Council for the National Interest

My experience with the Jewish, Israeli, and Palestinian worlds

Feb 6 2014 / 8:07 pm

By Frederic W. Bush.

I. My Experience with the Jewish World

In 1964 I received a Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern languages, literature, history and culture rom Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass, and taught there one year, 1964-65. Brandeis University was established in 1947 by the Reformed or Liberal Jewish Community to be a 4- year liberal arts university after the analogy of the Presbyterians establishing Princeton and the Congregationalists Yale, etc. Now, I grew up in the WASP world of Vancouver, BC, Canada, and i cannot remember having a single Jewish friend or acquaintance in my early years, even through college. We certainly never ever considered inviting a Jew to be a member of Alpha Delta Phi fraternity at the University of Washington, where I took a degree in Chemical Engineering. But, from my experience at Brandeis I gained a knowledge of, and a deep respect for, the Jewish world. Based on the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the words of the prophets, Jewish ethics, at least Reformed Jewish ethics, have a deep commitment to justice, mercy, and equal treatment for all. Jews have often been at the forefront of the struggle for justice, equality and civil rights in the U.S.

At Brandeis I also gained some knowledge of what the terrible Jewish experience of persecution had been, both in America and in the world at large. Then later in the course of my academic work at Fuller, I wrote a commentary on the OT book of Esther. And in order to find the context within which this book functions, especially in the Jewish world, I learned in considerable depth about the history of terrible persecution and loss of life and property which the Jews had been experiencing for hundreds of years at the hands of Christian Europe. In the story of Esther, Haman the Agagite sought to annihilate all the Jews of Persia. But the Jews were dramatically rescued from this annihilation through the courage of Esther and Mordecai and the Jewish people themselves, and their enemies were utterly destroyed. Jews celebrate this deliverance every year in the festival of Purim. Unfortunately, however, for far too many Jewish communities over the centuries in Christian Europe, their experience was exactly the opposite of the Esther story. For them, there was no Esther; there was no Mordecai; and there was no deliverance. Particularly terrible were the pogroms that swept through Eastern Europe, especially Russia, from 1881 through 1905, in which thousands of Jews in their ghettoes were systematically robbed and murdered by fanatical mobs. The distinguishing characteristic of these pogroms was that they were instigated and organized by governments. In order to deflect criticism of the failure of their own policies, Eastern European governments cynically fomented and used the widespread anti-Semitism so deeply rooted in the common people of Europe. This widespread anti-Semitism, galvanized into action by governments, culminated in WW II in the unthinkable horror of Haman’s spiritual descendants, Hitler and his Nazi minions, who, unlike Haman, succeeded in the Holocaust in annihilating 6 million of the 7 million Jews of Europe and virtually exterminating European Jewish culture. And we cannot simply point the finger at Europe. Anti-Semitism was rampant in the US. also, especially in the 20’s and 30‘s. In the 1930’s the racist Loughlin report of the U. 8. Congress led to laws prohibiting the entrance of European Jews into the U. 8. As a result, thousands of Jewish refugees encountered immigration officials in New York Harbor who forced their ships to return to Germany or seek refuge elsewhere, such as Palestine.

So, it must be remembered in fairness to both sides in the conflict that, if there had not been centuries of terrible persecution of Jews in Christian Europe, the Zionist idea that their only hope was a state of their own would never have arisen. One of the truly tragic ironies of this conflict is that the Palestinians have been made to suffer for Europe‘s crimes. What happened 40 years after Zionism arose, when the Nazis conceived and implemented the Holocaust as their solution to “the Jewish question,” demonstrates that the Zionists who came to Palestine were addressing no inconsequential threat. But, as a result, in the 1947-49 war, the Zionist Israeli’s successfully drove some 750,000 Palestinians out of Palestine and established the State of Israel.

