What should a Catholic think about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict?

What should a Catholic think about the Israeli Palestinian conflict?

Obviously both parties are by and large proceeding from a world-view drawn from false religious premises. The level of falsity differs greatly between the two but proximity to the truth does not necessarily make an error less problematic, often the reverse. Unlike other disputes between states, one is faced in this case with the oddity that one party (Palestine) isn’t a state and expressly denies the right of the other (Israel) to statehood. 

The Jews no longer possess a right in divine law to the Holy Land. Or, if they do, it is suspended until such a time as they recognise the Messiah and so reverse the corporate acts associated with the Passion (Acts 3:19–21). They will of course eventually do this but at that point it will be academic as it will trigger the end of the world. 

“The glorious Messiah’s coming is suspended at every moment of history until his recognition by ‘all Israel’, for ‘a hardening has come upon part of Israel’ in their ‘unbelief’ toward Jesus. St Peter says to the Jews of Jerusalem after Pentecost, ‘Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for establishing all that God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.’ St Paul echoes him, ‘For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?’ The ‘full inclusion’ of the Jews in the Messiah’s salvation, in the wake of ‘the full number of the Gentiles’, will enable the People of God to achieve ‘the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’, in which ‘God may be all in all’.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, §674

None of this means that the Jews do not have the same rights as everyone else in natural law to national existence and security. Undoubtedly the many tribulations they have experienced over the last two millennia issue from the rejection of the Messiah but that does not excuse the fault of those (Christians and others) who inflicted them, nor does it mean that they can be crudely said to be “deserved” any more than a child dying of cancer “deserves” to do so because of the sin of Adam. The return of the Jews to the Holy Land and their recapture of Jerusalem on 7 June 1967 is of immense importance in salvation history. Our Lord warned us (Luke 21:24) that this event would trigger the apostasy of the gentiles and so it has proved. Once again, that does not mean the Jews are “at fault” for the apostasy of the gentiles. 

“Christ not only suffered for sinners, but even for those who were the very authors and ministers of all the torments He endured. Of this the Apostle reminds us in these words addressed to the Hebrews: Think diligently upon him that endured such opposition from sinners against himself; that you be not wearied, fainting in your minds. In this guilt are involved all those who fall frequently into sin; for, as our sins consigned Christ the Lord to the death of the cross, most certainly those who wallow in sin and iniquity crucify to themselves again the Son of God, as far as in them lies, and make a mockery of Him. This guilt seems more enormous in us than in the Jews, since according to the testimony of the same Apostle: If they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory; while we, on the contrary, professing to know Him, yet denying Him by our actions, seem in some sort to lay violent hands on him.”

Roman Catechism

States are like parents. Just because they fail to practice the true religion, this doesn’t deprive them of legitimacy, except, as it were, in retrospect. As a result, one can ask about the rights and wrongs of their actions even if many of their quarrels and problems would be resolved by a universal fulfilment of the first commandment. 

The terms in which the Israeli–Palestinian dispute is expressed in western media are largely secular but behind this are two religious imperatives. Were one Jewish, of whatever confession or lack thereof, it is hard to believe one would not rejoice to see the entire biblical Holy Land back under the dominion of the descendants of Jacob. Islam on the other hand has a matching imperative. Mohammed did not even claim to have worked any public miracles. The “truth” of his “revelation” is supposedly demonstrated by the victory in battle of his followers. While Jerusalem is officially only the third holiest city in Islam, nobody else cares about Mecca and Medina. Effectively therefore the capture of Jerusalem in 638 is the ultimate evidence of the truth of Islam. 

Looked at from a secular perspective (or rather from the vantage point of natural law) both sides also have compelling narratives. The Arabs had been living in the Holy Land since the seventh century. Presumably many of the ancestors of Palestinian Muslims are actually apostate Christians who wearied of dhimmitude over the centuries, just as the English are probably mostly Welsh people who have forgotten their language. But whoever they are ancestrally, the “Palestinians” have been in the Holy Land for at least a millennium and possibly millennia. The “term” Palestine is surrounded with dispute. Before western nationalist categories began to leak into the thought and language of middle-easterners, they would have thought of themselves in broader terms as “Arabs”, “Muslims” or Christians of one sort or another. The word “Palestine” is derived from ancient “Philistia” but, whatever their ancestors may or may not have been up to, none of the current Arabic speaking population worship the fish god Dagon. The term “Palestinian” is applied to them from the geographical term Syria Palaestina (used by the Romans after the third Jewish revolt to suppress the Jewish associations of the territory), not the other way around. 

The problem we face today began with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan claimed to be the Caliph of Islam, the successor of the “prophet” Muhammed and commander of the Muslim faithful. When it became obvious to everyone in the late nineteenth century that the Ottoman Empire, “the sick man of Europe”, was near to collapse all the different ethnicities within it (Turks, Greeks, Arabs, Jews, Armenians, Kurds etc.) began to position themselves to create contiguous national homelands in the wake of its fall. Naturally they wished those homelands to be centred on the territories with which they had the strongest historical association. As Islam was originally (and largely subsequently) spread by conquest, it always included very large numbers of non-Muslims within its territory. In theory, polytheists were offered Islam or death. Jews and Christians were offered the chance to submit to their new government, pay a tax and retain their religion. The various Caliphates always contained within themselves, in addition to Arab and non-Arab Muslims, a great diversity of ethnicities, different heretical and schismatic sects, Catholics and Jews. When the Crusaders came in the late eleventh century, in many of the places they conquered, half or more of the people were still Christian after centuries of Mohammedan rule. In most places, the section of the original population that had not apostatised (Copts, Melkites, Maronites, Syrians) were left as oppressed minorities within their own countries, now dominated by the descendants of the Arab conquerors, and the apostates all speaking and conceiving of themselves as Arabic. 

The Jews were unique in that they were scattered across both the Islamic and the Christian world. They too sought a homeland. With the secularisation of Christendom, caused by the metastasising of the “Reformation” into the “Enlightenment”, the opportunity arose for Jews to take fuller and fuller roles in Western society, hitherto a community of the baptised. This integration clashed with the requirements of rigorous Jewish observance, predisposing those who embraced it to lukewarm observance or complete irreligion. Jews had been excluded from property ownership within Christendom but were a highly literate culture. As a result, the Jewish population divided into broadly three groups: those who remained faithful and observant Orthodox Jews and so still attracted all the prejudices that had disfigured mediaeval Europe; those who opted for bourgeoise assimilation and inherited all the animus directed against the Jewish moneylenders of previous epochs now amplified by power, success and social prestige; and those who embraced the revolutionary vanguard of western secularisation and who were disliked by many for that reason. In reality, each of the three groups shared a little in the hostility proper to the other two. With the decline of the Caliphate and the opportunities and hostilities created in the west by this process of secularisation and assimilation, it was inevitable that the idea of returning to the Holy Land and carving out a sovereign state would occur to Jews everywhere.

This is not to say that all embraced it by any means. For some it was absurdly utopian. For others, a fairy tale associated with the religion they had abandoned, for others a blasphemous anticipation of a task proper to the Messiah. 

In 1914, the Jewish population of the Ottoman Empire was 187,073. In 1948, the Jewish population of Iran was 100,000. There were just over 55,000 Jews in the Holy Land, 8% of a population of 690,000. If you had moved all the Jews in the Ottoman Empire and Persia to Palestine in 1918, therefore, they would have made up about a third of the population. 

Over the same period, the Turks were massacring the Armenians and ethnically cleansing the Greeks in order to mark out Asia Minor as their national homeland. The Greeks were fighting unsuccessfully to reclaim Ionia and dreaming of Constantinople, while Britain was stirring up Arab nationalism to destabilise the dominions of the Sultan. For every Jew in the Islamic world who stayed put, however, there were plenty more from the west willing to make the trip back to the promised land.

If the English started buying second homes en masse in Schleswig-Holstein and Saxony and theorising about our right to reclaim our ancient homeland, I don’t think the German and Danish authorities or population would be best pleased. But of course, there were no “Palestinian” authorities. Palestine was ruled by Britain under a League of Nations mandate set to expire in 1948. 

Britain was committed as of the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917 to the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine:

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Balfour Declaration

This is very carefully worded and is quite in keeping with the requirements of natural law. Nevertheless, major Jewish emigration was triggered to the Holy Land and increasing sectarian violence from and between the Muslim and Jewish communities and the British administration there. In the wake of the Second World War and its unimaginable horrors for the Jewish people, near national bankruptcy for Britain and the looming expiry of the mandate in Palestine, a proposed resolution was drawn up by the United Nations Organisation in 1947, which would have effectively implemented the aims of the 1917 declaration. Two Arab majority states would have been created in the territory but Jews would have a constitutional right to emigrate to the coastal state and Jerusalem would have been internationalised. 

The Jews accepted this proposal, but the Arabs turned it down. Here lies the strongest case for the Israelis in natural justice. When the mandate expired, the Jews declared the State of Israel and the neighbouring Arab states invaded. Very large numbers of Arabs left the territory of Israel at this moment. Some say this was overwhelmingly voluntary in the hope of returning triumphant in the baggage of conquering armies, while others say a very sizeable proportion of the removal was directly or indirectly coerced by Jewish groups. Both realities were present, the proportions are uncertain. The Arabs lost. The Israelis ended up with significantly more than they had accepted in 1947 but still not the Old City of Jerusalem. The West Bank and Jerusalem was taken by Jordan and Gaza by Egypt. Tensions were extremely high and Jews were not permitted to pray at the Western Wall in this period. In June 1967, the Six Day War broke out between Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Israel — and Israel conquered the entire territory of the Promised Land (although the area actually settled by the twelve tribes was broader). 

The Arab states at this point neither wanted Gaza and the West Bank nor were willing to absorb their populations as refugees into their own territory. As a result, Israel has been left with enormous occupied territories filled with people who hate them. There is no possibility of a return to the rejected frontiers of 1947, both because the Israelis would not retreat to what is a much smaller area than that now populated by Jews having shed so much blood to secure what they have, and because the Palestinians — in even their most moderate moments — have always demanded that all the descendants of anyone who lived in the territory, internationally recognised as Israel in 1948, have a right to return to their land and resume their property and their residence. This demand would lead to the destruction of the State of Israel as it would have a majority Muslim-Arab population. 

The Israelis have at various points offered terms not impossibly short of the 1947 plan but these negotiations have always foundered on the Palestinian assertion of a “right of return”.

St John Henry Newman famously observed that:

“Earthly kingdoms are founded, not in justice, but in injustice. They are created by the sword, by robbery, cruelty, perjury, craft, and fraud. There never was a kingdom, except Christ’s, which was not conceived and born, nurtured and educated, in sin. There never was a state but was committed to acts and maxims which it is its crime to maintain, and its ruin to abandon. What monarchy is there but began in invasion or usurpation? What revolution has been effected without self-will, violence, or hypocrisy? What popular government but is blown about by every wind, as if it had no conscience and no responsibilities? What dominion of the few but is selfish and unscrupulous? Where is military strength without the passion for war? Where is trade without the love of filthy lucre, which is the root of all evil?”

But that does not mean that international relations are a moral vacuum. 

One really can’t do anything other than wage war against an enemy with the aims of Hamas after an attack like 7 October. The Israelis do seem to have taken extraordinary measures to minimise civilian casualties. Britain, France and the USA have never gone to such lengths. Only a few days ago, the UN had to admit they had massively overstated civilian casualties in Gaza through relying on the statistics from Hamas. The US government has not found evidence of violations of international law on the part of Israel. People often forget that Israel is now ruled by a National Government, so the policy it is pursuing is that of a huge majority of its elected representatives. 

The Israelis can certainly be ruthless. They do not intend to permit that the horrors inflicted upon their grandparents ever occur again but they do believe in playing by what they perceive to be the “rules” and they have repeatedly offered deals to the Palestinians and the Palestinians absolutely refuse to accept any deal that doesn’t involve the destruction of the State of Israel. Both sides have been completely consistent on these lines since 1947. It’s not clear to me what alternative the Israelis have in those circumstances. 

All the ethnicities in the Ottoman Empire tried to create contiguous homelands for themselves centred on their historic territories and lots of wickedness was practiced while they were doing it, but only in the case of the Jews is it seen as somehow legitimate to hound them unceasingly instead of making a treaty, accepting the military reality, settling the borders and getting on with life.

I visited Israel, Jordan and the West Bank in 2006. I spoke to many Israelis, Palestinians and Brits working for western governments and NGOs or just out and out activists. I’ve also spoken to people at the BBC over the years. I always ask why the Palestinians would have as a precondition to any settlement provisions which entail the destruction of the State of Israel, which obviously preclude any settlement. They mostly just shrug or get angry. They see the Palestinian “right of return” as an absolute red line. With that as a starting point, it is hard to see how any progress can be made. I do not wish to attribute evil motives unnecessarily but this attitude confuses me. Though there is little love lost, the Greeks and Armenians don’t take the same approach with Turkey, although (particularly in the Armenian case) the horrors involved are more than equal to anything even alleged against the Israelis. The effect of this red line is catastrophic and completely self-defeating because the Palestinians are left in stateless squalor. Even were one to suppose it legitimate to seek the destruction of the State of Israel, it would make more sense to have an actual Palestinian state there rather than dysfunctional semi-occupied territories.

Israel withdrew entirely from Gaza in 2005 in the hope the Palestinians would get on with ruling themselves and leave the Israelis alone. So Israel has tried the “you can’t kill an ideology, let prosperity make it wither” approach and it has singularly failed. Obviously, the only way the present approach could succeed is if there were some sort of Marshall Plan at the end of it. A couple of months ago I consulted a Jewish convert to Catholicism who would not describe himself as a Zionist and he first suggested to me that the fundamental problem is that the original “demonstration” of the truth of Islam was the invasion of Roman Palestine and the conquest of Jerusalem. This he proposed is the reason no deal that doesn’t involve the expulsion of the Israelis from Jerusalem will be accepted and that even the 1947 offer to make Jerusalem an international city was too much. Later, I asked a Turkish political scientist about this theory and she concurred. Indeed, she thought Constantinople too has something of this status and so, if the Greeks had managed to get it back in the early twenties, there would have been a “frozen conflict” between Greece and Turkey as well.

Various peculiar evangelical Protestants in the USA have got it into their head that the second coming will not occur until the Jewish temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt. They may be right about this (2 Thess 2:4). However, they have drawn the conclusion from this that they ought to labour to rebuild it, effectively constructing a throne for the antichrist. The logic behind this is very odd. Why don’t they go the whole hog and start branding people with the number of the beast? The Mystical and Eucharistic Body of Jesus Christ is the third temple and His one and all sufficient sacrifice is alone the salvation of the world.

Given that the return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem would trigger the great apostasy, it would have been hard to desire it before it happened. Now it has happened, and given our dismal failure to protect, convince and convert our estranged elder brethren these last two thousand years, perhaps we should make up for lost time and support them in these dark hours. Given that they are prophesied to one day make up the companions of the last gentile Christians in the final persecution, we really ought to get reacquainted.