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Discerning the call to choose sides


Wars always bring pressure to canonise one side and to demonise the other. It has been no different in the war between Israel and Hamas. People both in the antagonists and in their normal allies are pressed to make a choice. To choose Israel is to see its war against Hamas as just in all respects, to weep only for its fallen, to approve of all its actions in war, to minimize and count as collateral damage the harm done to the people of Gaza, and to see attempts to make peace or to point out unethical behaviour by Israel, or moral complexities in its cause as anti-Semitic, weak minded, dishonest moral equivalence,  and lacking in necessary strength of commitment. To choose Hamas would be to adopt the same attitudes in reverse.

In both cases the appeal to allies is strengthened by identifying its cause with the best of their tradition and by asserting that its loss would fatally wound that tradition. Advocates for Israel portray it as bright light of Western democracy in the storm clouds of totalitarian corruption or as the best of the Judaeo-Christian civilisation in a culturally bereft Islamic world. To opponents of Israel, Hamas represents best the spirit of Islam in resisting the colonisation of Muslim lands by a corrupt and Godless West and in fighting against the existence of Israel.

Such binary views of responses to the conflict are based on the conflating of terms that are quite different. They identify Israel with the land, with the people to whom it is home and who put their stamp on it and on its Government and its policies and actions. Similarly they identify Gaza with the territory, with the people who live there, and with its ruling party Hamas and its policies and actions.

This identification blurs proper distinctions between land, people and ruling powers, and so between combatants and civilians. It also obscures the complexity of the conflict and lead to actions that will lead to further and more bitter conflict. In Australia most people have a natural sympathy for Israel, and public advocacy for choosing its cause over that of Hamas is stronger. We should then reflect on the reasons that are given to commend this stance.

The first is that criticism by Australians of actions taken by the Israeli Government is anti-Semitic. Some such criticism may be so described, but much is not. The test is whether the criticism is driven by prejudice against Israel and its Jewish citizens or by reflection on the actions and policies of its Government. In fact such criticism is compatible with an adamantine conviction that the State of Israel has a right to exist and to defend itself, with respect for its inhabitants, and with a full recognition of the appalling history of pogrom and extermination that they have suffered, and with abhorrence at the unjustifiable brutality of the Hamas invasion. Such criticism, too, can be a gift, as it was to Australia when outsiders criticised it for the White Australia policy. It can encourage citizens to question the actions of its Government for failure to live up to its proclaimed values, and lead to better policy and actions.

The charge of anti-Semitism, too, encourages wider reflection on the phrase itself. In common usage it refers only to Jewish people and to the State of Israel, and calls to mind the Holocaust. Etymologically, however, it does not refer solely to attitudes to Jews and to Israel. The Semites as an ethnic group include both Jews and Palestinians and by extension the Jewish and Muslim religions and customs of their people. Seen from this broader perspective anti-Semitism therefore would strictly include prejudice against and consequent ill-treatment of the inhabitants of both Israel and Gaza.


'We should focus our attention on the lives of the persons of precious and equal value who compose these states. That alone focuses on the complexities of the relationships on which any enduring peace, justice and equality must be built.'


Second, the attempt to align the State of Israel, its people and its Government and its allies with Judaeo-Christian civilisation and with Western democracy in opposition to Gaza, identified with its Government and people, is weakly founded. In historical practice Christian societies tried to break the link that is now claimed to connect them with Jewish people. In societies where Christians were the majority, Jews were periodically persecuted and always had reason to fear discrimination. In Christian faith, certainly, God’s enduring relationship with the Jewish people through Jesus the Jew is central and irreplaceable. That is why the pervasive anti-Jewish prejudice found historically among Christians is so shaming. If we are to talk coherently about a Judaeo-Christian civilisation, however, we must situate it more broadly within all the actual connections, religious and other, that have formed our contemporary world. These include Judaism and Christianity, but also other Abrahamic religions, notably Islam with its profound influence on the formation of modern Europe. As with the charge of anti-Semitism,  reflection on the invocation of Judaeo-Christian civilization in the current war leads away from a simple taking of sides to the recognition of complexity.

