Friday, October 29, 2010

Ehud Netzer and the Herodium

Yesterday brought sad news regarding the death of Ehud Netzer, one of the giants of Israeli archaeology. He died in a tragic accident at the Herodium, a site he has been excavating for the past 35 years.

Ehud Netzer spent much of that time trying to find the tomb of Herod the Great. He focused on the Herodium because the ancient Jewish historian Josephus said that was where Herod was buried. Many doubted Josephus' account, but Ehud Netzer did not. He looked on the top of the cone-shaped hill and around the bottom of the hill, but his search seemed to be in vain. Then he excavated on the side of the hill...and in 2008 made his remarkable discovery. He found the tomb--with Herod's smashed sarcophagus still inside!

It looks as if many of the secrets of the Herodium are still waiting to be uncovered. National Geographic produced an excellent DVD on the discovery of Herod's tomb, and they have also posted and update on their website that includes pictures of the recently excavated theater, including Herod's royal theater box. The picture above is from their website and shows the excavations taking place on the side of the hill.

Why did it take so long to discover Herod's tomb? Perhaps because everyone was thinking too small. They were looking for a simple mausoleum--a stand-alone structure. Herod had much grander plans. Much like the ancient pharaohs of Egypt, he wanted his larger-than-life reputation to extend beyond his death. So he buried the theater, which had only been used for a few years, and turned the entire hill into a pyramid-like tomb...with his mausoleum located halfway up the slope. How impressive is the site? It stands out like an ancient volcanic peak and can be seen from Bethlehem, and even from the southern end of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

If you are planning a trip to Israel anytime soon, ask the tour host if your group will be going to the Herodium. It needs to become a must-see stop for any trip. And if you aren't planning on visiting Israel in the near future, click on the links above--especially the link to the National Geographic article. Read the entire article and look at all the pictures. It will give you a new perspective on Herod the Great, the one in charge of all Judea when the wise men came to announce the birth of a new "King of the Jews."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Did the U.N. Create the State of Israel?

Jeremy Hammond, founder of the Foreign Policy Journal, wrote an article in his journal titled, "The Myth of the U.N. Creation of Israel." In the article he tries to show that the U.N. decision to partition Palestine into two countries--one Jewish and one Arab--was an illegal decision that deprived the Arab majority of Palestine their right to self-determination. Thus, he argues, Israel cannot claim legal standing as a nation based on the U.N. vote to establish a Jewish state.

I have several problems with the article, including his misleading use of statistical data. For example, he sees huge inequity in the fact that "Jews owned less than 7 percent" of the land prior to partition but were "awarded 55.5 percent of the total area for their state." He fails to note, however, that an extremely large percentage of the land partitioned to Israel was in the modern Negev. This land was desert, almost completely devoid of any inhabitants.

But before I could write a response I came across another article that provides a strong rebuttal to Hammond. It was written by Dr. Mordechai Nisan, a lecturer in Middle East Studies at Hebrew University, and is titled "Is UN Creation of Israel a Myth? Ask Foreign Policy Journal." Dr. Nisan does a masterful job answering the arguments of Jeremy Hammond. One key point in the article is the truth that, ultimately, the U.N. didn't create Israel. The state was created because the Jewish population fought for their right of self-determination against an Arab population unwilling to accept a Jewish state in their midst.

I strongly encourage you to read both articles. Anyone interested in the Middle East needs to understand the historical issues surrounding the establishment of Israel. I believe Hammond's article illustrates a growing attempt on the part of some to delegitimize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. Those who believe God's land promises to Israel are still valid also need to know other ways to answer critics who won't accept the message of the Bible. And Dr. Nisan helps provide those answers!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Are the Jews God's Chosen People?

Last week the Vatican wrapped up a two-week synod on the Middle East. In its concluding message the synod took issue with Jewish groups (and, by extension, evangelical Christians) who use the Bible to justify Israel's right to the land. At a concluding news conference, Greek-Melchite Archbishop Cyrille Salim Bustros was asked about that part of the statement. His response is very significant:

"The concept of the promised land cannot be used as a base for the justification of the return of Jews to Israel and the displacement of Palestinians. The justification of Israel's occupation of the land of Palestine cannot be based on sacred scriptures....We Christians cannot speak about the promised land for the Jewish people. There is no longer a chosen people. All men and women of all countries have become the chosen people."

