Contra Christiansen & Aldajani, Part II

Yesterday, I began examining the recent articles by Fr. Drew Christiansen, S.J. and Ra’fat Aldajani regarding the situation in the Middle East. Today, I conclude my rebuttal.

A recent article by these two authors criticized Israeli settlement policy and the specific policy of what they call “home invasion.” Again, the policies they criticize may or may not deserve criticism and assessment but they also require context. At the end of last year, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered an illegal Jewish settlement in the West Bank destroyed. Can Christiansen and Aldajani point to a single Arab country with an independent judiciary capable of reaching such a conclusion? Democracies do not always produce happy results. Nixon won twice. Courts do not always do the right thing. The current political landscape in Israel makes it possible for right wing parties to exercise greater influence than I would like. But, democracies also contain within themselves the capacity for self-reform. Divergent voices may not be able to win an election but they can shape the debate and, over time, produce different and even better policies. In which nations that border Israel do we see anything resembling rule of law, a free press, truly free elections and responsible government? This does not excuse the Israeli government when it pursues an objectionable policy, anymore than American democracy excuses some of the horrible things our government has done. But, repeatedly, Christiansen and Aldajani fail to note the different political culture in Israel from those which exist in her neighborhood, and those differences should incline anyone with humane sensibilities to recognize in Israel’s democracy a kindred spirit, even when the government does something we find repulsive. I pose a direct question to Christiansen and Aldajani makes the point: Do they think peace is more likely if the political culture of the Palestinians were to become more like the political culture of Israel, or the other way round? The question answers itself.

Last year’s conflict in Gaza was heart-wrenching. Only a heart of stone was unmoved by the sufferings of the people in Gaza. But, nowhere in Christiansen’s and Aldajani’s articles do they place any responsibility for the suffering on Hamas. It is all Israel’s fault, all the time. What country would stand by and not respond while a hostile neighbor lobs missiles across the border? It is well known that the Israeli Defense Forces warn the civilian populations before they retaliate and equally well known that Hamas tells the people to stay put. This should not surprise. In many years of examining the deeds of political actors I have found that a pretty reliable means of grasping the heart of a situation is to ask which party benefits from a given result. Does Israel gain any benefit from civilian deaths in Gaza? Obviously not. Does Hamas? Obviously so. Yet this kind of basic analysis, a kind of Politics 101, evades Christiansen and Aldajani. Instead, in a recent article they complained that about the “flagrant demonstration of Israel's disregard for civilian immunity in wartime.”

But the most egregious column from Christiansen and Aldajani was entitled “Ways to advance the Palestinian cause.” They assert that the Palestinians have inhabited the land “since time immemorial” and provide a link to Wikipedia. Really? Wikipedia? I do not think it is much use getting into the historicity of land deeds, but as Christiansen well knows, the Jews were dispossessed of their land two millennia ago, and it included the West Bank. The fact that the land belonged to someone else sixty or six hundred or two thousand years ago is of only partial significance to resolving demographic realities today. (No one discusses returning Poland or Germany to its pre-war frontiers.) They write that one of the reasons the Palestinian cause is not more widely espoused in the US is: “People don't know the story of Jewish dispossession of Palestinians even prior to the establishment of the state of Israel, but they do know the stories of the Holocaust, Israeli wars against hostile Arab neighbors, and the American alliance with Israel.” There is quite a bit of history, recent history, left out of that sentence, no? For example, while it is true that many Arabs who once lived in what is now Israel were “dispossessed,” it is also true that since the war of Independence, many of the Jews moving to Israel came from Arab countries where they had lived for centuries but were “dispossessed” in the 1950s. That is in addition to the Jews who fled Europe where, obviously, anti-Semitism reached its zenith but where it is not yet run its course. This is all tragic, but it is what happens in human history: As a result of political conflicts and wars, people re-locate. In all their articles, not once do Christiansen and Aldajani point out that the Palestinians are the only people in the world whom the UN Refuge agencies do not encourage them to re-settle. There is a closer cause of the on-going trouble than anything Bibi Netanyahu did or does.

