Alan F. H. Wisdom
1. As Christians, we are called to effective solidarity with all who suffer. The Middle East today is a region of great suffering and oppression. The churches therefore have a proper concern to alleviate that suffering, insofar as it lies within their power. And American churches do have significant power to affect the situation in the Middle East, both through their direct ministries and through the participation of U.S. Christians in the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation.
2. There are also, of course, powerful national interests of the United States that would be served by alleviating the suffering in the Middle East. Those interests are mostly legitimate, and churches should understand them and appeal prudently to them as they converse with U.S. policymakers.
3. As Christians, we are called to be peacemakers. So our objective in the Middle East should be peace—to the extent that peace is possible in that particularly troubled part of this fallen world. We should pray for and aim toward a more comprehensive and lasting peace that would deal justly with all parties, but we should not show contempt for more limited measures of peace. We should not make the greater good that may not be achievable today into the enemy of the lesser good that is actually possible. The fact that any likely peace agreement may involve some degree of injustice should not disqualify such an agreement from our considered support.
4. As Christians, we have special fraternal ties with the Christian churches in the Middle East. We have a duty in Christ to attend to the cries of those churches and to consider their sufferings as our own. We recognize that their very existence—a precious witness to Christ in the land of his birth, maintained through century upon century of hardships—is in danger. Middle Eastern Christians face restrictions upon their religious freedom, social discrimination and economic deprivation (sometimes shared with their Muslim neighbors), and frequently personal insecurity. Increasing numbers have chosen to emigrate—a choice that is understandable in the individual case, but tragic in its collective result.
5. The fact is that the vast majority of Christians in the Middle East are Arabs. Politically, most of them in the 20th century chose to cast their lot with movements espousing a secular Arab nationalism, such as the Ba’ath Party and the Palestine Liberation Organization. At this point, most Arab Christians are quite hostile to Israel and sympathetic to the Arab governments and movements that are attacking or have attacked it. U.S. Christians need to understand the reasons why Arab Christians have taken this political stance. But we are not obligated to take that same stance ourselves, as we have our own distinct moral accountability. We must not be blind to the many ways in which the secular Arab nationalist movements and governments have disappointed the hopes that Arab Christians had invested in them. Where such movements and governments have proven corrupt and incapable of achieving any significant measure of freedom, justice, or peace for their peoples, we have to look for more promising alternatives to encourage.
6. Contrary to popular assumptions, the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the largest cause of suffering in the Middle East. Even if the state of Israel did not exist, tens of millions of Arabs would still be living in misery under oppressive governments. Too frequently those governments use Israel as a scapegoat to distract their people from the governments’ own failings. U.S. Christians should promote Arab-Israeli peace because it is a worthy objective, but without illusions that such a peace would solve the major problems of the region.
7. The causes of Middle East misery are to be found primarily in religious, cultural, economic, and political systems that deny human freedom and dignity, depriving people of the means to develop fully the gifts that God has given them. U.S. churches need to speak more open and directly about these “root causes.” They need to devote much more attention to situations of poverty, human rights violations, and violent conflicts in which Israel is not a party.
8. Calls to “balance” in addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict are appropriate insofar as “balance” means that we are sensitive to the sufferings on all sides and hold all sides to the same moral standards. The IRD disagrees with both friends and foes of Israel who would hold it to a different standard than its Arab neighbors. Both Arabs and Israelis profess their adherence to the same United Nations covenants. Both sides have teachings in their religious traditions that forbid killing of the innocent, theft of another’s property, inhospitality to foreigners, and other abuses that have occurred in this conflict. Both sides have a conscience that is aware, at some level, of God’s natural law. Our Christian conviction that the Jewish people hold a special place in God’s providence does not exempt the state of Israel from its obligations to act justly toward its citizens and its neighbors. Those same obligations apply equally to Arab governments.
9. On the other hand, calls to “balance” are inappropriate if they imply a moral equivalence between Israel and the neighboring Arab states. In fact, the conflict is characterized by all sorts of asymmetries that it is foolish to ignore:
a. In area and population, the Arab states are many times larger.
b. The Arab states have much greater influence in the international economic system and international political bodies.
c. Israel is at a much higher level of economic development, having provided at least a minimal standard of living for the vast majority of its people, while large numbers of Arabs live in poverty on the margins of the modern economy.
d. The Arab states have much larger armies, but so far the Israeli military has proven itself more potent on the battlefield.
