May 30, 2024

Professors Talk Two State Solution, Promised Land Theology in Israel Palestine Discussion Panel  

Emma Feria, 25', Editor-In-Chief

From left to right: Donna Smirnova, Dr. Dennis Hoover, Dr. Ruth Melkonian Hoover, Dr. Joanna Kline and Dr. James Taylor. Photo Courtesy of Donna Smirnova

On February 8th at 7PM, a steady stream of faculty, guests, and students gathered for the Israel-Palestine Discussion Panel. Organized and moderated by Political Science Major Dana Smirnova ‘24, the interdisciplinary panel had to move from the Barrington Cinema to Gregory Auditorium due to crowd turnout. 

The faculty panel included Philosophy Professor Dr. James Taylor, International Affairs Professor Dr. Ruth Melkonian-Hoover, her husband and Editor-In-Chief of the Institute of Global Engagement (IGE’s) quarterly journal The Review of Faith and International Affairs Dr. Dennis Hoover, and Biblical Studies Professor Dr. Joanna Kline. Smirnova is also an Intern for the Global Education Office. “We have all these great minds on campus right now and it seemed like a good time for us to start the conversation,” she said. While Gordon has hosted prayer time and convocation for Israel and Palestine, there has been no official event. “I felt like it was really important for students because there were a lot of questions from students that needed to be answered,” said Smirnova. 

Dr. Paul Brink opened the talk by introducing the concept of creation care, recognizing the need for cultural care everywhere, avoiding the temptations of culture war. He then gave the podium to Smirnova, who has been studying these questions while at Gordon. Smirnova expressed gratitude for the opportunity to moderate an event this large, noting “this is not a debate, but a conversation.” After giving brief introductions for each faculty member, she opened with a question about the history of the Israeli-state. 

Dr. Melkonian acknowledged her and the other panelists’ capacities and limitations, saying, “we are not Middle East experts but Christians who care a lot about these issues… It is not Anti-Semitic to not agree with Israel’s policies or Islamophobic to think Hamas is a terrorist organization.” Melkonian noted her familial ties to Israel, as her family is Armenian, and her uncle fled Turkey due to Armenian genocide and settled in Palestine, living in the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem. Her mother was a Dane living in Nazi-occupied Denmark, with her family helping a Jewish family friend escape to Sweden and eventually settled in Israel.

The Jewish diaspora was first formed in 586 BC. Some were expelled in 530 AD, with many going to Europe, where Anti-Semitism contributed to the development of the Zionist movement. Zionism emerged in the late 1800s and emphasized the need for Jewish territory for self-rule. Zionism took on nationalist, secular and socialist elements at times. The 1917 Balfour Declaration supported the idea of a homeland for Jews in Palestine. Post World War I, some revisionists began taking land from the British and Arabs. After World War II and the Holocaust, there was more sympathy due to the brutality and genocide that the Jews experienced. The British eventually gave up control of the region and handed it to the UN, leading to the formation of Israel. This led to Palestinian resentment, and Arab forces attacked after Israel declared independence. 

The current war was sparked by Hamas’ surprise attack on October 7, 2023. Israel’s goal has been to eradicate Hamas, and the war has led to the deaths of 28,000 and the displacement of 2 million. Currently, there are many regional players, and more support for a ceasefire outside the region. 

Following Melkonian, Dr. Kline emphasized the need to avoid singular perspectives, offering an overview of the land promise in the Old Testament. God first promised the land from “the river of Egypt to the Great River of Euphrates” to Abraham’s descendants in Genesis 12 and ratified this in Genesis 15. During the time of Solomon in 1 Kings 4, Solomon rules over this territory, which is not a single kingdom, but is made up of multiple people groups. While Israel is supposed to welcome foreigners and treat them equally, the land is ultimately God’s. God is not always on Israel’s side militarily; the Israelites were exiled from the Northern Kingdom, and the Southern Kingdom later fell in 586 AD. During Esther’s time, the Jewish diaspora was in Babylon. “You can still see God caring for the community outside of the land,” explained Kline. 

