A few months ago, Presbyterians for Middle East Peace (PFMEP) published Peace And Faith: Christian Churches and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, a new interfaith collection coedited by Cary Nelson and Michael C. Gizzi, himself a long-time activist in PFMEP. It tracks debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in contemporary Christian churches, to analyse the relationship between the history of antisemitism in both the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations and current debates, and to present important faith-based alternatives to conflict and demonisation. The book includes detailed analysis of key texts, presentation of key theological concepts, and personal accounts of work in individual church groups. The book is distributed by Academic Studies Press in paper, hardbound, and ebook versions. With the kind permission of the publishers and editors we publish here an excerpt from the book’s discussion of the potential for dialogue and reconciliation.
Contemporary efforts to promote reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians often meet with hostility from BDS movement advocates because reconciliation is taken to mean normalising the existing power relations, thus strengthening the status quo. But mutual reconciliation carried out collaboratively actually aims to establish the conditions for change, not to block their implementation. Reconciliation, it should be added, cannot be carried out in a single encounter; it requires a continuing and evolving commitment. In fact, reconciliation is a complex, multifaceted concept in Christianity, with intertwining theological, political/social, interpersonal, and practical elements.
One notable use of reconciliation that immediately complicates our understanding occurs in the Presbyterian Church’s 1974 booklet ‘The Middle East Conflict’: ‘We confess that we have not yet done all that we ought to have done to be reconciled to the Jewish people, whose sufferings have been caused by the antisemitism of many Christians and in whose holocaust the churches acquiesced’ (13). The booklet quotes from the Presbyterian ‘Confession of 1967’ to give direction for how reconciliation should be embodied in Middle East peacemaking:
The church, in its own life, is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies and to commend to the nations as practical politics the search for cooperation and peace. This search requires that the nations pursue fresh and responsible relations across every line of conflict, even at risk to national security, to reduce areas of strife and to broaden international understanding . . . the church which identifies the sovereignty of any one nation or any one way of life with the cause of God denies the Lordship of Christ and betrays its calling. (7)
In warning against privileging one nation or one ‘way of life,’ the ‘Confession’ is obviously applicable to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, urging Christians to seek a balance between the State of Israel and both Jewish and Palestinian ways of life. The 1974 booklet goes on in its own words to declare that ‘it is an ethical imperative’ to ‘be reconciled to the conflicting peoples of the Middle East and strive to become an agent of reconciliation.’ Contrary to the anti-normalisation agenda that would be formulated decades later, the text urges ‘the kind of dialogue which alone can create the understanding from which peace may evolve,’ which requires ‘a willingness to forsake polarising formulations’ (8-9). This sentiment echoes the 1973 book’s statement that ‘the way to peace, there as here, lies not through partisanship and polarisation but through reconciliation. Shalom. Salaam’ (10).
One goal for Christians and others participating in a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians is to calibrate the relationship between the core of both Israeli and Palestinian narratives so as to address Palestinian suffering without becoming anti-Zionist. That has opened a conversation about whether the Jewish state has failed to fulfill what many Christians see as its biblical imperative to act justly, despite there being no good secular reason why Israel should be held to a higher standard than any other nation. At this point the debate in mainline Protestant churches is confined to a conversation within the churches themselves—and often solely amongst their activist core. Their long-term strategy is nonetheless clear: to call into question whether or not there should be a Jewish state. That parallels the anti-Zionist discourses among many Islamic constituencies, a reality that must be addressed if reconciliation is to succeed.
