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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)

We are U.S. Catholics with strong ties to the Holy Land. Over the last several months, we have watched in sadness and horror the surge in violence in Israel-Palestine. One of us has Jewish Israeli family and initially came to Middle East peacebuilding work after a college semester in East Jerusalem, where she studied with a Palestinian Catholic professor and volunteered in the West Bank. The other of us focuses on Muslim-Christian relations and traveled to Israel-Palestine while living in the neighboring country of Jordan, where she came to know those in the Palestinian refugee community there, including Catholics.

It is not just our relationships with the people of the Holy Land and our time spent there that have ignited in us a concern for the situation in Israel-Palestine today. Our Catholic faith motivates and guides us, too. We both serve on the Catholic Advisory Council of an organization called Churches for Middle East Peace. Along with other Catholic groups, we recently organized and released a national Catholic sign-on letter on Israel-Palestine, which so far has garnered signatures from over 5,000 U.S. Catholics—bishops and clergy, women religious, laypeople, academics and activists. They include Cardinal Robert McElroy; the Rev. Bryan Massingale; Simone Campbell, S.S.S.; Hosffman Ospino; Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J.; M. Shawn Copeland; Chris Kerr of the Ignatian Solidarity Network; Gloria Purvis; Francis Clooney, S.J.; and over a dozen other Jesuits. 

In writing the letter, one important resource we drew on was Catholic social teaching. Catholics have applied the principles of C.S.T. to many contemporary challenges, including racism, immigration, economic injustice, environmental degradation and more. The principles of C.S.T. allow us to look at the situation in Israel-Palestine through the lens of our faith, and help us work toward a future in the Holy Land marked by justice and peace for all.

Life and dignity

The basis of C.S.T. is the inherent dignity of all persons and their right to life. This principle reminds us that each and every person, Palestinian and Israeli, is created in God’s image and likeness, and is thus deserving of life, safety and basic rights. Over the last several months, thousands of these precious lives have been shattered. On Oct. 7, nearly 1,200 people in Israel were killed in Hamas’s brutal attack; 240 more were taken hostage. As of this writing, at least 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in the months since by Israel’s unprecedented military assault in Gaza. Due to Israel’s widespread bombing, whole family lines have been decimated and tens of thousands injured, and the majority of Gaza’s two million residents are now displaced, lacking basic necessities like food, medical care, education and adequate shelter

In the face of these infringements on human life and dignity—which amount to war crimes on the part of both Israel and Hamas—Catholic leaders have, for months, been calling for an immediate and permanent cease-fire, the release of hostages, and robust humanitarian aid to Gaza. This call has been voiced by Pope Francis, major Catholic orders and institutions, and the swath of American Catholic leaders and laypeople who signed our open letter. Recognizing the U.S. government’s complicity in the ongoing violence through providing weapons to Israel, many American Catholics are also urging political leaders, including fellow Catholic President Joe Biden, to condition or halt additional offensive military aid to Israel, in adherence to human rights norms and U.S. law

This commitment to the inherent dignity of all persons and their right to life also urges us to be attentive to the ways that people in the Holy Land are suffering beyond the headlines and statistics. Human dignity is not just about life or death, but about living well. Recently, Churches for Middle East Peace hosted a webinar on the humanitarian and health realities in Gaza and the West Bank. Bill O’Keefe, an executive vice president at Catholic Relief Services, spoke about two Gazan women who work for C.R.S. and were breastfeeding: “They and their children were living in an apartment with 20 other women and children. The men of the family were living out on the street. They were sharing one bucket of water between the 20 people, and a lactating woman had eight ounces a day allocated to her, which is not enough…” 

At the same time in Israel, the society is still reeling from last year’s surprise attack by Hamas, waiting in anguish for those kidnapped to be returned dead or alive, fearing continuing rockets overhead, and anxious about the possibilities of further regional escalation. 

As mothers, we both are also especially concerned about how the present trauma will have lasting effects on the children of both Palestine and Israel.

Preferential option for the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed

Catholic social teaching’s commitment to the inherent dignity of all persons and their right to life encourages us to be attentive to those who are most vulnerable, and to make assisting and accompanying them in their struggles a primary concern. Both Israelis and Palestinians suffer tremendously in the Holy Land—the two communities have experienced great trauma and violence. Still, the Palestinian loss of life is much higher, and they bear the brunt of an unequal system, which amounts to structural violence and discrimination.  

In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Palestinians live under Israeli military occupation with only pockets of Palestinian civil or security control; as a stateless population, they are denied many basic rights. When we each have visited the West Bank, we saw firsthand how the Israeli occupation hinders a dignified life for many Palestinians. In Bethlehem, the place of Jesus’ birth, a large concrete separation barrier and numerous illegal settlements choke off this city from its historic connection to Jerusalem. We have seen Palestinian parents guiding their children through Israeli military checkpoints that stymie freedom of movement, hinder economic stability and cut off access to education and medical care. In the Palestinian territory of Gaza, both before and during the recent assault, an Israeli blockade by land, air and sea has meant that the entry and exit of people and goods is very limited. 

