Interfaith peacemakers cannot remain neutral on Gaza
The war on Gaza is about to complete its fourth month of brutal and massive bombardment. As of late January, this campaign of destruction has killed over 25,000 people (two-thirds of them women and children), destroyed tens of thousands of homes and displaced over 1.5 million Palestinians, squeezing them into a small southern corner of Gaza. On the Israeli side, 1,139 people were killed in the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, and the war on Gaza has caused over 125,000 Israelis to evacuate their homes and settle in hotels or temporary houses.
The war on Gaza has reverted the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back to 1948, when the dynamics of hatred and displacement, especially the dehumanization of Palestinians, became a normal expression within the Israeli and many Western governments. Recently, there has also been an increase in expressions of antisemitism and Islamophobia around the world. And for the first time in the history of this conflict, the International Court of Justice, at the request of South Africa, has begun deliberations on whether the Israeli military and government have committed genocide against the Palestinians.
There will be no clear victory for Israelis or Palestinians. This war has, in many ways, made victims of all of us: Palestinians, Israelis and everyone around the globe. The double standards and political hypocrisy of most European and North American governments in addressing this conflict have harmed the credibility and legitimacy of so-called international and multilateral organizations (including the United Nations, the European Union and the Arab League). They have also weakened the perception of these organizations as protectors of human rights, democratic values and other liberal or ethical norms. There is also a global crisis of polarization between those calling for solidarity with the Palestinian people, and recognition of their dignity and freedom, and those who refuse calls for a cease-fire and instead insist on supporting the Israeli military campaign against Gazans and Palestinians in the West Bank.
There will be no clear victory for Israelis or Palestinians. This war has, in many ways, made victims of all of us.
Religious leaders and their institutions are also caught in this polarization. Unfortunately, many of them seem unable to take a clear moral and ethical stand against the war on Gaza. But peacemakers cannot hide behind a shield of neutrality. In order to be welcomed into the public discourse among the Middle Eastern and Muslim communities, they must reckon with the fact that many Muslims judge Israel’s actions in Gaza as ethnic cleansing and genocide, an assessment with which I agree. No peacemaking efforts will be credible unless they engage seriously with the depth of this moral tragedy as experienced by Palestinians and the Muslim communities who are in solidarity with them. Peacemakers must take a stand against the deliberate targeting of civilians in Gaza, the blockade of food and medicine, ethnic cleansing and the genocidal campaign in Gaza.
When I have attempted to discuss interfaith issues in the Middle Eastern and Muslim communities, I have been warned on several occasions that the time is not right for dialogue or the illusive neutral stand of peacemaking. In fact, people in the Muslim and Arab communities currently use terms like interfaith dialogue and peacemaking in a mocking manner to refer to this kind of dialogue in the Middle East, and even in Europe and the United States. Such engagement is viewed as futile and manipulative because of the lack of actions to stop the war on Gaza.
In Muslim and Arab communities, many interfaith leaders and organizations are perceived as complacent toward war crimes against Palestinians in Gaza.
Many people, especially Muslims and Arabs who have participated in such interfaith initiatives in the past, have challenged me with questions: Why aren’t more peacemakers and the proponents of interfaith dialogue protesting and standing clearly against the war, instead staying silent despite the clear evidence of genocide and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians? Why aren’t they speaking up against their governments, which are supplying arms to the Israeli government? Why did they grant Israel a de facto green light for actions that kill Palestinian children and women? Why are Palestinian lives not equal to Israeli or Jewish lives in interreligious dialogue?
In Muslim and Arab communities, many interfaith leaders and organizations, especially from Europe and North America, are perceived as complacent toward war crimes against Palestinians in Gaza. As a senior Muslim leader who has advocated for interfaith dialogue for decades said to me in private: “They have assassinated the interfaith dialogue.”
It is hard to respond to these questions. There have been a few clear statements by religious institutions who recognized the extent and scale of the Israeli military attacks on Gazans and other Palestinians and also acknowledged the victimhood on the Israeli side. (See examples from the Project on Middle East Democracy and the Muslim World League.) Those clear statements recognized the occupation of Gaza, the apartheid system and the historic grievances of Palestinians that existed before Oct. 7. But there have also been “balanced” statements that merely remind us of our common humanity or that equalize the occupier and the occupied by failing to consider the Israeli apartheid system in Palestine. That type of response has only added to the anger and frustration of those crying for solidarity, relief, aid and effective government actions against the policies of ethnic cleansing and genocide.
“Balanced” statements equalize the occupier and the occupied.
Considering this bleak reality, how can we restore confidence in interfaith peacebuilding in the Middle East and even globally?
Having written many articles and taught many courses on the role of religious leaders in conflict situations, I believe we know what type of actions can and should be done in such a reality. The following are some of these joint actions that can be carried out by Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist and Hindu religious actors (leaders and the faithful alike) and their institutions.
A prophetic voice for peace. Interreligious leaders and their organizations can be a clear prophetic voice for peace and justice. They can remind us all of the sacredness of human lives. In each faith group, there are many stories in which religious leaders utilized their prophetic voice to call for an end to wars and violence, and to restore justice and peace in their communities. In the current context of Israel-Palestine, religious leaders can at least agree on two calls.
The first is a call for a cease-fire, which would include a joint interreligious call to stop all attacks on civilians, including the daily massacres in Gaza. This could be a powerful message that brings together Muslims, Jews and Christians in our communities. The second is a call for the release of all hostages on both sides, as stated in the Muslim World League petition, and for an end to the future targeting or hostage-taking of any civilians. Grounded in their Abrahamic theological beliefs in the sacredness of life, religious leaders can launch joint campaigns to reach out to their own communities.
A witness of truth. Interreligious leader delegations can plan trips to Gaza (or Gaza’s borders), the West Bank and Israel to act as witnesses to the truth on the ground. They can report their observations and share stories they hear from both Palestine and Israel. This witness can become a platform for their followers to adopt or act upon.
Aid and relief. The war on Gaza has caused a humanitarian disaster beyond any normal measures of war or natural disasters. The pressing need for aid and relief is enormous. Interreligious joint actions can be organized around the delivery of this aid and relief. A call to support the survival of Gazan children and women can be made from inside the church, mosque and synagogue. By depoliticizing aid to refugees in Gaza, interreligious leaders can help to bridge the gap between communities in Europe and America that have become further polarized as a result of the war on Gaza.
Healing. For centuries, religious leaders have acted as spiritual healers during the trauma of war. In the current war on Gaza, there are millions of Palestinians and Israelis have been traumatized. Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious leaders can offer a joint platform for the healing of pain and victimization. They can gather the resources of their communities to respond to the needs of women, children and all victims.
There are many other efforts that religious peacemakers can engage in during this war. The challenge of carrying out joint interreligious action is never the lack of options during such wars. It is instead the inability or hesitancy of leaders and followers to take a nonviolent, principled stand against killing, regardless of the justification. Leaders with the courage to engage in joint interreligious actions of solidarity perceive their role as peacemakers, and not only as guardians of their faith tradition’s rituals and symbols. Historically, those religious peacemakers take clear stands against racism, discrimination and apartheid, both in their own communities and outside. Such leaders refuse to remain silent when genocide, ethnic cleansing or massacres are being carried out and even livestreamed. And as it relates to the war on Gaza, the silent and complacent religious and interreligious leaders and organizations cannot claim that they did not know.
To save whatever remains of the reputation, credibility and legitimacy of interfaith peacemaking and interreligious dialogue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we need these voices to be heard now more than ever.