Separate talks: During a peaceful moment outside the walled Old City in East Jerusalem, two Arab men chat as one fingers prayer beads. Behind them, Israeli soldiers hold their own discussions. (photo: Gerald Ring)
A Palestinian farmer plows his land the way it has been done for generations. On the nearby hillside, an Israeli settlement built on former Arab land is a new suburb for Jerusalem. (photo: Gerald Ring)
An Arab villager of Samaria. (photo: Gerald Ring)
Editor’s note: In the following excerpt from his book Blood Brothers, Father Elias Chacour returns to his family’s village in Biram soon after his ordination in the Melkite – Greek Catholic Church. When he was a boy there, Jewish soldiers had expelled the native villagers and destroyed their homes. On this return to the ruins of his family’s home in northern Galilee, Father Chacour develops a biblical view of a Palestinian Christian on the creation of Israel and its implications for his people.
“Looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.”(Isaiah 5:7)
Something in the yard stopped me. There, firmly rooted and still green with life, grew my special fig tree. I went to it and ran my hand over the rough bark and the grapevine that still trellised up its branches, thick and coarse as rope. This had always been my special hiding place – the spot where Atallah found me on the day Father announced the soldiers were coming.
Amid these vivid memories, Father’s face appeared clearly – a younger face, loving yet stern, as it had been when he had lectured Rudah for bringing a gun home to protect us. The Jews and Palestinians are blood brothers, he had said. We must never forget that.
Now, looking at Father’s specially-grafted fig tree, I knew what those words meant. As a child, I had known that we got on well with the Jewish people from other villages, that we bartered with them and that the men occasionally enjoyed a rousing religious discussion. But with my seminary training, I was suddenly and keenly aware of St. Paul’s declaration to the young churches: God had broken a dividing wall, and there was no longer “Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female;” in fact, all had become “Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to God’s promise” (Galatians 3:28-29). Further, Paul said, “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel … nor are they all Abraham’s children … It is not only the natural children who are God’s children, but also the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring” (Romans 9:6-8). We Gentiles had been “grafted in” among God’s chosen people of faith, just as Father had grafted six different kinds of fig trees together to make a delightful new tree. Beneath the rough bark where my hand rested, I knew that the living wood had fused together so perfectly that, should I cut the tree down, I could never see where one variety stopped and the other began.
How terribly sad that men could ignore God’s plan for peace between divided brothers, even supporting one group as it wielded its might to force out the other. Such wrong thinking had divided the early Church, driving Hebrew and Gentile believers apart. I had been surprised at fellow seminarians and professors. They had often become furious in discussions when I had stated that Palestinians also had a God-given right to live in Israel, to sow and reap from the land, and to live as equals, not second-class citizens. Were we not “children of the promise, regarded as Abraham’s offspring?”
Immediately, our discussions would swing in the direction of Old Testament prophecy. Again and again I was asked: “Did God not promise to regather the nation of Israel in their own homeland?”
The answer to that question was yes, of course. But that was not the only question, nor was it the main concern of the prophets. To address the full issue correctly, I had to start by asking another question: “To whom does God say the land really belongs?” And at once my friends would raise their eyebrows, wary that I was angling off the subject into some tricky, political double-talk. Not so, I was simply referring to the Old Testament Law wherein God says to the Jews, “… the land is mine and you are but aliens and tenants” (Leviticus 25:23).
Quickly my friends would object, saying, “But God promised the land to Abraham, then to his son Isaac and also to Isaac’s son Jacob who was renamed, Israel.”
That was true, too. However, it is crucial to understand Abraham’s response to so gracious a gift, of which he and his descendants were to be caretakers. He did not plow through the land, driving out its inhabitants, wielding power to establish his ownership by “right.” … Never did Abraham try to wrest Melchizedek’s throne from him, nor did he take over anyone’s land. He lived as a nomad. In fact, when his wife Sarah died, he very meekly purchased a cave in Hebron for her tomb.
Then I would ask a very crucial question: “What did God expect from the descendants of Abraham as caretakers dwelling in His land?”
It was to the Old Testament prophets that I turned for answers. In my own studies, I had become vibrantly aware that God had a special calling for his “caretaker people.” In fact it was so high and hard a calling that I trembled to think of it: God demanded that they demonstrate His own character to the whole world, that they show forth the face of God in every action from the way they conducted their government down to the use of fair weights and measures in the marketplace….
Yes, there was something much more important at stake than a piece of land. God’s true purpose in regathering Israel was to demonstrate to the world that He is holy and He leads a holy nation….
There would be some in the coming years who would popularize the interpretation of prophecy, writing books and claiming that since Israel was now in its rightful place, all was in readiness for the Second Coming of Christ. But to me, that was an incomplete view of prophecy. For Isaiah, in his long testimony, made it amply clear that God was requiring a true change of heart in the Jewish people, a change in their traditional exclusiveness which caused them to believe that they alone were God’s favored ones. All the prophets had made it clear that such thinking led to pride and error and wrongdoing. The new regathered Israel was to be different. Isaiah records this command:
This is what the Lord says, “Maintain justice and do what is right….”
I had sat down beneath the fig tree resting the back of my head against its knobby trunk as these prophecies flooded my thoughts again. Isaiah had always threaded justice and righteousness together throughout his prophecy. And clearly God intended to hold up His new Israel as a banner of justice before all the nations of the world. God’s Israel included “foreigners,” those who were not of the fleshly tribes of Israel, but who had been grafted into his family – just as the branches had been grafted into this fig tree. And how sad, I thought, that we have been cut off like unwanted branches.
Rising, I walked back to the car. I had another destination that morning….
As I drove, the voices of the ancient prophets still sounded. I found myself in hot debate, almost firing questions back at them. To me, as a Palestinian, Israel had returned to the land not in righteousness, but as my oppressor. As a Christian, I knew that I was grafted spiritually into the true family of Israel – though it certainly had not kept me or my people from suffering injustice. And how was I to respond? As a Christian, I had just as difficult a calling as a blood son of Israel. I could not join with the violent bands who were now attacking the country, even though I could feel their frustration. But neither could I live by the passive ways of Father and the other elders….
At the Mount of Beatitudes … the scene was unchanged since the days when Jesus toured Galilee on foot. Followed by a huge crowd of local people and others from Jerusalem, Judea and beyond the Jordan River, He had climbed up here to present His very first teaching to such a crowd…. As Jesus looked them over, he was already blending together the teachings of the Law and the Prophets with fresh vitalizing wisdom.
And He began to teach them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven….”
I was drawn in afresh by His words. Through the years they had become as part of my flesh. Perhaps their very familiarity had obscured their true meaning from me. For now, suddenly, with the voices of the ancient prophets still echoing in my head, Jesus’ words seared through me for the first time with deep meaning.
The Beatitudes were prophecies! Not mere platitudes. Jesus’ prophetic ministry had begun right there on the hill where I was standing. He had already set out to fulfill his purpose of grafting the Jews and Gentiles together into one family and one Kingdom by His death. Not the proud, but the “poor in spirit” would enter this coming kingdom where God’s will would be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Not all would welcome His idea of a Jewish and Gentile kingdom. Yet He knew so well the pain of oppression and loss. There would be suffering besides His own, and He told them – “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted….”
The next prophecy amazed me. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth…”
Immediately, I thought of Moses who was called “the meekest man on earth.” Yet he opposed Pharaoh and all Egypt, insisting upon freedom for God’s people. Meekness, then, was not weakness but relying fully upon God’s power as Moses had.
And I was intrigued by Jesus’ use of the word, “earth.” From my seminary training in ancient languages, I knew that the Greek word was ge, and its counterpart in Hebrew was the word ‘aretz. It was the same word used by modern Jews in referring to Israel. They called it Ha’aretz: The Land. And it was the same term King David, whom Jesus was quoting, had used in a psalm of comfort:
“Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of those who do wrong…. Trust in the Lord and do good…. A little while and the wicked will be no more. … But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace” (Psalm 37:1,3,10,11).
Was Jesus really saying that the true sons of Israel, whether of Jewish or Gentile origin, had the God-given right to inhabit the land of Israel? According to God’s promise through Isaiah – that He would give to the “foreigner … a name better than sons and daughters,” and that He would “gather still others besides those already gathered” – it was true.
All these thoughts had rushed upon me so quickly, I stood silent and awed. If all this were true, what could I do about it? My imagination played over the faces of that long-ago crowd that had listened to Jesus. How could these nice-sounding words make any difference when an unjust military government held sway, sending dissidents to their death? When they lived in fear of a strict, unforgiving religious code?
The next words of Jesus struck me like lightning: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.”
Isaiah had bound justice and righteousness together. And Jesus, who often quoted Isaiah, surely knew that. In fact, it was for justice and righteousness that He had come…. For one of the first things Jesus did when He reconciled man to God was to restore human dignity.
The reason Jesus’ words had struck me was this: Suddenly I knew that the first step toward reconciling Jew and Palestinian was the restoration of human dignity. Justice and righteousness were what I had been hungering and thirsting for: This was the third choice that ran like a straight path between violent opposition and calcified, passive non-resistance. If I were really committing my life to carry God’s message to my people, I would have to lift up, as Jesus had, the men and women who had been degraded and beaten down. Only by regaining their shattered human dignity could they begin to be reconciled to the Israeli people, whom they saw as their enemies. This, I knew at once, went beyond all claims of land and rightful ownership; it was the true beginning.
Excerpted from the book Blood Brothers by Elias Chacour with David Hazard, copyright 1984 by Elias Chacour. Used by permission of Chosen Books, Fleming H. Revell Company.