OpinionIsrael at War

When neutrality is immoral

Israel, Hamas and the problem of moral equivalence.

Members of the clergy and the local catholic community attend a mass for the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, led by the Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem's Old City on Jan. 10, 2023. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Members of the clergy and the local catholic community attend a mass for the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, led by the Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem's Old City on Jan. 10, 2023. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
André Villeneuve
Andre Villeneuve
André Villeneuve is Associate Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. He is the author of "Divine Marriage from Eden to the End of Days" (2021), and the founder and director of Catholics for Israel.

Oct. 7, 2023: Another day that will live in infamy. Israel’s Pearl Harbor. Israel’s 9/11. The quiet Shabbat morning of Simchat Torah, concluding the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, suddenly turned into a bloodbath.

Under the cover of heavy rocket fire, thousands of Hamas terrorists attacked Israel’s southern communities and left behind them a path of carnage and devastation, ambushing army bases and motorists, murdering some 364 people at a music festival, slaughtering families in their beds, raping women, executing children and Holocaust survivors, burning civilians alive and kidnapping 244 people in Israel to Gaza. With at least 1,200 people murdered, it was the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust. The barbarity of the Hamas attack was so unprecedented that even the world was brutally—if briefly—jolted out of its usual apathy and left reeling in horror.

The outrage, however, was short-lived. As soon as Israel began its military response to Hamas’s act of war, pro-Palestinian demonstrations erupted across the world, many of them quickly turning into anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hate fests. Some even denied that the Oct. 7 slaughter had taken place, despite the many eyewitness stories of survivors.

Catholic reactions to the massacre and ensuing war have been mixed, ranging from courageous moral clarity to questionable moral ambiguity and bewildering silence. While some have supported Israel’s right to defend itself, others have opted for neutrality, judging it to be a more charitable, “Christian” stance not to take sides and equally condemn the loss of life on all sides. This posture of moral equivalence suggests that both parties in the conflict share equal blame and equivalent moral responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Intellectually, this is an easy path to take. But is it morally right?

One group that consistently resorts to moral equivalence is the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem. A brief look at their reactions to the crisis, along with responses from the Israeli Embassy to the Holy See, illustrates the problems with this position.

On the morning of Oct. 7, as the Hamas massacre was still unfolding, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem immediately released a statement laden with moral equivalence. Instead of unequivocally condemning the massacre, the Patriarchate asserted that the “cycle of violence that has killed numerous Palestinians and Israelis in the past months has exploded this morning.” The statement continued with the vague language of “sudden explosion of violence,” equivocating “the operation launched from Gaza and the reaction of the Israeli Army”—as if both sides were equally at fault. The “many casualties and tragedies” afflicting “both Palestinians and Israeli families,” the statement continued, would “create more hatred and division” and “destroy more and more any perspective of stability.”

That same afternoon, the Israeli Embassy to the Holy See released an initial statement which, though not directly addressed to the Patriarchate, sounded like a response to it. The Embassy warned that given the scope of the ongoing Hamas slaughter, “using linguistic ambiguity and terms that hint towards false symmetry should be deplored.” Israel’s response to Hamas’s “hideous war crime” was legitimate self-defense, and “drawing parallels where they don’t exist is not diplomatic pragmatism, it’s simply wrong.”

The Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem were undeterred. They released the next day a “Statement on Peace and Justice Amidst Unfolding Violence” that was just as morally ambiguous. This second statement said nothing about the Hamas murders. It lamented in the most generic terms that the Holy Land was “currently mired in violence and suffering due to the prolonged political conflict and the lamentable absence of justice and respect for human rights.”

Although the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches said that they “unequivocally condemn any acts that target civilians” they essentially suggested that Israel should not fret too much over its thousands of dead, wounded, raped and kidnapped, asking instead for “the cessation of all violent and military activities that bring harm to both Palestinian and Israeli civilians.” In other words, Israel should bear the brunt of the barbaric attacks and literally let Hamas get away with murder by immediately halting its military response. Never mind the fact that Hamas had unilaterally and brutally started the war by invading Israel and committing unprecedented crimes against an unsuspecting civilian population.