The association of Israel, its citizens and its Government with the Western tradition of democracy in opposition to the totalitarianism of Gaza, its citizens and Hamas is equally oversimplified. It is true that, even though Hamas also came to power in Gaza through a democratic election, the democratic institutions of Israel under the rule of law are far stronger than in many states in which Islam is the established religion. Democracy, however, means more than free elections and winning votes. It demands a respect for the rule of law and an equal respect for all citizens. Ultimately Western democracy rests on the secular version of the Christian belief that the life of each human being is equally precious, and that this should be reflected in public life and institutions. Both the rule of law and the equal value of each human being have come under increasing pressure recently in Israel and Gaza, as indeed they have in many of Israel’s allies as well as in its enemies. This is shown in the widespread disapproval by citizens both of Israel and Gaza of their ruling powers.

Third, the imputation that those who criticise the actions of Israel in war and call for peace and protection for the people of Gaza are guilty of moral equivalence between Hamas and Israel is also misplaced. One can argue that the Hamas incursion and indiscriminate killing in Israel was morally unjustifiable and that the people of Israel have the right to defend itself, while at the same time criticising also the response of the Government of israel as disproportionate, without being guilty of moral equivalence. This position can be better described as moral universality, The basis of morality is the equal value and right to life of each human being, Jewish or Muslim, Israeli or Palestinian. That impartial universality and the consequent obligation to respect equally the life of each human being shape the criteria for judging the actions in war of both sides. The viciousness of the actions of an enemy military force does not justify a disproportionate killing of its non-combatants. To praise one Government for actions that would be reprehensible if taken by another Government, and to demand that others adopt this position, is moral partisanship and bullying.

In this war we should resist the attempt to build total and uncritical support for the States of Israel and the territory of Gaza, still less of their ruling powers. We should focus our attention on the lives of the persons of precious and equal value who compose these states. That alone focuses on the complexities of the relationships on which any enduring peace, justice and equality must be built. To fail to do so ignores the resentment and hostility which feed discrimination and inequality, which in turn breed violence and revolt. In the Cretan myth, dragons’ teeth sown in the ground rose up as fully armed soldiers. The response to the present war will come back to haunt or to bless the peoples of both Palestine and Israel in the future. The proper role of non-combatant nations is to encourage the saving, not the taking of lives. 




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Smoke rises from an explosion in Gaza on October 28, 2023 seen from Sderot, Israel. In the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas that left 1,400 dead and 200 kidnapped, Israel launched a sustained bombardment of the Gaza Strip. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, War, Israel, Hamas, Gaza



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Existing comments

The ferocity of both the Hamas attacks against Israel and Israel’s unyielding response tells us that this conflict is deep-seated with violence ever ready to be deployed. We watch with a mixture of deep sadness and resignation, believing that there does not seem to be an answer. The people of both Israel and Palestine have been emotionally and physically battered to the point where intervention needs to be sensitive to such profound suffering. This suffering is so startling that it is imperative for the international community to keep cool heads and soft hearts.

Pam | 02 November 2023  

It is now not a simple Israel/Hamas equation. Outside powers are arraigning themselves on both sides. I am unable to see a 'just outcome' acceptable to both sides will come out of this. The situation is best described as 'not quite Apocalyptic.' Anyone, Jewish, Christian or Muslim, looking for a solution from their scriptures needs to look very carefully. The Middle East has been a cauldron of hatred and genocidal conflict for 4,000 years. I would hate to see this pattern repeated, but it may well happen. Two nations could well be wiped out.

Edward Fido | 02 November 2023  

I am disappointed that war in the Holy Land has again commenced and that each side asserts its authority to rightfully be there. The bible says "thou shall not kill" but love thy neighbour no matter what, but this "eye for an eye" only makes Israel as bad as Hamas. Peace will never happen because of this and Israel is surrounded by angry Arab nations. No matter what the bible says, if Israel and the Middle East want peace, then its time that Israel moved on by relocating to safe country. There is plenty of room in Australia and the nation could use their skills especially working those remote areas with mineral and agricultural potential. It would increase the nations GDP too! Leave the Middle East to the Arabs! Its mostly desert of little value (except oil) and that will have no worth by 2050.

Cam RUSSELL | 03 November 2023  
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One hopes that, if that occurred, we Australians would not end up in a fenced enclave. There would have to be some absolute guarantees from the very beginning.

Leon | 03 November 2023  

Presumably, Cam, it would be Aboriginal land that you would be offering, not valuable east-coast land that is already occupied by the descendants of the First Invaders. Why would you think that we had the right to do that?