During the conference, a document resurfaced that first circulated about a year ago. It is called the Kairos Palestine Document, and it is largely a polemic against supporting Israel. At one point the document singles out those who hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible as the basis for Israel's right to the land. "This is precisely the error in fundamentalist Biblical interpretation that brings us death and destruction when the word of God is petrified and transmitted from generation to generation as a dead letter. This dead letter is used as a weapon in our present history in order to deprive us of our rights in our own land."

So does literal interpretation make the Bible a "dead letter"? And does such interpretation actually harm the followers of Christ now living in the Middle East? If true, those are serious charges. But I have four major concerns with the position espoused by the conference and the Kairos Palestine Document.

First, I believe the position presented on literal interpretation reveal a flawed understanding regarding the message of the Bible. It confuses the eternality and immutability of God's Word with "petrification." And it seems to make the interpreter the ultimate arbiter or right and wrong by allowing them to select those portions of the Bible that match their beliefs while disregarding the rest.

Such an approach to interpreting the Bible can ultimately place someone in opposition to God Himself because t
he written word, like the living Word, is "the same yesterday and today and forever." Both reveal the character of God Himself, and God has declared "I the LORD do not change" (Mal. 3:6). Jesus said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away" (Luke 21:33).

Second, I believe that by not accepting the clear teaching of the Bible they have reached a conclusion that is ultimately contrary to the character God and the clear message of His Word. I don't have sufficient time to trace the consistent message of the Bible as it relates to God's promises to the Jewish people, including a promise to inherit the land of Israel. But let me share the one passage in the New Testament where the Apostle Paul specifically talks about the relationship between Israel and the church--Romans 9:11. Paul ends this section by acknowledging that Israel and the church are currently on opposites sides of the equation when it comes to the gospel message...that Jesus is indeed the Messiah and the Son of God. But Paul quickly adds, "But as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God's gifts and his call are irrevocable." Note carefully Paul's words. The nation of Israel is an "elect" nation because of the promises made by God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Why? Because God's promises are "irrevocable." The replacement theology behind the synod and the earlier document is contrary to the unchanging character of God.

Third, I believe the conference and the Kairos Palestine Document fail to acknowledge the true oppressor of the church in the Middle East--Islam. I would ask them to compare the religious freedom of Christians in Israel to the religious freedom of Christians in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Gaza. Even in those instances where freedom of movement is denied to Christians in Israel--as when Palestinians Christians are denied entrance to Jerusalem--it is not because of their faith. Rather, such restrictions have taken place in response to Palestinian suicide bombers. I believe the conference failed in its obligation when it singled out Israel for harsh condemnation while failing to condemn the evil actions done in the name of Allah. Perhaps it's because these Christian leaders can condemn Israel with less fear of retribution. Israel tolerates nonviolent dissent, Islamic countries do not.

Fourth, I believe a false dichotomy is being presented in the conference and the document. To support Israel's right to its land does not make one anti-Palestinian. When Israel possessed the land in the Old Testament, God expected them to protect the rights of the non-Israelites in their midst (Exod. 23:9). When looking toward Israel's ultimate fulfillment of God's promises, the prophet Ezekiel wrote, "You are to allot [the land] as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who have settled among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel" (Ezek. 47:22).

I believe Christians need to read the Kairos Palestine Document and compare it to Scripture. Then we all ought to take a stand for the truth as it is presented in the whole counsel of God's Word. And to those who are on the other side in this issue, may I suggest the following. In your call for justice and equality, you could gain more support from within the evangelical community if you would also stress the following:

1. Acknowledge that the Jewish people do have a right to live in the land, and that a Jewish state upholding the rights of all its citizens has as legitimate a right to exist as a separate Palestinian state upholding the rights of all its citizens.

2. Remember your role in the present age is not to inaugurate God's kingdom through political action. Rather, God has called you to be a witness to His love and reconciliation through Jesus Christ. Acknowledge that your mission is to live for Him in such a way that your Jewish neighbors will come to accept Jesus as their Messiah, your Muslim neighbors will come to accept Jesus as the Son of God...and both will come to know Him as their personal Savior.

