By Janet Brann-Hollis and Dawn Barkhuizen
While it is fashionable in some quarters to vilify Israel, those who draw parallels between it and apartheid South Africa ignore thousands of centuries of history as well as more recent pertinent facts.
They also ignore the command in Scripture for believers to pray for the peace of Jerusalem and to align with Israel so that the blessing given to the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will filter through to other nations.
Let us deal first with history. There can be no question that the Jewish nation’s umbilical cord was tied to the Holy Land. The history of the Jews in the region goes back as far as the 18th century BCE when Abraham, the patriarch of the faith, lived in what was then called Canaan. It was there that Scripture tells us, God promised his friend that land as an inheritance for Abraham’s descendants.
Today there is evidence of this history in a stone structure in Hebron — the Tomb of the Patriarchs. One of the most ancient and revered sites in Judaism, this is where Scripture tells us that Abraham bought a plot of land for his burial site. It is also where his son, Isaac, and grandson, Jacob, are said to be buried. This site is venerated by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, with the Muslim link emerging seven centuries after the death of Christ.
The next iconic figure in Jewish history with connections to Israel is Moses. He is thought to have led the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and back to the land of their forefathers in the 13th century BCE. The ties between Moses and Israel run so deep that, sages say, were Moses to appear in Israel today he would be perfectly at home as the same religious practises are still observed and the same language – Hebrew – is still spoken.
Another feature of Jewish history is Palestine. While there is conjecture over the origin of the word, it is thought to come from the Hebrew word “peleshet” which translates as migratory or invading, and referred at the time, to an Aegean people who arrived from Crete and occupied a small pocket of land below Tel Aviv along the coast going towards Egypt. They were not related to the Arab people who call themselves Palestinians today. The word Philistia or “Palaistine” first appeared in Greek literature in the 5th century BCE.
After the Greek occupation of the land of Israel, a Roman occupation followed, during which the Jews fought three wars of resistance. After the third rebellion, Rome took steps to crush the Jewish spirit and identity by attaching the name Syria-Palestina to southern Syria and Judea and Samaria.
In the centuries that followed this name fell away as control of the area changed hands. After the Romans came the Mamluk invaders, then the Crusaders, then the Turks who established the vast Ottoman empire across parts of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa with the capital in Istanbul. At the end of the First World War the Ottomans conceded Judea and Samaria as well as the land across the Jordan River, referred to as Transjordan, and in 1920 the British began to administrate both areas under a League of Nations mandate.
This means there was never an independent country called Palestine – a fact that the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad highlighted to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation leader, Yasser Arafat, in the 1970s. That does not, however, negate the Arab presence — there was one. Nevertheless, despite all the centuries of occupation, the Jewish population was never totally wiped out. Jews were always present in cities such as Hebron and Jerusalem, a fact recorded in 1863 when the British consulate noted that Jews were the majority in Jerusalem. This contributed to the 1917 Balfour Declaration which recognised the Jewish right to a homeland in the area in which they had historically lived.
Thirty years later, as the British mandate drew to a close, a partition plan was drawn up. The United Nations General Assembly voted in favour of it in 1947 and the state of Israel was born in 1948. Partition was accepted by the Jews but not the Arabs. Five Arab countries immediately declared war on Israel, rejecting completely the vision stated in Israel’s founding document to live in peace with all.
Arab hostility towards Israel was again articulated after the 1967 Six Day war. The Arab League met in Khartoum and adopted the resolution known as the “Three Nos”. There would be “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with it”.
A breakthrough however, occurred in 1979 when Egypt and Israel made peace. This was followed by a treaty with Jordan in 1994 and one last year with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, known as the Abraham Accords.
Inside Israel however, attempts to establish peace have proved trickier. Multiple efforts to build peace with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation either imploded or bore little fruit, including the Oslo accord in 1993, a meeting in 1998 and another at Camp David in 2000. These have also been interspersed by intifadas (uprisings) in which suicide bombings and other attacks have killed 3 000 Israelis. The PLO (now known as Fatah) has however, made a dramatic shift by recognising Israel’s right to exist.
It continues to control the area now known as the West Bank (of the Jordan River).
The second area under Palestinian control is the Gaza Strip. In 2005 Israel withdrew from the territory completely. As they left, the Israeli Defence Force evicted some 9 000 Jews who had been farming in the northern part of the strip. All control was handed over to the Palestinian Authority, including all the remaining dwellings and farming equipment. These were subsequently smashed and burnt by the Islamist group Hamas, which was formed in 1987.
Two years later, in 2007, Hamas took control of Gaza.
It is worth pausing to profile Hamas. It is primarily an extremist religious organisation with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood. A stated objective, in its charter, is to obliterate Israel. The charter goes on to say that “the day of judgment will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them”.
And true to its declared intent, Hamas has gone to war. Instead of using billions from international funders to develop the strip and build houses, it has constructed a maze of underground tunnels and arsenals in which it stockpiled an estimated 12 000 long-range missiles. These have been fired into Israel consistently over the past 12 years — not just during periods of heightened attack as happened in May. It is safe to say that were it not for Israel’s anti-missile system, the Iron Dome, and its warning system that gives Israelis a few seconds to dash into bunkers or reinforced rooms, there would be carnage inside Israel.
