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.
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
The European Churches and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict