As war begins again in Holy Land, Jesuit David Neuhaus hopes Christians can be instruments of peace
David Neuhaus, S.J., left Johannesburg, South Africa, on Oct. 7 to return to Jerusalem to teach Scripture. After a delay in Istanbul, he got back to Tel Aviv on Oct. 8, discovering that a full-scale war had broken out between Israel and Gaza after horrific attacks in southern Israel by Hamas.
Born in South Africa during the apartheid era, Father Neuhaus has lived most of his life in Israel and is an Israeli citizen. An astute political observer, he holds a Ph.D in political science from Hebrew University. He joined the Jesuits in 1992 and was ordained in 2000. He studied Scripture in Rome and has spent many years teaching at the Seminary of the Latin Catholic Patriarchate in Bethlehem and in other academic institutions in Israel and Palestine.
In an interview with America in 2022, Father Neuhaus drew attention to the humanitarian situation in Gaza, saying that it was “besieged by the Israelis and ignored by the world.” On Oct. 11, he spoke from Jerusalem with America’s Johannesburg correspondent to offer some background on the crisis and discuss how a deeper catastrophe may be averted.
The conflict in the Middle East is complicated, the genesis of which has a long history. How best can we understand the issues that have led to what seems to have been an inevitable conflict?
The conflict is rooted in events that started to unfold at the end of the 19th century as some Jews in Europe sought a safe haven from growing movements of European antisemitism, leading to their marginalization and persecution in their own countries. As a solution, some proposed returning to what many perceived as their ancient homeland to set up their own state there. This idea received overwhelming support from elements within Britain, which began to rule Palestine after the First World War. With the rise of extremist national movements in Europe, reaching a peak with the rise of the Nazis, the trickle of Jewish immigration to Palestine became a flood.
Father Neuhaus: “There are many Christians who are Palestinian Arabs. They experience this war as Palestinians. There are also Christians integrated into Jewish Israeli society. They experience the war as Israelis.”
Neither the arriving Jews nor the British ruling the country took the fact that Palestine had an Indigenous population seriously. In Britain’s policy of supporting Jewish migration into the country, the Palestinians were simply not consulted. After the Second World War, when the images of Jewish suffering in the Shoah formed an entire generation of humanity, their assumed right to return “home” and live in security drowned out any consideration of the question of justice for the Palestinians. The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was seen as the only possibility to ensure Jewish survival, and it provoked the relegation of the Palestinians to the status of refugees without rights and a home.
The behavior of politicians leading up to the latest crisis has been striking. They seem to fuel the fires of conflict with irresponsible rhetoric. How much of this crisis is caused by a lack of leadership, locally and internationally?
The current military confrontations in the Holy Land are accompanied by a war to control public opinion at home and abroad. The rhetoric used on both sides basically denies the other side’s humanity. In the ferocity of this war, there are no civilians. No innocent bystanders. Hamas militants have mowed down hundreds of Israelis, including over 250 young people at a music festival and tens of men and women, elderly and infants, in a small town on the border. Hundreds of Israelis have been kidnapped and taken to Gaza.
For Hamas, every Israeli is a part of the machinery of oppression and occupation that has denied the Palestinians a place in the sun and incarcerated them in the prison of the Gaza Strip. In this overpopulated territory, most residents have their origins in the lands that now form the southern part of Israel, from which they were expelled. For so many Israelis, Hamas and its supporters (extended to all residents in Gaza) are Nazis, ISIS, pawns of the evil empire of Iran, and need to be wiped out. The leaders are not leading, but pandering to their peoples’ worst fears and deepest hatreds and exploiting this to try to wipe out the other side.
How is the church responding?
The church has no armies and little political influence, but it has a tool of utmost importance: the word. Throughout the long decades of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the church has developed a discourse that opens up a horizon quite different from the one of hate.
Father Neuhaus: “The current military confrontations in the Holy Land are accompanied by a war to control public opinion at home and abroad. The rhetoric used on both sides basically denies the other side’s humanity.”
Since 1917, the church has been following the events closely, and, particularly after Vatican II, has spoken an unequivocal language of justice, peace, reconciliation and respect. The church promotes the dignity of Jews and Muslims and the rights of Israelis and Palestinians and insists that the Holy Land has a special symbolic status that must be respected.
In 2014, as another round of the conflict focused on the Gaza Strip was beginning, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land said:
Our role, as religious leaders, is to speak a prophetic language that reveals the alternatives beyond the cycle of hatred and violence. This language refuses to attribute the status of enemy to any of God’s children; it is a language that opens up the possibility of seeing each one as brother or sister…. Religious leaders are invited to use language responsibly so that it becomes a tool to transform the world from a wilderness of darkness and death into a flourishing garden of life.
