The covert cooption of James Parkes

A christian reveler holds a Star of David while marching in an annual parade during Sukkot in Jerusalem in 2007 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A christian reveler holds a Star of David while marching in an annual parade during Sukkot in Jerusalem in 2007
(photo credit: REUTERS)
JAMES PARKES (1896-1981), an Anglican clergyman and groundbreaking historian, was unquestionably the most tenacious polemicist against traditional Christian antisemitism in modern or, for that matter, any times. From “The Jew and His Neighbour: A Study in the Causes of Anti-Semitism” (1930) to “A History of the Peoples of Palestine” (1970), Parkes published 25 books and some hundred articles on aspects of Jewish/Christian relations. While traditional Christian communions with long-standing Middle Eastern presences held fast to theological reservations about the return of Jews to their historic homeland, Parkes felt the reemergence of a Jewish polity to be redressive, rather than regressive. He richly earned the sobriquet as the preeminent “Christian Zionist.”
Since the extension of Israeli control over the West Bank in 1967, neither in Israel nor among Jews worldwide is there anything close to consensus over the assertion of Israeli sovereignty in these areas.
Indeed, with the signal exception of Trumpish America, it is viewed by every government in the world as an “occupation.” The upshot, of course, has been half a century of confrontations between Jewish “settlers” and the Palestinians. While the particulars of each incident differs and the role of the IDF has ranged from discretely opaque to openly partisan, the general contours are frustratingly familiar: extra-legal intimidation, violent flashpoints, and the de facto displacement of Palestinian families from the dwellings and land they have grazed or cultivated for generations.
What contribution might possibly help unravel this endless standoff? A correction, perhaps small, but one hopes palpable: based upon both Jewish longevity and continuity in their historic homeland, Greater Israel expansionists such as Lee Bender (“We Never Left,” 2016), Alan Dershowitz (“The Case for Israel” 2003), Caroline Glick (“The Israeli Solution” 2014), Fiamma Nirenstein (“Israele Siamo Noi” 2007) among others – none of these strict, Word of God literalists – has coopted Parkes’s sophisticated case for a Zionism of generosity and accommodation. Distorting Parkes’ intent, they have unconscionably freighted his position with their own designs for extending Israel’s sovereignty from the sea to the Jordan River.
No one has done this with greater pertinacity than Jerome Verlin, editor of the Brith Sholom Media Watch, an online platform that every fortnight or so unrequested began to appear on my computer screen shortly after the publication of my now standard biography of Parkes (“He Also Spoke as a Jew,” London: Valentine Mitchell, 2006). Verlin’s favorite whipping boy is his hometown Philadelphia Inquirer, which sins by persistently employing locutions such as the West Bank or Occupied Territories instead of “historic Judea and Samaria.” A recent Media Watch Alert (Number 879!) exploits Parkes’s authority to support Verlin’s oft-repeated encapsulation of Jewish supremacy in all of the Land of Israel: “We Jews Never Left…the point made by British historian Parkes that the Yishuv’s tenacious continuous presence [were] the Zionists’ ‘real title deeds’ written by the less dramatic but equally heroic endurance of those who had maintained a Jewish presence in The Land all through the centuries, and in spite of every discouragement.” In such wise words, Verlin claims, Parkes effectively rebuts the Arab “picture of The Land as a territory which had once been ‘Jewish,’ but which for many centuries had been ‘Arab.’ In point of fact, any picture of a total change of population is false.”
One would never guess from a fortnightly reading of such Alerts that Parkes consistently and resolutely rejected the notion that those Jewish “title deeds” were unconditional. In the final three pages of “Whose Land? A History of the Peoples of Palestine” (1970), Parkes avers it was incumbent upon Israel to publicly acknowledge that “she claims no exclusive rights in the Land, that she recognises that she shares it with Christians and with Muslims who now think of themselves primarily together as ‘Arabs’…For the Palestine Arab the task is to find his own identity, and to develop the whole organic expression of that identity in ways more creative than terrorism… For Israel it is a long task of adjustment in which she is bound to be involved, once she is able to convince her neighbors that she is not insatiably seeking more land but recognizes that she is one part of an ancient common history within a small territory.”
Four years later, we hear a similarly multifaceted vision in Parkes’s interview with George Watson as videotaped for an American television network. When Watson opines that Parkes’s real point was “no one should regard the Holy Land as the special preserve of any particular religion,” Parkes stubbornly demurs. “If you see it as a ‘special preserve’, yes, the Jews should regard it as a very special responsibility that they are there, but they are not exclusively owners of it. That’s the point.” To be sure, that is not a point one would likely stumble upon in any of Verlin’s hundreds of Alerts.
There are many who, based upon the continuity (however checkered) of a Jewish presence in the Land over the very long haul, find the Parkesian argument for “higher” Jewish rights to be compelling.
But then what about the caveat, which circumscribes Jewish rights with a hedge of special responsibilities? Parkes himself cannot be more clear: Jews are not and can never justly be exclusive owners here. Those who Verlin-like work tirelessly to coopt James Parkes to the maximalist camp by mistaking or misstating his nuanced position are myopic or shameless. Our Parkesian duty remains clear: still to stubbornly demur. Who can seriously doubt that were Parkes still on the scene, he would take vigorous exception to the stunted vision and extremist tactics increasingly employed not only by West Bank militants but less and less covertly by the Israeli government itself?
A resident of Arad since 2008, Haim Chertok has lived in the Negev ever since making aliya in 1976. Recently retired after more than 30 years at Ben-Gurion University, he has published five books about aspects Israel, one of which received the National Jewish Book Award in that category in 1989.