That debate has a long history. The year before publishing ‘The Middle East Conflict,’ the Presbyterians issued a collection also sympathetic to Zionism, Peoples and Conflict in the Middle East. In order to win approval for publication, it was necessary to include dissenting views. The final supplementary opinion in Peoples and Conflict in the Middle East is by Wanis A. Simaan, a Fraternal Visitor to the 1972 Presbyterian General Assembly. Fraternal Visitors were representatives of the Church’s missionary wing in the Middle East. ‘For too long,’ he writes, ‘Christian theologians as well as sentimental Christians’ have ‘superimposed the framework of a twentieth century movement, [Zionism], . . . rooted in nineteenth century European nationalism, over the Biblical framework of the covenant . . . the two simply do not fit!’ He continues, ‘A serious Christian understanding of the Old Testament does not expect nor does it find justification for the establishment of a Zionist Jewish state in modern Palestine’ (113). He goes on to clarify that he is writing in explicit theological objection to the report’s assertions that ‘the Abrahamic covenant is unconditional’ and that the State of Israel is ‘a sign of the continuing relationship of God with the Jewish people’ (115). ‘Israel may be “a reminder of the vitality of Judaism,”’ he adds, ‘but most of all it is a reminder of militant nationalism’ (115-16). In another of the supplements, ‘God, Community, and Land: An Islamic Approach,’ Hassan Hanafi writes, ‘Israel is a white European implantation in the Middle East similar to the white European implantation in South Africa’ (106). Hanafi ends by endorsing what we now call the one-state solution: ‘The only solution for the future in ‘Palestine’—a secular, democratic, and free state where all humans can live without distinction of colour, race, or religion. ‘Palestine’—a multiracial, and multicoloured state is the only possible hope for the future’ (106). This utopian fantasy persists today in what Bernard Harrison calls ‘the absurd paradise of peace and mutual respect in a Muslim-majority successor state envisaged by protagonists of the “one-state solution”’ (293).
These supplements remind us of how long these views have circulated in the churches, and they testify to an emerging anti-Zionist wing in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and other denominations, among them the Methodists. James M. Fennelly, writing in opposition to Zionism in the first of the supplements, introduces a still more troubling racialised view: ‘The Jews claim to be the genuine people of the West Semite religious tradition, and the historical descendants, by faith, through race, of those who trysted with God on the Holy Land’ (91). Writing in ‘Israel, The People, and The Land,’ R. J. Werblowsky of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is blunt in rebuttal: ‘the dissolution of the State of Israel implies, and is meant to imply, genocide’ (112). It is clear that the arguments circulating today among secular constituencies have a history in religious debates.
We believe reconciliation provides the theological and political context for a different way forward. Published as a manual for study, Peoples and Conflict in the Middle East concludes with some questions to guide local discussion. The last of these is among many that remain relevant today: ‘With a theological commitment to reconciliation, do you see particular opportunities for Christian mission and presence in the Middle East today? What form might it take?’ (126) A revised and expanded set of questions conclude the following year’s ‘The Middle East Conflict.’ There can be no better use of Peace and Faith than as a guide both to these discussions and to decision-making.
This book overall supports an expanded interfaith engagement for the Christian mission in Israel and Palestine, one that builds on long-term interfaith dialogue projects and social services. We do believe mainline churches have a significant, if indirect, role to play in the resolution of the conflict. That role begins outside the holy land in promoting even-handed progressive thinking in the churches in members’ home countries, then extends to outreach efforts to elected representatives. Faith leaders in all religions can play a mediating role in bringing people with opposing beliefs together in dialogue. That includes Christians, Jews, and Muslims, along with secular constituencies without strong religious identities. There is great need for sympathetic international promotion of productive ideas in the Holy Land itself. Distrust there is amplified by the anti-normalisation agenda endorsed by the BDS movement and violently enforced by paramilitary Palestinian groups, as well as by the violence perpetrated by settler groups.
In the West, anti-normalisation gives efforts to block Israeli speakers an aura of moral righteousness. But on the West Bank and elsewhere in the Arab world, claims that one is trying to ‘normalise’ relations with Israel can rise to accusations of collaboration and treason. As I document in Not in Kansas Anymore, they can lead to assassination attempts or, in Gaza, formal executions. The campaigns against normalisation predate the use of the term, dating at least to the Arab boycotts. The contemporary anti-normalisation campaign got its boost when BDS adopted it as a principle and central tactic in 2005. As Giovanni Matteo Quer writes, ‘While the call to refrain from any cooperation with Israeli counterparts spread, peace initiatives promoting dialogue increasingly appeared on the [hostile] radar of BDS activists.’ Indeed, he points out that ‘the anti-normalisation discourse unites Palestinian groups of diverse ideological orientations.’ The BDS anti-normalisation campaign ‘is opposed to any form of relationship, no matter how peripheral, with Israel, rejecting its existence not just as a polity but also as a society’ (71, 72, 73).
There are thus real limits to the work Israelis and Palestinians themselves can do in promoting new strategies and ideas. Concerned Christians are among those who can intervene to put new thinking on the table; that begins with small group and individual efforts that encourage people to set aside hostilities and learn to think differently. But BDS-allied Christian groups commonly adopt anti-normalisation principles in order to refuse the peacebuilding initiatives that have been fundamental for Christian practice. The projects summarised by Michael Gizzi in Chapter Fifteen of Peace and Faith have a history of success in reconciliation and offer concerned readers organised options to join that work.