e. Israel is a western liberal democracy, albeit an imperfect one. It has multiple parties that compete in free elections and an independent judiciary that provides for a significant degree of due process, rule of law, and civil liberties for its citizens. The military occupation of the West Bank has always been an anomaly under this system. By contrast, most Arab governments are monarchies or dictatorships with limited liberties for their people.
f. There are significant divisions within and among the Arab states that have sometimes resulted in armed conflicts. Iraq, under the dictator Saddam Hussein, attacked his neighbors in Kuwait and (non-Arab) Iran. In 1970 the government of Jordan executed a bloody purge against the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The governments of Syria and Iraq in the 1980s massacred thousands of their own citizens perceived to be disloyal. Lebanon suffered a decades-long civil war among its various religious and political factions. In Gaza in 2007, the Islamist Hamas movement attacked the more secular Fatah movement and won control by force. Within Israel, by contrast, parties compete in elections but do not attack one another militarily. Israel has frequently had coalition governments of national unity, and Israeli foreign policy tends to reflect a consensus of the parties.
g. Israel’s stated strategic goal (shared by all Israelis except small extremist groups) is simply to exist as a Jewish state, with its capital in Jerusalem and within secure and defensible borders. The strategic goal of the Arab states is more ambiguous. Historically, the goal that has been pursued on several occasions by military force has been the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. Important political actors such as the Hamas movement in Gaza, the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, and the Iranian government retain the explicit goal of annihilating Israel. Today some other Arab leaders speak in international forums about the possibility of co-existing with a Jewish state confined to its 1967 borders. But their actions and their words to their own citizens sometimes suggest that the earlier goal of destroying Israel has not been put aside definitively.
10. Some of these asymmetries are significant in assessing the moral claims of the parties in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Others are not significant for weighing justices and injustices, but only as factors that must prudently be considered in formulating practical approaches to remedy the injustices. These latter factors of mere tactical importance include points a, b, c, and d above. U.S. church officials err when they attempt to attach intrinsic moral importance to them. It is unreasonable to argue that Arab governments and movements deserve our support simply because their people are poorer and their armies are weaker than Israel’s. The fact that Arabs are an “oppressed people” does not prove the extent to which Israel may be at fault in their oppression. Nor does it lend legitimacy to any actions that governments and movements claiming to represent Arabs take against Israel. Those actions must pass moral muster on their own merits.
11. Points e and g, by contrast, have great moral significance. Together, they shatter any notion of moral equivalence between Israel and the Arab governments. Israel is properly an ally of the United States, and deserving of the best wishes of American Christians, because it is a fellow democracy that aspires to similar ideals. The same cannot be said of the non-democratic Arab governments and movements, which at best share limited overlapping interests with the United States. U.S. Christians should give unreserved support to Israel’s legitimate goal of peaceful existence within secure borders. (They may, of course, disagree about the tactics Israel uses in pursuing that goal.) But because the Arab states and movements have demonstrated ambiguity in their strategic goals, any support for them ought to be qualified. They deserve strategic support only insofar as they seek peaceful co-existence with Israel and prove it by consistent words and actions. (These qualifications on support for Arab governments do not imply any limits on our Christian sympathy for suffering Arab people.) U.S. churches must be forthright in acknowledging that some Arab forces aim at the destruction of Israel. And our churches must declare that this is not an acceptable goal.
12. There can be no doubt that, for several reasons, Israel is a special case. Yet in the end, as stated above, its goals and tactics must be measured according to the same moral standards applied to other states. Most major branches of the Church now recognize that the Jews remain a people chosen by God for particular blessings and responsibilities. God has never abrogated his covenant with the Jews, despite the tragic estrangement of most from their Messiah and Savior. As Paul declares in Romans, “They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Romans 9:4) and “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). But there is no consensus among either Jews or Christians about the role of the modern state of Israel in the fulfillment of God’s covenant with the Jews. It is not wise for Christians to ground contemporary public policy arguments in disputed interpretations of Old Testament prophecies about the restoration of the Davidic kingdom. The founders of modern Israel did not make such ambitious claims for their political project, nor do most Israeli citizens today. They regard the state of Israel primarily as a refuge for Jews who have suffered persecution and genocide elsewhere in the world. We Christians bear great responsibility in that history of persecution and genocide, and we can appreciate the legitimate purpose of modern Israel as a haven for the persecuted. But Christians should not see our support for Israel as any kind of atonement or reparation for the past sins of Christians against Jews. We are completely unable to make an adequate atonement or reparation. And Israel deserves to be supported for the present justice of its cause. At the same time, it ought to be criticized whenever it engages in unjust treatment of its Arab neighbors. Just as the Hebrew prophets denounced the rulers of ancient Israel and Judah for their injustices, so the modern state of Israel is properly held accountable to the principles of natural law, the Old Testament Torah, modern international covenants, and Israeli civil law. Both the richness of the Jews’ biblical heritage, for which we are grateful, and the horrors of their modern experience, at which we shudder, may deepen our passion regarding modern Israel, but neither should alter our basic stance toward that state.
