The European Churches and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict




The European Churches and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


Report of a Swedish-Dutch-Belgian Seminar in Jerusalem

    8 – 22 June 2003  

Note: the following is the report of a study seminar in Jerusalem organised by the Swedish Theological Institute, the Church and Israel Organisation of the Protestant Churches in the Netherlands   and the Communication Middle East Organisation (C.O.M.E.) in the Netherlands. The 15 participants came from Sweden, Holland and Belgium and included theologians, pastors, teachers and others, all of   whom have been engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue. The goal of the seminar was to develop guidelines for speaking, preaching and teaching within the Christian communities in Europe about Israel,   Palestine and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  

1. The concerns we started from


Deeply worried by the current situation in the Middle East, as well as by the tendency to polarization within the Christian Churches in Europe, a group of theologians and ministers committed to   Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue came to Jerusalem in order to reflect on the issues involved. The spiral of violence in the region is drawing all its inhabitants into a maelstrom of hopelessness. We   are aware of how much our own history has contributed to the present state of affairs.


As Christians from Western Europe, we realize that the Jewish people have a profound relationship with the land of Israel. Following the teaching of our Lord and of his Apostle to the Gentiles, we   see the Church as irrevocably linked with the Jewish people and with the hopes, the fears, and the traumas of its existence today in Israel and in the diaspora. Living as we do in the post-Shoah (=   post-Holocaust) era, we are also very much aware of the degree to which it has been possible to utilize Christian tradition in antisemitic discourse in the past, and in a disturbing way again today.   We affirm the existence of Israel as a state with a recognized place in the world community.


As Western European Christians we recognize the Palestinian people’s deep attachment to their land. We are morally obliged to address the questions of justice and peace raised by the present   occupation. We support the aspiration of the Palestinians for their own national state.


We have a special bond to the place where Christianity was born, and are committed to the continued presence of the local Christian churches, some of which have been witnesses to the faith for two   millennia. The millions of our Muslim fellow-citizens in Western Europe have made us aware of the spiritual heritage we share in common as ‘children of Abraham’. This enhances our relationship   with the Palestinian Muslims and makes us attentive to their links with Jerusalem. As committed Christians and members of our respective churches, we hope to contribute to creating a climate of   dialogue and a culture of peace both at home and in the Middle East.


2. Our learning experience


The seminar has been an exercise in listening, involvement, and complex thinking, as well as in crossing physical, cultural and spiritual borders.


It has helped us to understand the importance for us of the process of ‘compassionate listening’. Members and leaders of religious and secular communities have had the courage to initiate   bridge-building projects in order to stop the violence, the killing, the demonization, and the dehumanization of the other. They deserve our respect and support. While the situation is evidently   multifaceted, learning to see and to acknowledge this complexity helps us to go beyond stereotypes and to recognize the humanity of the other. Perceiving the social skills needed to deal with very   different social and cultural situations has induced us to look for possibilities of coming to terms with dilemmas rather than imposing solutions.


In dialogue, we need to be aware of the diversity of historical contexts and of ongoing human experience. Thus the agenda of Jewish-Christian dialogue may change according to historical and   cultural circumstances and needs. In Western Europe and North America, there has been a rethinking of Roman Catholic and Protestant theology in recent decades, leading to the development of a   Christian-Jewish dialogue with Christians being a majority and Jews a minority. In Israel and Palestine, the dialogue takes place in a situation where Christians are a minority among a Jewish   majority. Here, the context is further affected by historical and political realities, partly other than those of the West, whereby the dialogue needs to engage in the practical challenge of how to   co-exist together.


A more complex asymmetry may be observed in the dialogue of Christians and Jews with Muslims. In Western Europe, Muslims are an important minority; in the Middle East as whole, a large majority; in   Israel a minority; and the proportionate relation of Christians and Jews to them is different in every context, especially if we also take the power relations in consideration.


3. Burning issues we perceived


Antisemitism was a direct cause behind the Shoah. We are deeply concerned about signs of a reviving antisemitism and fully understand the anxieties of Jewish communities.


The Shoah, we are well aware, has an enormous impact on modern life. We consider it an unprecedented and unique event which traumatized the survivors and the descendants of those persecuted.   It also deeply influenced the emotional, social and political sense of identity of the Israeli people.


The Nakba, Arabic for ‘disaster’, is the physical displacement of large numbers of Palestinians becoming refugees, as well as the destruction of numerous Palestinian villages and cities,   in the war of 1947-49. We are aware that the Nakba is very much alive in the memories of Palestinians, and acknowledge its traumatic impact on their life and society to this day.


Most of all, the violent Israeli-Palestinian conflict determines hearts and minds.

