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'Don't be part of the problem'

29 June 2012

Edward Kessler examines why Israel causes such difficulties in Christian-Jewish relations


At odds: an Israeli soldier looks on, as a Palestinian puts out a fire, after a clash between Israeli settlers and Palestinians, near the Jewish settlement of Yitzhar, near Nablus, on the West Bank, last month

At odds: an Israeli soldier looks on, as a Palestinian puts out a fire, after a clash between Israeli settlers and Palestinians, near the Jewish set...

Nowhere is the subject of peace and understanding - or perhaps more realistically, conflict and mis­unde­rstanding - more evident than in discussions among and between Christians and Jews about Israel and Palestine, whether they take place in the tea rooms of the General Synod in York, or in the coffee parlours of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

As a Christian friend of mine told me when she returned from a pil­grim­age to the Holy Land recently: "This country is so contradictory, so laden with conflict, so beautiful to look at, filled with the kindest and on the other hand the scariest people [settlers], that I could do nothing but be attracted to it and want to go back."

Motions tabled at the Synod are likely to be divisive, as speakers tend to be advocates of one side or other. An example is the WCC Ecu­menical Accompaniment Pro­gramme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), which was set up at the request of Pales­tinian Christians, and pursues a partisan agenda: the promotion of Palestinian rights.

The difficulty is that, while it undertakes important work, it is wrong to assume that its agenda represents a balanced view. Why is it so rare to find Christian organisa­tions, let alone Jewish ones, which are both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli? Blinkered views prevail.

Political factors alone do not fully explain why Israel is such a controversial topic in Jewish-Chris­tian relations. For Jews it is more obvious: the centrality of the land of the Bible, as well as the sur­vival of more than a third of world Jewry, is at stake. Christians, for their part, not only disagree about the place of Israel in Christian theology, but feel particular concern for Chris­tians who live in the Holy Land, as well as for Palestinians. There are, of course, also many Christians and Jews who are deeply concerned about the "Other", making this a complicated picture.

Although there have been great changes in Christian teaching on Judaism, and especially in tackling he traditional "teaching of con­tempt of Judaism", attitudes towards Israel continue to be difficult. It has been easier for the Church to con­demn anti-Semitism as a misunder­standing of Christian teaching than to come to terms with the re-establishment of the Jewish State. Walter Brueggemann, the Baptist theologian and biblical scholar, has argued that the subject of land should move to the centre of Chris­tian theology.

The Church is divided on Zion­ism. While, at one end, there are some who make absolute moral de­mands on Israel, and conclude, like Canon Naim Ateek, that Zionism represents a profane corruption of Judaism's true prophetic mission, at the other, many Evangelicals (often called Christian Zionists) are gen­erally strong supporters of the State of Israel, interpreting biblical proph­esies such as Zechariah 14.16 as say­ing that the modern State of Israel is intrinsically related to the biblical Israel, and its direct fulfil­ment.

Although this view is opposed by some Evangelical thinkers, such as the Revd Dr Stephen Sizer (News, 4 May), for Christian Zionists, the State of Israel is critical to the Second Coming of Jesus. From a Jewish perspective, this can imply that Jews are merely pawns on the chessboard of history, used to fulfil a final, pre­determined game-plan.

Jews are also divided about Israel. In particular, the growth of settle­ments, the behaviour of settlers, and the occupation of the Palestinian ter­ritories are resulting in what Peter Beinart calls in The Crisis of Zionism (Times Books, 2012) "political corrosion".

A profoundly anti-democratic and aggressive culture is becoming pervasive among much of the Jewish population in the West Bank. It is undermining the vision of a Jewish and a democratic state pictured by the founders of Israel. In my experi­ence, it is hard, if not impossible, to engage with people who believe that they are the holy defenders of Israel.

Nevertheless, personal encounter is vital, and the temptation to re­strict encounters, and even promote boy­cott, should be opposed. Meeting and interacting with people from differ­ent religious backgrounds moves beyond merely learning about each other's tradi­tions. Through encounter, one seeks to discover a shared humanity and to see beyond one's own experience.

Some people in the more liberal or mainstream Protestant denomina­tions are extremely critical of Israel, such as those who persuaded the Methodist Church in 2010 to follow a process of phased selective divest­ment from multinational companies operating in Israel.

Kairos Palestine, an influential document issued by a number of leading Christians from the Holy Land in 2010, has caused some con­sternation because it seems to depict Israel as solely responsible for a com­­plex conflict. When Churches adopt divestment initiatives directed against Israel - a country whose policies they sometimes liken to the former apartheid regime in South Africa - some see these as attempts to delegitimise Israel's very exist­ence, although that may not be the in­tention.

The fact that the Churches do not act similarly regarding human-rights abuses and state violence in many other places, especially in the wider Middle East, adds to the strain.

Too many Christians, in the name of dialogue and reconciliation, move from a position of commit­ment to the well-being of Palestin­ians to one of seeming almost to think that Israel can do no right. This is dis­honest, and unrelated to present realities; it can be as un­helpful as the attitude of those for whom the Pales­tinians are the cause of all the ills in the conflict.

There is another complicating factor. For Christians in the Holy Land, the relationship with Jews exists within a framework of a larger dialogue with Muslims. Christian Pales­tinians are concerned at the prospect of the gradual Islamisation of the nascent state, and of a time when Hamas and other Islamist parties might take over completely.

Nablus, a city that once had a sizeable Christian population, now has almost none. The significant re­duction in the Christian population elsewhere in the Middle East adds to feelings of insecurity.

There are, however, outbreaks of hopes for peace, such as the Alex­andria Declaration (2002), when senior Christians, Jews, and Muslims pledged themselves to work together for a just and lasting peace, and called for religious figures to remain involved in the dialogue, however frustrating.

Those of us who are committed to genuine reconciliation realise that good neighbours are better than good guns; but we face increasing problems, created by those who are moving away from dialogue towards a megaphone monologue, and who generate noise, but not hope.

Hope is the vital ingredient that Christians and Jews thousands of miles away from the conflict must bring. An Israeli mother who lost her son, and a Palestinian woman who lost her brother in the conflict made this clear recently, when they told students in Cambridge: "If you don't want to be part of the solution, don't be part of the problem."

Dr Edward Kessler is founder director of the Woolf Institute in Cambridge.

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