But, let’s not get into the tit-for-tat about which land should belong to whom. Let’s ask a more basic question: Just what is this “Palestinian cause” Christiansen and Aldajani wish us to embrace? Is it the cause of Hamas, which wants to eliminate Israel? Is it the cause of Fatah, which wishes first and always to line the pockets of its officials and then, as needed, blame Israel for the discontents of its people? I hope the Palestinian cause will find political leaders who will not use human shields for its armaments by placing rocket launchers in hospitals. I hope and pray that the Palestinian people in Gaza will create a political leadership that does not instruct them to stay put after the Israeli Defense Force alerts them to possible airstrikes. I hope that the Palestinian cause will find the kind of leadership that can strike a deal and make peace, the way Sadat made peace, the way King Hussein made peace. It can be done and the reasons it has not been done cannot all be laid at the feet of the Israeli government.

Christiansen spreads his biased attacks on Israel around. In September, he reviewed a book at America, the Jesuit magazine he formerly edited. Again, the review demonstrated nothing so much as how much he does not know about Israel today and yesterday. It provoked a response from four professors at Santa Clara University (you will need to scroll down), in which they stated:

Father Christiansen’s own sympathy seems distinctly lacking. After stating that the creation of Israel was “not the outcome of the Holocaust,” he goes on to dismiss the actual historical roots of Zionism in Europe’s longstanding, virulent anti-Semitism. Father Christiansen sums up the latter with a cavalier line: “Assimilation in European society had proved a failure for Jews.” In the absence of historical knowledge, one might almost wonder whether the Jews just didn’t try hard enough. Similarly, Father Christiansen focuses on the discrimination faced by Mizrahi Jews in Israel, certainly a dark chapter in Israeli history. But perhaps he should compare that to the experiences of minorities in the Arab countries where the Mizrahi Jews came from.

It is that lack of context and proportion that makes Father Christiansen’s review so egregious. We object to the false, distorted image of Israel portrayed in this article and its underlying questioning of Israel’s right to exist.

I wish to associate myself with these remarks which exactly capture my sentiments.

I add one final piece of evidence to my charge that his bias is total. Fr. Christiansen was full of praise for the Goldstone Report, the UN study which was highly critical of Israel, but I have searched long and hard and find no evidence that Christiansen ever modified that praise after Richard Goldstone himself admitted the grave errors in his report. It cost Goldstone a great deal to admit those errors. What would it have cost Christiansen to acknowledge them?

It is one thing to be wrong, as Christiansen and Aldajani are repeatedly. But, their biased articles are also dangerous. I do not know Aldajani. I do know Fr. Christiansen. I can assert with one thousand percent certainty that he is not an anti-Semite. Full Stop. Repeat. Fr. Christiansen is in no ways an anti-Semite. Reading his articles here at NCR, however, I am reminded of the adage that the Devil has purposes for the good-hearted too. One need not be an anti-Semite to write something that is useful to anti-Semites, and blaming Jews – and only Jews – for complicated problems is a classic anti-Semitic trope. The catalogue of mistakes and misrepresentations and misunderstood history and completely missing political context that Christiansen and Aldajani claim is analysis, these could be put to good use by an anti-Semite. Criticizing Israeli policies is one thing, and a necessary thing. But, the complete failure to evidence any sympathy with Israeli concerns for the security of its citizenry is a different thing and an ugly thing.

I do not expect all Catholics, or others, to share my Zionist sensibilities. I am aware that there are competing narratives for the sources of conflict in the Mideast. But, as I have written before, I do believe that Christians have a special burden when addressing issues that pertain to Jews and Judaism, the responsibility of recognizing that there is a moral authority to Jewish alarm. Christiansen is smart enough to know that almost no hatred so persistently stains the history of Catholicism as the hatred of the Jews. He knows about the pogroms. He knows about Edgardo Mortara. He knows about the Spanish Inquisition. He knows that before there were Islamicist extremists killing Jews at a kosher market in Paris, there was the collaboration of the Church during Vichy, and before Petain there was Dreyfus, and before Dreyfus there were ghettoes and expulsions, crimes all committed by Catholics. With such a history, and so much obvious hatred of the Jews among the peoples who live in the neighborhood of Israel and elsewhere, these biased writings throw fuel on the flames, distort the issues, and finally indict only the authors. Whatever else their essays are, they are not conducive to building a more peaceful or hopeful future for the Palestinians.




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