The word that keeps coming to mind as I attempt to wrap my head around last week’s deadly violence on the Israeli-Gaza border and the formal opening of the American embassy building in Jerusalem is, “played.”
That’s played as in “being played.”
Palestinians were played by Hamas, the radical Sunni Muslim group that runs Gaza with minimal concern for those it rules. Israelis were played by their prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, whose political staying power is rooted in Israeli Jewish fears that their Arab and Iranian enemies are circling for a kill.
Then there’s President Donald Trump, who played his right-wing evangelical Christian base — allowing two of its prominent leaders to play Judaism and Jews at the embassy opening by reducing them to props -- and disposable ones at that -- in their eschatological vision. (I’ll say considerably more on this below.)
In short, it was a devilish display of the worst kind of cynicism imaginable, the sort that gets people killed in support of someone else’s political or religious agenda.
By now, GetReligion readers are surely familiar with the details of what happened -- the deaths of dozens of Palestinians, the presence of the Revs. Robert Jeffress and John C. Hagee at the embassy opening, the opprobrium directed at Israel by its global critics, the counter-argument that Israel acted only in self-defense.
None of it was surprising, and most of it mirrored the usual reactions coming from the usual suspects -- all of it amplified beyond easy comprehension by the Internet echo chamber.
Minds are pretty much made up on who’s at fault for what in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict; among members of the news media, among members of the public, among the various NGO’s who view the conflict as their concern, and among the myriad political and religious organizations who claim skin in the game.
Why pick over all those arguments and positions by offering links to this or that piece?
Instead, let’s keep to a minimum the links I provide to bolster my arguments. There’s too many to cite, anyway, and -- truth be told -- picking journalistic winners and losers is largely a function of which side in the conflict you identify with.
I've been scouring the web for pieces that reflect as many viewpoints as I can find, but my conclusions about the coverage merely reflect my own bias.
Which is: The embassy opening was an excuse, not a primary cause, for the preplanned Gaza rioting, itself just another skirmish in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian war that both sides see as a matter of national survival. Hamas is desperate to remain relevant now that much of the Arab world has shifted its attention away from Palestine and toward the Syrian conflict and fears of Iranian attempts to push its hardline Shia Muslim ideology further into the Sunni Muslim world.
The way Hamas does this is always through violence; Palestinian deaths are basic to its PR strategy. Body counts make for easy journalism -- so, yes, the press is also being played during the course of doing its job.
At the same time, I can’t really explain why Israel has been unable to come up with less lethal crowd-control alternatives.
Perhaps there are no reasonable alternatives? Perhaps there are only other options that would expose Israel military personnel to greater danger? If so, isn't Israel's first responsibility to protect its own, regardless of what its critics say?
Or perhaps it’s because Israel has a message to send? That it will do its best to eliminate the armed and violent Hamas operatives imbedded among the Palestinian demonstrators, the ordinary people who are not the real threat but who joined in to vent their inherited frustration and anger over their limited life options?
I have no definitive answers, unlike so many commentators weighing in from various perspectives. Just lots of questions.
Now back to how Israel, the nation; Judaism, the religion, and Jews, the people -- the people with whom I strongly identify -- were played by Trump, his old-school Religious Right backers, Netanyahu, and a handful of Trump’s right-wing Jewish backers.
I understand that evangelicals with dispensationalist beliefs -- a modern construct rejected by the ancient churches of the Middle East -- hold theological views they consider sacred, and the most important of human concerns.
Flash! Jews, even secular ones, on the political right and left, feel otherwise. We’d much rather live than help usher in the Second Coming of a messiah we think has wrongly been claimed as such.
We reject it as a foreign theology, though some Jews on the political right believe it can be manipulated for gain. Hence, the Israeli and American Jewish right’s alliance with Trump and his evangelical backers. Besieged Israel, goes the thinking, needs a powerful protector. Who better than the U.S. with its vast military might?
What does it matter if this currently includes having to put up with gentile religious beliefs that conflict with normative Judaism’s core teachings? Physical survival is the immediate goal.
Which explains why Jeffress and Hagee gave the opening and closing prayers at the Jerusalem embassy celebration -- despite their either having publicly insulted Judaism as an invalid religious path (Jeffress) or by explaining away the horrors of the Holocaust by saying it was part of God’s plan to return Jews to the Holy Land to hasten the Second Coming (Hagee).
(While prominent Israeli Jewish religious leaders were in the embassy audience, none participated in offering prayer -- despite Jerusalem being what I think of as Judaism's home field.)
Both Jeffress and Hagee are leading evangelical Trump supporters and widely known and respected among the old-guard leaders of their community. But they received fleeting mention or were reduced to sidebar status in the staggering number of news reports about the embassy opening, which occurred the same Monday that around 60 Palestinians, according to Palestinian health officials, died at the Gaza border.
That was to be expected; as I noted above, body counts always take journalistic priority, with understandable reason, followed quickly by the press singling out who should be held responsible, even if done prematurely.
The Israeli and diaspora Jewish press, on the other hand, on the right and left, were replete with stories and columns calling Jeffress and Hagee the equivalent of a public face slap of Israel, Judaism and Jews.
Because you may have missed this coverage, here are two essays, one by a politically conservative American Jew, the other by a politically liberal Israeli journalist currently posted in the U.S., both published by Israeli center-left newspaper Haaretz.
What's the bottom line?
Played. We’re being played by politicians playing the religion card and religious leaders puting short-term politics above religious integrity.
This does not bode well for all involved.