Cautious Optimism

Many times in recent months, friends have asked me, “Are you optimistic over the situation in the Holy Land?” In true Jesuit fashion, my response has been, “Yes and no.” Responding to “facts on the ground,” I find surges of optimism are followed by waves of pessimism followed by new feelings of hope. And the cycle continues. Are there reasons for optimism? Indeed there are. The cease-fire is holding, fragile though it is, hour by hour, despite the violations committed by both sides. Mahmoud Abbas is recognized as a Palestinian leader outspoken in defense of Palestinian rights, yet staunchly opposed to violence as a way of protesting the violation of those rights. He moved quickly after the bombing in Tel Aviv on Feb. 25, calling the act an attempt to “sabotage” the peace process, and has revamped and improved Palestinian security forces. Israel may be annoyed at his attempts to dialogue with “terrorist” groups, but that has not deterred him from pursuing his own course toward an understanding with the Israelis. If dialogue is not successful, Abbas has indicated that he will not hesitate to employ more restrictive methods in dealing with the Palestinian militia groups. His encouragement of Hamas to enter the political arena could well be hailed as a stroke of genius; at the same time, the success of Hamas in recent elections along with the postponement of parliamentary elections scheduled for July 17 could lead to unrest among the various Palestinian factions.

Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza is still on course, even though the forces opposing it are becoming more powerful and more active in their portrayal of Sharon as a “traitor.” The move faces one final approval from the Knesset to take place on the eve of the withdrawal. It remains to be seen how much negotiation will take place before the pullout occurs.


However one views Sharon, this has been a risky and major undertaking on his part, the first attempt by any Israeli government at a withdrawal from settlements. Thus far it has been a unilateral measure by Sharon. Some Israeli commentators view the Gaza pullout as a tentative first step; such reports compare these developments to the initial actions of Mikhail Gorbachev that led to the peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe. Others go so far as to hail Sharon as “the hero of the Israeli left.”

Another reason for optimism is the conference hosted by Prime Minister Tony Blair in London at the end of February, and even more the meeting of Abbas with President George W. Bush in late May. The Blair conference appears to have succeeded in its modest purpose of rallying international support for building “the institutions of a viable Palestinian state.” The international community will be watching closely the actions taken in the ongoing political process. The meeting with President Bush gave Abbas much needed support both at home and abroad. One cannot overlook Bush’s reference to his visitor as “President Abbas” or his speaking of a future Palestinian state that would include Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem. It remains to be seen whether the actions and policies of the United States support these words of the president. Nevertheless, such international concern is crucial for restoring a balance that may lead to a negotiated peace settlement in place of Israel’s simply imposing its will on the Palestinian people. This in turn could lead to a greater sense of justice and even reconciliation in the region.

Reasons for Pessimism

Are there reasons for pessimism? Indeed there are. Terry Bulata, a Palestinian mother, peace activist and headmistress of an elementary school, claims that in the post-Sharm el Sheikh period the Palestinian situation is rapidly deteriorating and for many is worse than ever. Although Israel has called a halt to the demolition of homes of those accused of terrorist acts, house demolitions have increased overall. The recent announcement by the Jerusalem Municipality to raze 87 Palestinian homes in Silwan, just outside the southern walls of the Old City, is a political catastrophe. The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, in its lead editorial on June 7, called the decision a potential “powder keg” that will ignite East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Israeli activist Dorothy Naor writes of the “land theft” that is taking place in many areas of the West Bank: “Israel is not so much creeping as marching over the West Bank, grabbing land, destroying what is Palestinian, and building over it more Israel.” For the most part Israelis and the world at large simply do not want to know what is taking place; “and while the stealing is progressing, villagers are not permitted to non-violently protest the theft of their land, the destruction of their trees.”

The construction of the separation wall continues at an even more rapid pace, and more stringent travel restrictions upon Palestinians increase the daily harassment. The Israeli journalist Amira Hass has described these restrictions as “part of the logic of occupation.” Two separate transportation systems have been created, one for Palestinians and the other “to protect the welfare and well-being of Jewish settlers” and to “expand and perpetuate” the settlements by linking them to Israel. Hass sums up her analysis by saying this is all part of “the apartheid reality in the West Bank.”

The Israeli sociologist Lev Grinberg believes that Sharon wants the withdrawal from Gaza to be as traumatic as possible. The more difficult the evacuation, the stronger the arguments Sharon can make for holding on firmly to all of the major settlements in the West Bank. Along these same lines, Michael Warschavski, head of the Alternative Information Center in Israel, insists that Sharon has never deviated from his longstanding plan for the cantonization of Palestinians in the West Bank. President Bush has insisted on the need for a “contiguous” Palestinian state, and anything less than this would not be acceptable to the international community, much less to the Palestinians themselves. Yet the recent rerouting of the separation wall has done little to foster hopes for contiguity. There are growing indications that the Israeli government, despite earlier denials, views the wall as the imposed boundary between the two states in any future peace talks.