3. Affirm that the Word of God is the basis for truth and that, like God Himself, it remains unchanged "yesterday and today and forever."

Friday, October 22, 2010

Two sides to every story

I'm a lifelong Bugs Bunny fan, and a situation today reminded me of the 1950 cartoon, "Homeless Hare." In that cartoon Bugs fights to defend his rabbit hole from a construction worker trying to build a high-rise building over it. Bugs wins in the end...and tells the audience why his home was worth fighting for. "After all, a man's home is his castle."

So what made me think of that classic cartoon? Actually, it was a visit by former President Jimmy Carter to a group of protesters in East Jerusalem. Carter, and other members of a group called "The Elders," spoke to the protesters in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem. According to an account of the meeting in the Jerusalem Post, "Carter addressed the crowd, stating that he does not believe that destroying houses or evicting families from homes they have inhabited for generations are just actions that can lead to peace."

And now perhaps you can see why the Bugs Bunny cartoon came to mind. On the surface it would appear that Carter was voicing a classic American value--one shared with the likes of Bugs Bunny--when he stood to support those protesting the forced eviction of families and the destruction of their homes.

But is this the whole story?

In an interesting twist, I also came across another story today about the destruction of 22 Arab houses in the area of Silwan in Jerusalem. The article, in Arutz Sheva, was an interview with Edna Friedman who holds the Israeli Heritage portfolio in the Jerusalem municipality. She provided a different perspective on why the homes in Silwan were being demolished. "
For centuries, including under Ottoman, British and Jordanian rule, the Gan Hamelech compound was open, forested space – preserved by the ruling powers for its historic and archaeological value....Beginning in 1967, however, Arab squatters began building illegal structures in the compound, and today there are some 120 buildings there. It is these illegally built squats that are at the heart of the controversy in the Silwan neighborhood today, as demonstrators riot against Israel's intentions to clear the site of the illegally built structures...."

So the buildings being destroyed in Silwan are not homes that had been inhabited for generations. They are relatively recent, and they were constructed illegally. That's certainly a different perspective than one would get from listening to President Carter. But isn't it still wrong to single out just the homes of Arab residents? It might be, were that true. But it's not.

Friedman sets the record straight. "This is not about discrimination against Arabs, but I believe that the law must be enforced for everyone. If the authorities can move against Beit Yehonatan, a Jewish-owned building in the neighborhood, on the grounds that it is too tall and that zoning laws prohibit a multi-story building, certainly the laws have to be enforced against Arabs who built homes illegally."

I'm disappointed President Carter chose to present just one side of the story in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The situation is complex...and simplistic generalizations won't help resolve complex issues.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What is fascism?

I read an op-ed piece, "Fascism in Jewish state?" that focused on the issue of whether Israel should require a loyalty oath for new citizens. At one point the article equated Israel's proposed loyalty oath with other forces in the country promoting "hatred and nationalism."

The article got me thinking about what we mean when we describe a person, movement, or idea as fascist. In the article, the word was used to stigmatize those in Israel who believe new citizens ought to swear loyalty to the government as a "Jewish and democratic state." By using the word fascist the writer conjured up powerful memories of the horrors of World War II. But just what is a fascist...and is the term appropriate for Israel's debate over a loyalty oath?

In 1944, during World War II, George Orwell wrote an article "What Is Fascism?" that still rings true. After explaining the many ways the word had been misused, he finally, and almost comically, noted that "almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’." Orwell ended the article with a word of caution that people today would be wise to heed. "All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword."

And this brings me back to the original op-ed piece. The writer appears not to be in favor of Israel adopting a loyalty oath. He's certainly entitled to his opinion. But to imply that a loyalty oath sets a nation on the road to fascism is, I believe, reckless. A loyalty oath alone is not a sign of fascism. The United States requires naturalized citizens to take an Oath of Allegiance. Great Britain also requires its new citizens to take an Oath of Allegiance. So what is the real issue behind the controversy over Israel's loyalty oath for new citizens?

