Religion, violence and peace:
The Gaza conflict from a faith perspective
By Fr. John Brinkman, MM
The absence of effective international pressure on Israel during its 2006 conflict with its Beirut neighbors has led to the 2009 invasion of Gaza. Because of lessons learned in Lebanon, Israel mounted a more precise plan of action1 in Gaza that resulted in greater impacts on civilian populations. The 2006 incursions were hallmarked by the use of cluster bombs which took an extensive toll on children. The 2009 conflict has escalated the level of and the use of new kinds of munitions in a densely populated urban area, Gaza.
During this more recent conflict, some voices and publications have linked religious insight to combatant intent. The following article recollects an inter-faith conference event which took place at the time of the 2006 Israeli invasions. Its references are more pertinent at this present time of conflict than they were in 2006.
True religious intent is always exercised for the cause of peace. At the 2006 conference, the Church was present to the underlining issues of conflict in a manner to enhance the holy, the humane and the harmonious in the Middle East. This article recalls and represents the type of voices that are best heard in order to secure peace in the region with particular focus on the inter-religious effort to confront conflict and its consequences.
Over the years, a number of events and meetings have drawn attention to the role of religion and peace. One particular such meeting took place in Tokyo during August 26-29, 2006. The World Conference of Religions for Peace (WCRP) ended with an event that was reported in one Asian paper under the headline: “Conflict casts shadow over world religion conference.” The event in question was indeed one of conflict and religion. It was, however, an incident that offered hope in the midst of conflict and light over against shadow.
On the last day of the conference, three speakers – Rabbi Yona Metzger, the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel; Sheikh Taysir Tamimi, the Chief Judge of the Palestinian Authority; and Monsignor Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem – addressed the concluding plenary session. At the time the Israeli invasion of Lebanon was well underway.
The Chief Rabbi expressed chagrin over being shunned by some members in the assembly because of the current Middle East conflict. He noted that his people suffered persecution in just about “the span of a single lifetime ago.” He bemoaned the fate of the Israeli soldier whose capture sparked the current conflict. He concluded his remarks with the hope for his release. He held up a Book of Jewish Prayer and asked that the WCRP secretary general have it delivered to the imprisoned soldier so that he might be able to pray.
The Chief Judge Sheikh Taysir Tamimi started his presentation with the deeply felt observation that the conflict in the region was less a matter of a captive Israeli soldier and more of a matter of the 10,000 Palestinians held captive in Israeli prisons of whom over 500 were women and children. He went on to note, in a graphic manner, the many sufferings and maltreatments of Muslims under Israel’s occupation of the city. He himself had been arrested for trying to enter Muslim places of worship in Jerusalem just to pray.
After a moment of palpable silence that settled into the large amphitheater, Monsignor Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch and then president of Pax Christi International, stated that he, as a native born Palestinian, would now address the Chief Rabbi of Israel and the Chief Judge of the Palestinian Authority as “my brothers.” He said that the intense sufferings experienced in the area were not only a matter of a captive Israeli soldier and not only a matter of an imprisoned Palestinian population. The cause of violence and conflict, he said, lies in the fact that we are all held captive by forces that diminish life and denigrate the value of peace.
He then, with a nod toward the Chief Judge, stated that “with the permission of Sheikh Taysir Tamim,” he would offer two more books of prayer, one Christian and one Muslim to be added to the Rabbi’s book as a statement and as a sign that our faiths may be channels of peace in a place that has been divided by discord for far too long a period of suffering. His last sentence was inaudible as the prelate’s voice wavered with emotion. In response to his words, the applause in the hall was thunderous.
After that late summer meeting, autumn reportage from Israel indicated how deeply divided the Jewish and Muslim communities were. However, one report noted how hopeful it is when religion in the service of humanity can indeed promote peace over and against conflict in the common cause for survival. During the then six-week period of autumn in the West Bank, olives used to be harvested. Yet this task has often been made perilous by a campaign of escalating harassment by Jewish settlers who would fire on and beat the Palestinian harvesters and drive them off Palestinian owned lands. The harvest has often been stolen and the olive trees felled with chainsaws. Rabbi Arik Ascherman, co-director of the Rabbis for Human Rights who volunteered to help to protect the landowners and grove workers, said, “This whole issue of trying to prevent the olive harvest is the ongoing struggle to get Palestinians off the land. But if we Jews are to survive in this land we must restore hope by being here to break down the stereotypes the Palestinians have of Israelis. This is the best single thing I can do to protect my two children.”2 In this resolve, one sees a belief in a common future. Here, one recognizes that if you take a people’s future away, you rob them of all hope. “To restore hope” is to establish a wider community of life for the future of the region.
After a two-year court case, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel has been able to demand protection and to grant the farmers precarious access to their own lands. Such confrontations and their resolutions albeit delayed make clear the real significance of the inter-religious Kyoto event that brought together Palestinian and Israeli representatives of faith at a time of conflict. Before peace can become an attribute, it must first be a task of considerable resolve and be supported by a belief in a future in which all fortunes are intertwined.