13. There is no magical historical date at which we can identify precisely fixed borders for Israel that are normative for all time. The borders of 900 B.C. were not immutable, nor are the borders of 1949. Thus the borders of a future Israel under a peace settlement are a matter of political prudence. The objective should be to situate the greatest number of people in states of their own choosing that will be economically viable, militarily defensible, and at peace internally and externally. Naturally, this will involve the withdrawal of Israeli troops from most of the territories occupied in 1967. But creative solutions need to be found which involve more than simply the restoration of the perilous situation before the 1967 war. Proposals for such solutions should be welcomed rather than rejected summarily.
14. The common formula often heard on the lips of church leaders – that “Jerusalem is equally sacred to three great religions, and therefore it should be shared equally among them” – is misleading and unhelpful. The claims that Jews, Christians, and Muslims place upon Jerusalem are far from identical. For Jews Jerusalem is the holy city above all others, the place that God ordained for them to gather and worship in his presence. Christians do not have a “holy city” in that sense, as we believe that God’s presence in Christ is with us “always, even to the ends of the earth.” Our particular interests in Jerusalem are two: that local Christians be free to live and worship there without infringements of their human rights, and that foreign Christians have free access to the sites that remind us of the history of God’s gracious acts toward Israel and in Christ. For Muslims Jerusalem is a holy city, but far beneath Mecca and Medina in rank. Muslims have an interest in access to the al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine. And local Muslims, like local Christians, have the same claims as persons everywhere around the world: to have their human rights respected and to participate in self-government. It should be possible, although quite difficult, to honor the differing claims of the three groups. Once again, creative solutions should be welcomed. All groups have an overriding interest in easing the current conflict, which prevents all from exercising their full rights.
15. Israel, like all states, has the right and duty to defend its law-abiding citizens against armed aggression, by military force if necessary. Israel has the right to control its borders to impede the entry of terrorists. The route of the Israeli security barrier may be disputed; however, Israel’s right to build a barrier that has, in fact, reduced terrorist attacks cannot be contested. When terrorists strike across the borders against Israeli citizens, Israeli forces have the right to pursue them into neighboring states and territories. Israel has the right to request the Palestinian Authority and other Arab governments to arrest and prosecute terrorists. And if the Palestinian Authority or other governments show a pattern of harboring and encouraging terrorists, Israel has justification to strike directly against the terrorists and their sponsors. There are also occasions when Israeli military action may be justified to prevent attacks by those proven to have the capacity and the intention of committing imminent aggression.
16. Israeli military actions should be subject to the limits of just war principles. They should be directed clearly toward stopping acts of terrorism and aggression. Nonviolent approaches should have been tried first and found inadequate. There should be a fair probability that the Israeli military actions will result in a reduction in terrorism and create conditions more conducive to an eventual just peace. Israeli forces should distinguish clearly between Arab civilians and the terrorists and other hostile forces that have taken up arms. Measures which appear to impose collective punishments upon Palestinians, striking far more harshly at the general population than at specific terrorists, must be questioned. Jewish extremists have no authority to launch terrorist attacks against their Palestinian neighbors.
17. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have a legitimate desire to have their human rights respected under a government of their own choosing. (It is not clear that either the current Hamas government in Gaza or the Fatah authorities on the West Bank satisfy that desire. Nor would they necessarily deliver responsible self-government if granted more territory and powers.) But Palestinians must be careful to choose only proper means toward that legitimate end. Terrorist attacks against civilians are never a proper means of remedying any grievance, no matter how legitimate. Indeed, it is doubtful that Palestinian officials have an adequate moral basis for waging any sort of war against Israel. Their own moral standing as authorities is questionable. Both the Hamas leaders in Gaza and the Fatah leaders on the West Bank rule more by force than by consent. Both factions are plagued by corruption, and both abuse the human rights of their people in various ways. The divided Palestinian body politic seems to lack the cohesion necessary either to wage a just war or to conclude an effective, binding peace agreement. The probability of success in a war against Israel seems low. And the benefits of waging such a war seem rather small in comparison to the costs. Are the Palestinians likely ever to get a peace offer more favorable than the one made by Israeli Prime Minister Barak at Camp David in 2000? The Palestinian people would be much better served if the Palestinian Authority and other Arab leaders were willing to accept a peace settlement that granted most (but probably not all) of their legitimate desires.