I believe the heart of the matter--something most in the media seem to be missing--is the debate over whether the State of Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state. Requiring a loyalty oath is not tantamount to ethnic cleansing (as suggested by some critics) since the proposed oath does not apply to Arabs who already have Israeli citizenship. And requiring such an oath is not about restricting religious freedom (as some have argued) since the constitution of Israel guarantees religious freedom to Christians and Muslims. No, the real issue is whether a state that is predominantly Jewish in character can be allowed to exist in the Middle East...and whether someone wanting to be a citizen of that state ought to be required to openly acknowledge that fact.

But isn't it offensive to Arabs citizens of Israel for Israel to call itself a Jewish state? Let me answer that with a different question. How does the proposed state of Palestine want to define itself? Here are some citations from the Palestinian Basic Law as amended in 2003.

--In the Introduction, the Basic Law cites Palestinian efforts to have the world "recognize the rights of the Arab Palestinian people and their national entity, on equal footing with other nations."

--Article One states: "Palestine is part of the larger Arab world, and the Palestinian people are part of the Arab nation. Arab unity is an objective that the Palestinian people shall work to achieve."

--Article Four states: "Islam is the official religion in Palestine. The principles of Islamic Shari’a shall be a principal source of legislation. Arabic shall be the official language."

Later, the Law sets forth how the judiciary will render decisions "in the name of the Palestinian Arab people" (Article 97) and how the Public Prosecutor will prosecute cases "in the name of the Palestinian Arab people" (Article 107).

It sounds to me like the Palestinians expect the future state of Palestine to be identified as an Arab state founded on the principles of Islam. If someone wanted to become a citizen of that state, would it be reasonable to expect that person to publicly acknowledge and support the clearly stated principles on which the state was founded? Shouldn't Israel have the same right to expect its citizens to support the principles on which it was founded?

Israel's loyalty oath is an attempt to remind the world that any two-state solution also comes with the clear understanding that one of those two states must be recognized as a Jewish state. That's not fascism, it's equality.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Online Photos from the Middle East

I'm always on the lookout for photos from biblical sites in the Middle East. One excellent web site where you can find such photos is Holy Land Photos maintained by Dr. Carl Rasmussen, author of The Zondervan Atlas of the Bible. Dr. Rasmussen has compiled over 3,000 online photos from over 300 different locations in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Italy, and Cyprus. Access to the photos is free, though he does accept donations to help maintain the site. This web site is worth visiting...and bookmarking!

One final item. I know firsthand that Dr. Rasmussen continues to update his site. And how do I know this? A little over a year ago I heard reports that archaeologists were uncovering a section of Jerusalem's old wall on the edge of the Hinnom Valley. I had a free afternoon so I hiked over to the site...and ran into Dr. Rasmussen and his wife who were checking out the same discovery!

Click on the link above to visit a great site...maintained by a great guy...who has also authored an excellent Bible Atlas!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The benefits of olive oil

In Deuteronomy 8 Moses told Israel that God was bringing them into "a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and [date palm] honey" (8:8). These eight species form a grocery list of God's promised blessings. But how valuable were these products of the Promised Land? It seems as if science continues to uncover new health benefits.

An article in today's Jerusalem Post focuses on the work of Shaul Eger, a Jewish physiologist who spent 30 years uncovering the benefits of olive oil. The article is interesting...and a good reminder of God's faithfulness to His people!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Where is Pisgat Ze'ev?

A major news item today concerns Israel's plans to resume construction in Pisgat Ze'ev and Ramot. Here is how the news is being presented in the media.
--BBC: "Israel plan for 238 settler homes draws Palestinian ire"
--CNN: "Report: Israel wants to build more housing on disputed land"
--Al Jeezera: "New settlements imperil talks"

Words are powerful tools, so look closely at these headlines. The BBC identified the new construction as "settler homes," giving the impression of an Israelis incursion...since a "settler" is someone "who settles in a new colony or moves into a new country." Al Jeezera identifies the construction as "new settlements," suggesting still another new Jewish enclave is being established. (And the main photo is of a woman holding a sign reading "Stop the Occupation," which enforces this slant on the story.) CNN actually has the most balanced headline. Since final boundaries have not been established, the land is indeed "disputed."

