During Vatican II – a gathering of church officials who reviewed the doctrine of the Catholic church – there was legislation approved called Nostra Aetate, meaning literally “In Our Age.” Nostra Aetate was a revolutionary document that condemned the charge of Jewish deicide (that is, the charge that “the Jews” held the responsibility for the death of Jesus), among other things. It was crucial legislation, and without it, it seems unlikely that Jews and Christians would have made the strides they’ve made to overcome an incredibly negative history. Just to get a picture of how far that relationship has come, it’s worth noting that some members of the KKK, an historically Christian organization for example, have distanced themselves from Christianity, embracing Nordic religions like Odinism, because they regard Christianity as too Jewish, whereas in the past, Judaism was seen as something separate, something other. Nowadays, it’s not entirely uncommon for churches to participate in seders (Passover feasts) around the time of Easter or for pastors to recognize the Jewishness of Jesus, something that was once forgotten or ignored. In our age, interfaith dialogue has made important, incredible strides, and we must be careful to keep moving forward in the field of Jewish-Christian dialogue.
That said, lately I’ve come to fear that in Christianity’s increasing interest and admiration for Judaism, a kind of Zionism has filtered its way into some Evangelical movements. I don’t mean to suggest that the field of Jewish-Christian dialogue has gone too far. Or that Nostra Aetate lead to something negative. To the contrary, I think Jews and Christians still have much to learn from one another, and perhaps continued dialogue would help curb the problem of Christian Zionism. Still, there are some Christians who expect Jesus to return soon and feel rather strongly that they must support Israel financially with the end goal of seeing the reconstruction of the Temple – a kind of strange effort on their part to usher in the eschaton, the end times. To a lesser degree, that’s created the perception that Israel can do no wrong or that any enemy of Israel is an enemy of the United States, or at least of Christianity (for many of these Christians would not separate church and state). I say “lately” but the truth is, this has been going on for a long time, this weird marriage of Evangelical Christianity and the State of Israel.
Albeit briefy, I’ve lived and worked in Israel on one short archaeological excavation, and during that time I traveled in and out of the West Bank. I loved the whole country; I loved its beautiful geography and colorful people. From the rolling plains of Armageddon to lost inside the Holy Church of the Sepulchre to floating in the Dead Sea or waltzing as close as I could get to the caves of Qumran, I have a deep love of Israel. In fact, I had such a deep love of Israel at the time that when someone on a bulldozer plowed through a crowd in Jerusalem while I was in the country, it fed my other perception that those Muslim folks are all just a bunch of crazies who, every time you hear about them, seem to be blowing something up, running someone over, causing havoc this way and that. It would be several years before my perception would change there.
But I’ll never forget one afternoon in the Old City where that myopic viewpoint first got called into question. A few friends and I had stopped for lunch in a cafe in the Arab Quarter, and a Jewish woman came in and sat down with her two children and ate lunch nearby. When she was finished and had eaten everything, she refused to pay claiming the food had been terrible and harassing the owner of the cafe. That was my first experience seeing these tensions between Arabs and Jews in Israel. The owner of the cafe, a Muslim man, was hurt but unsurprised. He handled the situation with incredible tact and went on to tell us that sort of thing happened all the
I know all too well that the plural of anecdote isn’t data, but in the coming years, between moving to Morocco, studying Islam, and learning Arabic, I’ve taught myself to try to step into the shoes of those whose story is driven too-often by the mainstream media with little complexity. This isn’t intended to be anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian. It isn’t in anyway Zionist or antisemitic or anti-Jewish. It’s one thing: a plea for recognizing how complicated and complex these tensions are. In the few social media arguments I’ve seen, I’ve noticed people rush to say things like, “Well, Hamas started it first,” as if these were events taking place on a third grade playground.
Or, worse, I’ve seen some Christians bemoan the Muslim population entirely and suggest Israel just “wipe them all out.” It’s almost as if the Native American population suddenly decided to start bombing American government buildings demanding to have their land back. Would that be terrorism and wrong? Well, yes. On the other hand, let’s not forget the Trail of Tears, itself a trail of terror. Or let’s not forget that suicide rates are, even today, highest among Native Americans than any other racial group in America. “Terrorism” is in the eye of the beholder. If you were British in 1776, you were probably having to put up with some pesky American terrorists. So, before we rush to label all Gaza or all of Hamas or all Muslims as terrorists, let’s at least recognize the complexity of their history and the pain they – like the Jews they fight – have suffered over time.
