425. Israel and the Palestinians, November 2023 – Part One

I’m sorry this Post is so late in arriving. Last week was chaotic on this end. I won’t describe it except to give you a warning: Brothers and sisters, be very, very careful of online scams. I was being so wary. I thought I would never fall for one. And then… …

Post 426 will arrive on time this Friday. God willing.


I’ll try to be objective in what follows. However, I need to make it clear that I am a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, which is part of the Patriarchate of Antioch (Syria). Because of this I have known many first generation Americans of Middle Eastern origin, including many Palestinians, who have provided insights which perhaps many Americans have not shared.

I usually try to include a little humor in my Posts, but there’s nothing funny about this.

Before we begin, in order to help us think clearly:

Some necessary distinctions and clarifications

To be opposed to the present Israeli government does not make a person “anti-semitic”. * Many Jews oppose President Netanyahu and his government.

  • Does it confuse the issue to mention that the Palestinians also are semitic people?

2  To support the Palestinian cause does not mean a person supports Hamas and terrorism. Far from it, most Palestinians just want to be left alone to live in peace on their own land.

Benjamin Netanyahu courtesy of Reuters

3  To understand something (Hamas, for example) does not mean a person supports or favors it. (For a meteorologist to understand tornadoes does not mean he supports or favors tornadoes!)  Everything happens for a reason. If we don’t understand why, we’ll not know how to deal with it. To dismiss Hamas or any person or group of people as “just evil” is an excuse for not thinking, which will only confuse and aggravate the situation. I stress this because the other day a UN official said that while he abhorred the Hamas attack, “we need to remember that it did not happen in a vacuum”. President Netanyahu, who apparently does not want to understand, immediately called for his resignation.

Now, chiefly I want to talk about the history, especially the religious history, that lies behind what’s happening now in the Holy Land. However, let’s begin with:

Israel and Gaza: The Present Situation

… including a few things not well publicized in much of our American press.

Under their president Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s elected government (the most extreme militant right wing in their history) has authorized a major expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian West Bank. (I’ll say more about this later.) The cabinet as a whole favors Israel’s annexation of all Palestine, in contradiction to the establishment of a Palestinian state, which has long been at least official Israeli and international policy.

Gaza is a small strip of land surrounded by Israel on three sides and on the south by Egypt. Gaza City is in the north. The Gaza Strip is one of most densely populated regions on earth. Gaza is not formally occupied by Israel. However Israel controls all their entrances (whether by land or air), except for one gateway into Egypt which is usually closed entirely. Israel’s permission must be granted in order for anyone * to leave or to enter, and this is rarely granted to residents of Gaza. Hamas is the elected government of Gaza, which provides many necessary social services, in addition to the military. Because of Israeli control, the United Nations reported that even before the present violence more than 80% of Gazans lived in poverty, with access to clean water and electricity at crisis levels.

  • or anything, including medicine and building materials, for example
Results of Hamas attack (Times of Israel, October 2, 2023)

Hamas’ barbaric attack on southern Israel killed about 1400 innocent men, women and children, some in the most appalling ways, and took two or three hundred hostages (the exact number is not known), * most of whom are still being held.Some Israeli homes were destroyed. Since then many hundreds of rockets have been aimed at Israel, most from Gaza but some from Lebanon to the north, almost all of which have been intercepted, but which have been nerve-wracking to the populace. Around 250,000 Israeli people have been displaced as they move away from the northern snd southern borders.

  • The purpose of this seemingly self-destructive tactic has not been explained, though many pundits have made guesses.

Since then Israel has struck Gaza with massive, almost continual bombing raids and missile attacks with the stated intent of forcing Hamas to return the hostages and to eliminate the Hamas government. They say they are making every attempt to avoid civilian targets. However, very many civilian targets have been hit, including hospitals, refugee camps (one of them twice), and even the only Orthodox Church in Gaza, where about five hundred refugees, mostly Christians, had taken shelter thinking surely they would be safe there.


By the way, I wish it was easier to watch Al Jazeera in this country. We can’t get it on cable, at least here in Milwaukee. Without it, we often hear only one side of the news.

Archbishop Alexios said “Why did Israel bomb the church, and kill innocent people, children who had come here for protection?”


“Health officials in the Hamas-controlled enclave said Monday that more than three weeks of relentless Israeli artillery and missile strikes had left over 9,000 people dead *, the vast majority of them innocent civilians, including more than 3,400 children.” (CBS news, October 30, 2023)  As of that date, communication with the outside world was almost impossible. 33, 960 residential units had been destroyed. 16 out of 33 hospitals were out of service. Gaza was running out of food, medicine, fuel. Surgeries were being performed without anesthetic. Infants were going without milk and food.

  • As of today, November 7, it’s over 10,000.

“I am horrified by the reported attack in Gaza of an ambulance convoy outside Al Shifa hospital,” U.N. chief Guterres said Friday evening. “The images of bodies strewn on the street outside the hospital are harrowing… For nearly one month, civilians in Gaza, including children and women, have been besieged, denied aid, killed, and bombed out of their homes,” Guterres added. “This must stop.” (Politico, November 3, 2023)

Israel has now advised the civilian population of Gaza City to leave and head south, which is difficult because the road has been struck and is nearly impassible. Even the elderly have been forced to walk several miles on foot. To date, there are at least 1.5 million refugees, out of a total Gazan population of 2.1 million. Meanwhile, Israel has continued to bombard the southern part of Gaza, though not as hard as Gaza City.

