Photograph by Rev. Michael Woolf
The conflict in Israel and Palestine is complicated, but seeing who has power is not
Rev. Michael Woolf
May 21, 2021
“It’s complicated,” is perhaps the most used turn of phrase employed by moral leaders when confronted with the question of how to think about the conflict currently raging in Israel and Palestine. Without a doubt, this statement is true, and the Bible in many ways is a part of that complexity. However, if we are not careful such statements can be used evasively to avoid risking having an opinion or speaking about a moral issue of importance in the church today.
When I visited Israel as part of a clergy trip in 2018 sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, I spoke to many people about the complexity of the situation. Scholars, journalists, religious Palestinians, and Jews alike, and peace activists—all were quick to tell me how complicated it was, even if they had themselves come to a judgment about the situation. For me, visiting the border wall at Gaza showed me one thing—the situation is indeed complicated, but one side has power—the power to restrict movement, enforce laws, settle territory occupied by others. Israel’s power is indisputable, and the border wall topped with additional fencing to prevent climbing was like a monument to that power.
As we pray for peace in Israel and Palestine, as many churches are currently doing, that does not mean sitting in the middle and avoiding making moral judgements. Hanging in my office is a poster with quote from Paulo Freire that reads, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” I carry that moral vision with me into the pulpit, where analysis of who has power and who doesn’t have to be central. That is a faithful decision, as my Christian faith is grounded in a God who sides with the powerless, whose vision is for flourishing for all, who demands justice as a precondition for peace.
To say that Israel has power in this case means that they also have power to make peace, if they so wish it. My most ardent prayer is that they use that power to do so. Israelis deserve to live in peace and prosperity, as do Palestinians. The broadening humanitarian crisis in Gaza is a disaster that can be stopped, and it is part of my faith to demand that it be stopped. Of course, Israel is not the only country with power here—the United States also has diplomatic power as a close ally of Israel, and the United States must be urged by its own citizens to demand an end to this conflict.
As we pray for peace in Israel and Palestine, as many churches are currently doing, that does not mean sitting in the middle and avoiding making moral judgements.
It is important to note that risking preaching about Palestine should also include a warning to those who would use this occasion to ask American Jews to make a statement about what is going on in Israel and Palestine. Such occasions are often antisemitic—American Jews are American, and anything that places them outside of our national community ought to be decried.
Many will feel ill qualified to preach about the current conflict. That is certainly a feeling I had as I preached this past Sunday at my church. However, that feeling of discomfort often has less to do with a lack of understanding or qualification. In my experience, that discomfort is often a lack of ease at taking risks. Doubtless, there are many opinions in each church about the situation, but clergy and moral leaders are called on to take stands that are rooted in their faith. Otherwise, what is the point of church?
Church is where we ought to come to hear the truth, however complicated it is. For me, that truth is linked to the fight for racial justice in the United States, and to recognizing the settler colonialism and genocide of Native Americans at the heart of this country’s founding. Such truths are complicated; they often make us uncomfortable. But preachers and leaders across this country should delve into those truths, nonetheless. The conflict in Israel and Palestine is complicated, but who has power in this situation is not.
The Rev. Michael Woolf is senior minister, Lake Street Church of Evanston, Illinois and a ThD candidate at Harvard University.