Here’s some advice to any aspiring columnist: if you want to polarize your audience, to be accused of myriad insensitivities and provoke numerous letters, write about the Middle East. Because everybody is apparently an expert, and those “experts” are eager to label anyone who doesn’t share their view as either an anti-Semite or a Zionist oppressor. It’s often banal to say that the truth is somewhere in the middle, but on the Israel/Palestine issue, that’s partly the case.
I began visiting the region almost 40 years ago and, after the United Kingdom and Canada, spent the largest part of my life there. I also wrote a master’s thesis on the conflict and have interviewed Israeli prime ministers and Palestinian leaders. But you can bet your copy of Edward W. Said’s Orientalism or Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel that this won’t matter to those who have already made up their minds.
The truth is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complex and nuanced, and empathy is vital, especially for anybody seeking a Christian response to an agonizing situation. But let’s outline a few basics:
1. While we have to understand the Palestinian struggle, we also have to appreciate the Jewish experience. In spite of what some might think, the creation of Israel was not some colonial or academic project. It was, to a large extent, an act of desperation from a people who had worked to be accepted in Germany, Poland, Russia and pretty much everywhere else only to be excluded, vilified and murdered en masse. It’s simply too facile to condemn Israel without at least some grasp of one of the greatest persecutions in world history.
2. The last people who should be held responsible for centuries of anti-Semitism are the Palestinians. The long, racist lunacy that culminated in the Holocaust was a gruesome mingling of perverted Christianity, forest tribalism and political instability. A Palestinian who hates Israelis is nothing like a fascist who hates Jews. To confuse the two is unfair to Palestinians and dilutes the sheer horror of authentic anti-Semitism. Of course, the Palestinians are angry and sometimes they hate, but the power dynamics, the reasons and the motives, are fundamentally different in cause and result.
3. Outsiders cause a lot of problems. This applies to over-confident left-wingers and to non-Palestinian Muslims with a misguided notion of solidarity. It applies equally to American Christian Zionists applauding every Israeli action out of a fetish for the end times but dismissing the cries of fellow Christians who are Palestinian.
4. Both groups have a right to be there. Polemicists will tell you Palestinians are really Jordanians or that Jerusalem has nothing to do with the Jews. They are spitefully wrong. These are excuses rather than arguments. While total harmony will be difficult, a workable, if clumsy, co-existence is still possible. I’ve seen it too many times to remain cynical.
5. We have to be radical in our attempts to find peace but reasonable in our grasp of human emotions, fears and needs. Feel for all, and ask questions. It’s better than pretending you have all the answers.
This story first appeared in the January 2017 issue of The Observer with the title “To the Point: A Christian critique of current affairs.”