In May 2010, Presbyterians Concerned for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Relations—a group that would evolve to become Presbyterians for Middle East Peace—issued ‘A Critique of A Steadfast Hope: The Palestinian Quest for Just Peace.’ A Steadfast Hope had been published by the church’s anti-Zionist wing, the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, the previous year. ‘A Critique’s’ standards for debate among Presbyterians and its condemnation of one-sided anti-Israel publications are applicable to every denomination:
Any policies that Presbyterians hope to advance depend upon a trustworthy rendering of both the Israeli and Palestinian experience, and no report is morally viable that allows one viewpoint to eclipse all others . . . . Without an awareness of the range of religious, ethnic, and political viewpoints, Presbyterians will pursue simplistic and misleading solutions that only deepen antipathies and undermine our credibility . . . . the Israel/Palestine Mission Network is charting a course that abandons the denomination’s historic role as an impartial advocate for peace informed by the legitimate claims of both Palestinians and Israeli Jews . . . . A skewed historical reading results in a call to action that excoriates Israelis and exonerates Palestinians. There are no moral standards defined in these materials to which both parties are held accountable . . . . We need to hear the hopes and fears of peoples who live on opposite sides of the separation wall. (1-3).
As Peace and Faith makes clear, however, there is more than one separation wall at stake here. There is the wall that separates Israelis and Palestinians, but there is also the more ancient division at stake between Christians and Jews and between Christians and Muslims. In that context, I conclude by citing some of the recommendations for interfaith dialogue made by Rabbi James Rudin, at the time director of the American Jewish Committee’s Department of Interreligious Affairs, and then revising a few of the core principles of the ‘Dialogue Decalogue,’ also originally designed to address interfaith relations, to function simultaneously for interchanges between Israelis and Palestinians.
Rudin urged us to recognise that ‘dialogue is a lifelong process, not a “quick fix.”’ We have to ‘seek areas of solidarity and mutual respect’ and not ‘try to change people’s minds; concentrate on enlightenment, explanation and clarification’ (226-27). Certainly in Israel, ‘dialogue is not a luxury, but rather a necessity’; it is ‘no longer enough . . . to simply live side by side in a kind of de facto coexistence’ (231). As Leonard Swidler has written, ‘dialogue is not debate. In dialogue each partner must listen to the other as openly and sympathetically as s/he can in an attempt to understand the other’s position as precisely and, as it were, as much from within, as possible.’ ‘Such an attitude,’ he continues, ‘automatically includes the assumption that at any point we might find the partner’s position so persuasive that, if we would act with integrity, we would have to change, and change can be disturbing.’ Here are some principles adapted from the Decalogue:
FIRST PRINCIPLE: The primary purpose of dialogue is to learn, that is, to change and grow in the perception and understanding of reality, and then to act accordingly.
SECOND PRINCIPLE: Dialogue must be a two-sided project: both between religious/ideological/national groups, and within religious/ideological/national groups (inter- and intra-).
THIRD PRINCIPLE: It is imperative that each participant comes to the dialogue with maximum honesty and sincerity. That means recognising the major elements of your own beliefs and group narratives, but also the doubts you may harbor about them.
FOURTH PRINCIPLE: The temptation to contrast your own ideals with your opposite number’s practices should be resisted. Ideals should be compared with ideals, practices with practices.
FIFTH PRINCIPLE: Each participant must commit to frank and open self-description.
SIXTH PRINCIPLE: Participants should not engage in dialogue by imposing any preconceptions about where the points of disagreement lie.
SEVENTH PRINCIPLE: Successful dialogue can take place only between equals, which means that partners learn from each other, not merely seek to teach or correct one another.
EIGHTH PRINCIPLE: Dialogue can only take place on the basis of mutual trust. Trust between groups or communities is based in personal trust.
NINTH PRINCIPLE: Participants in dialogue should take on a healthy level of criticism about their own traditions or national narratives. Failing to do so suggests that your own tradition has all the answers, thus making dialogue pointless.
TENTH PRINCIPLE: To understand another religion or national experience one must learn to experience it from within, to experience the other’s point of view.
