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Artillery Row

Are Christians complicit in Palestinian suffering?

An open letter to theologians deserves an answer — here’s mine

I recently read an open letter, shared by people I know and respect. It attacks the attitude of Christian church leaders and theologians who uncritically support Israel, refusing to condemn its bombing of Gaza and its ongoing occupation of Palestinian land. I am a Christian theologian as well as a journalist, and the statement gave me real pause. I have criticised Israel, now and before, but on reflection in the past two weeks had I attacked it as fiercely for its bombing as I had Hamas and those who failed to condemn it? Certainly I had not. Had I failed to be as moved by Palestinian dead as much as I was by Israeli losses? I didn’t think so, but the question troubled me deeply.

These are questions we should all ask ourselves, but this letter, addressed in a sense to me and people like me, asked the question more urgently than any other. I’ve tried to mostly stay away from commenting directly on the conflict. I’ve, narrowly, criticised people in my own country and the world of academia and the media who have said indefensible things, as well as lamenting the ugly, dehumanising rhetoric used by partisans of both sides. I have a growing pile of half written articles that I have decided not to fling into the whirlwind that is the debate on Israel–Palestine. Here, at least, I feel qualified to give an answer.

There is no excuse for the construction of settlements in the West Bank

I can only agree that it is utterly wrong if Christians fail to condemn what Israel is doing to Palestinians. There is no excuse or justification for the construction of settlements in the West Bank, the (much reduced) land that is supposed to form the heart of a Palestinian state in the two-state solution Israel claims to be committed to. It is not enough to blame Palestinian intransigence or anger, or to whine about the folly of Arafat rejecting the Camp David accords. It is in the hands of Israel’s government. At its word, in one instant, it has the power to make “the skies pour down righteousness” in the West Bank and give back what it has taken. Christians here have a great gift to offer in this conflict — the idea that we should “recompense no man evil for evil”. Israel cannot continually complain that it is held to a higher standard, when it effectively rules over Palestinians and claims the mantle of civilisation, democracy and guardianship of God’s Law. There is no excuse for the treatment of Palestinians as prisoners and criminals in their own land, no excuse for the nearly twenty years of inaction and complacency in the face of Palestinian suffering and statelessness. No excuse, either, for the bombing of Palestinian civilians, the killing of blameless children, or the destruction of mosques, churches, hospitals and homes.

I also agree that it is a scandal that so many American Christians appear more animated by the plight of Israel than they do by the agony of Middle Eastern Christians, who suffer under the oppression of both Muslims and Jews in the lands of the Bible. It is outrageous that America offers unqualified and unconditional support to Israel regardless of what it does. It can only be called a form of madness when US congressmen don the uniform of the Israeli military, however honourably worn elsewhere, in the halls of the Congress where they swore an oath of allegiance to defend the constitution of the United States. Christian theologians are no less derelict in their loyalties when they unreservedly commit themselves to supporting the Israeli state above the demands of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Are these words, sufficient to scandalise the mindless members of the Israel lobby many times over, enough to convince readers of my feelings and views on the matter? After them comes a “however”.

However, for all that I have said and believe, I have not spoken out with the same harshness about Israeli misdeeds in recent days as I have about those committed by Hamas and those who apologise for them. Why? As we are perhaps in danger of forgetting, the October 7th attacks were a pogrom. Much of the lexicon of anti-semitic hate is thrown around too casually. Not every false claim of Israeli misdeeds is a blood libel; not every criticism of Israel is a call for ethnic cleansing. Hamas, however, within the short time and scope of its meticulously planned operation, live-streamed genocide. Men, women and children were killed indiscriminately. Actual babies were found beheaded. Victims were tortured, bodies mutilated, women raped. We know this, because not only have the bodies been found, but many atrocities were filmed by Hamas militants themselves. In one home, there was discovered an unborn child that had been cut from its mother’s womb and then stabbed.

Israelis claim that many in Palestine hate Jews and would kill them all if they could. These claims have long been condemned as racist and self-serving, but they are impossible to pretend away in the face of such actions. Does genocidal hatred lurk in the hearts of extremists in Israel? No doubt, but genocide is the clear intent and policy of Gaza’s government — a government that received the majority vote of the Gazans now suffering.

Granted, Hamas ultimately took power by force and has allowed no elections since. Are we to pretend the group lacks supporters in Gaza, though? Certainly, Israel bears its share of the blame — it after all encouraged the division of Gaza and the West Bank. Far from undermining Hamas’ theocratic rule of Gaza, it has allowed over a billion Qatari dollars to be funnelled into its coffers, believing that the group could be simply contained.

