleagues [being] wounded by live fire and one paramedic from his team, Musa Abuhassanin, was killed.”  Loubani stated that he and his colleagues “had all been highly visible, wearing orange jackets.” (Ibid)

Doctors Without Borders described the horrific trauma of the wounded and staff inside Gazan hospitals.  The organization stated that “in one of the hospitals where we were working, the chaotic situation is comparable to what we observed after the bombings of the 2014 war, with a colossal influx of injured people in a few hours, completely overwhelming the medical staff.”  The “teams carried out more than 30 surgical interventions today, sometimes two or three patients in the same operating theater, and even in the corridors.” Doctors Without Borders called it a “bloodbath,” with “the Israeli army’s policy . . .  shooting with live ammunition at demonstrators on the assumption that anyone approaching the separation fence is a legitimate target.” And “most of the wounded will be condemned to suffer lifelong injuries.” (“‘Unacceptable and inhuman’ violence by Israeli army against Palestinian protesters in Gaza,”Press Release, www.doctorswithoutborders, May 14, 2018)

Israel’s record in respecting Palestinians’ healthcare is appalling.  “According to a new report by Safeguarding Health in Conflict, a coalition of NGO’s, among the countries experiencing the highest number of attacks on healthcare, the occupied Palestinian Territories is second only to Syria.”  These attacks, “mostly attributed to Israeli security forces . . . included violence against Palestinian health workers, interferences with the delivery of healthcare, obstruction of medical transport, and denial of impartial care to wounded civilians.” Nor are these attacks limited to the Gaza Strip.  As reported, “On several occasions last year, Israeli security forces entered health facilities on the occupied West Bank – including in Ramallah, Hebron and East Jerusalem – and disrupted services.” (“Palestinian medics struggle to provide healthcare amid attacks,” Ibid)

“We thank you every day that you have given us a president who boldly stands on the right side of history, but more importantly on the right side of you, oh God, when it comes to Israel.”  So revealing of human projection is how “God” is used to justify one people’s oppression of another people.

In my Methodist seminary in the early 1950s, we theological students were taught that the Jews were God’s “chosen people.”  That God liberated them from bondage in Egypt and led them to the Promised Land: “a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Exodus 3: 17)  Never mind that the land was already inhabited by “Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hittites and Jebusites.” (Ibid)  The moral of the biblical story is that “the Lord God” had created a covenant to reward oppressed, faithful Jews with a homeland of their own.

We seminarians were not encouraged to deal with the immorality of the story. “The Lord God” said to the Jews, “I will hand over to you the inhabitants of the land, and you shall drive them out.  . . . You must utterly destroy them . . . show them no mercy.”  Then these words: “The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his prized possession.” (Deuteronomy 7: 1-6)

Again, we seminarians had no problem with the biblical story of the Jews being God’s favorite people.  We had our own alternative biblical facts that favored us Christians.  We possessed a more recent divine biblical revelation. God’s “Chosen People” were replaced by a new covenant, sealed in the even more sacred text of The New Testament.  The new covenant: God sent his only Son Jesus Christ into the world and allowed him to be sacrificed on a cross for the sins of the world.  Thus whoever believes Jesus is the Messiah and confesses him as their savior, Jews and Gentiles alike, will be resurrected and escape eternal damnation.  But the Jews refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah and fell out of favor with God.

Here, as alternative biblical facts would have it, the Jews suffered the same fate as the Canaanites.  As recorded in Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus was taken prisoner and brought before Pilate, the Jews present clamored for his crucifixion: “All of them said, ‘Let him be crucified.’“  Then these vicious words were also put in their mouths, sealing and triggering their historic collective persecution as “Christ killers” down through the centuries: “Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children.’” (Matthew 27: 20-26)

Alternative biblical facts in denial of reality.  The Jews were an occupied people.  Pilate, the brutal Roman ruler of their captive land, had the authority over whether Jesus lived or died.  Jesus was one of numerous Jewish insurrectionists Pilate had put to death for attempting to liberate the Jewish people from Roman domination.

Thus according to the alternative biblical facts of The New Testament, God’s “treasured possession” became the dispossessed – the despised “Christ killers.”  Down through the centuries of Christian history the Jews were reported to be treated as the “rejected people . . . doomed to a life of marginality and misery . . . [and] death.” (“Christian Persecution of Jews over the Centuries: Introduction,”By. Rev. John T. Pawlikowski, OSM, PhD, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2018)

Germany’s Protestant reformer Martin Luther used The New Testamentfor his authority to call for the persecution of the Jews with “sharp mercy.”  Thus the seeds of anti-Semitism were already sown in alternative biblical facts, allowing many German Protestant and Catholic Christians to embrace Hitler’s Master Race and accommodate the extermination of six million Jewish men, women and children.  A “Master Race,” fueled in part by belief in a master religion.

