Over a Cup of Coffee: Why History Matters

An old friend and I got together one afternoon to drink coffee and catch up; since she had moved to Colorado, it had been a few months since we had seen each other. As she picked up her cup, she winced. Did she find something about the coffee or the cup disturbing? Had I said something to upset her? So I asked her what was wrong. She told me about an accident at work and how she was going to have to have some minor surgery on her shoulder. It just hurt sometimes.

The historian, R.H. Tawney is quoted as saying that, “the world seemed an odd place, and I wondered how it got that way.” If I was going to understand why my friend winced when she picked up her coffee cup, I was going to have to learn what had happened to her when I wasn’t around. In the same way, we see the world wincing in various places. Why? Why can’t people just get along? Why the fighting and feuding?

Take one example: why can’t the Palestinians and the Israelis just get along?

Following the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of their temple by the Romans back in the first century, most of the Jewish people had been forced out of their ancestral homeland (perhaps ten to fifty thousand remained there at any given time, between the first century and the beginning of the twentieth century). Large numbers of Jewish people began moving back to Palestine in the early part of the twentieth century. This organized movement to return the Jews to their ancestral homeland was called Zionism. Why did they want to move to Palestine? After fifteen hundred years of being persecuted and murdered in European exile, some of the Jews decided they would be safer if they could have a country of their own.

Following World War I, Great Britain took over control of Palestine from the Ottoman Turks. Why? Because Turkey had fought against England on the side of Germany and Germany had lost. Great Britain issued what is called the Balfour Declaration, promising the Jewish people that they could create a Jewish homeland in part of Palestine. But the British gave contradictory statements to the Arabs of the region, promising them that there would never be a Jewish homeland there.

In 1948, following the end of World War II, the United Nations voted to establish two nations in the British protectorate of Palestine: a Jewish homeland, called Israel, and a Palestinian Arab state. Unfortunately, the surrounding Arab nations refused to accept a Jewish presence in the Middle East and immediately declared war on the nascent state and attacked from three directions. To the surprise of most, Israel managed to survive. What of the lands that were to be made into a Palestinian Arab state? They were simply annexed by Egypt and Jordan. Between 1948 and 1967, Jordan held the West Bank and Egypt held the Gaza Strip and treated them as their own territories. In 1967, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan attacked Israel again. Six days later, the war came to an end, with Israel now in control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as the entire Sinai Peninsula.

In the 1980’s Israel gave the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt in exchange for a peace treaty. In so doing, Israel gave up the only oil deposits to which it had access.

The Palestine Liberation Organization had been founded in 1964, three years before Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza. Its charter sets as its goal the destruction of the nation of Israel. A question: if the Palestinian cause is so precious to the Arab nations, why didn’t they help them form an independent Palestine when Arab countries controlled that territory? For that matter, why didn’t the Palestinians send suicide bombers against their Jordanian and Egyptian occupiers? And why didn’t the United Nations pass resolutions condemning the Jordanians and Egyptians, like it today passes against Israel?

Could it be that there is a little anti-Semitism at play here? For over fifteen hundred years the hatred of the Jews has been a common theme in the world, especially in Europe. It led to the ultimate horror of the Nazi Holocaust. In the 1930s, thanks in large part to the Nazis, much of that ancient European anti-Semitism made its way into the Arab world. Sad to say, it has been swallowed there in all its virulence: hook, line and sinker. Daily, the Arab media pour forth the old Nazi lies which are now widely accepted in that part of the world.

If a problem in the world were easy to solve, and uncomplicated, then it would have been solved already. Problems that have taken decades or even centuries to create, are unlikely to be solved overnight. If we can get a little historical perspective, we might be able to understand a little bit about why things are happening, and then, perhaps, we’ll have some chance of coming up with a fix.

Otherwise, like my friend over coffee, if I hadn’t found out about her work injury, I would never have understood why she winced, or I might have imagined a wrong cause.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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