Reformed Reflections

Fighting for Peace
The endless Arab-Israeli conflict

"Shalom" is the Hebrew word for peace. In Yiddish it is sholem. It refers to a state of affairs, one of well-being, tranquillity, prosperi-ty, and security. When Israelis are asked, "Why is sholetn used for both `hello' and `good-bye'?" they say, "Because we have so many problems half the time we don't know whether we are com-ing or going." This describes the mood of many Israelis as they seek solutions for the seemingly endless conflict with the Palestinians. The key to the lack of shalom is the very existence of the state of Israel.

Geographically it's a tiny sliver of land. Yet, the Middle East changed indelibly after Israel's birth. Why? Because the issue is not only political; it is profoundly theological as well. Since the issues are complex, we'll focus on four defining issues blocking the path to peace.


The Holocaust is Israel's key defining reason for existence. The slaughter of six million Jews by the German Nazi regime swept aside all doubt about the necessity of a homeland when the United Nations in 1947 created the state of Israel by ballot instead of guns. It gave Zionism an unprecedented stimulus to return to the land of promise. Although the evidence is overwhelming, many Arabs ques-tion whether the Holocaust hap-pened and insist that the stories are nothing more than propaganda designed to create sympathy for the Jews. In 1961 a headline in a Saudi newspaper "Capture of Eichmann, who had the honour of killing five million Jews," was, in the words of a commentator, "a fairly typical response." Recently an article in the Syria Times, labeled the Holocaust "Israel's most famous myth." The article made the charge that Jewish lead-ers collaborated with the Nazis, that no one was killed in the gas chambers and that since Jews invented the term Holocaust, "they have been living on it and blackmailing the world."

Anyone who doubts the reality of the Holocaust should visit the cen-tre in Jerusalem established in 1953 by the Israeli Knesset to commemorate the Holocaust. This complex is called Yad Vashem ("Martyrs" and "Heroes" Remembrance Hall, from Isaiah 56:5). But be prepared to be emo-tionally moved. On display are Nazi diaries, photographs of death camps, scores of personal testi-monies, and statistical records of the Holocaust.


In the Arab world, the belief in a world-wide Zionist conspiracy is widespread. German Nazi propa-ganda in the 1930s and 1940s helped to spread anti-Semitism in Arab nations. Many Arabs were Nazi sympathizers. In 1939, Khalid Bey al-Qargani, envoy of King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, met Hitler to hear him praise the Arab struggle in Palestine and declare that he would drive every Jew out of Germany. The envoy supported Hitler's actions and replied that this had been the Prophet Muhammad's policy with Jews in Arabia. During the World War II many Arabs backed the Germans. In 1942, when the German army was only sixty miles west of Egypt's Alexandria, pro-Nazi slogans were daubed on the walls and students in the street shouted "Forward, Rommel!" There were also frequent contacts between the Nazis and several prominent Arab leaders, the most notorious was the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hazdj Amin Al-Husseini, a collaborator with Hitler and the Nazi leadership. After the war many German Nazis fled to Egypt and Syria. Some served as advisors to Egyptian and Syrian information departments.

Arab government spokesmen will deny that anti-Semitism is found among them as they them-selves are Semites. But they are anti-Semitic, as anti-Semitism refers specifically to anti-Jewish feelings, doctrines and practices. Although Arab governments dis-tinguish between "Zionists" and Jews, they made it miserable for Jews whenever the Arab-Israel conflict erupted into new crises. After 1948-49, Jews left Arab countries; many went to Europe and the US, but most to Israel. The principle motive for this mod-ern exodus was the deterioration of their economic, social, political, and economic security, and in some cases the oppressive meas-ures taken by Arab governments or actual expulsion. By the 1980s Jews had nearly disappeared from Arab nations. Yet Al-Hajj Muhammad, a Moroccan street--trader, betrayed current enmity towards the Jews when he said, "Whenever I work for a Christian or a Jew, I feel dirty and I go to the hamman [public bath]." In his words, "There is nothing worse than the Jews. The Jew is only happy when he has cheated a Muslim." These strong Arabic anti-Semitic sentiments demon-strate how difficult it is for Arabs and Jews to come to a peaceful settlement in Israel.

In 1994, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Yassar Arafat, won the Nobel peace prize. But in 1997, the same Arafat encouraged the murder of any Palestinian who sold land to a Jew, "...a policy reminiscent of the dark ages and the Nazi Nuremberg laws," wrote Rabbi Hier in his protest to the Nobel Committee. Arafat also uses the educational system for his propaganda. The systematic poi-soning of relations between Palestinians and Jews begins in the classrooms.

