Holy Land, Fractured Faiths: Jewish-Christian Institutional Responses to the Gaza Crisis

In recent months, world has witnessed Jewish-Christian relations around the world being challenged by the Hamas attack of October 7 and the subsequent Israeli response, which in turn has led to outbreaks of anti-Semitism around the world (as it did after the Six-Day War, for example). My goal is to provide a brief overview of institutional relations during this troubled period (leaving the grassroot relations for another study). Before I do so, let me remind the reader that Christian concerns about the potential impact of Israel’s internal politics and relationship with the Palestinians on Jewish-Christian relations predate the Hamas attack and the Gaza war. They increased with the rise to power of the most religious and right-wing government in Israeli history, which coincided with increased violence against Christians and other religious minorities. 

The unprecedented attack by Hamas on October 7th horrified many around the world. The leaders of the mainstream churches were quick to respond, immediately expressing solidarity with the victims. The immediate Catholic and Orthodox responses seemed to focus primarily on the suffering of the victims and prayers for peace. Pope Francis spoke of his sorrow and called for peace in the Angelus on October 8. American Catholic bishops issued statements reaffirming their fraternal commitment to the Jewish communities in their dioceses, condemning the attack, and expressing solidarity not only with the victims but also with the Jewish communities at home.

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and other Orthodox leaders in the Middle East and in the United States also expressed their sorrow and desire for peace. The responses of the Protestant churches, on the other hand, could be read as more political and contextual, but also much more specific. The Lutheran World Federation called for the release of hostages and the protection of civilians and expressed concern about the Israeli response to the attack. The Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Elizabeth A. Eaton, stated that “the ELCA denounces the egregious acts of Hamas, acts that have led to unspeakable loss of life and hope. At the same time, the ELCA denounces the indiscriminate retaliation of Israel against the Palestinian people, both Christian and Muslim.” She also points to the Israeli occupation as the root of the violence that unfolded on October 7: “The power exerted against all Palestinian people — through the occupation, the expansion of settlements and the escalating violence — must be called out as a root cause of what we are witnessing.” Other Protestant denominations showed a full range of responses, from evangelical pro-Israeli organizations (e.g. Christians United for Israel [CUFI], Fellowship of Israel Related Ministries [FIRM], Frontier Alliance International [FAI]) that are unwaveringly supportive of Israel, to the open letter “End the Nakba,” signed by “Christians in the U.S. and Canada.” 

As the Gaza war unfolded, the prevailing Christian understanding of the situation was that the suffering of all victims demanded equal recognition, and that while Israel had a right to self-defense, the military operation in Gaza posed too great a risk to the civilian population to be justified. Thus, over time, Christian leaders have increasingly focused on the call for peace. In each of his more than 30 statements since October 7, Pope Francis has called for peace. Even those Catholic bishops who initially proposed the application of “just war” theory eventually admitted that “the present conduct of the war causes greater evils than those it seeks to eliminate. At the same time, the polarization among Protestant denominations has increased, ranging from the unwavering support for Israel expressed by Christian Zionist organizations, such as those mentioned above, who see the war in an eschatological framework, to Lutheran congregations, including Palestinian Christians such as Rev. Munther Isaac, who cannot help but see the current events as an existential threat to Palestinian Christians. Moreover, the Patriarchs of the Churches of Jerusalem have repeatedly jointly expressed their concern about the military attacks on civilians, for example in the statement of March 1 condemning the massacre of civilians.

Even among Christians, there are significant differences in how different groups and leaders perceive the situation. However, most mainline churches are united in condemning attacks on civilians, calling for a cease-fire, and ensuring that humanitarian aid reaches the civilian population. Another important issue that has not been equally emphasized by these different Christian denominations, and which probably depends on a variety of factors, is whether they have responded to the rise of anti-Semitism and encouraged their faithful to become involved in combating it. However, as the death toll in Gaza mounts, concern for the safety of the civilian population in Gaza outweighs any other issue.

Understandably, the Jewish perspective on the situation adds another layer of complexity. Some Jewish religious leaders and interfaith activists who have signed an open letter to Pope Francis describe the Hamas attack as “the most horrific attack on Jews since the Holocaust” and see the attack first and foremost as an act of anti-Semitism, calling it a “full-fledged pogrom,” and it is safe to say that a significant portion of the Jewish population perceives the attack in these terms. The expectations expressed in this letter include the request “to distinguish between legitimate political criticism on Israel’s policy in the past and in the present and between hateful negation of Israel and of Jews; to reaffirm Israel’s right to exist; to unequivocally condemn Hamas’ terrorist massacre aimed at killing as many civilians as possible, and to distinguish this massacre from the civilian casualties of Israel’s war of self-defense, as tragic and heartbreaking as they are,” as well as “to join us in the memory of the victims of October 7th massacre, to advocate for the release of the kidnapped and hostages, and to acknowledge the vulnerability of the Jewish community at this moment”. Although the letter was addressed to the Catholic Church, it could be assumed that most of the international Jewish community would have these expectations of their Christian brothers in general. In private conversations, some of the Jewish partners in interreligious dialogue emphasized that they experienced a kind of “lifting of the veil” – a revelation of their profound loneliness and abandonment in the face of such a brutal attack. They emphasized that they felt that their Christian interlocutors could not understand how serious the attack was, how deeply it had shaken their sense of security (both in Israel and in the Diaspora), and how incommensurable the Christian response to this suffering was.

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