Views of CCJR Members

Don't Be Part of the Problem

From Church Times

Nowhere is the subject of peace and understanding - or perhaps more realistically, conflict and mis-understanding - 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 the 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, 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 commit-ment 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