Grounds for Hope

Despite these and many other reasons to be pessimistic, there are always bases for renewed hope. My hope is rooted in the stubborn and persistent pursuit of justice to be found in the Jewish people themselves. One such person is Liat Weingart, the Israeli-American co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. Speaking to the Chicago Presbytery in February, Weingart reiterated J.V.P.’s support for the decision of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. to consider selective divestment from corporations that profit from the Israeli occupation. By its decision, said Weingart, P.C.U.S.A. is stating that it will no longer continue “to fund the humiliation and brutality that Palestinians suffer each day.” This decision has incurred the wrath of mainline Jewish groups; yet in Weingart’s opinion, through this way of proceeding the P.C.U.S.A. recognizes “the core of what being Jewish is all about—respect for human life and dignity.”

Avi Schlaim, British Academy Research Professor at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, argues similarly: “Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories since 1967 is the underlying problem. Occupation transformed the Zionist movement from a legitimate national liberation movement for the Jews into a colonial power and an oppressor of the Palestinians.”

Another source of hope is Cecilie Surasky, also from Jewish Voice for Peace and a New Voices fellow with the Academy of Educational Development. “Jews like us must speak out,” she states, to “save the Jewish soul.” Because of generations of persecution there is in every Jew a deep-seated fear of anti-Jewish hatred; “it makes us remain quiet at the expense of truth.” Yet silence “puts us in more danger, not less,” because it can lead to the obliteration of the Jewish spirit. “Jews like us know in our hearts that every time a Palestinian mother stands sobbing in the road, clutching her children and watching her home being demolished by an Israeli army bulldozer, another brick is dislodged from the edifice of 5,000 years of Jewish values, ethics and justice.”

A Price to Pay

There is a price to pay for speaking out. Jews like Surasky are often isolated in their own families and receive, she says, “an almost daily barrage of hate messages from other Jews.” The mainstream Jewish community has become expert in “silencing dissent.” Surasky fears this atmosphere of intimidation has had a corrosive effect “on the very tradition that binds us together”; Judaism calls its people to speak out “when we perceive an injustice taking place”; but today, when the perpetrator is Israel, that is no longer true. If Jews no longer have the moral courage to condemn any injustice when they see it, Surasky wonders, then “what do we stand for?.... Perhaps we will have failed ourselves.”

The readiness on the part of some Jews and their non-Jewish allies to speak out against injustice even when the perpetrator is Israel also may be having an effect on Jews in the United States. A recent survey of American Jews, as reported by Stephen Cohen of Hebrew University, indicates that in the last two years “the attachment of American Jews to Israel has weakened measurably.” Respondents were less likely than in earlier comparable surveys “to say they care about Israel, talk about Israel with others or engage in a range of pro-Israel activities.” There was no other measurable drop in their Jewish identification. This weakening of support, Cohen believes, “appears to reflect responses to current events in the Middle East.” Will the reaction of the mainstream Jewish community to this survey lead to a further suppression of dissent within the ranks of American Jews? Or will it cause an examination and critique of those policies of Israel that might be contributing to the weakening of support for Israel among American Jews?

I find one final source of hope in the words of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, S.J., who, in the three years since his retirement as Archbishop of Milan, has been living at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem and quietly resuming a life of scholarly research. At a reception honoring the publication of the Hebrew translation of his book, Verso Gerusalemme (Toward Jerusalem), Martini mentioned why he chose to spend his retirement years here: “Because Jerusalem represents a city of dialogue, a city of prayer and a city of love.”

In Jerusalem, Jews, Muslims and Christians are in constant dialogue with one another and with their secular brethren. There are many groups that meet monthly to exchange views on issues of common concern and who come to an ever deeper appreciation of the position of the “other.” Thousands gather on the Temple Mount on Fridays to worship at Al Aqsa Mosque; Jews from all sides pour into the Old City for Sabbath services at the Western Wall; church bells call Christians to worship on Sunday mornings. Prayers are lifted in praise of God from homes, synagogues, cloisters and mosques all week long. This is a city of love, a love that is manifested above all in the humble service of others. Multitudes of volunteers, especially young people, come to Jerusalem to be of service. Numerous hospitals and institutions aim to serve the marginalized, the elderly, the handicapped, the orphaned. Many religious communities have as their goal the service of those in need. “These are the reasons,” the cardinal concluded, “why I am happy to be in Jerusalem.”

Am I hopeful about the situation in this Holy Land? After much reflection, discussion and prayer about what has taken place here in the last several months, I have a fragile, cautious optimism.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Women served as deacons in Europe for about a millennium in a variety of ministerial and sacramental roles.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 15, 2019
In preparation for the gathering in Abu Dhabi, I find myself asking why my conversations with the future Pope Francis so powerfully affected both of us.
Abraham SkorkaJanuary 15, 2019
Photo: iStock
Included on the list is John T. Ryan, S.J., who from 1989 to 1994 was an associate editor for development at America.
Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 15, 2019
Did you ever wonder why Jesus was baptized? What sins did Jesus have to repent of? Nothing.
James Martin, S.J.January 14, 2019