They’re at it again. This weekend, Israel and Syria battled each other. Protesters from Syria, many of them the descendants of Palestinian refugees from 1948, CNN reported, tried to cross into Israel from Israeli-controlled Golan Heights on Sunday. Naturally, gunfire followed. An estimated 23 people died. The previous month, Israeli troops were busy in Gaza where protestors were violently marking the anniversary of creation of Israel in May 1948.
If that reason weren’t sufficient, they’d have could come up with another one. The two groups have been feuding since the 1920s. One excuse is as good as another. It seems like the two groups have been at war for forever.
That’s simply not the case. For centuries, Jews and Arabs in the Holy land lived in peace. Both have long histories. Nomadic Arab Bedouins have roamed the Middle East for as far back as human history goes. Judaism developed around the 1300s B.C.E. The actual dating is not clear, but King David established a kingdom under the Jewish God by around 1000 B.C.E. Most historians accept that date. He called the land Judah, after the largest tribe in the Israeli family.
However, a revolt under David’s grandson divided the land into two parts. The northern half took the name Israel, linking itself with Jacob, the grandson of the supposed founder of Judaism, Abraham. The southern half retained the named Judah, the source of the words Jew and Judaism.
Late in the either century B.C.E., Assyria swept in from the east and captured Israel. The residents became the “10 lost tribes” of history. The southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin survived. They lived on independently until falling under Babylonian control in 597 B.C.E.
Judah would exist independently only briefly after that – from around 140 B.C. to 63 B.C.E. Other than that, the land has had a dominant master, including the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and then the Romans. Eventually, in the 8th century C.E., the Muslims moved in.
During all that time, Jews and Arabs lived side by side in what was first called Judea by the Romans. After a series of wars against Judeans trying to shed the Roman yoke, the Romans changed the name of the land to Palestine – their version of Philistine, the hated enemy of David and other Judean kings. The Romans also destroyed Jerusalem and banned Jews from living there.
The name did not carry any weight with anyone then. Under Islam, the land was known as Southern Syria. Residents considered themselves – if they thought about it at all – as Syrians. The term Palestinians was not revived until the 20th century where the English first applied it to Jewish settlers.
Jews had remained in what is now Israel – just not in Jerusalem – throughout the Roman reign. They remained under the rule of the Islamic leaders. When Spain forced Jews to leave in 1492, some came to the Middle East. Like all non-Muslims, such as Christians, they paid a special tax, but were otherwise left alone. They served in various positions to sultans and fought in wars against enemies.
Changes in the relationship began in the 1800s when Jews, appalled by nonstop anti-Semitism, envisioned a Jewish state in the old land of Judea. Backed by philanthropists in the United States and Europe, they began to buy land from Bedouins. The wily Arabs didn’t own the land – like Indians in the United States, they didn’t believe anyone did -- but figured to earn extra money anyway.
Unfortunately at least for them, Jews believed they had made a legitimate purchase. They began to slow arrive, creating communal farms, called kibbutzes. There were still only a handful of them when future Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir moved there from the U.S. in the 1920s.
The arrival of immigrants irritated Arab nomads who found their grazing lands disappearing.
At the same time, World War I erupted. The Turks, then in control of the Middle East, sided with the Germans. The English, desperate to win, agreed with Arabs that if they helped against the Turks, independent Arab states would be carved from the destroyed Ottoman Empire. They also promised the Jews an independent Jewish state.
When the Allies won the war, the English and French largely ignored the agreements to set up protectorates throughout the Middle East. Southern Syria fell under English control. Syria went to the French. The land was now known as Transjordan.
Ferment, protests, riots, massacres and terrorism followed.
The murder of millions of Jews during World War II convinced Jewish leaders that survival required a safe haven, a homeland. England had previously offered Uganda, but Jews wanted their sacred land. They based their claims on biblical accounts of God promising Israel to the Jews.
Arabs based their rights on their long residency there.
In 1947, after a series of horrific terrorist acts and almost nonstop violence, English turned the matter over to the newly formed United Nations to resolve. In 1948, the U.N. voted overwhelmingly to create a Jewish state, to be called Israel, and an Arab state to be called Jordan.
Naturally, no one bothered to ask the residents. As a result, surrounding Arab nations promptly declared war against the new state of Israel. Many Arab residents fled, but were not welcomed in the Arab lands. Instead, they created refugee cities in Gaza and along the border. These people became known as Palestinians, although no such country or people ever existed.
The Arabs lost the war in 1948, and successive conflicts in 1956, 1967 and 1973. As a result, they have resorted to terrorism to regain control. Naturally, Israel has responded with force, in the past and again during the recent independence celebrations and for other reasons.
Such sad events are likely to continue until both groups agree to spare the disputed land. That can be done only through elections. Winners resolve to abandon partisanship to work for what is best for the country – akin to what a Republican or Democratic political leader in this country vows to do when elected.
Then, the technological advances that Israel has made can spread through the Middle East, enriching everyone.
Until then, however, the only left to do is recycle the old headlines. They are not going to change until people stop focusing on names and the past and thinking about what matters in the future.
Bill Lazarus is been a long-time writer, educator and religious historian. He holds an M.A. in communication from Kent State University and is a full-time instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. His latest book, Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols, was published in December 2010 and is available via Amazon.com or on his website www.williamplazarus.com.