What, in your opinion, should the international community be doing to bring this crisis to an end? Is enough being done to de-escalate the situation?
Right now, almost nothing is being done to de-escalate the situation. One of the most dangerous myths in the area is the myth of “military victory,” that one side will ultimately wipe out the other side. Why de-escalate when what is sought is an ultimate victory that will render the other irrelevant to the region’s future? It is very disappointing that the great powers, the United States and countries in Europe, have been unreservedly supporting Israel’s war against Gaza with very little concern for the life being extinguished there.
I am thankful for Pope Francis’ insistence that war is a defeat for everyone, as he pointed out at the beginning of this tragedy.
This current catastrophe will have long-lasting effects on the whole Middle East. It is in the early days, but do you have any thoughts on what shape the future may take in the region in the aftermath?
We are in destruction mode. The big question is: Can this stop? In 1973, Israel was caught by surprise by a joint Egyptian-Syrian attack. Israel eventually prevailed, thanks once again to the support of the United States. However, the vulnerability of the country, surrounded by angry, resentful foes, brought home a realization that a peace treaty might be a better alternative. Within five years of that war, Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David accords.
Father Neuhaus: “The church promotes the dignity of Jews and Muslims and the rights of Israelis and Palestinians and insists that the Holy Land has a special symbolic status that must be respected.”
Of course, with the Palestinians, it is more complicated. That conflict is the very heart of the instability in the entire region. Israel and the United States have been trying to project a myth of peace in the region by promoting agreements with the Gulf principalities. Recently, they have been trying to lure Saudi Arabia into a normalization agreement with Israel. This is presented as peace but, in fact, is based upon shared economic and security interests and opposition to Iran. This strategy completely marginalizes the burning issue of the Palestinians, brought to the fore again in the tragic and horrific events of recent days.
Some political leaders and media are trying to pitch this conflict as religious. What role does religion play in what we are seeing unfold?
There is no doubt that religion plays a role. I insist, however, that while political leaders and ideologies use religion in the conflict; it is not the core of the problem. There have been many periods in history when Muslims and Jews—and Christians, too—have lived in peaceful coexistence and contributed to the flowering of civilizations.
Today, ideologues and politicians are mobilizing religion to promote the rejection of the other, the dehumanization necessary to ignore the rights of the other, and the campaign to extinguish the other. Nationalism, a fierce force in the Middle East, becomes even more ferocious when God is appended to the exclusivist claims of those arguing that “the land is all mine and there is no place for you.”
There are warnings about a massive humanitarian crisis in Gaza—a community already suffering under extreme poverty and deprivation. Can you say something about the conditions in Gaza before the conflict and how these may be exacerbated now?
The Gaza Strip is one of the most overpopulated areas on the planet. Only a small minority of the population is originally from this area. After the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, many refugees were pushed out of their homes in what became Israel as camps were established throughout the strip. They have been left to languish there for decades.
Gaza has been governed by Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, for the past 16 years. Since then, Israel has been engaged in devastating conflict with Gaza every few years, leading to repeated destruction of infrastructure, leaving the area even more impoverished and unable to cope with the needs of the population.
Israel has also imposed a siege on the strip that deprives it of the flow of essential goods. A recently appointed cardinal, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa, O.F.M., said just before the latest conflict began that Gaza is like a massive open-air prison.
What is this war’s effect on the area’s Christian community?
The Christians are part and parcel of the people in the area. There are many Christians who are Palestinian Arabs. They are, of course, experiencing this war as Palestinians. There are also Christians who are integrated into Jewish Israeli society. They experience the war as Israelis.
The hope is that the Christians can be a leaven within both societies, a moderating influence that can witness to values drowned out in the war, most importantly, love of enemy, forgiveness and reconciliation. But that is a tall order when the rhetoric of hate and vengeance drowns out everything else.
Is there any hope of a cessation of hostilities any time soon?
We must preserve the hope that the international community will wake up and exert pressure on the Israeli government to stop the violence. Those in contact with Hamas, Arab countries and Turkey will hopefully use their influence to have the hostages released, understanding that unbridled violence threatens everyone in the region.
The Netanyahu government might want to wipe Gaza off the face of the map, but it also wants U.S. support, continued negotiations with Saudi Arabia and good relations with other countries. These pressures might moderate the instincts that just now seek more and more vengeance.
Growing up in South Africa, who would have thought that apartheid would end? That, in addition to my faith in God, master of history, strengthens my hope that peace will eventually come.