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Gerard O’ConnellJune 10, 2024
A woman and child walk among debris in the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, June 9, 2024, aftermath of Israeli strikes at the area, where Israeli hostages were rescued, amid the Israel-Hamas conflict. (OSV News photo/Abed Khaled, Reuters)

In this exclusive interview, Cardinal Robert W. McElroy discusses questions relating to the ongoing war in Gaza with America’s Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell. The cardinal speaks in particular about how Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the way Israel has conducted its war on Gaza have polarized society in the United States, changed attitudes and given rise to antisemitism and Islamophobia. He hopes the current reassessment of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East may lead to addressing the grave injustice to Palestinians caused by the Israeli occupation of their territories, which, he said, is turning into colonization.

Cardinal McElroy believes the Catholic community in the United States and the American bishops “should be more vigorous advocates” of Pope Francis’ calls for an immediate cease-fire, the return of all hostages and the provision of humanitarian assistance “without obstacles and roadblocks” to the 2.3 million Palestinians who are living in Gaza under a state of siege.

The following is the text of the interview conducted by email at the end of last week before Israel freed four hostages from a Gaza refugee camp in an operation that killed some 274 Palestinians and injured hundreds more. The text has been edited for length and clarity.

Gerard O’Connell: Hamas’s attack on Israel and Israel’s war in Gaza appear to have polarized society in the United States, and indeed across the world, more than any other war in the 21st century. While there was a broad wave of sympathy for Israel immediately after the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, attitudes toward Israel appear to have changed significantly worldwide, including among many young people in the United States, because of the way Israel is conducting the war in Gaza, where 47 percent of the enclave’s 2.3 million inhabitants are under 18. How do you as a Christian leader read this?

Cardinal McElroy: I do think there has been a major shift within the United States in attitudes toward Israel and the Palestinian people. A strong consensus in favor of a free and secure Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people continues to exist and determines American public policy on questions pertaining to the Middle East. But alongside this consensus, there is a widening perception that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, particularly in its siege of Gaza with more than 35,000 deaths, constitutes a profound injustice, which neither American policy nor the world should countenance.

American reaction to the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas against the people of Israel on Oct. 7 justly reflects the utter inhumanity of these attacks, which included more than 1,000 Jewish deaths and the horrendous kidnapping of Jewish men and women to be used as hostages. This reaction is amplified by the memory of the singular barbarism of the Holocaust and the historic oppression of Jewish communities throughout the world, often by Christian cultures.

[The Editors: Biden must keep up the pressure for a cease-fire in Gaza]

The shift in American sentiment on the Middle East, particularly among the young, arises from the massive casualties that Israel has inflicted on the people of Gaza directly, and through the strangulation of the Gazan infrastructure and aid programs that has resulted in enormous food deprivation and starvation, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes and particularly the terrible suffering of the children of Gaza.

As a religious leader, I believe that both the utter repudiation and condemnation of Hamas for the October attacks and the condemnation of Israel for the morally unacceptable and utterly disproportionate manner in which they have prosecuted the war in Gaza are fully in accord with Catholic teaching and international law.

Every war brings destruction and a process of dehumanization of the other, the failure to see the other as a human being, equal in dignity and rights as oneself. In the eyes of many observers, however, the atrocities and crimes against humanity committed by Hamas in its attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7 and by Israel in its war in Gaza have demonstrated a total disregard not only for international humanitarian law and human rights but also for basic humanity—and the killing of so many children. As a church leader, what do you say to all this?

It is precisely the dehumanization of those on opposite sides of this conflict that generates the injustices and atrocities that we are witnessing. In this, we can profit from the profound reflections of Pope Francis in “Fratelli Tutti” about the dynamic of dehumanization that lies at the heart of war and is the engine of war. The unthinkable becomes not only acceptable but required in a culture of war precisely because we come to believe that our enemy has sacrificed any claim to humane treatment as a result of what they have done.

In the Israeli-Gaza conflict, this dynamic has escalated to a much wider perspective of dehumanization because both the Hamas attack in October and the Israeli siege of Gaza reflect the position that the terrors of war can be justifiably visited upon entire civilian populations with impunity.

Catholic social teaching emphasizes the importance of justice in society and in relations between peoples. Pope Francis, like his predecessors, insists there can be no peace without justice. Independent observers recognize that failure to ensure justice for the Palestinians is at the root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Successive U.S. administrations, along with some European powers, have allowed a reality of injustice to continue in the Holy Land. Is there any reason to think that the U.S. administration will change direction?

It is my hope that during the reassessment of American policy in the Middle East, which is currently occurring within the larger culture of the United States, these questions of enduring injustice will become much more prominent. There is a continuing security dilemma that Israel faces because of its geography and the hostility of many of its neighbors; acts of terror against the people of Israel magnify this problem immensely.

But a piercing moral reality is that Israel is an occupying military power that has subjected the Palestinian people in the West Bank to a life of continual dehumanization and has erected barriers to a sustainable life for the people of Gaza. Moreover, the settlement policies of both Israel and the United States reflect the active and tacit recognition that occupation is turning into colonization. Settlers regularly terrorize Palestinian civilians and encroach upon their lands. Ministers at the highest levels of the Israeli government endorse the appropriation of the entire territory from the Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea in an expanded Israel that contradicts the most basic principles that led the United Nations to originally approve the creation of the state of Israel. Every pope since 1967 has condemned the Israeli occupation and the injustices it creates on a massive level, injustices that have grown with every passing decade.