It was the fate of the Palestinians to make up for Christianity’s horrible sins against the Jews. In 1948 there was the re-establishment of the nation of Israel on the land of the Palestinians – resulting in the expulsion and occupation of the Palestinians.  The UN plan was for Israel and Palestine to create a “two-state” solution, living side by side in peace.  For decades, the UN and all parties concerned shared the hope for such a “two-state” solution.  But the balance of power favored Israel.   The Palestinians were either occupied by Israel or confined by a brutal Israeli blockade.  Jewish settlements continued to be built on Palestinian land in violation of international law.  The endless “containment” of the Palestinians tells its own story.

As does President Trump, taking it upon himself to open the new American Embassy in Jerusalem, officially recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Trump’s unilateral move undercuts the Palestinians’ long-term plan to have East Jerusalem as their capital in any two-state solution.

All of this oppression denied by politicians and pastors, spouting alternative political and biblical facts at the new American Embassy’s opening in Jerusalem.  Like, “The United States remains fully committed to facilitating a lasting peace agreement.”  And, “The one true God . . . you have given us a president who stands on the right side of history.”

Tragically, the state of Israel is doing to the Palestinians what has been done to the Jews over the centuries.  It has forgotten – or conveniently disregards as not applicable – the history of the Jewish people: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23: 9)   Ironically, the Palestinians have been turned into “aliens” in their own land.

Whether Canaanites, Jews or Palestinians, alternative biblical facts are used as the divine Word of God to dominate, not share.  To expel, not embrace.  To hate, not love.  Power and privilege parading in the name of “truth” and “peace.”   

Greatly needed are humanizing biblical facts.  Especially the humanizing attribute of empathy, which is central to the faiths of the Jews, Muslims and Christians.  Judaism instructs, “What is hateful to you, do not do it to your fellowman.  This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.” (Talmud, Shabbat 3id)   Islam’s prophet says, “No one of you shall become a true believer until he desires for his brother what he desires for himself.” (Sunnah)  And Jesus teaches Christians, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7: 12)

Empathy requires getting close to people.  And the lucrative tourism business in the Holy Land offers a unique opportunity to get close to the local population and their shared holy sites. Thus as a condition of their tours of the Holy Land, concerned Christian and interfaith groups should demand that the governments of Israel and the United States allow them to visit the Palestinians in Gaza and on the West Bank.  Such interactions with Palestinians, and not only primarily with Jews, would greatly inform American and other Christians, correcting much bias and disinformation.  That corrective information would then be shared with faith groups and other citizens back home, hopefully to help change the oppressive status quo of the Palestinians’ “containment.”  Furthermore, such visits of concerned people of faith would contribute to the destitute economy of the Palestinian people, as well as the economy of the Israelis.

The greater threat here is not assumed to be the personal risk to Christian and interfaith groups entering Gaza and the West Bank.  The greater threat of such visits is believed to be to the status quo that is enforced by the United States and Israel of maintaining the endless “containment” of the Palestinians.  Upholding this unending oppression is seen in the U.S. Department of State’s recent travel advisory: “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all travel to the Gaza Strip.”  American tourists are reminded that “Hamas, a U.S. government-designated foreign terrorist organization, controls security in Gaza,” and thus “the security environment within Gaza and on its borders is dangerous and volatile.” (“Israel, The West Bank and Gaza,” travel.state.gov/content/travel/en, Jan. 10, 2018)  Never mind that in 2006 Hamas was elected in the Palestinians democratic legislative elections.  One group’s “terrorists” is another group’s liberators.

The Department of State’s slanted travel advisory engages in disinformation about the recent violence at the fortified fence separating Israel from Gaza.  “In 2018,” the travel advisory update states, “Palestinians have demonstrated near the fence with Israel, and some have used violence.”  And, “The Israeli military has responded with live fire that has killed Palestinians.” (“Israel, The West Bank and Gaza,”see Safety and Security section, Ibid, Last Updated May 14, 2018)

The State Department implies that the Palestinians started the violence, which elicited the Israeli response.  Never mind the US-supported Israeli violence that expelled Palestinians from their land for seventy years and imprisoned them.

“Palestinians have demonstrated near the fence with Israel, and some have used violence.”  The reported facts on the ground. The Palestinians were armed with slingshots, rocks, wire cutters, kites carrying flaming objects — and they even rolled burning tires at the fence.  The Israeli military issued a statement, saying “it had ‘thwarted’ an attempted infiltration by Palestinian protesters,” who “threw explosives, firebombs and rocks, and that troops opened fire ‘in accordance with the rules of engagement.’” (“Palestinians try to rip through Gaza border fence, drawing heavy Israeli fire,” By Mahmud Hams, CBS News, April 27, 2018)

The Israeli “rules of engagement” continued: “A total of 107 people have been killed and around 12,300 others wounded since the protests began on March 30, according to Gaza’s health Ministry.”  And, “Several hundred of the injured were children, according to Save the Children.(“Scores dead in Gaza fence protest as U.S. moves embassy to Jerusalem,” by Matt Bradley, www.nbcnews.co, May 14, 2018)

“Some [Palestinians] have used violence.”  One Israeli soldier was reported to have been “lightly injured by a rock or a piece of shrapnel.” (“Gaza braces for protests and funerals a day after at least 58 Palestinians killed by Israeli troops,” By Raf Sanchez, Jerusalem and Roland Oliphant, Senior Foreign Correspondent, The Telegraph, May 15, 2018)

Numerous Christian and interfaith groups visit the Holy Land.  In January, the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE) which promotes itself as “The Standard for Spiritual Care and Education” in training health care chaplains and local clergy, sponsored a 10-day “mission to Israel.”  The stated aim was “to foster community, offer opportunities for learning, to engage with one another, to experience the holy sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as the modern state of Israel, and to have professional opportunities to engage with colleagues in Israel who are in the emerging field of spiritual care.” (“My Trip to Israel,” ACPE News, www.acpe.edu/ACPENews,Feb. 12, 2018)

ACPE, which specializes in the spiritual care of hospitalized persons, would have had  unique “opportunities for learning” in exposing its members to the plight of Palestinian patients and medical staff in overcrowded and underequipped hospitals in the West Bank and Gaza, as referenced above in this article.  It is hoped that ACPE’s newly formed Advocacy Committee will provide that kind of influence in the future, helping this prominent specialized faith organization to broaden the fulfillment of its commitment to the spiritual care of all persons.

Christian-motivated Holy Land tours invite believers to “walk where Jesus walked.” To “stand on the Mt. of Beatitudes (Matthew 5 … 6 … 7) and make believe you are listening to the Lord preach the Sermon on the Mount” (“10 Day Holy Land Israel Travel Tour,”www.holylandtourtra.com) No doubt many Christian tourists find such sacred sights personally uplifting.  The danger here is the evasive, safe dynamic of vicarious identification: worshiping what Jesus did to avoid doing what he worshiped.  If Christians really “walk where Jesus walked,” they would be walking among the oppressed Palestinians, as Jesus walked among the oppressed Jews.  And as Jesus “testified to the truth” to the Roman occupier Pilate (John 8:37), the mission of Christians is to speak truth about Israel and American’s oppression of the Palestinians.

Biblical scholar, liberation theologian and author, Fr. Michael Prior, C.M., Ph.D., emphasized humanizing biblical facts.  He long advocated that pilgrims to the Holy Land should be “concerned primarily with the daily lives of local people rather than with holy sites.” Teaching biblical studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank, Prior responded to a Palestinian plea for “pilgrimages from the West to meet Christian communities” in Palestine, to meet the Living Stones of the land, and not to be satisfied with the ‘dead stones of archeological sites.’” (“Confronting the Bible’s Ethnic Cleansing In Palestine,” By Michael Prior. C.M., Bint Jbeil, taken from the Dec. 2000 issue of The Link, publication of Americans for Middle East Understanding)

Fr. Prior said that he witnessed the dispossession, dispersion and humiliation of the Palestinians, and saw addressing that injustice as a “moral imperative.”  While sensitive to the horrific oppression of the Jewish people in Nazi Germany, he stated, “It is a dubious moral principle to regard the barbaric treatment of the Jews by the Third Reich as constituting a right to establish a Jewish state at the expense of an innocent third party.  Until Israelis acknowledge their having displaced another people and make some reparation and accommodation,” he continued, “there will be no future for the state.”  Prior challenged alternative biblical facts with the humanizing biblical fact of empathy: “It is high time that biblical scholars, church people and Western intellectuals read the biblical narratives of the promise of land ‘with the eyes of the Canaanites.’“ (Ibid)

People discover truth in each other’s eyes.  It is about empathy, which requires people getting close to each other. Rather than colonizing, biblical truth should be about humanizing.

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Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His new book, The Counterpunching Minister (who couldn’t be “preyed” away) is now published and available on Amazon.com. The book’s Foreword, Drawing the Line, is written by Counterpunch editor, Jeffrey St. Clair. Alberts is also author of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.

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