Prime Minister Stephen Harper. CNS photo/Chris Wattie, Reuters

Israel’s outlook must be seen through a biblical lens

By 
  • January 23, 2014

JERUSALEM - I have been to Israel more than a dozen times — as a pilgrim, leading pilgrimages, with my family, on a private retreat, for Christmas, for Holy Week, for board meetings, for the papal visit of 2009 — but never for something quite like this. I was invited to be part of the official delegation accompanying Prime Minister Stephen Harper on his visit this week to Israel and the Palestinian Authority (West Bank).

When the Prime Minister makes an official visit of unusual importance, he often invites various leaders from business, culture, education and other sectors to accompany him. The visit thus is not only government to government, but includes civil society as well. The Prime Minister has made relations with Israel a key part of his foreign policy, and so this delegation was the largest one that has accompanied him on any of his trips. And, given the holiness of this land, it includes several religious leaders. One news report noted that there were “21 rabbis and one priest” which led to a lot of bad jokes! Rabbis and priests are easier to spot given our dress, but there are also several senior evangelical Protestant leaders with us.

The high point of the visit was the Prime Minister’s address to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Stephen Harper is the first Canadian prime minister to whom that honour has been extended, and the warm reception he received was an occasion of pride for Canadians.

He sought to explain why his government has been, both in terms of Canadian history and in comparison to other Western countries today, unusually vigourous in its support for Israel. Harper put it plainly: “It is the right thing to do.”

“Support today for the Jewish state of Israel is more than a moral imperative,” he continued, while also noting Canada’s support for a Palestinian state. “It is also a matter of strategic importance, also a matter of our own, long-term interests. The special friendship between Canada and Israel is rooted in shared values. Indeed, Israel is the only country in the Middle East which has long anchored itself in the ideals of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. And these are not mere notions. They are the things that over time and against all odds, have proven to be over and over again the only ground in which human rights, political stability and economic prosperity may flourish. These values are not proprietary. They do not belong to one people or one nation. Nor are they a finite resource. On the contrary, the wider they are spread, the stronger they grow. Likewise, when they are threatened anywhere, they are threatened everywhere.”

The Prime Minister added another reason for supporting Israel’s right to a secure existence — the memory of “the shadow and horrors of the Holocaust.” He characterized Israel’s story as “essentially” that “of a people whose response to suffering has been to move beyond resentment and build a most extraordinary society, a vibrant democracy, a freedom-loving country with an independent and rights-affirming judiciary, an innovative, world-leading ‘start-up’ nation.”

Both arguments for Israel are true — it is a liberal democracy and a refuge after the Holocaust. But there is a third — or I would argue, a first — argument that Harper did not make in the Knesset. An argument that would have resonated with the Jewish and Christian religious leaders in the delegation: The land of Israel is the biblical home of the Jewish people. It is what Liberal MP Irwin Cotler of Montreal, also present here for the visit, but not part of the official government delegation, has called the “aboriginal argument” for Israel, namely that Jews are an aboriginal people, living on their ancestral land, speaking their language, preserving their culture.

It is an argument that Stephen Harper agrees with, even if he did not make it in the Knesset.

“All of my life, Israel has been a symbol — a symbol of the triumph of hope and faith,” he said in 2008, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the state of Israel. “After 1945, our battered world desperately needed to be lifted out of post-war darkness and despair... From shattered Europe and other countries near and far, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob made their way home. Their pilgrimage was the culmination of a 2,000-year-old dream.”

Israel as a homeland of the Jewish people — a promised homeland, the object of a providential pilgrimage, a return after a calamity of biblical proportions, an in-gathering after two millennia of expulsion and exile — is a language that must resonate with any Christian who looks at history through the eyes of faith. Contemporary questions of justice and peace, liberty and security, not only for Jews but also for Arabs, are critical, but the fundamental outlook has to be shaped by biblical history.

For if Israel was to cease to be a liberal democracy, or the Holocaust was to fade from memory, would the Jewish people have any less of a right to a homeland in Zion?

Stephen Harper spoke in 2008 of hoping to make his “pilgrimage” here. It is a pilgrimage I have been blessed to make many times. May we all — Canadians, Israelis, Arabs, Jews, Christians, Muslims — be blessed in Israel. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life: www.cardus.ca/convivium.)

 

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