The International Criminal Court was established to respond to war crimes or crimes against humanity, and recently its chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, asked the judges of the court to issue warrants of arrest for Hamas and Israeli leaders. His decision to charge Israeli leaders was strongly criticized by Israel, members of the U.S. Congress and President Biden. Mr. Khan responded to this criticism in an interview with The Times of London and said: “What this comes down to is, ‘Do we want to live in a world where law is applied equally or one where we close our eyes and turn away because of our allegiances?’”

What would the position of the U.S. bishops, or your own, be on this effort to ensure the respect of international humanitarian law and combat impunity?

This question of international law and the prosecution of war is a test of whether our nation truly believes in the consistent application of international moral norms, even toward our closest allies, even toward ourselves as a nation. It is also a test of whether our nation believes in the most fundamental tenets of the just war tradition that has informed Catholic teaching on war and peace for 1,500 years. One cannot look at the Israeli prosecution of the siege in Gaza, particularly its effective repudiation of the principles of proportionality and the roadblocks to humanitarian assistance it has created, and conclude that these actions do not contravene central elements of the law of warfare and Catholic teaching. To do otherwise is to promote a selective moral blindness that is fatal to the effort to build a just international order and one reflective of Catholic teaching on war and peace.

Since the start of this latest war in Gaza, there has been a rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia in the United States. How do you read this?

Both Islamophobia and antisemitism arise from the darkest corners of the human soul and American culture. They constitute declarations that certain parts of the community that is our nation are not truly part of us; they are enduringly alien. They are a palpable denial that we are truly and equally the children of God.

As a Catholic leader, I must acknowledge with particular pain the history of antisemitism in the life of our church. The Jewish community, who, as the Second Vatican Council said, are our elder brothers in faith, has continually been the object of hatred, exclusion and condemnation within Christian culture and within global culture. Now in these days of warfare in the Middle East, the tropes and themes of antisemitism have become more pronounced. It falls to us to repudiate them unequivocally wherever they are found.

One of the very difficult products of American conversation and debate during the last six months has been the issue of precisely when criticism of the actions of the state of Israel becomes antisemitic. This is a wrenching issue precisely because the existence and well-being of the state of Israel is so heavily and legitimately woven into the religious and cultural identity of the Jewish community. It is wrenching also because we cannot erect a notion of antisemitism that effectively bars or undermines substantive criticism—even searing and strident criticism—of the actions of the state of Israel; to do that would be to confer a status of moral immunity upon Israel that should not be conferred on any nation.

Alongside antisemitism, we have seen a virulent growth of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian hatred within our culture. The Muslim community is continually the object of religious animosity, caricature and exclusion. There is a profound and dangerous reservoir of prejudice against Muslim culture and people that surfaces in public conversation and political action designed to portray an enormous threat to the American way of life in the practices and aspirations of those who follow Islam. The current conflict in Gaza has heightened these hatreds and caricatures and created new threats for members of the Muslim community within our nation. This cannot be tolerated.

Since Oct. 8, Pope Francis has repeatedly called for three things: a cease-fire, the release of the hostages held by Hamas and other groups, and the provision of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians in Gaza. You share the pope’s view, as is clear from the letter you signed  with other Catholics. But what do you say to people like Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and those in the United States who insist that there can be no end to the war until Hamas is totally eliminated?

It is common in the culture of war for nations to focus on a single goal, often retributive, in their efforts to rally support and justify morally illegitimate actions. The defining goal of destroying Hamas to which Prime Minister Netanyahu has continually appealed is just such a single-minded objective, which has become a trap for Israeli policy.

The problem with single-minded retributive goals in war is that they crowd out more important goals that should be informing national policy. As a result, the effort to destroy Hamas has generated a whole new generation of Palestinians who will hate Israel irrevocably because of the injustices that they have experienced directly. A profound and expansive international movement toward the isolation of Israel has been generated, one that will not subside when this war is over.

The single-minded goal that Israel and the United States should be focused on is not the destruction of Hamas but the creation of the grounds for building a more permanent peace in collaboration with other parties in the region.

Given that the United States is the main supporter of Israel and provides it with vast political, diplomatic, financial and military assistance, do you think the Catholic Church in the United States should take a more prophetic stance and make a greater effort to persuade the Biden administration and Congress to pursue a policy that recognizes the rights and suffering not only of the Israelis but also of the Palestinians, to push for an end to the war in Gaza and to promote a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land?

I do believe that the Catholic community as a whole, and the American bishops in particular, can and should be more vigorous advocates for the challenging call that Pope Francis is making to all parties in the Middle East. The simple fact is that the United States is Israel’s armory. With that role comes enormous moral responsibility, a responsibility that our nation has not faced amid the horrific bombing of Gaza, which uses our weapons to indiscriminately kill women and children in the tens of thousands.

Our church should reiterate and amplify the statement that the bishops have already issued for an immediate cease-fire now with the return of all hostages. We should demand humanitarian assistance without obstacles and roadblocks. And we should put continuous pressure on our government to move aggressively to confront the injustices inherent in the illegitimate Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

For more than three millennia, God has marked out Israel and Palestine as a sacred place of faith and presence. As a church and as a nation, we must help to build peace together in this Holy Land.

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