Arab Christians in the Holy Land

A conversation with David Neuhaus, SJ
Jesuit Fr. David Neuhaus lights a baptismal candle during a Mass for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel, 2014 (CNS photo/courtesy www.catholic.co.il).

Fr. David Neuhaus, SJ, the superior of the Jesuit community in the Holy Land, has taught Scripture at Bethlehem University and at the seminary of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. He was the vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics of the patriarchate from 2009 to 2017, and served as its coordinator of pastoral care for migrants and asylum seekers. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in political science from Hebrew University, his licentiate in theology from Centre Sèvres in Paris, and his licentiate in sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. The author of more than a dozen books and countless articles, Neuhaus is a frequent commentator on social and political issues facing present-day Israelis and Palestinians. His most recent book, in Arabic, is Judaism Evolved Among Us: An Introduction to Judaism for Christian Arabs (2019). He is currently involved in the formation of young Jesuits throughout the Middle East. His varied background (see below) gives him a wide perspective and unique insight into the problems afflicting Israel and the Palestinian territories. Nicholas Frankovich recently interviewed him by email; this interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

NICHOLAS FRANKOVICH: You’re a Catholic priest in Jerusalem and serve as the Jesuit superior there. You’re fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic. And in the eyes of the Israeli government, you’re a Jewish Israeli. Please describe your background in more detail, if you would. How does it affect your perspective on the religious and political conflicts and tensions in the region?

DAVID NEUHAUS: I was born into a German Jewish family that found refuge in South Africa during the 1930s. The family was dispersed around the globe, and all those who did not leave Germany were exterminated by the Nazis. This is a very important part of my identity. Being born in South Africa during the horrific years of apartheid and spending the first fifteen years of my life there also marked me deeply. My family was strongly opposed to the regime and we were brought up with a strong sense of justice.

Attending an excellent private Jewish school, I received a fine Jewish and secular education, and learned Hebrew and love of the language and culture. Arriving in Jerusalem at the age of fifteen for the first time in 1977, I was determined to understand what was going on. My first lifelong friend there was a Muslim Palestinian Arab, and this was the incentive to learn Arabic, as his family became like an adopted family for me. In their midst, I learned not only Arabic but also Arab culture, and experienced Islam as a religious tradition within a family that was very traditional. This marked my perspective profoundly.

However, at the same young age, I was also exposed to Christianity. I met a radiant witness to Christ in the figure of an eighty-nine-year-old Russian Orthodox nun, and her witness was absolutely convincing. I promised my parents I would wait ten years before seeking baptism, and when I did, I was asked to discern for a further two years by the Church. I was finally baptized in 1988 as a Roman Catholic, and then waited an additional three years in order to enter the Society of Jesus.

During these long years I studied at Hebrew University, completing my PhD in 1991, which focused on the Palestinian Arabs who are citizens of the state of Israel. After eight years abroad in Jesuit formation, I returned to Jerusalem to teach Scripture in Catholic and Jewish institutions in 2000, the year in which I was ordained to the priesthood.

I have been serving in Jerusalem ever since. In 2009, I was named episcopal vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics and migrants in Israel and served in that function until 2017. I am now superior of the Jesuits in the Holy Land, and we maintain a presence in West Jerusalem (Israel) and Bethlehem (Palestine).

NF: In the United States, when we speak of Middle Eastern Christians, we tend to overlook those in Israel-Palestine. Most are Arabs, but not all. If it’s fair to generalize about them, how would you characterize their worldview and their place in Israeli and Palestinian society?

DN: The Christians in Israel-Palestine are characterized first and foremost by their place in the margins. In Israel there are four groups of Christians: Palestinian Arabs who are citizens of Israel (120,000 people), Hebrew-speaking Christians who are sociologically part of Jewish society (40,000), migrant Christians who are without permanent status (150,000), and expatriate Christians who serve the Church (1,000).

Those who are most rooted are the Palestinian Arabs who are Israeli citizens. Like all Arabs in the state of Israel, they live a reality of discrimination. Although they can vote in the elections, the discrimination they face manifests in all aspects of daily life, as Arabs are not granted the same budgets, development opportunities, and employment opportunities as Jewish citizens in Israel.

