Several days ago, an article from the Associated Press appeared, with the provocative headline, “Vatican Meeting of Mideast Bishops Demands Israel End Occupation of Palestinian Lands.” Concerned that headline might be a little-one-sided, I read on, only to find this:
In a final joint communiqué, the bishops also told Israel it shouldn’t use the Bible to justify ‘injustices’ against the Palestinians. . . . While the bishops condemned terrorism and anti-Semitism, they laid much of the blame for the conflict squarely on Israel. They listed the ‘occupation’ of Palestinian lands, Israel’s separation barrier with the West Bank, its military checkpoints, political prisoners, demolition of homes and disturbance of Palestinians’ socio-economic lives as factors that have made life increasingly difficult for Palestinians.
Still alarmed, and unsatisfied, I read the Synod’s full statement but, alas, the AP story accurately summarized it. Although there are many fine Christian affirmations in it, the statement is damaged by an undue animus against Israel. No other country comes in for the kind of blame dished out against its policies. The bishops raise concerns about Iraq and Lebanon, but only in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, for which, they suggest, Israel bears almost sole responsibility.
Like many who proclaim the need for peace, the bishops naively believe that once the Palestinians have a homeland, Israel “will be able to enjoy peace and security” too, and many other conflicts in the region will disappear. In part, the statement reads like a utopian projection—its boundless faith in the United Nations being just one example. The statement does condemn fanaticism and intolerance, but in a generalized, politically-correct way:
We condemn violence and terrorism from wherever it may proceed as well as all religious extremism. We condemn all forms of racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Christianism and Islamophobia and we call upon the religions to assume their responsibility to promote dialogue between cultures and civilizations in our region and in the entire world.
Note that these condemnations do not specify exactly who might be guilty of these evils, and to what degree. Note also the moral equivalence. Is “Islamophobia,” for example, anywhere near as dangerous or intense as anti-Semitism, not to mention anti-Christianism, in the Middle East, and “the entire world”?
And if Israel should be criticized by name, for its failures and abuses, why not countries with far more horrendous records, like Iran and Syria? Why not organizations like the PLO and Hezbollah?
And have the bishops forgotten about al Qaeda? In a recent commentary on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Thomas Joscelyn noted that “the ideology that fuels al Qaeda’s hate . . . relies on a paranoid and delusional view of the world in which an imaginary ‘Zionist-Crusader’ conspiracy seeks to impose its will on Muslims.” In this, he continues, “al Qaeda’s paranoia is not all that different from the insanity of Nazism or the anti-capitalist ranting of Communists. In each case, the ideologues pretend that a dastardly cabal threatens humanity and they are the last hope for redemption.”
Are the bishops aware of just how entrenched this poisonous world view is among Israel’s opponents (and actually part of indoctrination programs for the young); and if so, why were they not more explicit in describing and condemning it, and assigning specific blame to those who promote it?
If it is argued that the bishops, representing an endangered Christian minority in the Middle East, have to be very careful about what they say against extremist governments and movements, lest more Christians become targets themselves, fair enough. But isn’t the reverse also true: don’t the bishops need to be extremely careful about what they say about Israel, lest more Jews become targets?
Israel’s deadly enemies will surely exploit the Synod’s final declaration, using it as a propaganda weapon, giving it the widest possible publicity—which is not to say that’s what the bishops intended, at all. On the contrary, and to their credit, they cited Vatican II’s Nostra aetate, on the non-Christian religions, stressing Christianity’s bond with Judaism, and its abhorrence of religious prejudice. But the bishops should realize the power of words, and unintended consequences, especially in that part of the world.
It is right and proper for the Middle East’s bishops to stand on the side of those who are suffering—often desperately so—and it is natural that they would be particularly anxious about the quality of life for Christians in the Middle East. The Catholic Church is right not to be uncritical of everything Israel does in the name of security, any more than it should be about America’s war on terror.
But fair’s fair. Why has Israel applied some (admittedly debatable) security measures? Because Israelis have been under attack—fierce and fanatical attack—for years and years and years. Do the bishops have a better strategy which can guarantee peace and security for all, and if so, what is it? The Synod’s final declaration addresses these concerns only sparingly, and with idealistic platitudes—not with anything approaching a healthy Christian realism.
Ironically, the very fact the bishops are making these “bold” statements is a testament to Israel’s essential decency and humanity—the bishops know there will be no serious consequences or massive reprisals against Christians in Israel for “speaking out,” whereas any similar Christian criticism—or even questioning—of an Arab government in the region, or Islamic extremism, would—well, we all saw what happened after Regensburg.
In a statement meant to be fully and intensely Christian, Israel was singled out for blame and criticism. That’s not fair, much less Christian.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. His annotated bibliography on Pius XII appears in The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII (Lexington Books, 2004). His most recent articles for "On the Square" were Pius XII and the Distorting Ellipsis and Pope Benedict Confounds His Critics.
The AP report of the bishops' meeting.
Thomas Joscelyn's Al Qaeda Troubled by Helen Thomas's Firing.
David P. Goldman's Disappearing Middle East Christians, Disappointing Bishops.
The final statement of the Middle Eastern bishops' Synod, An Appeal to Safeguard the Faith.