On Oct. 9, the Israeli Embassy to the Holy See responded. It lamented again the “immorality of using linguistic ambiguity” given the scope of the massacre, as it became clear that entire families had been “executed in cold blood” by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. While many the world over had the integrity to condemn “the hideous crime, naming its perpetrators and acknowledging Israel’s basic right to defend itself against the atrocity,” the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches were unable to muster such moral clarity. The Israeli Embassy found their statement “extremely disappointing and frustrating” because it demonstrated precisely the “immoral linguistic ambiguity” that blurred the lines about “what happened, who were the aggressors and who the victims.” The Embassy added that it was “especially unbelievable that such a sterile document was signed by people of faith.”

On Oct. 11, Pope Francis said somewhat more forthrightly that it is “the right of those who are attacked to defend themselves,” while adding that he was “very worried by the total siege in which Palestinians live in Gaza, where there have also been many innocent victims.”

But the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches doubled down on their moral equivalence, releasing on October 12 a “Statement on the Escalating Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza.” In this new statement, they lamented that their “beloved Holy Land” had “changed dramatically” due to a “new cycle of violence with an unjustifiable attack against all civilians.” The leaders nonetheless mostly deplored the “death and destruction in Gaza” and “disastrous humanitarian catastrophe,” which they attributed to the Gazan population being “deprived of electricity, water, fuel supplies, food, and medicine.” Again, the Church leaders called for a de-escalation of the war.

The Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See, Raphael Schutz, called the statement “disturbing” and replied at length with a review of the events. He reminded the Church leaders that:

“What actually happened was that the ‘circle of violence’ (typical false symmetry expression) started with an unprovoked criminal attack by Hamas + Islamic Jihad (the Patriarchs refrain from mentioning their names) murdering more then 1,300 Israelis and from other 35 nationalities mostly civilians. They also raped women, burned babies, beheaded people and took hostages. Simultaneously they launched … wide-range missile and rockets attacks against centres of civil population in Israel—cities, towns, villages, kibbutzim.”

The ambassador added that “Israel’s action in self-defense is aimed at Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Israel does not target civilians intentionally.”

It is well known that the IDF warns Palestinian civilians by means of leaflets, text messages and even phone calls to evacuate areas close to military targets before they are attacked. While the IDF goes out of its way to minimize civilian casualties, Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups do their utmost to maximize them — not only by indiscriminately murdering Israelis, but also by hiding among their own civilian population and using them as human shields, resulting in disproportionately high numbers of Palestinian casualties, caused— deliberately—by Hamas. In this light, continued the Israeli ambassador, the declaration of the Patriarchs could only be seen as “unfair, biased, and one-sided.”

As for the “death and destruction in Gaza,” the Patriarchs seemed to forget that “Gaza is the basis from which the genocidal attack against Israel was conceived, planed and executed.” Who, then, is responsible for the “death and destruction”? The ambassador questioned why the Patriarchs are so concerned about the “well-being of this nest of evil and terror,” but not about the devastated Israeli communities.

Indeed, according to the latest polls, a majority of the Palestinian public support Hamas’s “armed struggle” (terrorism) against Israel and the formation of armed groups to murder Israelis, a sad reality that casts doubt on the innocence of “ordinary Palestinians” in Gaza.

Regarding the humanitarian situation, the ambassador replied:

“Levels of food and water are monitored daily and are above the threshold defining ‘humanitarian crisis.’ There is also sufficient amount of fuel and electricity in the hands of Hamas but they prefer to use it to continue their terrorist criminal activities against Israel over helping the needs of the population they dominate.”

As it turns out, there is still plenty of water, food, fuel and medicine in Gaza.

Finally, the Israeli ambassador noted that the Patriarchs singled out only one side by name—Israel, making unreasonable demands of “the party that was viciously attacked.” Hamas is never mentioned, and one gets the impression that the Palestinians have done nothing wrong. He concluded: “What a shame, especially when this comes from people of God.”

Schutz’s efforts, unfortunately, again fell on deaf ears. On Oct. 24, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, released a “Letter to the entire diocese.” To his credit, he briefly stated (although still without naming the perpetrators) that “what happened on October 7th in southern Israel is in no way permissible, and we cannot but condemn it. There is no reason for such an atrocity.”