Hebrew-speaking Christians as part of Jewish society do not face the same kind of discrimination but are under strong pressure to lose their Christian identity and assimilate into the undifferentiated mass of secular Jews.

Migrant Christians, like all migrants, face daily life in circumstances of poverty, exploitation, and instability, like migrants everywhere. Looking from the margins, most Christians realize that the society they live in must change if they are to have a secure future.

In Palestine, there are about fifty thousand Christians, who are almost all Palestinian Arabs, with a small number of expatriates working for the local Church. The biggest challenges the Christian Palestinians are dealing with are the mechanisms of the Israeli occupation that prevent freedom of movement and freedom to build up an autonomous society—a challenge to all Palestinians—and the challenge of being a tiny number in a society that is predominantly Muslim and not always sensitive to Christian sensibilities. The expatriates in both Israel and Palestine include a large number of Catholic clergy, who face the challenge of trying to help the local Christians keep Catholic life and institutions functioning in the highly volatile situation in which we live.

We as Christians living at the center of this festering and untreated wound that is Israel-Palestine absolutely refuse to relate to this conflict as a religious one.

NF: Many American Christians tend to think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a religious or civilizational conflict between Jews and Muslims, with Israeli Jews representing Western and Judeo-Christian values. But Christians on the ground—in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth—tend to take the Palestinian side, especially if it’s the one they were born into. As someone in a position to speak for them to their Western coreligionists, how would you explain their sympathies? Their grievances? Aspirations?

DN: First, we as Christians living at the center of this festering and untreated wound that is Israel-Palestine absolutely refuse to relate to this conflict as a religious one. It is a conflict between two national movements.

One is the Jewish national movement called Zionism. It was born out of the European experience in which Jews were often refused integration as full members of the nations that were defining themselves in the nineteenth century: Russians, Poles, Rumanians, Hungarians, Germans, French, etc. This refusal reached a peak during the Nazi genocide, a time when most Jews in the world became convinced that Zionism—the migration to Palestine and the call for a Jewish state there—was the only way out.

The other is the Palestinian Arab national movement that was born among the indigenous people of Palestine struggling against first Turkish and then British colonialism and seeking independence. The two national movements were forged within the developing conflict between them. Jews claimed they were returning to an ancient homeland (heavily relying on the Bible as justification), and Palestinians (including native Jews who were there) argued that they were the indigenous people of the land.

Christians resent the manipulation of religion in this struggle. Bringing God into the argument makes it even more intractable. Most local Christians aspire to a resolution that will bring equality for all, mutual respect, justice, and peace. Religion could be a help if it spoke prophetically, but too often it is used to radicalize already intransigent rejection of the other.

NF: In an interview in America magazine in 2014, you said that “a first step” out of the impasse of conflict between Israel and Palestinians “must be the end of Israeli occupation so that Palestinians can have a living space in which they are not surrounded and controlled. However, this is not enough to really bring us out of the impasse.” What do you think should be the subsequent steps?

DN: There are two issues that must be dealt with on the political front to change our reality. One is the occupation that dates back to 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip. The imposition of military rule on these areas created a situation in which residents there live without the right to self-determination, and this has been only slightly changed in the important cities by the agreements signed with the Palestinians in the 1990s. The Israeli military still fully controls these territories, which are encircled, and thus prevents freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of development, etc.

The other issue is the lack of equality inside the state of Israel. Israel is defined as a Jewish state, but there is a 21 percent Palestinian Arab population within Israel that is living in a reality of discrimination. These two realities are the result of the wound at the heart of our reality: Jews have established a home for themselves, a wealthy, powerful, and well-functioning state, whereas Palestinians remain without a state in which they too can be secure, prosper, and define their own future. This has given rise to more and more radical ideologies of exclusivism and denial of the other, on both sides. At this present moment in our history, radical and exclusive ideologies on both sides are predominant, and voices of moderation and dialogue are pushed into the margins.

NF: Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem appear to have made the prospect of a contiguous Palestinian state infeasible. That has led to increasing talk of the need to form a multinational state encompassing present-day Israel and the territories it now occupies, with citizenship and equal civil rights for all residents regardless of race or religion. What do you think?