The first perspective on the land promise is that God’s promise will be fulfilled through the church instead of Israel. It argues that Jews do not play a role as God’s chosen people until Christ returns and places less emphasis on the land. However, Kline noted this theology has inflamed Anti-Semitism, and there is a need to repent from Anti-Semitism. 

The second perspective in favor of political support of Israel is rooted in blessing theology, the idea that we bless Israel in order to be blessed. Proponents of this belief view the state of Israel as “fulfilling prophecies and paving the way for the end times.” This view is also problematic given its reliance on prophetic texts that are difficult to read and not meant to be read literally. Kline believes that there is room in our theology for God’s promises for the Jews to be enduring. “We can believe these prophecies but not assume how they will come about,” she explained. She emphasized the importance of Christians fighting against Anti-Semitism but not excluding anyone from justice. 

Following Kline’s comments, Philosophy Professor and Director of the Balkans Program Dr. Taylor interrogated the idea of whether we define Israel as a nation, a people, or a land, drawing upon philosophy from scholar Emanuel Levinas. Taylor echoed Levinas’ argument of Israel’s unique calling “to be responsible for the widow, the orphan, the beggar and the stranger.” Beyond being the source of the great monotheistic religions, Israel is distinctive in its God-given mandate of unconditional responsibility for the other. 

The final panelist was Dr. Dennis Hoover, who presented the recent history of Israel, starting with the Oslo Accords in 1993. These initiated the peace process leading to the Palestinian State in 1999. Negotiations were unsuccessful and led to backlash against the two-state solution and radicalism, which coincided with the rise of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister. The rise of Hamas and extremist opposition caused an increase in terrorist attacks, which led to the creation of the security barrier through the West Bank. 

In 2005, Israel withdrew from Gaza but retained tight control over Palestinian borders. Hamas won the 2006 US-backed election in Gaza, and the 2007 Israel blockade increased radicalization. The US Peace Plan under the Trump administration exacerbated this, because it recognized Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel without Palestinian consultation. Hoover noted, “they had this sense that the region was moving on without them.”  

Hoover noted that domestic political upheaval in Israel, along with Netanyahu’s unpopularity and corruption charges, weakened Israeli forces’ ability to protect against Hamas’ attack. This attack was “particularly grotesque” and rooted in “bloodlust and evil,” as it was filmed and broadcast with strategic intent. Hoover explained that “terrorism is a weapon of the weak,” meant to provoke an overreaction. “The attack was successful in that way,” he said. 

The panel concluded with a Q&A. In response to questions about the main objectives of the war, Melkonian noted that Israel is trying to get hostages back and keep Netanyahu in power. She is more hopeful about an Arab-led coalition made up of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, or the creation of an interim government as a means of peacemaking. Hoover noted that neighboring states have an important vested interest in the region, and that their involvement in the conflict depends on many factors, such as the length of the war. 

In terms of Iran-backed support of Israel, this is rooted in a desire to “explode the paradigm of the liberal international order.”  Both Melkonian and Hoover noted the religious right’s considerable role, particularly in Netanyahu’s coalition. Kline noted the polarizing nature of the conflict, as American Jews may have family in the region but do not support Israel’s actions, which can be displacing. Taylor noted the sense of helplessness, asking “What do we mean by shalom?” 

To Taylor, shalom is rooted in wholeness and fullness of society— war is the opposite. “This calling would allow us to provide a framework where Israel can share shalom with others.” Additionally, Kline emphasized the importance of reaching out to friends connected to these issues and listening to their experiences. Smirnova herself was intentional when preparing to lead this discussion. “I watched a lot of videos, a lot of documentaries,” she shared in an interview. She also spoke to classmates like Amanda Godwin ‘24, who is currently studying abroad in Jordan, about the daily lives of people in the region.  

Melkonian thanked the audience for “not having knee jerk reactions and viewing these issues complexly.” Organizations like Hardwired are “cultivating the conditions for religious freedom,” along with Seeds of Peace, an organization that brings together Israeli and Palestinian children. Smirnova urged the audience to continue to “seek the complexity that exists in this conflict.” Brink closed the panel, thanking the panelists and Smirnova “for cultivating community even when we don’t have the answers,” and thinking of these questions as we enter the Season of Lent. 

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