I raise all this because no mention is made in the letter of October 7th or Hamas, not even of Israel’s role in allowing the group to control Gaza. The reason so many, from Rishi Sunak to Christian theologians, have been muted in relation to Israeli bombing, is that it has come in response to this atrocity. If silence in the face of Israel’s bombing is a form of complicity, what are we to say about a letter that condemns Israeli actions in some detail, but fails to condemn Hamas? Collective punishment is profoundly wrong — I condemn Israel’s killing of civilians. Are we yet to pretend there is nothing to punish at all?

Hamas has sown the wind and is now reaping the whirlwind

Christians have an obligation to be better. For us, the excuses of our enemy’s wickedness, or our own weakness, are without substance. Such complaints fall to silence before the throne of God. You cannot cheer as your young men set out like wolves to devour your foes in one moment, then bleat like lambs when your enemy falls upon you in turn. Hamas has sown the wind and is now reaping the whirlwind. If Hamas does not represent Gazans, if they are fanatical tyrants whose actions ordinary Palestinians are helpless to constrain, then they should list them alongside the other evils that they suffer. Those who renounce violence should speak out against such actions more boldly, rather than weakly condemning “all attacks on civilians” and describing the current conflict as “Israel’s war against the people of Palestine”, as if Hamas had not struck the first horrifying blow.

Most glaring of all was the absence of any word of the some 200 Israeli hostages currently being held in Gaza. On the matter of these innocent souls, the letter was utterly mute. The fury now being visited on Gaza is a direct consequence of this ISIS-like mass kidnapping. If tears are not so freely shed for Palestinians this week, it is perhaps because of the presence of these captives. This evil too does not justify the bombing of civilians — but it places a large share of the blame with Hamas, along with those who refuse to condemn and oppose them.

The absence of such language was all the more glaring in the face of another statement, made by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. He has spoken out often against the Israeli occupation. In a powerfully expressed diocesan letter, he wrote:

My conscience and moral duty require me to state clearly that what happened on October 7th in southern Israel is in no way permissible and we cannot but condemn it. There is no reason for such an atrocity. Yes, we have a duty to state this and to denounce it. The use of violence is not compatible with the Gospel, and it does not lead to peace. The life of every human person has equal dignity before God, who created us all in His image.

The same conscience, however, with a great burden on my heart, leads me to state with equal clarity today that this new cycle of violence has brought to Gaza over five thousand deaths, including many women and children, tens of thousands of wounded, neighborhoods razed to the ground, lack of medicine, lack of water and of basic necessities for over two million people. These are tragedies that cannot be understood and which we have a duty to denounce and condemn unreservedly. The continuous heavy bombardment that has been pounding Gaza for days will only cause more death and destruction and will only increase hatred and resentment. It will not solve any problem, but rather create new ones. It is time to stop this war, this senseless violence.

The Patriarch found no difficulty whatsoever in clearly and explicitly condemning October 7th and naming it an atrocity. Meanwhile, in his public statements the Patriarch has put the release of the hostages at the centre of the peace process, whilst at the same time condemning Israeli bombing. He even offered to exchange himself for the release of hostages — this is what Christian witness in the face of terror and bloodshed should look like. By contrast, the open letter, which was able to find words like “atrocity” and “massacre” for the results of Israeli bombs, made no reference to the bloody work of Palestinian knives and guns that initiated the most recent cycle of violence.

It is not only Israel’s government and its supporters that hold themselves to a lower standard; it is Palestine and its supporters, including, sadly, the authors of this open letter. What else are we to make of such phrases as “Although many Christians in the West do not have a problem with the theological legitimization of war, the vast majority of Palestinian Christians do not condone violence — not even by the powerless and occupied [emphasis mine]”? The idea that the violence of the weaker party is less blameworthy than that of the powerful is not a Christian theology — as St Paul says, “resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” With the letters harping on “colonialist theology”, we have some clue that the authors are proponents of the decolonial school of thought. This road, much trod by “liberation theology”, is a dangerous one, pursued by many who utterly reject the Christian commitment to peace. There’s little of the theology of Christ in the words of Frantz Fanon, who wrote “Colonialism … is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence” — but there’s much of the theology of Barabbas.

I wish I had a solution to the horrific events in Israel and Palestine. I may lack easy answers, but I am certain that any solution requires the reconciliation of Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land. This must be brought about with the help of those who have the power to influence the respective sides. This means that we outside the region must stop cheering on one side or the other, regardless of which one we think comes out ahead in some nonexistent Karmic balance of misdeeds and grievances. Letters of support and solidarity are seductive and understandable but, I fear, ultimately unhelpful.

The title of the letter — “A Call for Repentance” — is exactly the right title, married to the wrong sentiment. The call to peace, the call to repent from bloodshed, must be properly, explicitly and intimately directed to all the parties in that bloodshed, not merely passed off as a general call for peace before listing your grievances. The letter caused me to examine my conscience, so it has done some good. I hope the authors examine their own consciences and find the language to repent of the violence waged in the name of Palestine.

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