DN: The idea of one state for two peoples is not a new one. Great Jewish thinkers in the 1930s were in favor, especially as they began to recognize that Palestine was not an empty land, not “a land without a people waiting for a people without a land.” These thinkers included Martin Buber; Judah Magnes, founder of Hebrew University; Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah; and Hannah Arendt. Important Palestinian thinkers who recognize that Jews are not foreign to Palestine also adopted this idea of a “secular, democratic state,” one of them being Edward Said.

In fact, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, already pointed out in 2008 that if the Israeli authorities continue to build settlements in the West Bank and to prevent the development of a Palestinian state, the only alternative left will be a one-state solution. Today, the population between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River is about 50 percent Jewish and 50 percent Palestinian Arab. A one-state solution, imposed, in my opinion, by the Israeli insistence on continuing the occupation, means that the upcoming struggle will be for a state that guarantees equality to all its citizens.

What is my preference? As a Christian, I think that one state might indeed be preferable. A democratic, secular state avoids the danger that the Jewish Israeli state be ethnocentric and discriminate against non-Jews, and that the Palestinian state be too strongly colored by its Muslim majority, insensitive to Christian sensibilities. A secular, democratic state, though, would not be easy to achieve and would probably also take years of struggle for civil rights. For many Christians today, the most important word is “equality.”

NF: Do you have thoughts about Israel’s nation-state law? In December, the Israeli Supreme Court heard a case against it but has yet to rule on it.

The Catholic Church has a very distinct role. She is called to preach good news, and it is good news for all.

DN: The nation-state law of 2018 further cemented the issue of discrimination but was nothing new. It underlined once again that Israel is a Jewish state. Perhaps it is sufficient here to quote from the reaction of the Church authorities in Israel, with which I fully concur:

According to this law, the State of Israel has legislated that the people whose “welfare and safety” it is most concerned to promote and protect are limited to the Jewish citizens of the State of Israel. We must draw the attention of the authorities to a simple fact: our faithful, the Christians, our fellow citizens, Muslim, Druze and Baha’i, all of us who are Arabs, are no less citizens of this country than our Jewish brothers and sisters…. Although the law changes very little in practice, it does provide a constitutional and legal basis for discrimination among Israel’s citizens, clearly laying out the principles according to which Jewish citizens are to be privileged over and above other citizens…. Christians, Muslims, Druze, Baha’i and Jews demand to be treated as equal citizens. This equality must include the respectful recognition of our civic (Israeli), ethnic (Palestinian Arab) and religious (Christian) identities, as both individuals and as communities. As Israelis and as Palestinian Arabs, we seek to be part of a state that promotes justice and peace, security and prosperity for all its citizens. As Christians, we take pride that the universal Church was founded in Jerusalem and her first faithful were children of this land and its people. We recognize that Jerusalem and the whole of this Holy Land is a heritage we share with Jews and Muslims, Druze and Baha’i, a heritage we are called upon to protect from division and internecine strife…. We, as the religious leaders of the Catholic Churches, call on the authorities to rescind this Basic Law and assure one and all that the State of Israel seeks to promote and protect the welfare and the safety of all its citizens.

NF: What is the role specifically of the Catholic Church in attempting to heal the wounds that you often speak of, the wounds borne by Jews in their history as a persecuted minority, and the wounds borne by Palestinians in their statelessness and loss of a homeland?

DN: The Catholic Church has a very distinct role. She is called to preach good news, and it is good news for all. It is the good news of the Resurrection. It is the good news that out of untreated wounds can emerge new life by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Church has been promoting a vision of what the Holy Land could be for more than a hundred years, since the troubles began in the aftermath of World War I. This work of the Church must touch upon the three sources of the wound:

1. Anti-Semitism: It was hatred of the Jews that led so many Jews to seek refuge in a land that was perceived by many as a spiritual home, an idea rooted in Scripture. The war against anti-Semitism is a central part in the healing of the wound. Jews need to know that Christians understand their fears and vulnerability.