But what is the rest of the story? First, the construction permits just issued are for construction in Pisgat Ze'ev and Ramot. These are already-established communities within the boundaries of modern Jerusalem. Second, both of these communities are indeed across the 1949 armistice line, which places them in disputed territory. However, Ramot straddles that line, and Pisgat Ze'ev is about two miles from the line. Third, both communities are much closer to the heart of Jewish West Jerusalem than any reports suggest. The community of Ramot is less than three miles from Israel's capital building, the Knesset; and Pisgat Ze'ev is less than five miles from the Knesset.

I don't want to minimize the issues facing Palestinian and Israeli negotiators. But at the same time I think it's important for the rest of the world to understand that the construction permits issued Thursday were limited in scope and apply to already-existing communities that are less than five miles from Israel's own capital building. These additional facts help put the headline in perspective...and perspective is something sorely lacking in much of the reporting from the Middle East.

Happy birthday, Hebrew!

Many tourists to Israel have enjoyed an evening stroll on Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem. This pedestrian mall--with its shops, restaurants, and street performers--is a great gathering place, especially after the end of Shabbat. But few of the tourists visiting Ben-Yehuda Street know much about the man for whom the street is named. An article in today's online edition of the Jerusalem Post has a great history lesson about Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew. It's definitely worth reading!

On October 13, 1881, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his friends agreed to begin speaking Hebrew exclusively. For nearly 1,750 years the Hebrew language had been confined to the dusty shelves of history, a language studied by Bible scholars and rabbis but not used in the day-to-day life of the Jewish people. Ben-Yehuda and his friends believed a united people needed a common language...and they set out to make Hebrew the spoken language of the Jewish people. A quotation in the article sums up the contribution of this man to the revival of Hebrew as a language. "Before Ben-Yehuda Jews could speak Hebrew; after him, they did."

How significant is this achievement? As the article points out, there is no other example of an ancient language being revived to become a modern national language. But then, no other people group also had a divine promise that they would be restored as a nation and returned to their own land!

So happy 129th birthday, modern Hebrew!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Touring the Middle East with your iPhone

Do you own an iPhone? If so, here are some iPhone apps on Israel and other destinations from the Bible you might want to download!

Israel MFA is a free application by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that provides updated information on current events, including the official Israel response to key events in the news. This can be a helpful way to keep up with Israel's reaction to events in the Middle East.

Israel Tourism is a free application from Israel's Ministry of Tourism that provides information on sites and accommodations by region. The site is still being developed, so some areas have no data. But over time this ought to become a helpful application for those planning a trip to Israel.

Greece Travel Guide is a $.99 application with information on regions, cities, and sites in Greece. Once the information is loaded, the application claims that no internet connection is needed to view the material.

Egypt Travel Guide is a $1.99 application on regions, cities and sites in Egypt. Once the information is loaded, the application claims that no internet connection is needed to view the material.

Turkey Rocks is a free application with details on the archaeological finds at ancient Ephesus, one of the major attractions for visitors to Turkey.

One caveat in using your iPhone for travel. If you use your data plan overseas, it can be very expensive. If you choose to use these applications, turn off Data Roaming and only access the internet in a hotel or other location that offers free WiFi access!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Israel is a Jewish State

Two news items from Israel surfacing today seem to me to be related. In the first, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced he had offered to extend Israel's moratorium on building in the disputed territories for an additional two months if the Palestinian Authority would publicly acknowledge Israel as a Jewish State. The Palestinians refused. The second news item concerns the proposed "loyalty oath" for new citizens being debated within Israel. So how are these items related?

At the center of the matter on both is the question of whether or not the Jewish people have the right to a state in which they can have their own national identity...and the question about how this impacts the 20% of Israel's population that is not Jewish. Can Israel be a Jewish state and still grant full rights to its non-Jewish population?

The framers of Israel's loyalty oath have made it clear that the oath is pledging loyalty to a "Jewish and democratic state." From its very beginning Israel has recognized the rights of its non-Jewish citizens. From my travels throughout the Middle East I believe there is more freedom of religion--and more civil rights for minorities--in Israel than in any other country in the region. Yes, the state is Jewish in character. (The Star of David on the flag makes this clear!) But it's also a state that has sought to promote democratic values in ways that cannot be matched by other countries in the region. For example, from its very founding, Hebrew and Arabic were designated as the two official languages of the country.