Ginger Meggs | 05 November 2023  

With anti-semitic and historically dismissive views like this, Cam, I doubt Australia would be a safe country either. Its not just about what the bible says, but about the way us humans have igmored the divine invitation to peace. Israel has always offered to negotiate a Palestinian state. Surely after what Jewish people have been through over the milennia our league of nations can spare them a tiny slither of previously sparsely populated desert surrounding their temples destroyed by the Romans and other barbarians.

AURELIUS | 07 November 2023  

Hamilton has provided a very helpful and even analysis raising a few points I had not thought of, e.g. the much-touted "moral equivalence". There seems to be no solution and the seeds of this disaster were sewn in the 1920s or earlier.

Leon | 03 November 2023  

Why do we as a people so often end up hating our closest neighbours? I found the messages in Andrew's erudite article very helpful in the midst of its complexity. The main two points I focused on were: That both Jews and Arabs in this part of the world claim to be descendants of the same ancestor - both are Semitic people. The second that for centuries the Jews were a persecuted people in most Christian (Western) societies. So the claim some are making that Israel is the champion of Democracy and the Palestine's of Gaza are not, is both narrow minded and hypocritical. It could be argued Christian West taught the Jews the tools of oppression. I have friends in both Israel and Gaza who strongly reject their respective governments attack on their neighbours.

Chris D | 04 November 2023  

You write: 'In Christian faith, certainly, God’s enduring relationship with the Jewish people through Jesus the Jew is central and irreplaceable.' In experiencing a Catholic upbringing, I've generally assumed that Catholic theology is cautious about investing much in the Old Testament, and sceptical about the place of Jews as 'God's chosen people'. Perhaps I was wrong, but if so it makes me more sceptical of Christianity as well. As our understanding of the Universe advances, the notion that the supreme being has a chosen people on a particular planet seems absurd.

Mark | 06 November 2023  
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And one subject of thought leads to another....

If the notion that the Deity has a chosen people is absurd, how about the notion that one country has a chosen people for which a special representative body is needed?

Across the Ditch, one could ask, but for the legalities, should Maoris be a special people in New Zealand? Are the legalities there foreclosing instead of expanding "reconciliation"? Would the Voice here have foreclosed rather than expanded?

I don't know what the conclusive answers are to these questions but if you turn over a stone, don't be surprised to see more than one kind of creature scurrying out. The creatures may be different but the stone is a logic in common which they apply to themselves.

s martin | 07 November 2023  

Yes I believe God does have a chosen people... If the example of Jesus' image of God's mercy is worth anything - then God holds a special place for those who suffer and thirst for justice - the poor and downtrodden
So Jews Muslims Christians and others have all persecuted each other throughout history
.. God is watching

Aurelius | 16 November 2023  

I think it's way beyond we say we are all descendants of Abraham. I for one am not. And we have the One God we pray to, ( massacres, according to the Old Testament were the command of That God; The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I refuse to believe in a blood thirsty God). Sorry. Let's keep God out of the massacres done in his name. Jesus Speaks of 'His Father' not God. The Word GOD in the Old Testament is ELOHIM. The word GOD replaced this word when it was decided to promote Monotheism. There was no Monotheism during those times. There were Elohim leading different tribes and competing with each other using their tribes as pawns to conquer land. Sound familiar? I am looking forward to the Catholic Church, a Pope one day in the future, abolishing the reading of the Old Testament during Mass...

AO | 07 November 2023  

I have a few thoughts about the situation in Israel - Palestine.
One is about the saddest, most dehumanising irony, that the three Abrahamic religious traditions, the three which believe in the One God, creator of all, lover of all, converge in the land of their origins and are marked by enmity, hostility, and the sort of mistrust which is lethal. That said, we know there are many examples of robust mutuality among Jews, Muslims and Christians.
Another thought, which may be simplistic, is that the fundamental issue is rarely part of the wide-ranging discourse in relation to the interminable, seething ‘eye for eye’ ideology. This issue is that, within living memory (1948), the Palestinian People were displaced by the Jewish People seeking refuge after the unspeakable atrocities of Nazi and pre Nazi death-dealers. That the establishment of Israel was brokered by Western powers is also problematic today. Can the world ever discuss this in rational, informed, dispassionate terms?
My third thought, and really the focus of my prayer, is that it could be a radical witness to humanity at its most noble if this ancient land became home to one sovereign democratic nation characterised by a unity which thrives on a plurality of faiths and a richness of different ethnic traditions which together create true harmony.

Caroline Ryan | 07 November 2023  

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