If the goal of dialogue is reconciliation and ultimately peace, perhaps this essay should conclude by acknowledging how complex, multifaceted, and fraught reconciliation is in both the Holy Land and the West. As an example of dialogue at its most fraught, one may cite the rapprochement with Christian Zionism:
Not an idealistic reconciliation of radical concession and change, but a reconciliation of historical antipathies redirected toward cooperation—yes, full of half-compromises, backtracking, novelties in language, and defensive maneouvers, but producing through pressures, power struggles, alliances, and argument some observable transformations and political results. This less lofty understanding of reconciliation nevertheless captures the mix of pragmatism and idealism that animates evangelical support for the state of Israel, and evangelical existence more broadly. (Hummel 238)
In the Holy Land, moreover, reconciliation can be branded as collaboration and put its advocates at bodily risk. But it takes a certain amount of courage, even in Europe and the Americas, to resist social pressures and risk ostracisation by anti-Zionist colleagues by choosing reconciliation and rejecting demonisation. As we learned both in recruiting contributors to and even in inviting endorsements for Peace and Faith, moreover, a willingness to speak in favour of reconciliation within your faith community does not guarantee willingness to speak to a broad interdenominational public audience. I remain astonished at what we finally saw as the need to seek contributors and endorsers who were fearless. Untenured faculty were willing to read the manuscript and comment in detail in confidence, but not one was prepared to take the risk of contributing to a collection sympathetic to the Jewish state.
Yet reconciliation has deep roots in Christian and Jewish tradition. If reconciliation is to involve both the Christian and Jewish audiences this book addresses, however, it can only do so by building on the reconciliation efforts at work since the Catholic Church’s ground-breaking 1965 declaration Nostra Aetate, which finally put to rest antisemitic accusations of genocide. But of course Holy Land projects implicate Muslim and secular audiences as well. Detailing the history of both Muslim/Christian and Muslim/Jewish relations would be the project of another book, one that would require its own timelines. But that task is nonetheless essential. Only if the history is credited, however, can either Christians or Jews hope to engage the element of supersessionism in Islam with success.
Although the word ‘reconciliation’ does not appear in the Torah, the Old Testament, as Sheldon Lewis documents in Torah of Reconciliation, offers numerous examples of reconciliation at work, among them Jacob returning home and reconciling with Esau, and Joseph reconciling with his brothers despite the harms they had done to him. Christians bring to this challenge both a theology and a practice of reconciliation embedded in the lesson of how Jesus lived his life. Jewish peacemaking traditions as well have long embraced principles of reconciliation as fundamental.
Christians approach reconciliation theologically as part of a particular belief system: whether between man and God or between human beings, the opportunity for reconciliation is established through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Salvation through reconciliation brings to an end the estrangement, brought about through sin, between God and human beings. But reconciliation also implies a standard of human conduct, the exercise of human responsibility modelled on Jesus’s teachings and his way of life. The Torah and the New Testament have important passages that guide human conduct in comparable ways. Leviticus 19:19 commands ‘And you shall love your fellow man as yourself,’ while Matthew 7:12 advises ‘Therefore whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them.’ Judaism and Christianity have long traditions that flow from these and other passages. The principle of reconciliation calls on us to abandon enmity, wrath, and war and embrace friendship, love, and peace. In that context, reconciliation empowers interfaith relations and relations between peoples. It is a path to a different future.
General Assembly, PC (USA). Peoples and Conflict in the Middle East—A Preliminary Report for Study. Philadelphia: General Assembly, 1973.———. The Middle East Conflict, A Presbyterian Report. New York: General Assembly, 1974.
Harrison, Bernard. Blaming the Jews: Politics and Delusion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020.
Hummel, Daniel G. Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S.-Israeli Relations. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.
Lewis, Sheldon. Torah of Reconciliation. NY & Jerusalem: Gefen, 2012.
Nelson, Cary. Not in Kansas Anymore: Academic Freedom in Palestinian Universities. Boston: Academic Engagement Network/Academic Studies Press, 2021.
Quer, Giovanni, ‘Behind the BDS Discourse: Furthering Anti-Normalization,’ The Israeli Journal of Foreign Affairs 14:1 (2020), 69-79.
Rudin, Rabbi James. Christians & Jews Faith to Faith: Tragic History, Promising Present, Fragile Future. Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011.
Swidler, Leonard, ‘The Dialogue Decalogue : Ground Rules for Interreligious, Interideological Dialogue’ Journal of Ecumenical Studies 20:1 (Winter 1983), available online at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5464ade0e4b055bfb204446e/t/5c6eff080d9297feece59829/1550778120399/DIALOGUE-DECALOGUE%2BEDITED%2BWITH%2BSKIT%2B%26%2BAIR%2B5-5-18.pdf.