Acknowledging these realities and advocating for Palestinian rights is wholly consistent with a commitment to ensuring the rights, safety and dignity of Jewish Israelis. Catholics have a responsibility to hold these commitments together. As we learned from the late Drew Christiansen, S.J., a former editor in chief of America, this is possible by invoking universal human rights and promoting international law, which provides “a guarantee of equity” and “helps rectify the imbalance of power between the actors.” 

Upholding the preferential option for the poor is not about “taking sides” but ultimately is about caring for the most vulnerable, identifying root causes of violence and injustice, and working toward solutions that benefit all. This connects to the notion of the “common good”—working toward a reality where social conditions facilitate human flourishing for all, not just some.

Commitment to the common good

Catholic social teaching also reminds us not to prioritize the needs of our own group over those of others. Certainly, as Christians, we should be attentive to the plight of those who share our faith. In the Holy Land, most Christians are Palestinian, hailing from Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant traditions. Palestinian Christians leaders have asked American Christians to pay more attention to their experiences. 

At the same time, our faith compels us to have the same care for Muslims and Jews that we do for fellow Christians. We are called to defend the rights and dignity of all who suffer in Israel-Palestine, regardless of their religion, ethnicity or nationality. A commitment to the common good helps us envision and support a political solution that would provide freedom, equality, safety and rights to Palestinians and Israelis alike.

Such a commitment also requires us to attend to the unique identities and narratives of both peoples, and to understand the history they carry with them. For Palestinians, the mass displacement occurring in Gaza today is experienced as a continuation of the Nakba—the “catastrophe,” in Arabic—when 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes and made refugees when the state of Israel was established in 1948. For Jewish Israelis, the nature of the Hamas attack on southern Israel, with families hiding in their homes, conjured up memories of the Holocaust and fears rooted in historic persecution, to which the church contributed. 

Discrimination based on religion and ethnicity also hampers the common good. Back home in the United States, antisemitism, Islamophobia and anti-Arab bigotry must be opposed; these ideologies are an affront to the image of God in each person and are inimical to any hopes for justice or peace. Some in our Christian communities have wrongly labeled all Palestinians and Muslims as terrorists, or have wrongly blamed all Jews and Israelis for the actions of the Israeli government. This collective blaming is wrong, and has led to further violence. 

To give one just recent example, last October a 6-year-old Palestinian-American child, Wadea al-Fayoume, was killed by his Catholic landlord in Illinois because he was a Palestinian Muslim. We must be aware of and root out the problematic stereotypes and tropes about Muslims and  Jews that have often fueled Christian bigotry toward these groups.

As we stand firmly against collective blaming and stereotyping, we also recognize that criticism of Israel is not inherently antisemitic, and criticism of Hamas is not necessarily anti-Muslim. Charges of bigotry should never be used to silence genuine activism for human rights.

Solidarity and subsidiarity

The principle of solidarity—which entails accompanying others on the path to justice and peace—can inspire everything from large-scale political advocacy to quietly supporting impacted individuals. Catholics, other Christians, Jews, Muslims and people of conscience from all backgrounds have long collaborated to push for policies that would enable a better future in Israel-Palestine. In the current moment, they are holding prayer vigils, contacting their government officials, protesting and engaging in civil disobedience, and participating in boycotts. This cross-religious solidarity, which is occurring both in Israel-Palestine and around the world, rejects dehumanization and defies the wrong-headed perception that this is an intractable conflict between religions.

While solidarity often focuses on the big picture, the principle of subsidiarity encourages us to zoom in—to focus our efforts close to home and make changes in our own local communities. This means that our activism will look different depending on the context. It could entail hosting talks or teach-ins at our school or parish, holding a fundraiser and donating to aid groups, organizing vigils or public demonstrations, proactively addressing bigotry, or making sure that, when we go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, we don’t focus solely on the spiritual while ignoring the historical and present-day political injustices. 

The subsidiarity principle also reminds us to listen to those closest to the realities, so that we truly understand what is actually happening in a given situation. In the case of Israel-Palestine, we should learn from our fellow Christians and other Palestinian and Israeli peacemakers in the region, and then base our advocacy in their experiences and uplift their voices. 

Called to do our unique part

In hearing from Catholics across the country over the past few weeks—thousands of whom have added their name to the sign-on letter—we are heartened by their desire to act. Like us, they are pained by the continued devastation in Gaza and the failure to reach a ceasefire; they recognize that neither Palestinians nor Israelis are served by military approaches.  

 

Each of us has an important role to play, no matter how small. As Americans, we have a special responsibility to be informed and engaged, given that U.S. policy has too often failed to protect Palestinian lives. It can be tempting to turn away from distressing images, to shut off terrible news or to rush to heal tensions, but C.S.T. requires us to be present to painful realities. Israel-Palestine is not “too complex” or “too far away.” As Catholics, we are called to speak prophetically, and to push our leaders—especially those who share our faith—to act justly. 

Ultimately, it is up to each of us to prayerfully discern the individual contribution we can make. Guided by our faith and Catholic social teaching, we can do our part to support a just peace in Israel-Palestine.

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