Not in our shoes
As the war in Lebanon and northern Israel continues to rage, international commentary has tended to divide into two camps, a dichotomy also reflected in the global Church. There are those on the one hand, who, appalled at the civilian loss of life in Lebanon and destruction to civilian infrastructure, are vocal in their demand for a ceasefire, censuring Israel for its offensive. On the other hand, there are those who firmly place responsibility for the conflict on Hezbollah, and support Israel in its efforts to attack the Shi’ite group. Less ink has been spilt about the trends operating on a more profound level amongst the societies involved, despite the fact that it is the will of the people themselves who will ultimately prove decisive for policy decisions.
Since the outbreak of the conflict in mid-July, the media and the Israeli government have almost appeared to be working in tandem, which combined with a rock-solid public consensus in support of the hostilities has produced something akin to blanket conformity within Israeli society. At the time of writing, the news was full of reports of the ‘Qana massacre’, with dozens of Lebanese killed in an Israeli air raid. Within minutes of the first reports, the Israeli news site Ynet was leading with the Olmert quotation: ‘Hezbollah to blame for Qana’ (a reference to the apparent presence of Hezbollah fighters in the town). A columnist for the popular Ma’ariv wrote, “We are not hesitating, apologising or relenting…The children of Qana could be sleeping peacefully in their homes now, if the messengers of Satan had not taken over their land and turned our children’s lives into hell”1.
In the Hebrew press there has been a great blurring of lines between the news stories, the editorials, and government statements. In one editorial, Yediot Ahronot editor-in- chief Rafi Ginat wrote “We have to strike hard – and we can allow ourselves to feel good about it”2. The popular tabloid Ma’ariv featured the headline ‘Greater Determination, Less Sensitivity’, while writing in the centrist daily Ha’aretz, resident military analyst Ze’ev Schiff commented, “If Hezbollah does not experience defeat in this war, this will spell the end of Israeli deterrence against its enemies”3. It has been left to isolated columnists to sound alarm bells about either the moral or strategic merit of the military offensive, struggling in a war time atmosphere of the military censor and verbatim repetition of government spokespersons. This state of affairs should be discomforting for those who know their Scriptures. The Old Testament is replete with examples where military pride, and prophetic compliance, led Israel to disaster. In 1 Kings 22, for example, the king of Israel asks for the counsel of 400 prophets about a decision to go to war, all of whom reply in unison, “the Lord will give it into the king’s hand”. It is left to Micaiah to stand against the prevailing bullishness.
The Israeli government’s reluctance to officially declare ‘war’, in some ways reflects the surreal nature of the conflict for its civilians. Those living south of Haifa have remained almost entirely immune from Hezbollah rocket fire, and have experienced the conflict through the stories of displaced relatives and their television sets. One girl I spoke to who works in a Jerusalem shopping centre described it as like living in a bubble, and hard to believe that there was a war in the north. In Tel Aviv, Israelis still flock to the beaches to enjoy the summer sun, yet in the north of the country there has been a good deal of disruption to ordinary life. Various estimates indicate that somewhere between a third and a half of northern Israel’s population have left their homes due to the fighting. Those who stayed have been in and out of bomb shelters as the warning sirens sound across their towns in advance of incoming Katyusha rockets. It is undeniable that millions of Israelis have suffered through fear and uncertainty, yet for many Christians, genuine sympathy and solidarity can be voiced only for one people group or another. This does not have to be the case – concern for all those affected need not dilute a root political position.
A lot of Israelis have been quoted in the international press as offering wholehearted support for Israeli military operations in Lebanon, sometimes to the point of blaming the Lebanese civilian victims themselves for being in Hezbollah neighbourhoods: “they need to choose better where to live”, said one sergeant4. Opinion polls have consistently showed overwhelming support for the offensive, only marginally dissipating over the course of the second week of the fighting – even after the loss of a number of soldiers in combat in Lebanon). The numbers for those who believe the offensive was justified have stayed at the 95/90% mark, while as much as 80% of those surveyed supported a continuation of the fighting until strategic objectives in southern Lebanon are achieved. What comes to mind is the exhortation in Exodus 23:2, “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong”, and it is a lesson worth learning for Christians in every society. While this kind of command is often restricted to personal morality, it is essential we also consider the ways in which we become participants in deeper, broader trends or movements in our societies.