According to a recent report in the Washington Post, new Palestinian textbooks are no exception. "Maps in a sixth grade civics textbook depict a long, dag-ger-like green shape separating the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but do not say that the shape is known to most of the world as Israel. Nor does the map include Tel Aviv although it does pinpoint other Israeli cities with large past or current Arab populations," reports the Post. The Israelis are regarded like enemies, not as new peace partners. No attempt is made to show the students that Israel exists as a state. The rhetoric of the civic textbook does not foster a spirit of understanding. It says, "The Palestinian people were expelled from their land as a result of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and have been subjected to massacres and banishment from their land to neighbouring countries."


When Palestine was partitioned by the United Nation and both sides prepared for war, many Arabs fled their homes. Whether the flight of some 200,000 Arabs eastward came from panic caused by the wiping-out of the whole population of 250 of the Arab vil-lage of Deir Yassin on April 9, 1948, or from the advice the lead-ers gave to the Palestinian Arabs to get out of the way of the Arab armies that would soon "drive the Jews to the sea," is a matter of dis-pute. Whatever the case, the expulsion of the Palestinians remains a dark chapter in Israeli and Arab history.

On December 11, 1948, the UN General Assembly passed a reso-lution which said that "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neigh-bours" should be allowed to do so, and that "compensation should be paid for the property which ... should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible." Many have charged that the Jews were the chief viola-tors of the UN resolution because they failed to protect the local Palestinians or to help return the refugees to their homes in Israel after the war. But there is another side to this story. Arab leaders forced many homeless to remain in squalled refugee camps. They then used the refugees as pawns for their own anti-Israel policies. Arab policy dictated the deplorable living conditions in the 61 refugee camps. The Arabs wanted these camps as evidence of Israeli injustice and encouraged the Palestinians to become mar-tyrs. They rejected outright all offers by Israel to alleviate the plight of the refugees. Even pro-posals to build modern housing outside the camps were scorned.

Arab leaders never wanted a Jewish state in the Middle East. In a recent National Post article Barbara Amiel points out that the Arabs have never disguised this sentiment in their own publica-tions and speeches to one another. And she observes, "They want Jerusalem as their capital, a return to the borders of pre-1967 Israel, and they want a right of return for all Palestinian refugees to Israel proper ... The number of Palestinian refugees is now esti-mated by the Palestinian Authority at about 3-4 million." But to demand the return of the refugees and their descendants to their former homes in Israel is unrealistic; it would mean the end of the Jewish state of Israel. The refugees should find a home and a means to earn a living in the Arab countries where they are camped.


One of the great ironies of histo-ry is the attempt to reach a peace settlement by waging war. The famous Dutch author Frederik van Eeden (1860-1932) once told a story about peace ants who were always out to destroy the war ants in order to have peace. In the Middle East the peace ants and the war ants are busy fighting. "Sometimes there are wars that are necessary to obtain peace," declared Yael Dayan, a novelist and the daughter of the late Israeli war hero Moshe Dayan.

In 1987 the resentment against Israel exploded into an uprising, dubbed the intifada, in urban and rural Palestinian neighbourhoods. It took the form of a "children's crusade." And today too, the media reports focus on the intifa-da. Stones are thrown, shots are fired, soldiers and children die, and markets are targeted by sui-cide bombers-all for the sake of peace.

In 1994 Shimon Peres proposed a plan for a Middle East common market. Arab reaction was predictable. "The Arab world," one official commented, "is not in need of an institution or a development bank in which Israel participates."

Divisions within the PLO contribute to the Arab-Israeli conflict. There is a constant power struggle within the movement. And in the ongoing strife, as the mainstream PLO moved toward negotiations with the Israeli government, the Muslim Brotherhood's Hamas chal-lenged it for the loyalty of the Palestinians. And on the other side, the engagement of the Israeli government in negotiations generated protests and violence from extremist groups in Israel. In this adversar-ial atmosphere peace-making is a seemingly impossible task.

What can the current peace efforts and deals achieve in the Middle East? Perfect peace is of course impossible. In his major work The Clash of Civilizations and the remaking of the world order Samuel P.Huntington claims that it is human to hate. "For self-definition and motivation people need enemies: competitors in business, rivals in achievement, opponents in politics. They naturally distrust and see as threats those who are different and have the capability to harm them. The resolution of one conflict and the disappearance of one enemy generate personal, social, and political forces that give rise to new ones." Huntington's analysis is right on, and his description of human nature fits the confession, "I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbour" (Heidelberg Catechism L.D. 2, q.a.5).

We pray for peace in the Middle East. But any peace deal will only mean a reprieve from the intifada and the suffering it entails. As Christians we long for more---for the shalom God the Father will give to His people when the Lord of glory, the Prince of true peace, returns to establish a new heaven and a new earth, a new Jerusalem, promised to all who fear Him.

November 2000