The Churches in the Search for MiddleEast Peace

by Allan R. Brockway

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  • American Identification with Israel
  • Two Answers to a Difficult Question
  • New Divisions and New Opportunities
  • The Middle East–and, especially, the State of Israel–occupies a place in the public psyche of the United States like no other of the world's regions or states. Tangible evidence may be found in the annual foreign aid appropriations by the Congress, which designate the overwhelming bulk of such aid to Israel and to Egypt (the latter only after it made peace with Israel). But behind the budget figures lies a tangled history that reaches back at least to the early years of the twentieth century. It is a history that is as much, if not more, religious than it is political or economic. Indeed, the immense concern of Americans for the Middle East is religious before it is for such matters as access to oil reserves or endeavors to avoid another world war–and has nothing directly to do with the supposedly powerful American Jewish political constituency.

    American Identification with Israel

    Specifically, the American concern for the Middle East is its identification (there is no other way to put it) with Israel. Should anyone doubt that the United States, government and people, identifies with the State of Israel, consider the extraordinary delegation, which included the President and leaders of both Congressional houses, that recently attended the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The US president almost never attends the funerals of foreign heads of state. This time he did–and offered a magnificent tribute to the slain leader plus a solemn promise that the United States of America would never desert the State of Israel. Can anyone think of a similar commitment to any other state? America1s identification with Israel is unique.

    Almost by definition, such an identification cannot be solely pragmatic. International political allegiances come and go, stiffen and loosen, but the American allegiance with Israel, though strained at times (cf. the Pollard affair), has never been seriously questioned. Why? What is so special about Israel that Americans should make it an exception to its relationship with all other countries, including, I would maintain, those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization? The answer is that the American identity with Israel is basically religious in character.

    Scroll back to 1948, the year that brought the State of Israel into the family of nation states. The World Council of Churches, meeting in its founding Assembly only a few weeks after Israel1s birth, was confused about what it should say:

    The establishment of the state "Israel" adds a political dimension to the Christian approach to the Jews and threatens to complicate antisemitism with political fears and enmities.

    On the political aspects of the Palestine problem and the complex conflict of "rights" involved we do not undertake to express a judgment. Nevertheless, we appeal to the nations to deal with the problem not as one of expediency–political, strategic or economic–but as a moral and spiritual question that touches a nerve centre of the world1s religious life.

    Whatever position may be taken towards the establishment of a Jewish state and towardthe "rights"and "wrongs" of Jews and Arabs, of Hebrew Christians and Arab Christians involved, the churches are in duty bound to pray and work for an order in Palestine as Just as may be in the midst of our human disorder; to provide within their power for the relief of the victims of this warfare without discrimination; and to seek to influence the nations to provide a refuge for Displaced Persons far more generously than has yet been done.
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    Two Answers to a Difficult Question

    That appeal was largely ignored, both by the churches and the world's nations. For immediately the State of Israel became the focus of controversy over its right to exist–on political, strategic, and economic grounds. Christians, not least American Christians, began to take sides on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of Israel's existence. That they did so, however, was (paradoxically perhaps) precisely because the new Jewish state posed "a moral and spiritual question that touches a nerve centre of the world's religious life." That question, as it turned out, had two answers; each was "moral and spiritual" and each was grounded in fundamental principles of Christian theology–but they were radically different, with radically different consequences.

    One of the answers, which might be called the "justice position," could be formulated as follows:

    Judaism and the Jewish people are one thing, the State of Israel is another. Grave injustice was done to the Jews during the Shoa, but the Israelis are now doing grave injustice to the Palestinians. By definition, the Church is always on the side of the poor and the dispossessed. In the case of the Middle East, the Palestinians clearly are the dispossessed; consequently the Church must support them in their struggle against their oppressors, the Israelis.

    The other answer, or the "identification" position, required a different formulation:

    The Christian Church is linked by both theology and history to the Jewish people. Moreover, the Jewish people (for which the Church has had its own definition for most of the last 2000 years) today has the right to define itself. It does so to some considerable degree in terms of the State of Israel. Thus in order to be faithful to the God of Israel, whom Christians worship no less than Jews, the Church must support the Jewish people in its return to the land of promise, assisting it in its effort to arrive at as just a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians as possible.

    In the years since 1948 both of these positions or answers have been represented in statements made by ecclesiastical bodies, not least the United Methodist Church (see, for instance, the 1988 General Conference resolution, The Current Arab-Israeli Crisis, for the "justice" position and, for the "identification" position, the 1972 resolution, Statement on Inter-Religious Dialogue: Jews and Christians). Often it seemed as though the two positions were in irreconcilable conflict. Those whose theological starting point was "justice" came down on the side of the Palestinians and those who began with the Church's identification with the Jewish people came down on the side of Israel.

    At bottom was the usually unspoken but ultimately unresolved question of the right of the State of Israel to exist. Exponents of both the" justice" and "identification" positions agreed that Israel existed as a state (that is, it was more than an "entity" as the PLO and other Arab groups designated it). But "justice" did not allow for the right of Israel to exist in the Middle East, displacing its rightful owners, now called Palestinians. "Identification," on the other hand, insisted that the Jewish people's centuries-long memory of Jerusalem, and its constant longing for a return to Zion, was more than sufficient claim to the rightness of Israel's existence.

    So the lines were drawn with, it must be said, most of the big guns in the mainline churches (the evangelical and fundamentalist churches are another matter, for another time) lining up on the "justice" side. At the same time, curiously enough, the United States government demonstrated its primary loyalty to Israel but within a context of efforts toward a just peace. For whatever reasons, the secular powers were able to support Israel while simultaneously declining to take sides. We know the result. Who can forget the handshake of Prime Minister Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat at the White House on 13 September 1993?

    I have already suggested that I think at least some of the reasons are religious in nature. An examination of the historical and ideological basis for the US government stance would be well worth a serious study. But suffice it to note now that the government, with no obvious theological agenda, continues to stand faithfully at Israel's side and, as a consequence, is able to remain credible as an honest broker for a just and durable peace. On the other hand, Christians and churches, who have solid theological reasons to be "heart and soul on the side of the Jews" (Karl Barth, 1949), vacillated, not going much beyond the WCC's 1948 Amsterdam position theologically. Simultaneously, attempts by the churches to sound impartial often condemned Israel's violence but excused that of the Palestinians as necessary for their liberation struggle.
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    New Divisions and New Opportunities

    The Palestinian people and the people of Israel are both undergoing a crisis of identity. For fifty years and more they have defined themselves, at least in part, in terms of their mutual opposition and, indeed, hatred. But now that negative identity is seriously called into question. As peace between Israel and what inevitably will become Palestine increasingly becomes reality, these neighboring peoples are struggling to find other ways to understand their corporate reality. Without an external enemy, each of them faces internal enemies and, more importantly perhaps, the necessity to define themselves anew.

    The assassination of Prime Minister Rabin by a native-born Jew who claimed he acted on orders from God revealed in the bright light of day the canker that everyone knew lay at the heart of Israeli society: far from being united, Israeli Jews and Jews in the diaspora are tragically divided between and among themselves. The reaction in the Palestinian community was no less bitterly divided–the heartfelt messages delivered by the leaders of Egypt and Jordan at the late Prime Minister1s funeral and the genuine expression of loss expressed by Chairman Arafat were countered with rejoicing by some Palestinians. The division no longer is between Israel and the PLO, for each has a division of its own. Nevertheless, over and above these internal divisions, is the unity that has emerged between the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. It is there that great new opportunity resides.

    As for the churches, expressions of condolence at Rabin's death were expressed by representatives of the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, and most of their denominational members, including the United Methodist Church. Still, there were undertones of the old division within the churches. For instance, one United Methodist was quoted as acknowledging "great respect" for Rabin's pursuit of peace but nevertheless could not help recalling how Rabin himself forced many Palestinians from their homes during the fight to establish the State of Israel (UMNS, 7 Nov. 1995). However, a "window of opportunity" has opened for Christians and the churches as well.

    Ever since the Israeli-PLO accord the churches have been strangely silent. Few and far between have been recent "fact-finding" teams, sent to the Middle East to gather data as foundation for yet another "definitive" ecclesiastical statement concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Neither have new statements appeared on the significance of the Jewish people for Christian faith. The churches have been silent.

    As well they should. For, when the Palestine Liberation Organization and the State of Israel decided to recognize one another, on the pragmatic level the fundamental issue of Israel's right to exist became moot, as did the issue of the legitimacy of a Palestinian state. No longer did it make sense for Christians or the churches to advocate the cause of one side or the other--"justice" and "identification" now have the opportunity to join forces in support of peace and mutual benefit.

    It never was otherwise, of course, but now we can see with greater clarity that the Church's theological symbiotic relationship with the Jewish people and the equally valid theological insistence upon justice for the Palestinians need not be in conflict. The time has come for the "justice" people and the "identification" people to put aside their futile arguments about how the tortured history of the Middle East should be understood, and the mutual recriminations flowing therefrom, and together set to work on the one problem that may genuinely be addressed by the churches: the status of Jerusalem.

    The last great hurdle in the settlement of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is agreement on the city of Jerusalem. And overcoming that hurdle is something to which the three religious communities--Jews, Christians, and Muslims--can and must contribute. Contribute they will, even if unintentionally, either for peace and cooperation or for continued strife. The present moment offers the chance--but just the chance--for the three religions to be powerfully influential for peace. Leaving aside the necessary role to be played by Jews and Muslims, Christians and the churches have now the incomparable opportunity to enter into intra-Christian dialogue, to sort out among themselves the theological, political, and ethnic issues at stake. Should the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches find common ground, it could well be an agreement that becomes the linchpin of the ultimate end to the conflict that has torn peoples and religions apart, not only for the last fifty years but for the last two thousand.
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    First published in Christian Social Action, January 1996