During one of his visits to the United Nations, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad had an opportunity to bare his soul when being interviewed on CNN. Probably for the first time ever, many in the west learned of Theodor Herzl’s Zionist movement that was the catalyst behind the modern state of Israel. Millions are under the mistaken impression that the country known today as Israel is the historical successor of the ancient Kingdom of Israel. What they don’t realize, is that before the creation of the state of Israel in the twentieth century, Jews had not had autonomy in the region since the sixth decade of the first century.
After the Roman generals Titus and Vespasian utterly sacked the city of Jerusalem in 70CE, the Jews no longer had self governing territory on a national scale. In fact, the whole face of Judaism began to change in the region. At least tens, but probably hundreds of thousands had accepted Jesus as Messiah, and the distinctive Jewish identity now merged with the growing number of gentiles who embraced Christianity. With the coming of Islam in the seventh century, hundreds and thousands more converted to the faith of Muhammad.
As the population of Jews in Palestine shrank, Jewish centers in other parts of the world appear to have remained stable. There were sizeable populations in Egypt and other parts of North Africa, as well as influential communities in Iran and Iraq. In fact, from as early as New Testament times, Jews had already established bases in European countries as far west as Italy and Spain. Although there was sporadic persecution, for the most part the Jews in Muslim lands lived in relative peace. The situation was different in Europe, where they were often despised and persecuted.
The plight of the Jews in Europe intensified during the crusades. It seemed as if there was no sanctuary for the dispersed remnant of Israel’s seed. In the name of Christianity, Europe’s Monarchs turned their lives into a living hell. In 1290, King Edward I of England expelled all Jews from his land. He was followed by Philip the Fair of France in 1306. As the frantic sons of Jacob sought refuge with their settled peers in southern Europe, they too were disrupted in 1492 when they were expelled from Spain and later Portugal and made subject to horrendous persecution during the inquisitions. Finding no peace in Europe, most found refuge in Muslim countries.
Jews in other parts of Europe continued to suffer as the brainwashed population beguiled by the racist rhetoric of such icons as Martin Luther directed their fury towards these Sabbath keepers. Russia would soon initiate a systemized pogrom, and Poland would slaughter half-a-million during the 17th century. There was a temporary respite, and the resilient people of promise made great contributions to European culture. In fact, many were able to prosper in the area of commerce. However, this only served to infuriate their temperamental European hosts who watched silently as Adolf Hitler organized the systematic persecution of millions of Jews at the height of European civilization.
It was the systemic racism in the west that drove modern Jews to find refuge in Palestine. From as early as the nineteenth century, Jews fleeing Europe were being aided by the open policies of the Ottoman Empire. However, by the turn of the twentieth century the situation was somewhat different. The Ottoman Empire had been defeated by the British, and the immigrant Jews were now becoming a strong political force. Emboldened by their growing numbers, many Jews were attracted to the Zionist ideology of Theodor Herzl who believed that the displaced people needed their own homeland.
England appears to have been the first European nation to endorse the concept of a Jewish homeland when the Balfour Declaration of 1917 mandated that a portion of Palestine should be ceded to the Jews (at this time, the British administered Palestine). In 1947, the western influenced United Nations placed their weight behind the concept of a Palestine divided by Jewish/Muslim lines. Shortly after, war erupted and the Zionists seized the lion’s share, and the modern state of Israel was born.
The new political dynamics in Palestine evoked the anger of Arabs around the region. As far as they were concerned, the creation of the Israeli state was just another chapter in Europe’s imperial quest. They did not associate the European exiles with bonafide people of the region. Given the religious reasoning behind the Zionist claim on the land, Muslims in Arab nations began to despise the Jews who had lived for centuries within their borders. It did not take long for the hundreds and thousands of Jews living in Muslim lands to seek refuge in the newly created state, further infuriating the indigenous inhabitants. Hence the foundation of the problem that exists to this very day.
Those unaware of the history are quick to blame Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists for the regional instability, but the record is indisputably clear that the catalyst for catastrophe was created by the nations of Europe whose twisted understanding of Christianity led them to persecute the Jews. A knowledge of the history helps to put regional issues into perspective, and provides some understanding for the existence of groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Fatah. Ironically, while Euro-American powers are pointing the finger at extremist Islamic groups, and blaming them for global instability, the other three fingers are directed at the real culprits. The true perpetrators are those who sought to purge Europe–yea the world–of the “race” accused of murdering Jesus. The bigger tragedy, is that they did all this in the name of Christianity–a movement originally dedicated to propagating the gospel of peace.
As Pope Benedict conjures words that–in previous centuries–inspired many ordinary church folk to pick up arms against Muslims and Jews, one wonders if the Christian church has learned its lesson. My only hope is that the faithful remnant who understand the real essence of the gospel will continue to allow God’s light of peace to shine through their actions.
Keith Augustus Burton is a part of the Sabbath in Africa Study Group, a research team founded by Dr. Charles E. Bradford that studies Hebraic symbols in African cultures. He also shares Jewish ancestry through his father and his mother.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2206