Anecdotal evidence supports the statistical figures. Racheli, a 17 year old resident of Tiberias, had gone down to Jerusalem with her family to escape the fighting. Riding on the bus back up north to see her friend, she described how even with the pictures of dead Lebanese civilians she had seen on television, the fact that Hezbollah “started it” means that Israel must take up arms. Shira, a 22 year old waitress in Talpiot (a Jewish neighbourhood in annexed East Jerusalem), was resigned to not expecting much by way of sympathy from the outside world, since “they can’t be in our shoes”. She was keen to stress Israel’s strength as a country, and the nation’s dignity. “We have a lot of power, which means that it can appear we are just impulsively lashing out in Lebanon, even though this is not the case”. She went on to explain that it wasn’t Arabs per se she had a problem with, just the “terrorists”: “but the world accuses us of racism against the Palestinians”.
The overall response to Lebanese civilian casualties has been three fold; firstly, ‘it’s a war’, secondly, Hezbollah ‘hide behind civilians’, and thirdly, ‘they started it’. In a stroke, therefore, the Israeli military is resolved of almost all responsibility for the consequences of air strikes across Lebanon. There has been only small public protest against the Lebanese offensive, restricted to Arab parties and left-wing Jewish groups – many of the Israelis traditionally active in anti-occupation activism have fallen in line for what they consider to be a ‘moral’ war of defense. As The Times noted, “overwhelmingly Israelis have internalised their Government’s portrayal of the conflict as an existential one: Hezbollah as the proxy of Iran’s mullahs, determined to exterminate the Jewish people”5. However, whether a US-armed, nuclear power Israel is under ‘existential threat’ is an open question. In Exodus 1, we read how the Egyptian king raises the specter of national destruction to cajole his people into moving against the minority Israelites in their midst. It is a powerful rallying cry, and one that the Jewish nation is particularly susceptible to.
Spiritual guidance and religious indicts have been harder to find in the news. The Jerusalem Post reported on an open letter to the Israeli Defence Force from Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, in which he quoted Deuteronomy: “Listen Israel, you draw near today to do battle against your enemies; let not your hearts faint; fear not and do not tremble nor be terrified because of them; for the Lord your God is he that goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to save you”6. The Rabbi classically linked God’s protection and blessing of the war to the morality of the Jewish nation. Meanwhile, the spiritual leadership of the religious settlers, the Yesha Rabbinical Council, published a statement after the attack in Qana, declaring: “according to Jewish law, during a time of battle and war, there is no such term as ‘innocents’ of the enemy”. It continued, “All of the discussions on Christian morality are weakening the spirit of the army and the nation and are costing us in the blood of our soldiers and civilians”7. Note that the Rabbis refer to ‘Christian’ morality, an attempt to mute Jewish opposition. But the foundation for any ‘Christian morality’ is Old Testament, Jewish values: “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute” urges the Psalmist (82:3). Morality that is servant to ultra-nationalism, or messianic religiosity, can become skewed indeed.
Israeli reactions to the events in Lebanon and northern Israel have been typical of the ways in which the Jewish nation perceives its own status in the world. The Holocaust’s legacy has indelibly printed on the psyche of this nation, and its people, a need for self-reliance and independence – to never again wait for a third party rescue that may never come. Ma’ariv suggested a speech for Olmert that read in part: “The Jewish state will no longer be trampled underfoot… I serve as a mouth today for six million bombed Israeli citizens, who serve as a mouth for six million annihilated Jews, who were burnt to dust by savages in Europe… And you, just as you did not take the matter seriously at the time, you are ignoring it now”8. A lot of Israelis are either genuinely puzzled, or angry, at the hostility they perceive towards them in the international community, and presume they are simply acting in the same way any other nation would in their situation. For Christians within, and from outside, Israeli society, there needs to be a balance between sympathy, comfort, and historical understanding on the one hand, and perceptiveness, discernment, and prophetic critique on the other.
Published in Third Way.