It is ironic and perhaps significant that the olive tree whose branch is a UN and universal symbol for peace and a biblical symbol of human survival3 is at the center of such a conflict. The olive grove gives us an image of the real task at hand. When we deal with the cultivation of the olive, the husbandry of trees and the harvesting of the fruits of the earth, we are in touch with a common inheritance. When we consider a seed and perceive its growth, we are present to the florescence of the universe made present to us as inhabitants of the earth. It is here in the web of life — where everything needs every other thing to flourish, where the design of seasonal weather and of light-change engenders growth and where the prowess of the human constitutes a focused, vital and attentive response that the human is truly creative. Here, we enter into the deeper harmony of things which provides the human with its most fundamental community. This is recognized in the efforts of Rabbi Asckerman. One may speculate that the rabbi’s efforts may have been also inspired by the promise to Noah that linked the course of human survival with the on-going creative sequence of the natural world. “As long as earth lasts, sowing and reaping, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall cease no more.”4
Yet even when we are encouraged by such genuine efforts, we are challenged by a sense of urgency and a most troubling quandary. It is urgent that the role of religion be seen as essential to the task of cultivating genuine peace. This is most urgent in the Middle East where the Christian, Jewish and Muslim beliefs acknowledge God as One and recognize our common habitat as a Creation. It is urgent that the voices of valor and virtue spoken in the name of these faiths be heeded. On such will depend, in no small measure, the future security and peace in the region. However, a most troubling quandary concerns international resolve. It is now clear that even the most clarion voices of faith and hope may be ineffective unless the international community shows signs that it is it willing to act in accord with its responsibilities.
In his December 17, 2008 “On Gaza air strikes” statement, Miguel d’Escoto, UN Ambassador from Nicaragua and president of the 63rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly, stated: “I remind all member states of the United Nations that the UN continues to be bound to an independent obligation to protect any civilian population facing massive violations of international humanitarian law—regardless of what country may be responsible for those violations.”5
On April 18, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the 62nd session of the United Nations General Assembly on the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Holy Father’s message was an appeal to universal values and to the principle of protection “present implicitly at the origin of the United Nations and now increasingly characteristic of its activity.” Most strikingly, this principle that governs the action of nation-states to the governed when applied to human rights correctly rooted in the universal order of things would supersede an appeal to unwarranted sovereignty in this inter-governmental agency. Indeed, the Holy Father was quick to point out that the origin of such an agency emerged at a time when reason and transcendence were abandoned and the objective foundation of true values threatened.
“The founding of the United Nations, as we know, coincided with the profound upheavals that humanity experienced when reference to the meaning of transcendence and natural reason was abandoned, and in consequence, freedom and human dignity were grossly violated. When this happens, it threatens the objective foundation of the values inspiriting and governing the international order and it undermines the cogent and inviolable principle formulated and consolidated by the United Nations. When faced with new and insistent challenges, it is a mistake to fall back on a pragmatic approach, limited to determining ‘common ground,’ minimal in content and weak in its effect.”6
As shown by the examples mentioned above, actions inspired by true religious intent enhance institutional efforts to protect life and secure peace even in the midst of seemingly intractable conflict.
The appeal to conscience
Most recently, the civil society of Gaza found a uniquely placed spokesperson in the author Murakami Haruki. During his acceptance speech for the biennial Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society at the International Book Fair on February 15, 2009, he said, “The UN reported that more than 1,000 people lost their lives in the blockaded city of Gaza. Many of them are unarmed citizens—children and old people … I chose to come here, rather than stay away. I chose to see for myself, rather than not to see. I chose to speak, rather than to say nothing.”
His further words used the metaphors of a wall and of an egg to appeal to his audience to recognize that in such violence there is transcendence denied, human dignity violated and protection of the vulnerable ignored. “Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell, he said, and then compared the system that crushes the eggs to a wall.”7 He contrasts the fragility of the human who possesses “a tangible living soul” with the image of a wall emblematic of soulless systems that take on lives of their own when left untrammeled by silenced critical regard. ”Bombs, tanks and rockets and white phosphorus shells8 are the high wall. The eggs are unarmed civilians who are crushed, burned and shot …”
The obligation to protect would best be supported by a U.S. American reevaluation of the unconditional support for Israel that continues to be urged and supported by political action committees. This posture toward Israel has been measured and found wanting by those who represent the most recent victims of an Israeli system bent on further upheavals of the Palestinian populations in its occupied territories.
When reason and transcendence are abandoned and the objective foundation of true values threatened, a critical threshold has been reached. Gaza followed Beirut as assuredly as the Armenian genocide preceded the Holocaust. The Gaza conflict may well be the point at which silence in the face of aggression will encourage those forces that will inexorably lead our world into ever wider conflict. At this judicial moment, we must be aware of and respond to those voices of faith that would remind us that what is truly threatened is nothing less that the loss of our fragile humanity.
1 Steven Erlanger, “For Israel, Lessons from 2006, but Old Pitfalls,” New York Times January 7, 2009, p 1. “Jerusalem—This time, Israel military commanders are leading from the front, not trying to direct the infantry from television screens. This time the military has clear plans, in stages drawn up with a year’s preparation. …This time, the military chief of staff has kept silence in public, all cell phones have been confiscated from Israeli soldiers, and the international press has been kept out of the battlefield.”
2 Ian MacKinnon, “Rabbi Helps Palestinians to Harvest Their Olives in Safety,” The Daily Yomiuri-October 22, 2006, p. 6.
3 Genesis 8:6-13. “In the evening the dove came back to him, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! So, Noah knew that the waters had lessened on the earth.”
4 Genesis 8: 21-22
5 “On Gaza airstrikes.” This UN Headquarters statement begins with the sentence: “The behavior by Israel in bombarding Gaza is simply the commission of wanton aggression by a very powerful state against a territory that it illegally occupies.”
6 See Vatican website: Pope Benedict XVI addressed the 62nd session of the UN General Assembly on the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, April 18, 2008
7 “The fragility of life is of paramount importance,” The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 9 (IHT/Asahi: February 20, 2009)
8 “The signs are clear, expert says: Human Rights Watch researcher finds evidence indicating that white phosphorus was fired at Khozaa” Ashraf Khalil, The Daily Yomiuri 23 February 2009. p. 13.