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Why justice and peace are the needed in the Middle East

The Bishop of Manchester recently warned of an increase in anti-Semitism as a result of a “backlash from Gaza”, in remarks reported in this paper. The week before, Paul Richardson had also written (Jan 23) of how Israel’s attack on Gaza led to attacks on synagogues in Britain and Europe”.

Unfortunately, these and other articles that have appeared in CEN since Israel launched its operation at the end of December have not helped to either clarify the link between Gaza and anti-Semitism at home, nor to foster a serious understanding about events in Israel/Palestine and the Western church’s role.

A significant omission has been the reality on the ground in the Gaza Strip. Given that this is a church paper, it is possible to argue that one should focus on the Christian community and church-linked facilities in Gaza. Reliable reports indicate that three Palestinian Christians died in the Israeli attacks, while a Caritas-run health clinic was completely destroyed in an Israeli F-16 bombing.

Another example was the targeting of a health care centre maintained by funding from Christian Aid and Anglican churches around the world. This time, the Israeli military phoned a warning 15 minutes in advance, indicating a deliberate strike. The two clinics, with tens of thousands of pounds in equipment, provided vital services for Gaza’s besieged population.

This destruction was a fraction of the devastation visited on the fenced-in territory of 1.5 million Palestinians. In an operation openly intended to ‘pressure’ the civilian population, around 1,300 Palestinians were killed (including about 300 children) with 5,000 injuries. Fifteen per cent of all buildings were destroyed or collapsed; almost a third of all Gaza’s agricultural land was destroyed. Numerous war crimes are being investigated.

This is a snapshot of what’s been happening in Gaza, where Catholic priest Manuel Musallam spoke of the Israeli bombs “cutting through people and through homes” and where “night and day the sound of children crying is everywhere”. The scale of Israel’s attack is a crucial factor in explaining why there has been a ‘rise in anti-Semitism’.

But if the absence of this kind of reportage is regrettable, there was an even bigger, more fundamental omission, in the version of history offered both by an editorial (Jan 9) and Paul Richardson (Jan 23): the events of 1948.

The root of the conflict is the problem of how to create a Jewish state in a land with a majority non-Jewish population. The Zionist leadership’s solution was to force out as many Palestinians as possible – with almost 90 per cent expelled from what became Israel (interestingly, even 47 per cent of adult Israelis, according to a recent survey, agree the Palestinians were expelled, rather than ‘chose’ to leave).

Since 1948, Israel has expelled, denationalised, or militarily occupied the Palestinian people, in order to keep the land ‘inalienably Jewish’. The sole criticism in the editorial, however, was that Israel did not always act “intelligently” (but nothing about ‘morally’ or ‘legally’). Richardson described the oppression of the Palestinians as merely “perceived”.

Given the lack of acknowledgment of the reality of Israel’s recent operation in Gaza or the historical context of Palestinian dispossession and Israeli colonisation, it is little wonder that the issue of anti-Semitism is presented in an unhelpfully confusing manner.

Anti-Zionism is not synonymous with anti-Semitism. The political ideology of Zionism born in the 19th century has been both supported and opposed by religious Jews, secular Jews, Christians, Muslims, leftists, and conservatives. Nor is there a contradiction between opposing anti-Semitism and supporting equal rights for Palestinians.

In 1921 the US magazine The Atlantic reported on the conflict brewing in Palestine. The author, writing about the efforts of the “Political Zionists” to forcefully bring about Jewish sovereignty, prophesied there could be “no question that anti-Semitism, not only in Palestine but throughout the world, will increase more and more as the world, Christian and Moslem, becomes familiar with the situation”.

If a state claiming to exist and act in the name of the Jewish people worldwide (even without such a mandate) expels Palestine’s non-Jews, and enforces a brutal military occupation to protect the right of Jews to live on colonised land, it is predictable that an ignorant minority will see Jews in general as complicit. Such behaviour may be inexcusably hateful and stupid, but it is not surprising.

Paul Richardson claimed that for churches to divest from Israel is anti-Semitic. To firebomb a synagogue is anti-Semitic; to blame the ‘Jews’ for the economic crisis is anti-Semitic; to join a global campaign of solidarity with justice-seeking Palestinians and Israelis by applying pressure on an international law-breaking state is not.

Richardson actually said that it is ‘anti-Semitic’ if Israel “alone is singled out” and countries like “Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, Iran, China, or Zimbabwe” escape “similar measures”. But this is nonsensical. Firstly, no one would accuse Tibetan activists of unfairly ‘singling out’ China. Secondly, applied literally, this principle would paralyse all peace and justice work; how many global campaigns must one actively support before being ‘allowed’ to show solidarity with the Palestinians?

Like the prophet of Isaiah affirmed, it is justice that “will produce lasting peace and security”. This is the core of the issue; ‘peace’ for Israelis at the expense of Palestinians’ equal rights is hollow and temporary. For churches and leaders to be silent or passive, for fear of upsetting Israel’s supporters, is also to maintain a peace that is false.

Published in Church of England Newspaper.

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