Courtney Ball

The Kingdom of God is Fleeting, but it Exists

Ben Shemen Youth Village c.1920s-30s. Courtesy of Wiki Commons

I am currently reading My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, by Ari Shavit. It’s a rich, well-written book describing the Zionist movement and eventual formation of the state of Israel. Shavit is the grandson of one of the first British Jews to resettle in Palestine in the late 19th century. He and his family were front and center for most of Israel’s modern history, so his book is personal and complex. He can see both the necessity for Jews to carve out a place for themselves in a world that tried (almost succesfully) to eliminate them. But he also acknowledges the tragic history of Jewish/Arab violence that resulted from Jewish colonization of the land.

The book does not make for good bedtime reading. I often resist picking it up, because it’s tough to get the unsettling stories out of my head. It’s taking me a long time to read; I often let it sit for a week or so before picking it up again.

Yesterday, I started back into it and read a surprising story about Dr. Siegfried Lehmann, a German Jewish doctor who founded the Ben Shemen Youth Village in Palestine in 1927. Dr. Lehmann had previously founded orphanages in Berlin and Lithuania, but in 1925 he realized that growing anti-Semitism in Germany and eastern Europe would make it impossible for these efforts to continue. He came to believe that Palestine was the only place where he could conceivably create a safe haven for Jewish orphans, a place where they could grow up as hopeful contributors to their community.

Dr. Lehmann also believed that the only way Zionist efforts would truly succeed in Palestine was if Jews could live peacefully with their Arab neighbors. He wanted his youth village to be a blessing to the communities around it and a model of cooperation for the rest of the world to witness. This is how Ari Shavit describes Ben Shemen in My Promised Land.

Dr. Lehmann believed that Zionism would prevail only if it was integrated into the Middle East. In July 1927, the young doctor rushed to the traumatized Arab city of Lydda to attend to the survivors of a devastating earthquake that demolished much of the old town and killed scores of its residents. In the 1930s, because of the profound impact his work had had on the community during the disaster, Lehmann made friends among Lydda’s gentry and among the dignitaries of the neighboring  Arab villages. […] He saw to it that the villagers walking to and from Lydda in the scorching summer heat would enjoy cold water and refreshing shade at a specially designed welcome fountain that he built for them at the gate of the Zionist youth village. Lehmann instructed the youth village clinic to give medical assistance to Palestinians seeking it. He insisted that the students of Ben Shemen be taught to respect their neighbors and their neighbors’ culture. Almost every weekend the youth of Ben Shemen went on trips to the villages. (p.103-4)

For twenty years, such was the harmonious relationship between the Ben Shemen Youth Village and its surrounding Arab neighbors. It was a place of peace, redemption, and hope for Jewish children who had survived some of the world’s most horrific acts.

For me, as a Christian trying to understand the Kingdom of God that Jesus announced two thousand years ago, it’s hard to find a better model than the Ben Shemen that Shavit describes in his book. (The closest place I’ve seen in my life is Jubilee Partners community in Comer, GA.)

Sadly, many Zionists were not in tune with Dr. Lehmann’s vision of peaceful cooperation. By the 1940s, violent acts of terror and revenge had already been committed by both Jews and Arabs throughout much of Palestine. In 1947, a civil war erupted. In 1948, the British, who officially controlled Palestine at the time, left, and the nation state of Israel was formed. In response, neighboring Arab nations launched a full-scale war against Israel.

Even during all this, the valley of Lydda where Ben Shemen was located was a zone of restricted combat. The Arab leaders of Lydda had no desire to attack the youth village, even after many of the youth had been evacuated and the Israeli military moved in.

Ultimately, Jewish national forces attacked and conquered the villages surrounding Ben Shemen, and tens of thousands of these villagers were forced to leave the region. The era of peaceful coexistence between Jew and Arab in the valley of Lydda was over.

It’s a sad and all-too-familiar story. The Kingdom of God is fleeting. It takes so much work and so much faith to establish in this world, and so little time to tear apart.

Still, I do believe that the Kingdom of God is also resilient. It continues to return to our world in one form or another, where people choose peace over violence, generosity instead of scarcity-minded protectiveness, forgiveness and blessing over vengeance and hatred.

While we struggle to make it live, we can also never stamp it out entirely. It is like the mustard weed that Jesus describes. No matter how much we try to get rid of it, somewhere that tiny seed will catch and grow and flourish, at least for long enough to give people hope.

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Courtney Ball

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