2. Bible: For many Christians, Jewish exclusive claims to the land are justified by the biblical text. The Church must interpret the Bible according to sound principles that make it a Word of God for all. This means countering the exploitation of the Bible as a weapon of one party against the other. The word of God cannot be used to expel people from their homes, confiscate their property, and condemn them to be homeless. It cannot be exploited to justify war, revenge, and abuse.

3. Islam: Contempt for Muslims (and the Christians of the East) convinced many that the land was a land without a people. Just as the Church has taken huge steps forward in dialogue with Jews, so the Church proposes with Muslims today a dialogue that refuses Islamophobia and the stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs as terrorists and violent by nature. We have not progressed at all if we replace anti-Semitism with Islamophobia!

Four popes have visited Israel-Palestine since 1964. Each one has come proclaiming a message of justice and peace. In fact, these words are very important, as they provide an alternative discourse to the one of hatred that reigns in the political milieux and in the streets. Pope Francis had this to say after his visit in 2014, when he prayed alongside Israeli president Shimon Peres and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in the Vatican:

Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare. It calls for the courage to say yes to encounter and no to conflict: yes to dialogue and no to violence; yes to negotiations and no to hostilities; yes to respect for agreements and no to acts of provocation; yes to sincerity and no to duplicity. All of this takes courage, it takes strength and tenacity. History teaches that our own powers do not suffice. More than once we have been on the verge of peace, but the evil one, employing a variety of means, has succeeded in blocking it. That is why we are here, because we know and we believe that we need the help of God. We do not renounce our responsibilities, but we do call upon God in an act of supreme responsibility before our consciences and before our peoples. We have heard a summons, and we must respond. It is the summons to break the spiral of hatred and violence, and to break it by one word alone: the word “brother.” But to be able to utter this word we have to lift our eyes to heaven and acknowledge one another as children of one Father.

NF: You’re a Scripture scholar. Do you have favorite books of the Bible? Favorite passages?

DN: Indeed, I do! The Gospel of Saint Mark. This gospel presents in all its rawness the need of the disciple to constantly repent. The biggest opponent to Jesus’s mission in Mark’s writing is the disciples who have so much difficulty opening up to the horizons of Jesus’s mission. They want to keep him in Capernaum in chapter 1, and they want to stay among the Jews at the end of chapter 4. However, Jesus stretches them, almost to the breaking point, so that they embrace all. This is our challenge as Christians: we must love Jew and Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian, and in the name of that love continue to envision how, by speaking truth, working for justice, we can propose a language broad enough to respect all and promote the well-being of all.

NF: You’ve spoken highly of Michel Sabbah, the former Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, describing him as saintly. Could you say a few words about him and about why you admire him?

DN: Michel Sabbah, who was Latin patriarch (Roman Catholic archbishop) from 1987 to 2008 and who ordained me as a priest, has been one of my most important teachers in this land. He is a man who has devoted his life to the Church, and served with fidelity and courage. However, it is the way he speaks about this land that resounds with evangelical values. He sees the land for what it could be for all of us, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, and he never gives up. Despite opposition from his detractors and the events that wear us all down, he continues with vigor and with confidence that God is ultimately in charge. He is now eighty-eight years old and has given up most of his activities except his leading role in our Justice and Peace Commission [of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem], where his voice is raised to promote the respect and dignity of every human being.

NF: Lasting peace in the region seems so improbable. Do you have any words to encourage those who work, pray, and hope for it?

DN: I find no better words than those I spoke for Michel Sabbah: remember, God is in control. God is good. God is love. Eventually God will vanquish the evil one. At the end of the Book of Genesis, Joseph says to his brothers, “Although you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20). This is a principle that is illustrated throughout sacred Scripture: God can transform human evil into good. We must continue to do what we can to change reality, and we must believe that God will change it in God’s own time.

One of the most important things we must do is watch our tongues. Let every word we speak be a word that promotes justice and peace, forgiveness and reconciliation. Our words create the worlds we and our children live in. Our words are words of war or of peace, of hatred or of love, of prejudice or of openness, and with the words we speak we form the reality that will materialize tomorrow.

Nicholas Frankovich, a regular contributor to Commonweal, is an editor of National Review.

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