In addition, almost 150 Palestinians have been killed in the occupied West Bank since the war began.

There. I just told you more about the present scene than I had intended. However, as I researched I discovered much that I had not known before.

History and Religion

Understanding this is the only way we can get a handle on why Israel and Palestine are in such a mess today.

What follows here is based largely on my Posts 41 and 42, part of a series I wrote back in 2019 on “Orthodoxy and Other Faiths”.

Biblical Teaching about Israel

It’s clear from the Old Testament that God chose the Jews as His own people and called them to settle in their “promised land”, that small land of Israel/Palestine. The Jews laid the necessary foundation for our Christian Faith regarding creation, sin, the moral life, the coming of the Messiah.

However, here is the New Testament claim: Because the Jews rejected Jesus Christ their Messiah, they lost their claim to that land. The Church is now the true Israel, the new Chosen People of the New Covenant, whose Promised Land is nowhere on this earth but rather in the Heavenly Kingdom. That leaves Israel as just one more of the many countries on earth. *

  • See, for example: https://orthochristian.com/93181.html

This is contrary to what is believed by orthodox Jews and is built into the mindset even of secular Jews. It is also (strangely enough) the claim of many Protestant Bible fundamentalists. Therefore let me provide some documentation.

Codex Aureus of Echternach, c A.D. 1040

1 Jesus told a parable about vinedressers (the Jews) who were chosen to care for God’s vineyard but then rejected God’s servants (the prophets) and finally killed his Son, and so “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”  (Matthew 21, Mark 12, Luke 20)

2 Saint Paul saw the Jewish nation (his own people!) as a branch that is cut off, while the Gentiles have been grafted on, because the Jews as a nation rejected their Messiah. (Romans 11)

3 Paul wrote that the true sons of Abraham are not those who are physical heirs of Abraham but those who follow Abraham in his faith. (Galatians 3)

4 When Paul speaks of the “Israel of God”, he is clearly talking about the Church. (Galatians 6:16)

5 Hebrews says God “has made the first [covenant] obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away”. (Hebrews 8)

6 Saint Peter wrote “They stumbled in their disbelief, but [applying Old Testament images of the nation of Israel to the Church], now you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, his own special people…you are the people of God.” (I Peter 2)

7 Jesus predicted that the nation of Israel would be destroyed (as it was by the Romans forty years later, and the Jews were scattered): “They will not leave one stone upon another” – and why? “Because you did not know the time of your visitation”. (Luke 19)

8 Is there still a promised land? Yes, but not in the Middle East or anywhere on earth. Jesus said to Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18)

As I said, you will hear a very different view on this from some American fundamentalists, based on their misuse of certain Old Testament prophecies. We Orthodox see the New Testament as unequivocal and consistent: When the Jews rejected their Messiah, the Church succeeded them as God’s Chosen People.

What should be our attitude towards the Jews?

Old Testament saints

1  We should honor the Jews as our forefathers and foremothers in the Faith – as we Orthodox do liturgically on the two Sundays before the Nativity of Our Lord. I wish we had Old Testament readings in our Sunday lectionary, as most Western Christians do now. Remember that the blessed Theotokos, Saint Joseph, John the Forerunner, and the twelve Apostles all were Jews. So was our Lord Jesus Christ!

2 The same as if our mothers and fathers, once faithful, had gone astray in some way: with sadness, with gratitude, with love, with hope. At first Jews persecuted Christians. Then Christians came to power and have often persecuted Jews, claiming they were “Christ-killers”. That’s absurd. A few Jewish rulers 2000 years ago arranged the death of Jesus Christ. Most Jews have followed them, as most people follow their leaders. But Jews in general, even at the time of Jesus’ death, did not kill Jesus.

3 The same as towards all people: Christ commanded us to love everyone. The Jews are our fellow human beings, our brothers and sisters created in the image of God.

In our treatment of Jews down through history, we Christians have a lot to be ashamed of. There should be no room among us for “anti-Semitism” of any sort. The many threats and incidents now being directed at Jews are despicable. We should denounce them.

Despite this, through history Jews have shown an admirable ability to survive and prosper, often with a sardonic humor under very difficult circumstances. They have been a bright, resourceful, remarkable people. They still are. Try to imagine American theater and music and art without them. * They have also become a major influence in American media and government, often a force for personal freedoms and rights. We should honor them for all that.

  • I love music. I try to imagine America without the songs “God Bless America”, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”, “Take me out to the Ball Game”, and a multitude of others, equally famous, all written by Jewish Americans. George Gershwin, the greatest of American song writers,  was Jewish. And Aaron Copland: “Appalachian Spring”. And Leonard Bernstein, one of our greatest conductors. And Barbra Steisand. And…

The Holocaust and Modern Israel

Now to modern times, and we must talk politics here. Brothers and sisters, all politics, both good and bad, has its origins in theology, both good and bad, whether Trinitarisn or theistic or atheistic.

Prisoners in barracks at the Buchenwald concentration camp. (National Archives and Records Administration)

A few people today say the German Holocaust of the Jews never happened. It certainly did! Or that Hitler didn’t kill six million Jews, only two million. “Only two million”?

The Holocaust was a catastrophe for the Jews. There had long been many Jews throughout the western world, sometimes persecuted especially in Russia. In recent centuries in western Europe and in the Ottoman Empire *, Jews were accepted as ordinary members of society. (This was why the Holocaust in Germany, of all places, came as a horrific shock.)

  • which was Muslim. Jews and Muslims have been enemies only since the establishment of Israel in 1947.

Likewise there had been a considerable number of Jews in Ottoman Palestine, as well as a Twentieth Century Zionist movement to restore the Jews to the territory that had been their homeland until the Romans drove them out in AD 66. In 1917 in the Balfour Declaration, the British government (as part of Western European colonialist reshaping of the Middle East) first signaled their intent to create a Jewish state in Palestine. After World War II the Western powers out of sympathy and guilt –  Germany, after all, was part of traditional western Christendom – gave the Jews a homeland. Many American fundamentalists, misusing Old Testament prophecies, had long said that the Jews still have a right to the Holy Land. So now bad theology made bad politics. In 1947 the United States took the lead in partitioning Palestine, giving part of that land to the Jews as the new nation of Israel, and millions of Jews mostly from Europe poured in. Surely we can understand their desire for a secure homeland.

Next Week: Part Two of Israel and the Palestinians

Week after Next: Saint John the Merciful


5 thoughts on “425. Israel and the Palestinians, November 2023 – Part One

  1. St.. Paul can be complicated as sometimes he seems to speak of the Church as the new Israel but sometimes he means Israel when speaking of Israel. Theologians have been debating this for a long time. I do not consider either side in the war as all good or all bad. I pray that there will be a ceasefire to let tempers cool.

    1. Thank you, Luke. To go even further, nothing in this world is all good or all bad. However, some things are worse than others, and some are better – a distinction which we need to take into account. Yes: Please, Lord, a ceasefire so the poor people of Gaza can have a chance to breathe again.

  2. Hi Father Bill,
    I come from a church tradition that generally teaches the importance of a Jewish nation state. It’s really helpful to have you outline the passages about the church taking the place of Israel.
    You referenced old testament passages that Christians may take out of context to explain their support of Israel, could you share a few of those?

    1. Dear Lakiah:

      Here’s a list and some commentary I got from the website of Biola University, an independent evangelical college:

      “The Bible prophesies about “wars and rumors of wars” (Matthew 24:6) — presumably focused on the land of Israel — and it prophesies a final assault of the nations against Jerusalem (Ezekiel 39:2, 4, 17; Daniel 11:45; Joel 3:9-16; Zechariah 12:1-9). But these “wars and rumors of wars” are explicitly not signs of the end — that is, Israel (if not the entire world) will experience many wars throughout time, starting with the primary “war” for Jesus’ listeners, the first Jewish revolt against Rome and subsequent subjugation of Israel and destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Thus, what we see in the Middle East today may merely be one in a long series of disturbances in Israel and so does not, in itself, signal the end. On the other hand, the current crisis could lead to the final war, the gathering of the nations to Har-Magedon (or “the mount of assembly,” Rev 16:16; Isaiah 13:4; compare Isaiah 14:13). Before it were to do so, however, I would expect to see the “abomination of desolation” that Jesus referred to (Matthew 24:15; Daniel 7:25; 8:13; 11:31; 12:7, 11) and that Paul apparently understood to be “the man of lawlessness” (or Antichrist) taking his seat in the Jerusalem Temple and proclaiming himself God (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4; Daniel 11:36). Until that event takes place, I attach no particular significance to the current crisis.”

      As I understand it, the early Church and Orthodox (as well as that of Roman Catholics and many Protestants) interpretation is that most of these prophecies applied to what was going on at the time they were written, and most have already been fulfilled. For example, the prophecies about the return of Israel applied not to the 20TH century but to the peoples’ return from exile in Babylon in 538 BC. Christ’s prophecies about the destruction of Jerusalem were fulfilled by the Romans in AD 70. The “Abomination” in the Holy of Holies of the Temple took place twice: at the first destruction when a pig was sacrificed there, the second when the Roman Emperor entered the Holy of Hoies before he destroyed the temple. And so on. A few prophecies remain mysterious, but there is no reason we should think they apply again to now. The Book of the Revelation is generally thought to be a book written in symbols, speaking to the situation of persecuted Christians in the late First Century. For example, the beast rising out of the sea referred to the Roman Empire coming out of the Mediterranean to persecute the first Christians. Christ gave other prophecies about His return in glory, but the most important one was when He said “No one knows the time, not the angels in Heaven, not even the Son, but only the Father in Heaven”. Our job till then is not to waste time speculating, but just do the will of God and be faithful.

      Father Bill

  3. Thanks for addressing this, it is such a fraught topic. It is very easy to be drawn to one extreme or the other on this.

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