But doesn't a loyalty oath sound overbearing, like some relic from the Cold War? I don't think so. Growing up, I stood with my classmates and recited the Pledge of Allegiance: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of American and to the republic for which it stands...." The Pledge of Allegiance is a loyalty oath, and I'm proud to have recited it. When someone becomes a naturalized citizen of the United States, they are required to pledge an oath of allegiance to this country. That oath says, in part, "I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same...."

I personally don't see anything wrong with asking someone to declare his or her loyalty to the state as a requirement for obtaining citizenship. If our government requires all naturalized citizens to swear an oath of allegiance as part of the process for obtaining citizenship, can't Israel expect the same level of commitment on the part of its naturalized citizens, especially those who are not Jewish?

Once one gets past the rhetoric, I think the issue over the existence of a Jewish state--and the debate of the loyalty oath--is rather straightforward. Israel is a Jewish state and should be recognized as such by the Palestinians. Israel has as much right to identify itself as a Jewish state as Iran does to call itself an Islamic republic...or Saudi Arabia does to emblazon the shahadah (Islamic declaration of faith) on its flag. And just like the United States, Israel has a right to expect those wanting the privileges of citizenship to be willing to declare their loyalty to the state granting them those privileges.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Syrian Scud Missile Base?

Today's edition of Ha'aretz has a fascinating article on "Hezbollah militants training in Syrian missile base." The article provided enough clues to allow me go on Google Earth and find the base. (I'm attaching a screen shot of the base that includes the longitude and latitude, should you wish to search for the base yourself.)

Two thoughts came to mind as I read the article. First, I don't believe the Ha'aretz reporter used Google Earth as his primary source for the article. Though he provided enough details (including the March 22, 2010 imagery date) to allow others to verify the story, there are some details in the story that can't be verified through Google Earth. The Google Earth imagery is detailed enough to see buildings, tunnel entrances and even vehicles, but the resolution isn't detailed enough to identify individuals. And the imagery wouldn't allow someone to determine if the people at the sight are Hezbollah trainees. I don't write that to cast doubt on the article's assertion that Syria is training Hezbollah to use such missiles. But I am saying that the reporter must have come to this conclusion based on more than just Google Earth photos and scattered reports from Arab newspapers.

Second, I suspect there must be a reason for the release of this information right now. Could it be related to rumors of a Syrian/Iranian/Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon? Could it be related to Ahmadinejad's impending visit to Lebanon? Could it be a warning to these countries not to provoke a conflict with Israel lest they want to have their weapons destroyed? (If Israel knew the location of these weapons in Syria, one can also assume Israel has also monitored the transfer of any such weapons into Lebanon. A thirty-five foot rocket cannot be hidden in the trunk of a car!)

To much of the world, Israel seems to overreact to any provocation on the part of its neighbors. But then, most of the world doesn't have neighbors like Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, and Iran!

Happy Birthday...Jericho!

This Sunday, October 10, is going to be a special time of celebration in the Jordan Valley. The Palestinian Authority is launching a year-long campaign to celebrate the founding of Jericho...10,000 years ago!

Okay, so the exact day...or year...or century...or millennium of Jericho's founding isn't really known. But the city has had an amazing, though checkered, history. It was destroyed by Joshua...who placed a curse on the man who would eventually rebuild it (Josh. 6:26; 1 Kings 16:34). The city was home to Rahab, who is highlighted in the Hebrews 11 "hall of faith" and one of only five women singled out by name in Matthew's genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:5).

Jericho is the "City of Palms" where Ehud, the left-handed judge, delivered Israel from Eglon of Moab (Judg. 3). And when Jerusalem fell to Babylon, Judah's last king was captured "in the plains of Jericho" after fleeing from Jerusalem (Jer. 39:5). After the Babylonian captivity 345 men from Jericho returned home (Ezra 2:34) and helped rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (Neh. 3:2). In the New Testament, Jericho was the city where Jesus healed blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52) and where the "wee little man" Zacchaeus climbed into a sycamore-fig tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus (Luke 19:1-10).

Personally, I love visiting Jericho. The Old Testament ruins might not be that impressive, but it's a wonderful spot to open God's Word and read about the events that took place here. Little details in each story--details we have overlooked before--jump off the page and help bring the events to life.

