President Donald Trump visited the Western Wall this week during his visit to Israel. That was wholly unthinkable 50, 70 and 100 years ago.
Israel marks this year three major anniversaries: 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, 70 years since the UN General Assembly voted to create the
State of Israel, and 50 years since Israel conquered the Old City of Jerusalem, the Sinai, Gaza, the Golan Heights and the West Bank in the Six Day War.
After two millennia, the Jewish people have returned to the Land of Israel, sovereign again in the land promised to the patriarchs. Israel returned to history, taking its rightful place in the register of nations.
The modern state of Israel is not unequivocally the same as biblical Israel. The biblical texts do not provide a direct application to contemporary disputes between Arabs and Israelis. However, it is suggestive to look upon history with biblical eyes of faith and see the finger of God in the ingathering of the exiles, the return of Jews to their ancestral land, the deliverance of the Chosen People in the shadow of the Shoah.
Being chosen is a blessing and also a burden. Abraham was told that he was chosen to be a blessing for all the nations of the world; the blessing was greater and so too the burden. Thus the Jewish people have borne the blessed burden of history more than others. At the high point of their history, King David ruled in peace in his capital, Jerusalem, where his son Solomon would build the temple, a house of prayer for all nations.
After Solomon would follow division and exile, restoration and the Roman occupation in the time of Jesus. After the destruction of the holy city in 70 AD, the Land of Israel would be conquered by different empires. The Jews would be scattered, becoming a diaspora nation without a homeland. Over the centuries, as no prospect emerged for Jews to return to Israel, Christians often understood history as an ongoing punishment for the Jewish people. The 20th century, that most awful of centuries, especially for Jews, paradoxically changed all that.
A hundred years ago, the 1917 Balfour Declaration opened the real prospect of Jews returning to their ancient homeland, after some 1,800 years of being dispersed to the ends of the earths. It would take another 30 years for the modern state of Israel to be established by the United Nations, with Resolution 181 in 1947.
The Arab nations did not accept Resolution 181, and in 1948 declared war on the nascent State of Israel. Israel would prevail, but the Old City, part of East Jerusalem, would remain under Jordanian rule. Jordan expelled all Jews from the Old City, razed the great synagogue of the Jewish Quarter and forbade Jews from praying at the Western Wall.
Fifty years ago, in early June 1967, Israel recaptured the Old City, and Jews returned to pray at the Western Wall following what they regarded as an act of God’s deliverance. They prayed that day Psalm 126: “When the Lord delivered Zion from bondage, it seemed like a dream.”
That dream is regarded by others as a nightmare. The Palestinians refer to the creation of the State of Israel as the naqba – the “catastrophe”. It is a reality that most Christians – the local Palestinians – who live in the Holy Land do not regard the events of 1917, 1947 and 1967 as written by the finger of God. It is a challenge to think theologically about history, especially in the contested history of the land where the great works of salvation took place. Yet what St Paul wrote remains true: “They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ” (Romans 9:4).
That passage is not a property deed, but neither has it nothing to do with the mission of the land that God Himself made holy. It remains the land chosen for the Chosen People.
In the time of Jesus, Jews would go up to Jerusalem for the feasts, and en route they would sing the psalms of ascent, Psalms 120–134. Before Jesus and after Jesus, the Jews knew exile from Jerusalem more than they were able to pray “And now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem”.
On their pilgrimage the Jewish people have known suffering from the Pharoah of ancient Egypt to the Führer of Nazi Germany. They have endured a long exile from history. They have now returned.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine.
This article first appeared in the May 26 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here