The Nakba and the Christians of Palestine: Important Background to Current Events

The two video documentaries below serve as an important background to the current tragic events in the Holy Land. The first is on the history of the Nakba (the “catastrophe,” i.e., the 1948 displacement of Palestinians); the second is on the impact of these events on Palestinian Christians.

These videos deserve an introduction for a modern audience, especially one made up primarily of American Catholics.

Let me make five preliminary statements before I go on:

  1. None of what is written here is written to stir up hate or animosity against any person or groups or people. Catholics must love our enemies and forgive them. More, we must pray and labor for the conversion of all those outside of the Catholic Church. The only authentic unity for the human race is to be found in Christ’s Mystical Body, the Catholic Church, into which we invite Jews, Muslims, and everyone else.
  2. Denouncing injustices perpetuated against Palestinians does not make us or anyone else “pro-Muslim.” The unserious and facile outlook of many in our nation is to see everything (except, perhaps, the sexes!) as exclusively binary. In the present instance, that means one must either be a Zionist or an Islamist. But this is an absurd way of thinking. Indeed, this is precisely the dilemma of the Christians of the Holy Land: they do not fit into this artificial binary worldview that Westerners tend to impose on the situation and are therefore “neither fish nor foul.”
  3. We are well aware of the history of Islam as an aggressive, highly militarized religious movement that conquers by the sword. (There are good reasons that I chose “Reconquest” as the name of my radio show!) But it needs to be pointed out that Muslims are entitled to natural justice, just as all people are. Allowing systematic injustices against Muslims is no way to secure peace or Christian social order.
  4. Catholic just war doctrine forbids the deliberate targeting of civilians, that is, of non-combatants. This is the case regardless of who perpetuates such an atrocity, whether it be — in this particular conflict — Hamas or Israel.
  5. Lastly, to speak of another set of “false binaries,” showing sympathy to the plight of the Palestinians does not make us “leftists” or “progressivists.” While many of those who effectively bring attention to this issue are indeed hard left progressivists, there is nothing left-wing about matters of natural justice. The strange phenomenon of “Christian Zionism” is what has made this issue part of our very shallow, right-left, American political discourse.

Now for some historical and theological background.

Jewish Zionism — that is, the effort to establish a Jewish State in the Holy Land — can be traced back to the first half of the nineteenth century, in the thinking of Rabbi Yehudah Alkalai (1798-1878), whose theology of the “Third Redemption” insisted that Israel was not truly Israel unless the Jews dwell in the land of Israel. He therefore called for Jewish colonies in the Holy Land. Alkalai’s thought was rejected by many Jews who thought it impious to made the Messianic age dependent upon human activity.

After Alkalai, two of the leading Zionists are, chronologically, Moses Hess (1812-1875), who worked in the second half of the nineteenth century, and Theodore Herzl (1860-1904), who brings us into the twentieth century. Hess was the author of a very polemical book called Rome and Jerusalem.

In Rome and Jerusalem, Hess writes, “Papal Rome symbolizes to the Jews an inexhaustible well of poison. It is only with the drying up of this source that Christian German anti-Semitism will die from lack of nourishment” (p. 35). In another place, he says, “It is true that Christianity shed a certain glow during the dark ages of history… but its light only revealed the graves of the nations of antiquity. Christianity is, after all, a religion of death” (p. 35).

One thing that must be grasped about Zionism — and this is something “Christian Zionists” need to hear — is that many of its historical adherents have rejected not only the Messiah, Our Lord Jesus Christ, but the very idea of a personal Messiah as that idea was taught in the Old Testament. These Zionists contend that the Jewish Nation is the Messiah. It is for this reason that many Orthodox Jews consider Zionism a “heresy.”

Thus, in Rome and Jerusalem, Moses Hess wrote that, “Every Jew has within him the potentiality of a Messiah and every Jewess that of a Mater Dolorosa.” (p. 45) He further declares that because of the regeneration of the world since the great French Revolution, “The Messianic Era is the present age” (p. 138).

This Zionist notion that the Jewish Nation is itself the Messiah is also promoted in the work of Dr. Joseph Klausner (1874-1958), a leading Zionist intellectual and a candidate to be the State of Israel’s first president (he lost to Chaim Weizmann). His 1955 book, The Messianic Idea in Israel (p. 163), contains the following assertion: “Thus the whole people Israel, in the form of the elect of the nations, gradually became the Messiah of the world, the redeemer of mankind.”

Prominent as a leader of the Zionist movement after Moses Hess was Theodore Herzl (1860-1904), who toured Europe and elsewhere to promote Zionism to various heads of state. His skill proved itself in Italy, Germany, Turkey, and England. He even went to see the then reigning head of Vatican City State, the beneficent Pope Saint Pius X, who told Herzl the following, according to Herzl’s own diary: “We cannot give approval to this movement. We cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem — but we could never sanction it. The soil of Jerusalem, if it was not always sacred, has been sanctified by the life of Jesus Christ. As the head of the Church I cannot tell you anything different. The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people.” (The whole dialogue, as related by Herzl, is quite worth reading… even amusing in places, as where Herzl speaks of the Holy Father using snuff during their conversation.)

With the events that followed the defeat of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the Zionists had a chance to see their dreams for a modern Jewish State realized. The Sykes-Picot agreement (1916) and the Balfour Declaration (1917) were the key diplomatic instruments — if they may be called such — that made Jewish colonization of Palestine possible. But all of this is outlined in the video documentary immediately below this introduction, Britain in Palestine 1917-1948. The impact that all of these events had on the Christians of Palestine is outlined in the second documentary, The Stones Cry Out – Voices of the Palestinian Christians.

Lastly, since the international recognition of the State of Israel, the Holy See as consistently argued in favor of the rights of Palestinians, advocating for a two-state solution for the strife in the Holy Land. As we argued in When Catholics Support Israel against the Holy See and the Rights of Palestinians,

In contrast to the lopsidedly pro-Israel foreign policy of the United States, the Holy See has been consistent in seeking to uphold the rights of Palestinians in their historic homeland. Pope John Paul II, who first established diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel, also consistently advocated for the rights of Palestinians, even meeting with Yasser Arafat. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, approved a 2010 statement by the Synod of Bishops which spoke of “the necessary legal steps to put an end to the occupation of the different Arab territories,” further adding that, “Recourse to theological and biblical positions which use the word of God to wrongly justify injustices is not acceptable.” This statement, not surprisingly, brought criticism from Israel upon the Synod.

Without any further ado, here is Britain in Palestine 1917-1948:

And here is The Stones Cry Out – Voices of the Palestinian Christians: