Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 6 February 2011

6 February 2011 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence

Psalm 122 exhorts us to ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’, so I was very pleased last month to take part in a visit by a group of mainly Anglican clergy under the leadership of the Chairman of the Council of Christians and Jews not only to Jerusalem but to Israel and parts of the West Bank under Palestinian control as well. The hope was that we would get some sort of understanding of what must be one of the longest and most destabilising conflicts in our world, and in just seven days we were able to meet and question two former Foreign Secretaries, one of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and one of Israel in Jerusalem, the spokesperson for the Government of Israel who is often seen on television in this country and no doubt elsewhere in the world, a very respected  independent journalist from one of the major newspapers in Israel, and to visit some of the places that are critical to that conflict. For example we entered the only crossing point between Israel and Gaza where goods from either side can be moved, we visited the town of S’derot where most Hamas rockets from Gaza have been directed, and a similar Israeli town that came under regular rocket attack from Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon a few years ago. And, by the river Jordan, we met the officer from the Israeli Defence Forces who is responsible for keeping the peace in the Jericho area of the West Bank, in fact one of the more peaceful parts of that land of conflict. 

Now any reflections I offer on that visit should come with a health warning. Nearly 40 years ago now I met the last Finance Minister of the British Raj in India, and he told me that after he had been in India a week he thought he should write a book about it, after a month he thought he might be able to write an article about it, but after a year he realised that the country was too complicated for him to write anything about it. I have been to Israel twice before, but the last time was nineteen years ago, and it would be very foolish of me to offer anything than some necessarily superficial reflections.

One thing, though, that I think struck our entire group is that we met two peoples in the Israelis and the Palestinians with almost entirely different narratives about their common history, and in various ways each sees themselves as the victim of the other. That the Palestinians should consider themselves victims is not surprising after the recent conflict in Gaza. Although the 10,000 of so rockets that were directed into Israel from Gaza over some years only killed 28 people obviously no democratic government could ignore that, nor the killings that happened all too often through Hamas sponsored suicide bombers in Israeli cities. But it is not just Palestinians who might feel that the Israeli military response to that in Gaza, and indeed to what happened a few years earlier in South Lebanon, and the creation of the security walls that have been built through much of the West Bank and the consequent disruption of normal life for many Palestinians is disproportionate to the attacks that provoked that action. Of course the Israeli Government’s  line is that it is the first duty of every government to maintain security for its people, and that it is very difficult to deal with an enemy that is ruthlessly prepared to use the civilian population as a shield, and there is some force in that justification. But even in terms of civilian causalities we are not dealing with an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but many Palestinian eyes and teeth for an Israeli eye or tooth, and the proportionality of the response is, I believe, a genuine issue, as, indeed, the Israeli Government spokesperson acknowledged, although of course he also said why he thought his government’s actions were necessary. But Palestinian sense of victim hood goes back much earlier than recent events to the very creation of the State of Israel and the displacement of thousands of Palestinians from their homes at the time, and we certainly saw evidence of the bitterness and intransigence that had created in the minds of some Palestinians. 

But then in their way the Israelis see themselves if not as victims at least as people as much sinned against as sinning. They point out, with justification, that they are surrounded by countries with nothing like their democratic system nor their free press, and they believe they are an example of values that many western nations live by and that they therefore deserves the west’s support – they said that to us, of course, before the recent troubles in Egypt had started. They also feel that they have offered all sorts of deals to the Palestinian people that have simply been rejected out of hand. And there are, of course, large numbers of Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship, who live in peace in Arab towns in Israel, and who have every right to vote in Israeli elections, although it seems only a very small proportion of them do exercise that right. A few years ago an offer was made to many of the Palestinians in the West Bank that they could have Israeli citizenship, but no one accepted the offer. And, more recently, it was pointed out to us that Israel had voluntarily withdrawn from two areas to make way for peace, from Southern Lebanon and from Gaza, but since they had withdrawn their civilian population had come under rocket attack from those very same areas. And of course in thinking of the Jewish people as victims one cannot forget the Holocaust. The exhibition centre about that in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem is a hugely powerful reminder of just how terrible that period under the Nazi regime in Germany was for the Jewish people. When we asked one leading Israeli what effect he thought that experience had on Jewish Israeli attitudes now he said that it meant that when people like the President of Iran talk of destroying the State of Israel they do take the threat very seriously. Who can blame them given their history? 

Two groups with very different narratives about their history makes for a hugely difficult task of reconciliation and outsiders oversimplifying the narrative will not help at all. For Christian visitors to Israel it is also complicated by a third group, the small Christian population, mainly Arab, who have felt themselves under pressure from their Moslem neighbours and have been seeking to leave the country in significant numbers. Looking at the situation as a whole it is difficult not to conclude that some sort of peace and reconciliation process as happened in South Africa will need to be part of any lasting peace, although managing that would be an immensely complex and very lengthy task, and it is difficult to see anyone with the widely accepted moral authority Archbishop Tutu had in South Africa to lead such a process in Israel.

But although the situation is very fraught, we did find some grounds for hope. We certainly met Israelis who very much want better relations with their Arab neighbours, and no less a person that Nabil Sha’at, the former Foreign Secretary of the Fatah Palestinian Authority in Ramallah said to us that he thought the attitude of some young Israelis whom he met was where he found hope in the future, because they really wanted peace with their Palestinian neighbours. That, I think, coming from him was a telling remark.

Then one other place for hope came from what many would consider an unlikely source. Many Israelis think religion is a problem, and many secularised Jewish people are particularly critical of the ultra-Orthodox in their own community, whom they see as a barrier to peace.  But in Jerusalem we had dinner with an Orthodox rabbi who was the leader of a small political party in Israel, and who was therefore drawn into an Israeli Government through the complex pattern of almost all governments there being coalitions, and it was he who was for some time Foreign Secretary of Israel. At the same dinner there was a friend of his who is a Moslem Sheikh and a respected Council member of the Islamic Movement, and they are together working with their religious communities to see if they can agree on religious grounds on what should be the basis of a two state solution. They have set themselves two years from last September to achieve something, which they hope might kick start a further search for peace on that basis. Goodness knows whether they will be successful, but the very fact that Moslem and Jewish leaders are trying to achieve something like that is, we all believed, hopeful.

But personally one other person I found as a ground for hope was the director of the crossing point between Israel and Gaza. He has been a Jewish settler in Gaza, where he had run a restaurant, but had been forced out by the Israeli government under Sharon when they enforced a Jewish withdrawal from the Gaza strip. The director now lives in a Jewish refugee camp just on the Israeli side of the border. He said he liked and respected the Gaza people, although he did not like the Hamas Government under which they now lived, and he was doing what he did because of his humanitarian concern for those people. What he is doing is dangerous, the crossing point does come under rocket attack and they have had one apparently sick person asking to be taken into Israel, but once inside the compound they found he was a suicide bomber who blew himself up. But what was impressive about the director was his clear moral motivation to do whatever good he can, despite the risks. As long as there are ordinary people like that behaving on the basis of such morality, and I believe they exist on both sides of the divide, while we should certainly not be naïvely optimistic about the process, we can, I believe, have some hope as we continue to listen to the words of Psalm 122. 

‘O pray for the peace of Jerusalem, 
May they prosper who love thee. 
Peace be within thy walls, 
and tranquillity within thy palaces.’ 

May that apply to all who live there, Israeli and Palestinian, Jew, Moslem and Christian.

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