I also enjoy visiting friends I've made in Jericho over the years. I watched Waleed--who works at the Mount of Temptation restaurant--grow up, and now I get to see Waleed's son following in his father's footsteps. And if you have ever eaten the kanafeh served at that restaurant, you know why it's my favorite desert in all the Middle East. I'm drooling right now just thinking about it!

So happy birthday Jericho! Your date of birth--and exact age--are open to debate. But I'm not about to quibble over such minor details. I hope you have a wonderful start to your celebration on October 10...and I hope to stop by for a visit before your year-long party comes to an end!

But if someone tries to light all the candles and sing "Happy Birthday," don't stand too near the cake!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Thoughts on a Settlement Freeze

Israel's 10-month moratorium on construction in disputed territory has passed, and she is now being pressured by the United States to extend the moratorium for an additional two months. The two major questions one should ask are (a): why did the Palestinians wait until there was only one month remaining in the initial moratorium before beginning talks and (b) why has the U.S. been pushing for an additional two-month extension?

These two questions lead me to be somewhat cynical about the process. If there is a reasonable expectation for achieving a breakthrough within two months, then why didn't the U.S. push the Palestianians to begin talking immediately after Israel began it's moratorium? And if there is not a reasonable expectation that an agreement can be reached quickly, why a tw0-month extension? Could the new deadline be prompted by the upcoming U.S. election--giving voters the illusion of peace and progress until after the election is over?

I'm also concerned that Israeli settlements are said to be the key obstacle to an agreement. An article appeared September 30 that illustrates my concern. The article, from Radio Netherlands Worldwide, was titled "Dutch expert maps Israeli land grab." The article cites this so-called expert who said, "Jewish settlers account for just one percent of the population of the West Bank...but are claiming 60 percent of the land." Unless someone has traveled in this area--and most people have not--this sounds like solid evidence from a reputable expert showing that Israel is indeed stealing land that belongs to the Palestinians.

So what is the truth? Having traveled throughout the West Bank, I simply find claims like the one made above impossible to believe. The reality is that large portions of the region are not inhabited by anyone. I found an op/ed piece ("Settlements not the issue") written by Shoula Romano Horing to be far more representative of reality when it comes to the issue of settlements. I will quote part of what she wrote, but I urge you to read the entire piece.

The amount of territory taken up by the built-up area of all 121 settlements in the West Bank, with approximately 290,000 residents, is estimated to be just 1.7% of the territory. Two thirds of the settlers reside in five major blocs, and half of the settlements have 500 or less settlers. Four of the blocks are very close to the 1949 armistice line (“Green Line”) and many of them are suburbs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Ninety eight percent of the Palestinian population lives within roughly 40% of the West Bank, in six major cities and 450 villages. Consequently, 60% of the West Bank is empty of any buildup. You can drive for a long while in the West Bank and find no Jewish settlements or Arab cities, or people.

So do the settlements comprise 60% of the West Bank...or 1.7% of the West Bank? Horing doesn't appear to have included land appropriated for settlements but not yet built on, so the total land for settlements is more than 1.7%. The Palestine Monitor suggests the total land appropriated by Israeli settlements amounts to 3%.

So is the amount of land taken up by Israeli settlements 1.7%, 3%, or 60%? Why the huge variation in numbers? The answer brings us back to the complexity of the problem--and the danger of giving a simplistic answer. When someone refers to "Israeli settlements," to what are they referring? If they are speaking about the actual communities within the West Bank proper, then the land taken up by these settlements is less than 3% of the total area. But if someone is including land used for infrastructure (new roads), the security wall, and military bases--as well as other restricted areas and those parts of Jerusalem that have been annexed by Israel--then the percent is higher. But even then it's hard to reach anything approaching 60%.

But back to the issue at hand. When most people think of Israeli construction in the West Bank, we are looking at less than 3% of the land in question. And most construction is taking place in towns near the 1949 Armistice border or in the immediate suburbs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. That is the reality that is being lost in the rhetoric. If there is a two-month moratorium on construction in these areas, I struggle to believe it will make a substantive difference in the outcome of the talks.

But we shall see!

Pardon me, but is that Akkadian you're speaking?

