Israel, Gaza, and ethical nuance

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A fragile peace fire holds this morning, but political support for Bibi Netanyahu’s actions against the Palestinian Hamas military actions and control over Gaza is one of the few issues these days that seems to cross party lines. At least there are multiple views within the Democratic Party, and there are clearly neo-Nazi elements among Trump supporters who hold Israel in low regard.

Any discussion of anti-Semitism can be dancing around land mines, but let me suggest that these two things are simultaneously true:

  1. A lot of really bad people want to see the nation of Israel wiped off the Earth.
  2. Millions of faithful and loyal Israelis and non-Israeli Jews oppose the administration of Benjamin Netanyahu, especially on his handling of human rights issues targeted at Palestinians. These millions of people are not, by definition, anti-Semitic.

Meanwhile, those of us who are not Jewish are a bit stuck. Many of the most vocal defenders of the current Israeli government are America’s worst quasi-religious hacks and fraudsters. But it is difficult to criticize these clowns without stepping on one of those anti-Semitic “land mines.”

Let me suggest that addressing this conflict of realities requires an understanding of ethical nuance.  The idea of nuance in ethical discussion is that the “swinging sledgehammer” approach often taken by dedicated advocates of one particular ethical position is rarely productive when, as I like to say, “good people disagree.” In this case, some advocates on one side immediately jump to condemnation of Israel on just about every policy decision. On the other side, any opposition to the corrupt and authoritarian Netanyahu is too-often tagged as anti-Semitic. Neither position is at all helpful in resolving a very complex ethical dilemma; indeed, both positions are counterproductive.

I wrote in 2018 about how I was taught the need for ethical nuance in discussing abortion with a group of feminist nuns in the early 1990s. Their position was that, while being firmly for a “consistent ethic of life,” they asserted that the blindly anti-female church leadership, steeped in a tradition filled with ignorance of both the science and the sociology of sexuality, took actions on this topic that resulted in more abortions, not fewer. In short, you cannot reduce the number of abortions by punishing the sexuality of poor and minority females, for instance by denying birth control, while turning a blind eye to the male role and the impact of moneyed privilege in the process.

In the case of Israel, the ethical nuance comes in trying to balance a view of all humanity as “people of worth” with the reality that recurring Palestinian violence, harsh Muslim rhetoric, and Israeli crackdowns have only made the conflict worse. Israel has clearly lost a lot of its Western support in recent years. Some of that is due to overt anti-Semitism but much of it is due to the frustration of sympathetic and risk-taking political leaders whose mediation efforts have consistently failed. Still a third reason, especially in the U.S., is the capitulation of political leaders to the moneyed interests of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States.

The theology of the “End Times”

Coming from a Christian background, I need to personally face up to the fact that a lot of traditional Christian theology did drive and still drives anti-Semitism around the world. Even while many Fundamentalist Christian leaders vocally “stand with” the leaders of the Israeli government as they exert a very heavy hand against both Palestinians and their Israeli defenders, these same Israeli leaders know, actually better than most Americans, the ugly theology behind that stance.

To many Christian Fundamentalists, the imminent (in their belief) return of Jesus to Earth will usher in the “End Times” prophesied by writers in both the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian New Testament. The New York Times, in describing Baptist leader Robert Jeffress’ 2018 prayer at the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, got the theology wrong, although not by much. The Times headline described Reverend Jeffress as the “pastor who said Jews are going to Hell.” It would be more accurate to say that his Fundamentalist theology sees the formation of the state of Israel as divine preparation for that return of Jesus. This is “the final chance,” they believe, for Jews to “accept the Christ as Savior” before all non-believers are left behind to suffer an eternal fate outside of Heaven. These Christians “just really love you,” they will say, and they do not want you to suffer endless torment in the Bad Place.

I will risk here the fires of Eternity to state categorically that this view is bunk. But it is clearly sourced in my own Christian tradition, and that “immanent return” is still preached to millions of Christians every Sunday. So, what does it say that Bibi Netanyahu, who knows full well this end-times theology of Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham, and Mike Huckabee, continues to court their support? He clearly does not believe the religious tenets of his political friends, but he exploits them anyway to truss up his own political power. These American religious leaders are the “useful idiots” whose billions of dollars of aid continue to fan the flames in the Middle East.

Expecting Gaza to rid itself of Hamas

The United States is in the middle of its own flirtation with autocracy, and so we have lost some moral high ground in standing against anti-democratic forces in the Israeli government. But this American anti-vote surge being played out in dozens of Republican-controlled state legislatures as we speak is, in my view, key to understanding a “nuanced” rejection of deadly and unbalanced violence in response to rockets from Gaza.

A massive, seven-million-vote electoral advantage by supporters of President Biden in the 2020 election, and dozens of supporting court cases decided by Trump-selected judges, has not been enough to quiet the cultist supporters of Donald Trump who want to un-do that election, even to the point of provoking, and now excusing, a violent attempt to overthrow Congress on January 6.

Likewise, “thoughts and prayers” after every mass shooting at schools and public events in the last decade have not been enough to stem the scourge of high-lethality weapons in the United States. It is no coincidence that these same Trump supporters are the major blockers of effective controls over this violence.

My point here is that the two million Palestinians gingerly walking the streets Gaza (one of the most crowded cities in the world), have about as much control over Hamas terrorists as I do over the ignorant American clowns who won’t even get vaccinated to restore basic public health, let alone act against the gun nuts and Neo-fascists in their ranks. Bombing Gazan civilians for their failure to control Hamas is like burning down my house because my neighbor is a QAnon crazy.

The unintended consequence of Adolf Hitler’s Holocaust during World War II was the creation of a permanently fragile partition of a land containing numerous ancient hostilities. Millions of Israelis have benefited from living in a new land of promise. But millions of Palestinians have become pawns for perhaps the ugliest of endless and internecine destruction of a people and a culture in the world today.

The only wrong answer here is thinking that there is an easy answer. And that is ethical nuance.


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