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  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

8th Commandment: You Shall Not Steal: Thoughts on the Israeli/Palestinian War

Exodus 20:15


“You shall not steal.”

Matthew 6:19-21


19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The war between Israel and Palestine is admittedly at the forefront of my mind as I write today. I will also admit that I am not an expert on Israeli/Palestinian affairs. As a student of history, though, I have read countless articles and books that attempt to shed much needed light on the subject. Not to simplify the matter too much, but the issue is land: who owns it, who occupies it, and who wants to own and occupy it.

If we go back far enough, Israel lays claim to a huge swath of land as described in God’s covenant with Abraham. Genesis 15:18 describes the land holdings as thus:

18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”

Since that time, though, the land has changed hands multiple times. It was occupied by the Canaanites and the Egyptians. Then ruled by Israel. Later it was occupied by both Assyria and Babylon. Persia conquered next, followed by Greek control over the region. In 160 BCE there was the Maccabean revolt by the Hellenized Jews. Their reign lasted over a century, but infighting paved the way for Roman occupation.

This brings us to familiar territory – the entire life of Jesus was telegraphed during the Roman occupation, which morphed into the Byzantine Empire when Rome becomes Christianized. Rome’s reign ended in 614. There was a 15-year rule by Sassanids but the land was reclaimed by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius in 629 CE. In 638 CE, the Muslim conquests begin with Arab Caliphates laying claim to the land. First there were the Rashidun, Umayyad, and Abbasid Caliphates, followed by the Fatimid Caliphates from Egypt, followed by the Seljuk period of Turkish Caliphates. In the 12th and 13th centuries the crusades begin with folks from all over the known world pilgrimaging to Jerusalem.

There was the reign of Saladin during this time as well, who allowed for a religiously pluralistic society. Also of note is that there were already German Jews living in Jerusalem at this time, so the connection between Jews and Germany had been established prior to the Crusades. The Crusaders were Christians and longed to reclaim Jerusalem for the Christian world.

Next is the Mamluk Period, the region being conquered by soldiers who were technically slaves of Turkic and Eastern European descent. Allowed at this time was the building of a second Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and a smattering of Jews living in the region. This was followed by a strong Latin presence driven by a Franciscan order of monks. In the Early 1500’s the Ottoman Empire seizes control of Jerusalem and Syria. During the Ottoman Empire, there were groups of people that moved into and out of the region, including a large group of Jews who were immigrating back to Jerusalem.

At the end of the Ottoman Empire mid-19th century, there were roughly 8,000 people living in Jerusalem and it had lost its appeal. At this time, the city was divided between Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Armenians. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was meticulously partitioned between the Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian, Coptic, and Ethiopian churches.

Palestine in the name of the entire region, with Jerusalem being one of its primary cities. The division of the land worked for a period of time, but there was a steady stream of immigrant Jews that continued to come into the area that disrupted this peaceful coexistence. World War II provided additional atrocities against Jews living in the diaspora, causing the global community to recognize the need for a more enhanced solution.

In 1947, the United Nations adopted Resolution 181, now known as the Partition Plan. Among those who offered solutions, the British developed what they called the British Mandate which divided Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. The problem with this solution is that those involved in the creation of the State of Israel, did not see fit to also create the State of Palestine. This sparked the first Arab/Israeli War regarding the land as it had just been divided. At the end of the war over 750,000 Palestinians were displaced and the territory was divided into 3 parts: The State of Israel, the West Bank, which lies on the Jordan River, and the Gaza Strip, which was primarily Palestinian.

Since the creation of an Israeli State, there have been multiple groups, mostly Arab, who have attempted to regain control of key areas in the region. And Israel continues to annex land in Arab held regions. In recent years, the Palestinian people have been completely cut off from the rest of the world through Israeli built borders, blockades, and checkpoints, that prevent the Palestinian people from moving about the region freely.

I am not in a position to take sides here. The people of Israel have had as much claim to this land as any other over the last 5000 years, but it is highly contested and, in my mind, not settled yet. The Palestinian people also have a right to exist in freedom without being occupied by Israeli or having their movements limited to the extent that they are, or their land surreptitiously taken from them. But as I stated in the beginning, I am not an expert on this conflict or any others that have existed in the region.

I provide you with this history so that it might spark a dialogue regarding the 8th commandment and Jesus’ words on storing up treasure on earth. When God issued the commandments to Moses, I am convinced, now, that God wanted the people to take each commandment as far as it would go. Not stealing isn’t just about taking bread when you are hungry. We struggle in this country with corporate theft all the time – that of intellectual property, patents, and so much more. There is a blatant disregard of this commandment and our stubborn retreat into childish behavior. Especially when we are discussing the ownership of land, we want to stomp our feet and scream, “I was here first.”

If we go by the “who was here first” policy, almost everyone would have to move. America is not immune; we are just as guilty as other nations at taking what did not belong to us. We stole native land and claimed it as our own, and then as an added indignity, we placed native peoples on the land that no one else wanted. So, in this argument, we really have no room to talk.

Still, this passage from Matthew forces me to rethink so many things regarding material wealth, especially that of land. Of all the “things” we accumulate, land is the one that gives me the greatest reason to pause. Under our current “system,” I have the right to own my land and the house that sits upon it. But I know that there were other people present in this land long before I was born. The people that occupied the land from the beginning never saw themselves as “owners” of the land, but rather “occupiers” of the land. The land was a gift from The Great Spirit and was meant to be shared.

When European settlers came into the region, our concept of land ownership was foreign to them. What I find most ironic is that those who knew nothing of our scriptures lived them better than those who could quote them backwards. This need to own things, to accumulate wealth is antithetical to the message of Jesus. He calls us to live a simple life of “just enough”. Jesus’ vision of community is where all people everywhere learn how to thrive by taking care of each other.

I do wonder if this is even possible for Israel and Palestine. I wonder if it is possible for any of us. What treasure are we willing to let go of in order to live more fully in our respective communities? Can we decide, rather intentionally, to give up some of our treasures in order to make space for more people at the table? If we are honest, I don’t think any of us really want to take more than our fair share, the problem is determining what is fair. If we keep the other in our main line of focus, then it might be easier to determine fairness by seeing that we are all connected.

It is my hope and prayer that we continue to pray for both sides in this conflict. Each must decide what treasure they are willing to let go of in order to have lasting peace in the region. The one with the most toys may have to sacrifice the most. This, however, will not feel like a hardship if everyone involved realizes that ultimately, we are all on the same side – the human being side. May it be so.

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