18. Church leaders are misguided when they point to the United Nations as the best agency for mediating and resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. The authority of the UN is much cloudier than many church officials admit. Deriving its powers from its member governments (rather than from the peoples of the world), the UN is only as legitimate as those governments. They, needless to say, are a very mixed lot. The Arab regimes have had far more influence inside the United Nations than has Israel. Consequently, the UN has compiled a long record of one-sided resolutions on the Middle East. UN agencies and officials do not seem to appreciate Israel’s security concerns, and they have been insufficiently critical of Arab states and movements. It is understandable that Israel has little confidence in UN mediation or UN peacekeeping. Church officials, too, would be well advised not to put too much trust in the UN.
19. The United States is in a much better position to mediate the conflict. Our government gives large amounts of aid to parties on both sides. We have shown appreciation for the legitimate goals of both sides, while being critical of some tactics on each side. Nevertheless, it is naïve to imagine that the United States could impose a peace settlement against the wills of the parties in conflict. Threats to withhold aid, or promises to extend aid, can nudge governments to take risky steps toward peace that they already recognize to be right. But such threats and promises will not induce any government to renounce what it regards as vital interests. Church leaders are mistaken when they suggest sometimes that the United States should cut off aid to Israel. Such a grave step would not at all produce the kind of equilibrium that might be propitious for a peace settlement. If the United States, by far Israel’s most reliable ally, were to distance itself, Israel would truly be isolated internationally. It would have no friends that it could trust to help it make peace. None of the Arab governments stands in any such danger of being left friendless in the world.
20. U.S. churches can contribute to alleviating Middle East miseries, first, by supporting a continuing Christian witness in the region. There can be no substitute for a living, worshipping body of Christians interacting with their Muslim and Jewish neighbors. U.S. churches should assist Middle Eastern churches, defend their religious freedom, and work alongside them in communicating the love of Christ in word and deed. Second, U.S. churches can contribute through their teaching of basic Christian doctrines to their own members. By setting an overall context of insights into the sources of human dignity and human sinfulness, God’s provisions for institutions such as government and church and family, the reasons for warfare and the restraints upon it, and the Christian vocation of peacemaking, the churches can inspire their members to care about the Middle East and give them some conceptual tools to address its problems. There is a large number of U.S. Christians in positions of responsibility in government, business, and the nonprofit sector who have means of influence in the region. Their reach probably extends far beyond that of the much smaller number of official U.S. church missionaries in the Middle East. Our churches need to think more about how to help these unofficial missionaries exercise their callings in Christ. Third, the churches can stimulate a conversation among their members about the Middle East. This needs to be an open conversation without a detailed predetermined agenda. Different perspectives (Jews, Muslims, Arab Christians) will need to be heard, and different analyses will need to be weighed. There should be no expectation that church members will agree on a precise policy prescription for the United States or any of the parties in the region. The IRD aims to be part of such a conversation. Finally, U.S. churches have the duty and the privilege of prayer for the peoples of the Middle East. Knowing that neither our government nor our churches has the means to enforce peace and justice upon that region, sometimes our best resource is to pray that God may move people in the region to seize opportunities for peace and justice that he may open.
21. There are two habits in which U.S. churches indulge that are counter-productive to Middle East peace and justice. The first is the temptation to believe that we U.S. Christians know the precise details of a just and final settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbors. As far as the IRD knows, God has revealed no such plan. And if he did reveal a plan, we suspect that he would reveal it to someone more directly involved – not to some bishop sitting in a church headquarters in America. When our churches insist that they do know exactly what every party must do to make peace, they push aside any proposal that differs from their own. This is precisely the wrong reaction. We need to be opening up new options for peace rather than closing them off. Second, U.S. churches have to abandon the habit of becoming propagandists for one party in the Arab-Israeli dispute. They do not serve the truth or their members well when they transmit only information and arguments favorable to one side. Christian Zionists fall into this error when they refuse to criticize the Israeli government, forgetting that they would be better friends of Israel if they shared their frank criticisms with it (as do many U.S. Jews whose affection for Israel cannot be doubted). It is even more shameful that some leftist U.S. missionaries and mission agencies criticize only Israel and never the Arab governments. We have an obligation to listen and minister to those who suffer on all sides in the Middle East.
Alan F.H. Wisdom is Vice President for Research and Programs at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, DC. He also directs the institute’s Presbyterian Action committee. He is an elder at Georgetown Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC.