In a recent short essay in America, the once influential magazine put out by the Society of Jesus. Fr. Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., offers what he thinks is a lasting answer to the conflict between Jews and Palestinians over the future of the Holy Land. Unfortunately, as he faces this thorny issue, which calls for the delicate exercise of theological reflection and prudential judgment, he offers easy Leftist slogans rather than serious analysis.
Fr. Schroth, who is an associate editor of the magazine, begins with a writ of attainder that implies that Israel is to blame for the current impasse in negotiations for a two-state solution. For instance, he creates the impression that current Israeli building projects in East Jerusalem are the main impediment to negotiations and to peace. He begins the essay this way:
What began in September as hope for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine has fizzled. Palestinians will not negotiate while Israel builds settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, which in international law are occupied territory; Israel will not extend the “moratorium” on construction, during which Israel continued to build settlements and segregated highways and to demolish Palestinian homes.
The logic is clear: It’s Israel’s fault. But in fact, a recent poll reports that only 24 percent of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank think that a settlement freeze is necessary for renewed negotiations. The new buildings do not seem to be the issue, even for the Palestinians for whom Fr. Schroth thinks he is speaking.
This isn’t surprising. As Palestinians know, in 2005 Israel used its own military to forcibly remove settlers from the Gaza Strip before turning over control to the Palestinian Authority. If a final agreement requires removing settlers, Israel has shown itself trustworthy. The new buildings are just pawns in a now very familiar Kabuki drama: the negotiations over whether to negotiate.
In any event, both sides recognize that the future outlines of a Palestinian state will roughly follow the 1967 boundaries, with a few square miles (perhaps fewer) in East Jerusalem as the (admittedly very) wild card.
It seems to me that the current impasse is unsurprising but not insuperable. Negotiations have long been hobbled by the disorder and dysfunction of Palestinian political life, which is perhaps understandable, given their many decades of stateless existence. Their situation has been made miserable by unnecessary provocations, indignities, and ill-considered policies that have characterized Israel’s exercise of power in the occupied territories. Moreover, Israeli political parties have not been shy about spinning the details of negotiations in order to please coalition partners and gain electoral advantage.
There are, as is always the case in a conflict-laden world, faults on both sides. Arab countries that proclaim their support of the Palestinian cause have often manipulated them and exploited their isolation in the long cold, and sometimes hot, war against Israel. The atmosphere is further poisoned by many decades of hyperbolic denunciations of the very existence of the State of Israel, and by wavering support by the nation’s fellow democracies in the West.
Perhaps I’m completely wrong about the sources of the conflict, but whatever the source, the tremendous pain, suffering, violence, and injustice that characterize Israel and Palestinian relations should rightly engage our moral concern. We may be unusually invested in this particular episode in human history because of the religious passions it arouses, the legacy of the Holocaust, and the geopolitical significance of Arab-dominated countries, but we need to reject grandiose analysis and idealistic solutions.
Peace will require what peace always requires: careful, prudent decisions and actions tailored to the realities at hand, with a sympathy for the interests and perspectives of everyone involved, and no reckless reliance upon human goodwill to overcome human passions.
Unfortunately, Fr. Schroth seems to think otherwise, for he proposes a truly fantastical one-state solution. In his dream world, Israel will give up on the idea of a Jewish state, paving the way toward a utopian Greater Israel in which Jews and Arabs will link arms and sings Kumbaya. A single post-ethnic state will, he imagines, become Switzerland on the Mediterranean. “Look at the map,” he writes,
Erase the lines setting off the West Bank and Gaza; imagine highways connecting the whole territory with Jerusalem, the shared capital. Every citizen has the same right to vote, the same access to water, land, education, marriage, health care, employment, property, and freedom of speech and religion. Walls disappear. Settlements may remain, but Palestinians will build beside them. An emerging leadership class will shepherd Israel-Palestine into a peaceful future.
This dream is not just unrealistic, it’s tendentious. Arabs do not have an even remotely reliable track record as civic partners with Jews. Since 1948, many Muslim countries have engaged in a sustained and successful project of ethnic cleansing. The once large communities of Jews spread throughout the Near East no longer exist, because synagogues were burned and lives threatened.
Moreover, the Palestinians themselves haven’t exactly been avatars of peace and cooperation. A society that celebrates suicide bombers can hardly be trusted to share a common civic space.
Only historical amnesia and willful blindness would allow anyone to imagine that the one-state solution won’t end disastrously for Jews. Perhaps Fr. Schroth knows that this outcome is likely, but I suspect that he is simply unwilling to confront reality. Like so many earnest, pious Europeans and Americans, I think he harbors the usual liberal, self-complimenting illusion that a radical new beginning will release us from the agonies of history, allowing our natural goodness to shine forth.
This mentality is not in accord with Catholic teaching. Of course, the Church does not want us to simply accept the world as we find it. We are to try to correct injustices and do our best to create the conditions for peace. This includes taking risks, risks that involve using our political imaginations in new and creative ways.
But the Church requires us to accept responsibility for our political dreams, and recognize how quickly dreams can become nightmares. Revolution and rebellion, for example, can only be justified with great difficulty. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:
Armed resistance to oppression by political authority is not legitimate, unless all the following conditions are met: 1) there is certain, grave, and prolonged violation of fundamental rights; 2) all other means of redress have been exhausted; 3) such resistance will not provoke worse disorders; 4) there is well-founded hope of success; and 5) it is impossible reasonably to foresee any better solution. (2243)
The same applies to schemes for recasting a nation’s entire social system. Fr. Schroth’s dream fails to meet the Catechism’s basic test of responsibility. No reasonable person would imagine that it can succeed. The result of his proposal would be the end of Israel as a home for Jews and indeed the destruction of Jewish life in the Holy Land.
He must know that, surely? But maybe my original assessment was right: the proposal is the product of predictable (and irresponsible) Jesuit soft-mindedness.
R.R. Reno is a Senior Editor of First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here. Fr. Schroth’s “Two Peoples, One State” can be found here. The poll on Palestinian attitudes to the negotiations can be found here.