II. My Experience with the Israeli and Palestinian Worlds

Now, after teaching one year at Brandeis University, in 1965 I came to Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, where I taught for 35 years until my retirement in June 2000. I taught various Old Testament courses over the years, but my expertise in particular was Ancient Near Eastern Studies, in particular, the Semitic Languages and Literatures. So, as part of my teaching career, in 1974-75 the Seminary granted me a full year of sabbatical leave to live in Jerusalem and study the physical and historical geography of Palestine-Israel. All of my courses were taught by Israeli professors. And we lived in a Jewish area of East Jerusalem, where we developed friendships with several of our Jewish neighbors. Then, for some ten years after my sabbatical, I either led or directed a six to eight week long summer program in which we took students to Israel to study Biblical Hebrew, experience Israel and Palestine and participate in archaeological excavations.

Geography study during my sabbatical year in Israel-Palestine in 1974-75 necessitated that I travel widely through the state of Israel. But it also required that I travel widely throughout the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well, particularly since the West Bank is the area where the vast majority of the events of the Hebrew Scriptures took place. This meant that I visited many of the Palestinian cities and villages of the region. Though in 1974-75, shortly after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, conditions in the occupied territories were relatively peaceful, such travel meant that I could observe the circumstances and conditions of the Palestinians in the occupied territories.

During that year, I also spent ten days in Hadassah hospital with a blood clot in my leg, and my roommate was a Palestinian Christian from Ramallah, whose name was Michel Salameh. After we both left the hospital, my family and I had the opportunity to spend some time with Michel and his family at his home Ramallah, in the West Bank. Michel told me about the experience of his family during the 47-49 war in which they were violently expelled by the Israeli army from their home in Ramle, an important Arabic village on the road from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv that is now the Jewish city of Ramlah. They fled to Ramallah. He also told me how in the 1967 war he and his two young sons, fearing for their lives, had left his wife and daughters behind and fled to Jordan, hoping to return. Later, since the Israelis were allowing no refugees whatsoever to return, they had had to slip over the border at night and find their way back to Ramallah, a very dangerous trip, since the Israeli soldiers regarded returning refugees as terrorist infiltrators.

Such a year meant that I came home with a much different view of what was happening in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians than the naively pro-Israel stance that had been mine previously as a typical theologically-conservative American Christian. And I have been concerned ever since about the conflict, and particularly about the Israeli army’s treatment of the Palestinian population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

During 1997-98, the last two years that I was teaching full-time, my sons, both of whom are active in the Mennonite Church, began sending me information about the work of a Mennonite affiliated organization called “Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT).” CPT is an initiative of Mennonite, Brethren in Christ and Quaker congregations. The program trains Christian people in non-violent, proactive methods of reducing violence and making peace. It then sends teams of these people to various areas of the world where such actions are needed. Among these areas is the Palestinian city of Hebron, where since 1995 CPT has had a team resident in the Old City Market at the request of the Hebron Municipality, seeking to mediate and reduce violence between the extremist, right-wing Israeli settlers there and the Palestinian residents. The Hebron team has an email network to which they send out regular messages about their work. These messages gave detailed, on-the-spot information about what was really going on in the West Bank, and in particular, about the Israeli policy of demolishing the homes of ordinary Palestinian people in the Hebron area. I was shocked and appalled by what I learned and by both the silence and the biased reporting of the situation in the American print and TV media.

Finally, I decided that I had to see for myself what was happening in Palestine, rather than depending on the accounts of others. And so in August 1999 I spent three weeks living and working with the CPT Hebron Team as member of a group of six volunteers. As part of our volunteer service, we assisted the permanent members of the team in their violence reduction efforts in the Old City of Hebron. We also traveled to outlying areas to assist and to interview Palestinian families whose homes had been demolished by the Israeli military. In the process we learned a great deal about what life is like for Palestinians under lsraeli occupation. As part of our time there we also had the privilege of meeting with a considerable number of Israeli Jewish organizations who are working to establish peace and justice for Palestinians. This included visits with such Jewish organizations as Rabbis for Human Rights; B’Tselem. The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories; and Bat Shalom, theIsraeli women’s peace organization. Especially important was the work of Dr. Jeff Halper, the head of an organization called the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, with which organization we spent one day rebuilding a home in the village of Walajeh near Bethlehem, which had been destroyed two days earlier.

We also spent several days meeting and talking with a number of Palestinian organizations, both Muslim and Christian, who were working to bring about peace and justice in the area, to achieve reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, and to improve conditions for their communities.

I have also been concerned about the status of the Palestinian Christians and their churches, asa result of which I have joined the local board of “Friends of Sabeel North America” (see Sabeel, Arabic for “the way” and also “a channel or spring of life-giving water, “is an ecumenical grassroots liberation theology movement among Palestinian Christians which encourages women, men, and youth to discern what God is saying to them as their faith connects with the hard realities of their daily life: occupation, violence, discrimination and human rights violations (see Inspired by the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, Sabeel seeks to lead Palestinian Christians to act for justice, to work for the unity and renewal of the church, and to transform society. Sabeel also strives to develop a spirituality based on justice, peace, non-violence and liberation, out of which to work for reconciliation between the different national and faith communities.

Since 2000, l have also been active on the steering committee of the Middle East Fellowship of Southern California. This is an organization that seeks to educate the American public about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to work for a just viable and lasting peace in the region. And since 2004, l have been Chair of the Board of Middle East Fellowship (MEF, see; MEF is a North American, nonprofit organization that supports indigenous churches and organizations that strengthen their own communities through economic development programs, community projects, children’s programs and emergency relief efforts. In North America, MEF is committed to bringing a greater awareness of issues pertaining to the Middle East through grassroots mobilizing efforts, online educational projects and travel programs.

I also have a former student, Dr. Hanna Massad, who grew up in Gaza City. He attended Bethlehem Bible College and became the pastor of the Gaza Baptist Church. Feeling the need for more theological education, he came to Fuller, where he was one of my students. In June 2000 he received a Ph.D. in theology from Fuller and has returned to Gaza to pastor again the Gaza Baptist Church, the only Protestant church in the Gaza Strip. We have established a small ministry called “Christian Mission to Gaza,” which supports Hanna’s work and provides relief in the form of food and medicine for the suffering people of the Gaza refugee camps.

In April 2002 I spent two weeks in Palestine, the first week with Sabeel in the West Bank and the second week with Dr. Massad in Gaza. Since “Operation Defensive Shield,” the Israeli invasion which completely destroyed the Palestinian Authority and all the important societal institutions of the developing Palestinian state, was going on during this period it was impossible to enter either Ramallah or Bethlehem. We did however visit both Jericho and Hebron.

From April 9 to 16, 2006, I led a “Pilgrimage to the Holy Land for Palm Sunday and Easter.” We stayed with Christian Palestinian Families in the Bethlehem area and, and, in the West Bank, we toured Hebron and areas where the Separation Wall is impacting Palestinian life, including Bethlehem and East Jerusalem. We also toured two Israeli Palestinian villages in the area of Galilee. And we visited various Palestinian and lsraeli organizations that are working for a just and peaceful solution to the conflict. After the conclusion of the pilgrimage, I traveled from Bethlehem to the Gaza Strip and spent five days with my former student, Dr. Hanna Massad.

Finally, from May 7th to 28th, 2007 I co-led a “Spring Incarnational Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.” First, three of us entered the Gaza Strip. We spent two days once again with Dr. Hanna Massad and the Gaza Baptist Church. We then spent two days with the Middle East Council of Churches, visiting their relief and medical work with members of the Gaza Refugee Camps. The rest of the time was spent in a very similar manner to the pilgrimage in 2006 above, except that this time we also visited and saw the work of the Christian Peacemaker Team in At-Tuwani in the southeastern West Bank..

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