Today's post probably falls under the category of "useless fun facts" for most readers, but it's really quite fascinating. If you have ever seen ancient cuneiform inscriptions, like the one pictured to the left, you might have wondered how anyone could make sense of the confusing array of symbols. How did someone first translate these inscriptions? And what might such a language have sounded like?

If you have questions, Dr. Martin Worthington from the University of Cambridge has answers! He is leading a team of scholars who are reading and recording ancient Babylonian texts and poems and posting them online. The language being spoken is Akkadian, and it sounds a bit like its more modern Semitic cousin, Arabic. You can also view a transliteration--and translation--of the texts while you listen. This helps give a sense of the natural rhythm and pacing of the language.

Some of the texts already recorded include portions of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Babylonian Poem of the Righteous Sufferer, and the Law Code of Hammurabi. If you are interested in "hearing" more about this fascinating project, click here!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Reliable News Sources on the Middle East

Where can one go to find reliable news about events in the Middle East? The reality is that there is not a single comprehensive source. I read a number of different news sources to try to get a balanced perspective on what is happening. Below are links to some of the online sources I visit on a regular basis.

Let me hasten to add that I do not consider all of these to be reliable. I definitely trust some more than others to provide a balanced coverage of events within the Middle East. But I believe you ought to look at all the sources and then bookmark the ones you feel provide the most objective approach to events. (Trust me, I think you will be able to determine this on your own!)

For news from a Jewish perspective:
Jerusalem Post — One of my favorite sites, it provide a good perspective on events
Haaretz — A good news source, though from a more liberal perspective
Arutz Sheva — A third solid source for news from Israel

For news from an Arab perspective:
Al Jazeera — A news organization similar in style to CNN, but from an Arab perspective
Jerusalem Daily — A daily news source from a Palestinian perspective
Jordan Times — A daily newspaper from Amman providing a Jordanian perspective on events

Other news sources to visit:
CAMERACommittee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America is a site that seeks to expose some of the excesses and inaccuracies in reporting on the Middle East
Ynetnews — An online site that seeks to collate other online sources
OliveTreeNews — An online site that seeks to collate sources from a variety of perspectives
The Palestinian Information Center — A site collating events from a Palestinian perspective

Governmental sites to visit:
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs — Israel's official position relating to current events
Islamic Republic News Agency — Iran's official news agency

I hope you find these sources helpful!

Iraq's Proven Oil Reserves Grow

Iraq's oil ministry announced today that their country's proven oil reserves have grown by 25%. Iraq now possesses over 143 billion barrels of extractable oil. That number is too large to be meaningful to most people. So here are three ways to help you put that number in greater perspective. First, at today's price of oil (approximately $80 per barrel) Iraq possesses about $116 trillion in oil assets. In 2009 the U.S. government took in just over $2 trillion in total tax revenue and spent just over $3.5 trillion. Iraq's proven recoverable oil reserves could have covered the entire 2009 U.S. budget 33 times over.

Second, the entire U.S. national debt currently stands at approximately $13.5 trillion. (That's nearly $44,000 owed by every single man, woman, and child in the country!) Iraq's proven recoverable oil reserves could pay off that entire debt about 9 times over.

Third, the United States consumes just under 21 million barrels of oil per day. At our current rate of consumption, Iraq has sufficient oil reserves to supply all the oil needed by the United States for the next 18 years.

That's a LOT of oil! And the amount is likely to grow.

From 1991 until just last year Iraq had done virtually no oil exploration because of the restrictions imposed on Saddam Hussein following the first Gulf War. The 25% growth in proven reserves is the result of new exploration that has begun since the end of the second Gulf War.

Perhaps this helps illustrate the picture of Babylon (the region of present-day Iraq) presented in the Book of Revelation. When this region is finally judged by God "the merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes any more" (8:11). John then lists the luxury items being imported to feed the appetite of this nouveau riche nation. The businessmen cry out "The fruit you longed for is gone from you. All your riches and splendor have vanished, never to be recovered" (18:12). And "every sea captain, and all who travel by ship, the sailors and all who earn their living from the sea, will stand far off" (18:17) and cry out when they see the destruction of this place on whose wealth they will have come to depended for their livelihood.

For centuries John's words seemed overly dramatic...too amazing to be taken literally. Now, however, it's easier to visualize how this area can possess such economic wealth and influence over the world.