How do we do that? We learn to listen to perspectives of others in ways that force us to consider what it’s like living in their shoes. A few years ago, I was at a Jewish-Christian dialogue conference with several seminarians – future Rabbis and Christian pastors, alike. The event was sponsored by an organization that included several survivors of the Shoah who spoke in what was an incredibly moving discussion. But something felt off. When we began to discuss “the land” and the importance of “the land” (i.e. the area now known as the State of Israel but an area that has gone by countless names in the Bible), one point was reiterated by numerous speakers: that Christians must come to recognize the importance of “the land” for the people Israel. There were two things that struck me in that conversation. The first was that we had chosen to have a Jewish-Christian dialogue, not a Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue. To talk about the importance of “the land” without any representation from an entire other religion that has some claim to the land felt off to me. If you want to know why such controversial issues remain so controversial, I think that’s part of why; it’s as if no one even recognized the elephant in the room was the absence of our Muslim brothers and sisters at the table. If we can’t listen to one another, we have no hope of progress. On that note, I also realized that we have to listen not merely to our political differences but to our religious differences, as well. The field of political science goes out of its way to recognize the conflict between Arabs and Jews as one that’s strictly political and historical, and I’m convinced that’s part of why so little progress has been made. More efforts where Muslims and Jews are praying together and listening to each other’s religious differences and similarities would go a long way.
So, the story is complicated, more complicated than we have a history of giving it credit, and no one’s going to move forward if they can’t listen to each other. Most of that is just common sense, really. But recognizing both of those things, I’ll say why I think Israel is, currently, making a terrible mistake. I had a friend once point out that Israel likes to see itself as David fighting some Goliath when it paints its struggle with the Palestinians, and I think his assessment is probably true. As he noted, David was a weak, lyricist playing on his harp. No one in the family considered him worthy of being a King. That’s not Israel’s role. It’s a powerful force backed by incredible military and financial might. If anything, Israel is Goliath. And when you’re Goliath, if you’re going to be a good Goliath, you have to be careful how you use your power. If Israel wants peace, it won’t wield it with excessive force. Think of the children growing up in Gaza and put yourself in their shoes. If Goliath comes to your town when you’re thirteen or so and starts bombing the heck out of people you love, and you grow up in that place where you’ve struggled to get food and clean water, where you’re forced to stay in the same, poor conditions with nothing better, then the unfortunate, wrong-headed narrative that “Israel should be destroyed” is more likely to prevail under those conditions. And when there’s not a well-organized military to join, it comes as no surprise that some would turn to terrorism as a means of fighting who they regard as Goliath. Ultimately, though, regardless of which side is more right or more wrong, how many people have to die in this conflict or any other before MLK’s words are believed to be true? That “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” That, of course, opens up the usual debates about pacifism and just war, and those are all worth discussing, but just at the very simplest understanding of what all is happening right now in Gaza, I think we can at least agree that a fight that’s leading to such a large number of civilian deaths is not going to encourage long-term peace of any kind. Quite the contrary. There aren’t any short- or long-term winners in this one. And I guess I hold Israel a little more responsible because I expect them to understand that by now.
Of course, there’s this tendency to throw up our hands, I suppose, and say, “What does it matter and what good does it do us to discuss it,” and on one level, I think that’s very true. I’ve seen a lot of that mentality prevailing, too, in the notion that the Middle East has been fighting since the dawn of time, so why even care at this point? On the other hand, how a few of us discuss it on social media or in blogs slowly but surely contributes to how it’s understood more widely in our culture, and that goes with everything. I guess it’s important to me that we discuss it for two reasons. The first is to encourage empathy. We should be a culture that encourages those we care about to stand in the shoes of others before anyone decides how they feel about something. The second is, more simply, that I thrive off being challenged and so I like to challenge others, too. And that’s what this is, an incredible challenge – to Jews, Arabs, and to Christians, and though we won’t solve the Middle East conflict on Facebook or Twitter or anybody’s blog, I think learning how to talk about it with openness to hearing different perspectives is important.