Meanwhile Hamas’ Qassam brigades embed themselves within the civilian population of Gaza, from where they fire missiles, purposefully using ordinary, decent people as human shields. This, while part of the leadership sits safely in Qatar.
Another important point about Hamas is its status as a proxy army for a far bigger player in the region – Iran. Its mullahs share Hamas’s desire to exterminate the Jewish state and have been the steadiest suppliers of long-range missiles to Hamas. In fact, following Hamas’ May barrage against Israel, it could be argued that the only “winner” was Iran as its rockets enlarged its footprint, according to missile defence experts.
It should also be noted that Hamas is not cast in the mould of African liberation organisations. It is more akin to the Taliban – religious extremist, anti-democratic and openly genocidal. At home it kills its opposition by throwing them off buildings. It has imposed Sharia law and in February this year it issued an edict forbidding single women from travelling without the written, logged consent of their families.
It hardly needs to be stated that Hamas has zero political will when it comes to establishing peace with Israel.
In fact, had there been any real will on the part of any of the Palestinian leaders, the much talked about two-state solution would long ago have materialised. Israel has made repeated efforts and concessions to forge peace over the seven decades of its existence.
This brings us to the accusations of war crimes levelled against Israel. The truth is the retaliatory actions of the Israeli Defence Force have been motivated by one reason – to protect those within its borders — and in doing so it goes to unique and extraordinary lengths to avoid harming the civilians that Hamas hides behind.
It is within this context that the overt hatred expressed towards Israel in many parts of the world should be considered. Writing in The Spectator, Brendan O’Neill says it suggests a peculiar double-standard, especially given the silence of these same critics when, for instance, Turkey’s army is pummelling the Kurds in Iraqi Turkistan, or Saudi Arabia is bombing school children in Yemen. He also points out that in launching their attacks neither Turkey nor Saudi Arabia were facing an existential threat – as has been the case for Israel.
This brings us back to the point of history. Are those trying to sidestep it by describing modern day Israelis as occupiers, colonialists, or settlers applying the same double-standard or are they uninformed? The answer is uncertain, but the fact is, history is not on their side.
Far from being the apartheid state that political and media propagandists claim, Israel, which comprises just 0.1% of the land mass of the Middle East, stands out as the only democracy in the region where all citizens enjoy equality before the law, the right to vote and to serve at every level of government, a free press, freedom of religion, speech and association.
Now, given this context, how should Christians, including those in South Africa, respond to modern day Israel?
Paul provides clear direction in Romans 11:16-18 when he writes that believers have been “grafted into the olive tree”. The root of the olive tree represents Israel. And its patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, are the ones who entered into a covenant with God. As believers we get to share in the full benefits of this through the New Covenant — which we receive through Yeshua (Jesus) who grafts us into the olive tree.
Paul, however, goes on to warn: “Do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember you do not support the root – the root supports you.” In other words, as believers we are not to forget where we came from and are to honour the forefathers of our faith and their descendants.
As the Church we have a duty to understand our Jewish roots and to endeavour, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to develop a love and heartfelt compassion for Israel and its people. When we begin to appreciate our Jewish Messiah and our Jewish heritage, we will not lose our salvation but gain a wonderful depth of understanding and a more intimate relationship with our Saviour. As individual believers we should, therefore, ask God to give us a sincere love for the Jewish nation. This will allow us to appreciate being grafted into the olive tree.
In Romans 11:26 Paul states that “all Israel will be saved” — a reminder that the people of Israel, like people everywhere else, need salvation through Yeshua. Historically the Church has been complicit in antisemitism which has hindered its mandate to be a witness to the Jews that Yeshua is their Messiah. Loving Israel opens the door for believers to be true witnesses.
The Jewish blessing spoken of in Genesis 12:3 will be activated over South Africa if our nation chooses to walk with Israel. Alternatively, the curse impacting non-believing and hostile nations will activate over South Africa, leading to judgment and devastation.
This is the choice that South Africa now faces: Will we be classified as a sheep nation that embraces Israel or a goat nation that opposes it?
Those with an appreciation and love for Israel will understand the seriousness of our government’s response. Politically speaking, our government’s stance is to support the two-state solution, but South Africa’s ambassador has been withdrawn from Israel and at the United Nations SA delegations are known to vote against Israel at every turn. They also have a reputation for trying to influence other members of the African bloc to do the same.
The responsibility, therefore, falls on believers to pray for our government — that it will awaken to its spiritual responsibility and biblical mandate to be a friend to Israel. We also have a responsibility to pray for leaders to be put in place who understand the times and the full scope of the Kingdom assignment, including the significance of our nation’s position towards Israel.
The importance of the moment should not be lost on the Church in South Africa. God is in the process of birthing a new nation. His desire is to elevate our country, give it recognition and release it into an era of prosperity, peace and stability, for generations to come. Aligning with Israel is key to sharing these blessings.