Yet Pizzaballa went at far greater lengths to condemn the loss of life and hardships that “this new cycle of violence has brought to Gaza,” adding that the “continuous heavy bombardment” on Gaza “will only cause more death and destruction and will only increase hatred and resentment.” For the Patriarch, it is “only by ending decades of occupation and its tragic consequences, as well as giving a clear and secure national perspective to the Palestinian people that a serious peace process can begin.”

So, there you have it: For the Patriarch, the root of the conflict is not Hamas’s indiscriminate slaughter of hundreds of families, including women, children and the elderly, but the “occupation.”

Leaving aside the blatant unfairness of these statements, one cannot but wonder: What solution exactly do the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches have in mind? Their statements raise several questions.

First, if the “occupation” is the problem, who has been occupying Gaza for the past 18 years?

Israel unilaterally evacuated all Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, turning it over—entirely and unconditionally—to the Palestinians in the hope that by ruling themselves they might finally seek to live peacefully with their neighbors. Several American millionaires even bought 3,000 greenhouses for $14 million and handed them over to the Gazans to give them a running start in building a “Singapore on the Mediterranean.” Within days, the greenhouses had been looted and destroyed.

The Palestinians, unfortunately for them and everyone else, proceeded to elect Hamas to power in their 2006 legislative elections. Following a bloody civil war with its rival Palestinian party Fatah, by June 2007 Hamas fully controlled the Gaza Strip. Since then, Israeli civilians in southern Israel, as well as Palestinians in Gaza, have been living in terror. A recent video shows a Gazan woman saying, “Those bastards at Hamas,” before a man quickly clamps his hand over her mouth. Meanwhile, Israel, roughly the size of New Jersey (8,500 square miles), has been targeted year after year by tens of thousands of deadly rocket attacks launched from the Gaza Strip. If there is an “occupation” problem in Gaza, the occupier is Hamas, not Israel.

Second, what should Israel do? Should it forget about its more than 1,200 dead and more than 4,800 wounded, and its over 240 kidnapped, accept an immediate ceasefire and return to business as usual—that is, brace themselves for the next Hamas attacks? Should it sit down at the negotiating table and talk with a jihadist enemy sworn to its annihilation? Or should it open up the Gaza border, give the Palestinians freedom to enter Israel and let them come and go as they please so they can carry out their declared plans to repeat the Oct. 7 attacks?

Third, why do the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches fixate on the “occupation” while consistently ignoring the terrifying incitement to violence that permeates Palestinian society, where children are taught from the youngest age to hate and kill Jews, and terrorists who do so are glorified and praised as “martyrs”?

The Patriarchs and Heads of Churches might reply that they cannot openly condemn Hamas and other Palestinian jihadist groups because such a condemnation would endanger the Palestinian Christians living among them. Fair enough. But this cannot be an excuse for falsifying the narrative of the conflict by means of questionable moral equivalence, or worse, by blaming Israel as the chief culprit. The statements of these leaders have weight. They influence others.

The Patriarchs and Heads of Churches have failed to exercise moral leadership and provide moral clarity in their response to Hamas terror—not only now, but year after year as rockets have relentlessly targeted Israeli civilians. While it may seem more expedient to embrace neutrality today, these leaders propagate false narratives and mislead others into believing them.

While Church leaders in Israel and others must carefully weigh their statements because of the precarious situation of the Palestinian Christians, those in other countries have no such excuse. Ultimately, adopting a posture of moral equivalence towards the Israeli-Hamas conflict is not only intellectually lazy; it is immoral. While Palestinian losses are tragic, they are the inevitable consequence of their choice to elect and maintain in power a genocidal terror group sworn to waging perpetual war with Israel.

All of us would be well advised to remember the words of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel:

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

In this war, Christians—and all of us—have a moral responsibility to support a civilized nation’s fight against barbarism. Israel must eradicate a terrorist group, Hamas, just as we confronted Islamic State. Then all of us need to contain the real mastermind behind such groups, the genocidal regime of Iran. Unfortunately, there is no other viable solution if we wish to preserve the West.

Originally published by The Gatestone Institute.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war.

JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you.

The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support?

Every contribution, big or small, helps JNS.org remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Topics
Comments
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates