Friday, 11 May 2012

A Holy Land, full of holes

Tiberias. It's a Jewish city on the west bank of Galilee. A tour of the highlights takes upwards of thirty minutes, but can be done in less if you don't stop for a coffee. Although Tiberias has an ancient and sacred history, being associated with the writing of Talmud and the revival of Judaism in the period following the destruction of the Second Temple, most ancient sites from these times have been carefully concreted over. Before 1967, when Israel captured the Golan Heights, Syrian artillery would frequently shell Israeli communities in Galilee. I don't know if Tiberias was within range, but it's looks as if it was, as it's building appear to have been thrown up quickly by people who wanted nothing more than shelter and had no regard for where it stood or how it looked..

I've gradually realised something as I've travelled around Israel, visiting small communities and large cities: There's a distinctive lack of good architecture and environmental aesthetic. Whereas most societies tried out the brutalistic and high rise architecture of the 50's and 60's and realised it didn't work at producing happy integrated communities, israel thought; "This is great. Where can we get more concrete?" I am growing to suspect there is a committee which travels Israel's remaining wilderness areas, stops and says, "That's a remarkable view, uninterrupted by anything made by the hand of man. How about a few power pylons, just to tidy it up?". There's also a profusion of walls, wires and other things to keep people out. This isn't just with the infamous "peace wall", but seemingly everywhere.

I think Israel still has a strong frontier mentality. It's the kind of mentality that existed in the United States as it expanded westwards. Everything was perceived as a threat or challenge to be conquered and that perception allowed for a lot of abuse, of the environment and, more importantly, of people. In the USA this has evolved, though traces of it remain in a natural aversion to centralised control and the notion of a welfare state.

Israel became independent in 1948 at the expiration of the British Mandate. This was a control Britain had taken at the end of the first war in the name of the League of Nations. Even at that time there was a strong movement in Britain to loosen the ties of Empire. By the end of the second war this movement was gathering momentum, and the Indian subcontinent would soon go its own way. Britain no longer had the resources, and increasingly lacked the will, to enforce its dominance abroad.

British control of Palestine was now under the authority of the newly formed United Nations, and a plan was devised for the end of British rule and the formation of separate Jewish and Palestinian States. This proposed a division of the Mandate to allow for distinct and manageable areas for each new nation. It was never a realistic proposal. If there was no historical enmity between the two ethnic groups; if the division of lands allowed for allocations which were defensible; or if Britain had available huge military resources to police the partition; and, maybe most importantly, if foreign powers nearby and further away would keep their distance; then peace may have been possible.

War came, initially favouring the Arab majority, but then Israel as Jewish forces grew. The Gaza Strip and West Bank were merely ceasefire lines from 1948. For the Arabs too much land has been lost and too many families displaced. Left with the poorest land and a vast number of refugees, their remnants became mere extensions of Egypt and Jordan, never knowing self government. For Israel, the elusive prize of Jerusalem was not secured and the West Bank placed Arab armies less than twenty miles from the coast, threatening to cut Israel in two. In 1967 Israel took matters into its own hands and captured the West Bank and Gaza and also secured the Golan and Sinai as buffers against their most potent aggressors.

Spending time in Israel I have seen many things I don't like, including a political situation that is clearly unjust. But it is also understandable from an Israeli perspective, a perspective that justifiably wants to secure its long term independence and less justifiably perceives all who are not "of the family" as a threat.

How Israel sees itself colours all that it does. Everything is seen through that frontiersman lens, and understood in that context. Whether the context is still relevant or not becomes irrelevant. It's the lens that's looked through that counts.

What can be applied to Israel can be applied to any nation, even our own, to communities and individuals. I see the world through lenses I cannot simply remove, partly because I am unaware they are there. Paul reminds us that Christians are citizens of more than one country (Philippians 3). As such it is a duty to do what we can to recognise the lenses we wear and to understand how they shade our perception of the world. We may not be able to remove them. But recognising them allows us to be more honest in our dealings with others, to appreciate them and to build bridges. I find Israel irritating, but at least part of the problem is with me.

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