  • The conflict is dominated by an existential fear of the ‘other’ on both sides. Neglecting these fears means to underestimate the essence of the conflict.
  • There is a notable asymmetry of violence between the two sides, parallel to an asymmetry in power and resources (structured, heavy-armour attacks versus terrorism, lightly armed and civil resistance against massive military occupation).
  • There is a strong tendency towards victimization, to comparing and quantifying suffering and to seeing oneself as the real victim while blaming the other. It prevents seeing the pain of the other and empathizing with the other.
  • The conflict over land has resulted in a situation of extra-legal occupation and de facto violation of human rights. The ongoing settlement of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the annexation of areas around Jerusalem are for the Palestinians – as for many Israelis – a stumbling block on the road towards a solution of the conflict.

Religious fanaticism has to do with fear and anger. To overcome it we rapidly need a political solution. In the meantime we must try to share brief stories of compassion and reconciliation,   such as those of the Women’s Interfaith Encounter or the Bereaved Families.


5. Re-reading our religious traditions


There is an increasing polarization in Christian attitudes towards the conflict, as also vis-á-vis Israel and Judaism. It can be seen in the contrast between Middle Eastern Christians and   ‘Christian Zionists’ from the West.


The Israeli-Palestinian conflict urges us to re-read the Scriptures whose narratives we variously share with Jews, other Christians, and Muslims. We are in favour of a hermeneutics of   humanity in which there is respect both for human experience with all its contradictions and for the sacred texts as they have come down to us and have been commented on through history. In our   opinion, a fundamentalist, one-sided biblical exegesis such as we encountered in the ‘International Christian Embassy’ in Jerusalem is dangerous and adds fuel to the conflict rather than   contribute to reconciliation.


We express our wholehearted support for the Alexandria Process that resulted in the Declaration of Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders from the   Middle East). It is an urgently needed manifestation of involved dialogue between the three religious communities that has allowed them to issue a single message of peace.


6. Practical recommendations

  1. The current upsurge of antisemitism in Europe should be at the top of the agenda for the local Churches and their leaders, especially in their contacts with Jewish and Muslim representatives.
  2. European churches should invest in building formal and informal relations with Jewish and Muslim communities on a national and a local level. They should strongly engage in this trialogue on all these levels. Churches should also cooperate with synagogues and mosques in dealing with political and NGO forums on the basis of their knowledge of the situation.
  3. We recommend group exchanges of high school students of mixed religious affiliation between Europe and Israel / Palestine.
  4. We also recommend the creation of educational material that pays full attention to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions in order to develop the message of peace contained in the Abrahamic tradition, in the framework of churches, catechism classes, schools of all religions, and interfaith encounters.
  5. For the Dutch situation, we recommend that the migrant churches participating in SKIN be engaged in the process from the start.
  6. There must be an inter-religious track in parallel to political diplomacy. Building relationships of trust and cooperation among religious figures at all levels requires discrete activity, far from the television cameras, as well as publicized meetings and statements to sustain the hope of others.
  7. To this should be added the daily efforts at the grass-root level of activists and local communities. These should also be brought together from time to time for a fruitful exchange of thoughts.
  8. Such discussions, conferences, and declarations need to be supplemented by symbolic or ritualized gestures of rectification and reconciliation, grounded in the wisdom of the different religious traditions.
  9. Inter-religious NGOsthat operate across boundaries (e.g. the World Conference on Religion and Peace; the International Association for Religion and Freedom, Initiative of Change; the Community of Sant’ Egidio) need to be more involved in promoting religious peacebuilding in the Middle East, and churches should cooperate with such NGOs.
  10. Churches, philanthropic agencies and individuals need to make a much larger financial investment in peace building. Limited funding should not be allowed to frustrate the work of the pioneers on the ground who are already struggling against so many odds.
  11. Media professionals should be challenged and assisted in giving more coverage to peace building efforts, including inter-religious peace initiatives and inspiring stories of encounter and personal transformation.


Rev. F. Thaddée Barnas OSB (Chevetogne, B)Rev. Peter Janssen (Arendonk, B)
Br. Bathos OSB (Egmond, NL)Rev. Peter Lööv (Uppsala, S)
Dr. Håkan Bengtsson (Uppsala, S)Mrs. Japke van Malde (Leiden, NL)
Dr. Tina Blomquist (Jerusalem, IL)Mr. Douwe van der Sluis (Jerusalem, IL)
Rev. Henk Broer (Hippolytushoef, NL)Dr. Wout van der Spek (Delft, NL)
Rev. Jean-Marie Demarque (Goenies, B)Prof. Peter J. Tomson (Brussels, B)
Rev. Casper van Dongen (Den Haag, NL)Rev. Egbert van Veldhuizen (Zwolle, NL)
Rev. Marieke den Hartog (Amersfoort, NL)