With the conflict in the Middle East showing no signs of abating, care is needed in how we speak of it.
The Revd Professor Mark Lindsay
Over the past week, the world’s attention has been diverted – perhaps only momentarily – away from the COVID-19 pandemic, and towards the bloodier, and more violent, conflict that is the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian war. I have hesitated to say anything about this publicly, out of respect for the tortuously complicated dynamics at play – don’t let anyone try to convince you that the situation is simple! – and out of a concern that, by saying something, I would inevitably, even if unintentionally, anger or upset people on one side or the other – and possibly both! And yet, I also know that, for good or ill, I have chosen to write about this, and associated themes, in my wider scholarship – and so to stay silent now seems both cowardly, and a dereliction of my professional responsibility. And so I write this, deeply conscious of the bitter antagonisms, but also convinced that there must be a better way to address the issues than has been hitherto shown. I cannot, of course, hope to address the conflict itself – more modestly, I wish to say something about the way in which we speak about it.
At the outset, it strikes me as an incontrovertible truth that the actions of the Netanyahu Government are criminally disproportionate. Nothing of value can be said, unless that fact is first acknowledged. Little to no consideration is given to the lives of civilians – including Palestinian children – in the IDF’s push to oust Hamas militants from Gaza. If innocent lives are lost in the process, that would appear to be a price that the Israeli Government is prepared to pay. Nor is this new – it has been the case, back to the days of Menachem Begin and Golda Meir. Of course, it is also true that Hamas launches its own murderous attacks against Israel, and that it remains only ambiguously prepared to accept Israel’s right to exist. Nevertheless, if this is a David-and-Goliath contest, then it is not the Israeli State that is the David. The Palestinian settlements, and Hamas itself, are dwarfed by Israel’s economic, military, and diplomatic muscle.
But I said that the conflict is not simple, and nor can be the ways in which we discuss it. The more forcefully the IDF attacks Gaza, and thus the more obvious that power differential between the two combatants becomes, the more likely we are to simplify our language and our reasoning. We run the risk of discursively and cognitively flattening out the word ‘Palestinian’ to mean only ‘victim’, as though the actions and attitudes of Hamas can be ignored. And conversely, we run the risk of flattening out the word ‘Israeli’ (or even worse, ‘Jewish’) to mean ‘oppressor’, as though moral responsibility for the actions of the State and its military can be sheeted home to the Jewish people in general, and as such.
My concern here is not to apportion blame – God knows, there is enough of it to go around! But the fact is, as Christians, we stand in a religious tradition that has, for most of the past 2000 years, been more than willing to use the Jewish people in toto as the target for our anger and hatred. Whether our grievance has been the execution of Jesus, the killing of Hugh of Lincoln in 1255, or the defeat of Germany in World War One, ‘the Jews’ – as an amorphous collective whole – have been the convenient scapegoat for an outraged Christendom. And when that has happened, social and political violence has tended to follow Christian sentiment. My great fear is that anti-Jewish sentiment – such as we have seen in London in the past 48 hours – will increase exponentially around the world, and that Christian voices – wishing to heard as the advocates of liberation – will add to the clamour.
That is why, despite my own disgust at the actions and policies of the Israeli Government and its Defence Force, and my open denunciation of them, a condemnation of the Israeli people seems uncomfortably close to a condemnation of ‘the Jews’ as such. That way, history tells us, lies only danger, and destruction – and the complicity of the Church.