Is Israel the Promised Land? Yes, but only in the minds of those who say so.
This came up during a talk I gave recently where I said that I believed the whole world is holy, that life is God manifest in space and time, and that the notion of one slice of ground being holy while the rest was just dirt made no sense to me. I wasn’t speaking about Israel in particular, just about the idea of holy ground being a sociological phenomenon rather than a theological one.
One Jewish woman in the audience found this very upsetting, and asked why, when millions if not billions of people believe Israel to be the Promised Land and somehow more holy that the rest of the planet, I could so blithely (her word) dismiss the claim?
My response was a bit flippant. I asked her if she believed Mecca was the most holy city in the world, and she said she did not, and that Jerusalem was the most holy city. I then asked her why, since a billion Muslims believe Mecca trumps Jerusalem on the holiness scale, she so blithely (my word) dismissed their claim? Certainly on numbers alone, a billion Muslims versus twelve million Jews, one would have to go with Mecca.
She was not impressed with my math. I should have let the matter go, but there were still other people to offend, so I went on to say that Americans, too, have our marketing pitch that raises the United States above all other nations. We call it American exceptionalism, and it means that the United States is unlike any other nation in history, and that we are blessed by God and incapable of succumbing to the evils that have been the downfall of every empire up to ours. This refusal to accept America as just another nation with all the foibles that nationalism and empire entail allows us to blithely (yes I said “blithely” again) go about our business no matter how much evil we commit and damage we do without ever imaging we are doing evil or damage.
But I don’t subscribe to any of these claims. A nation is as good as the people who control it, and the policies they enforce, and the history of our empire doesn’t suggest that our political and corporate overlords are any more benign that others.
To her credit, the woman who started me off on this tangent challenged me. If it is all about self-identity, why are so many nonJews obsessed with the Jewish claim that Israel is the Promised Land?
The answer, I suggested, is simple: those who are caught up in this claim are Jews, Christians, and Moslems who believe in a god who privileges some at the expense of others, and who have a stake in the answer. Many Jews focus on the idea because it bolsters their claim to legitimacy in Israel; many Christians focus on it because the return of Jews to Israel proves God’s promises can be trusted, that they are being fulfilled in our day, and that this fulfillment heralds the massacre of all but a handful of Jews as prelude to the coming of Christ; and many Muslims focus on it in order to deny it in favor of their own claims just eh way Pepsi denies the claims of Coke. But the average Chinese person in China or Hindu in India probably doesn’t think about this at all, and may consider the entire contest insane.
Why do people need to be special, or to belong to the elite? Why can’t we simply admit that we are “all Bozos on this bus,” and do the best we can to see that we travel together with a modicum of respect and compassion for one another? Why do we have to be chosen or blessed or privileged by one god or another? Why do we have to argue over whom this god loves best? This, to me, is the real question we should be asking. And when we can answer it we might be able to put an end to our ranking and rancor, and move toward peace.