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Paul Vallely: Israel should rethink its military plan

22 December 2023

Indiscriminate bombing will not achieve justice, argues Paul Vallely


Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, chairs a cabinet meeting at the Kirya, which houses the Israeli Ministry of Defence, in Tel Aviv, on Sunday

Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, chairs a cabinet meeting at the Kirya, which houses the Israeli Ministry of Defence, in Tel Aviv, o...

THIS is a Christmas unlike any other. Even before the photograph of the crib with the baby Jesus lying amid the rubble of a bombed-out Gaza building (News, 15 December), the repeated references throughout the Advent liturgies to Israel, Zion, and Jerusalem had, this year, a disconcerting resonance.

The idea of Jerusalem as a metaphor for the heavenly city — and the references to Israel and Zion as symbols of a messianic future when all will be the people of God — usually feel an echo of a mystical Judaeo-Christian inheritance. This year, sadly, the idea of Jerusalem as a representation of a new heaven and new earth, a place where righteousness will be at home, is threaded with ambiguity.

Earlier generations of Christians believed that the New Testament superseded the Old, and that the historical part played by the Jewish people was to prepare the way for Jesus. To persist as a suffering and scattered witness after Christ’s arrival, St Augustine argued, constituted a sinful rejection of the new covenant.

The Holocaust changed all that, shaming Christian theologians — paramount among them the great Dominican Marcel-Jacques Dubois — “to see the Jews as God sees them”, and to “love them as He loves them”. After 40 years as a professor at the Hebrew University, he decided, after the Second Intifada in 2000, that he and his colleagues had been “naïvely Zionist, confusing the Jewish adventure with the Israeli one”. Fr Dubois, now a post-Zionist, moved from Jewish West Jerusalem to an Arab village.

If so distinguished a scholar became so unsettled, small wonder that the rest of us, on hearing sermons about Isaiah and the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon, could not help but bring to mind modern-day Israel’s razing of Gaza. The psalmist’s insistence that “Justice shall march before him, and peace shall follow his steps” seems an intractable hope when the Palestinians and Israelis have such conflicting concepts of what is just.

No one should doubt the righteousness of Israel’s determination to hunt down the terrorists who, on 7 October, callously slaughtered 1147 innocent civilians, and took 240 more hostage. Yet Israel is not going about it the right way. Indiscriminate bombing, as even President Biden now deems it — which has killed 18,000 Palestinians, more than half of them women and children — is not the pursuit of justice. The recklessness of Israel’s military strategy is underscored by its shooting of its own hostages.

Swift on the heels of Christmas comes the feast of the Holy Innocents: a grim corollary that reminds us — in the words of the chilling lullaby sung by mothers of the doomed children — that “Herod the king, in his raging, charged . . . his men of might, in his own sight, all young children to slay”. This week, the former Defence Secretary and ex-soldier, Ben Wallace, warned Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, against another “killing rage”.

Too late. For many around the globe, this Christmas, there is already haunting contemporaneity to the reading we will hear on Holy Innocents’ Day: “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’”

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