The following exchange took place via e-mail on July 17-18, 2006, when the conflict between the State of Israel and Hezbollah dominated the daily news. It began with a note from John Pawlikowski to several people to which Ruth Langer and Michael Signer independently responded, beginning parallel conversations that are presented in the columns below. Central to the discussion are Catholic Just War principles, which are summarized in the inset box for readers who may be unfamiliar with them. The Center for Christian-Jewish Learning thanks all three writers for agreeing in this way to model interreligious dialogue even in circumstances of disagreement.
The heart of the matter on the Christian side will be the question of the morality of collective punishment, which is a serious moral issue. After today I find Catholic support eroding. I would say
this is for two reasons.
First of all, in my experience too many people in the Christian community seem unaware of the full context of the present situation. Most see it as Israel's excessive retaliation for the
capture of two of their soldiers. They are unaware of the border situation
for the past several years. Israel needs to do a better communications job
The other reason has to do with the classical just war theory in Catholicism,
whether ordinary people invoke it or not. It consists of two parts. The first
is called the right to go to war. I think many would support Israel's right to
defend herself militarily. What is really drastically cutting sympathy for Israel
is the jus in bello, conduct during the war. The issue of collective punishment
is really very, very questionable morally. And this is where people are reacting as
they see the reports on the evening news. Most people do not see any
sense of moral questioning about tactics such as collective punishment by the
Israeli government or major Jewish institutions here. At the recent meeting in Vienna of the International Council of Christians and Jews, during
the discussion of the Middle East, we concluded that there need to be lines of
communication opened up on these questions. I find numerous people who were with
the Jewish community and Israel on the divestment issue now raising serious moral
questions about in bello tactics. Israel and Jewish organizations can continue
to ignore this reality. But it could lead to a more lasting turnaround in
Catholic attitudes towards the Israeli-Palestinian question that could have political
I hope this gives you a better idea of the reactions I am getting from people who
have been "friends" of Israel for many years.
Thanks. It is true that Israel has never been good at explaining herself.
Just to begin with, they have not pointed out that, with the exception
of the train depot hit yesterday and the boat last Friday, every single
Hezbollah rocket has been aimed at civilian targets, to the extent that
they are aimed at all. There has not been a single report of damage done
to an army base or airport, let alone a power station, bus station,
refinery or factory. And that Hezbollah operates from within civilian
property makes avoiding civilians impossible. Jus in bello is possible
only when the opponent is also operating by a similar ethic. Otherwise
it is a recipe for utter disaster; as we see both from Lebanon and Gaza, unilateral withdrawals and attempts to disengage from the situation are
being interpreted as weakness and vulnerability, themselves grounds for
attack. We can't judge this situation by Western norms because at best
only Israel is at all interested in living up to them.
Note that the press has also been bewailing the loss of tourism dollars
in Lebanon and ignoring the fact that this war also destroys Israel's
Note also that a significant reason that Israelis aren't being killed is
that they have had to build their homes and communities with bomb
shelters and fortified rooms -- which have been the primary residence
for many in the north this past week.
So yes, there is a public relations problem, but I'd love to see someone suggest a way
that Israel live in a long-term peace within her borders without making
a decisive demonstration of force against those who time and time again
violate those borders.
I wonder if Catholic support was ever really there. As a regular reader of America magaine and the National Catholic Reporter, it seems to me that the Catholic reading public is always quick to condemn any moves made by Israel that cause harm to Palestinians. Of course, I understand their impatience with us. It is difficult not to resort to irony when considering the "love" that Christian religion has produced over the years--but that is hardly to the point.
It still amazes me how baffled Christians are by the Jewish "incarnational" relationship to Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel). No matter how many times I have taught the difference between Eretz Yisrael, Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) and Medinat Yisrael (the State of Israel) the questions still come about "nationalism" as opposed to depth theology and "participation."
At the moment, I think that the Israeli government is acting within the reasonable limits of raison d'etat (reason of state). The failure of the UN Security forces and the "fragile" Lebanese government to do anything about Hezbollah urges the policy that the government has taken. What they have done is not analogous to "Peace on Gallilee," when Israel sent troops into Lebanon in 1982, but a clear (and very strong) move against the constant rocket attacks on their borders. No sovereign state can tolerate constant acts of sabotage on its borders.
Prayers for peace are altogether appropriate right now. Preaching to the Israeli government and its citizens should be left to prudent silence and private conversations. That is my take on it.
Thank you for sharing your reflections with me. I recognize that Israel
and its people are in a very difficult situation and need support. I
support Israel's right to defend itself. And I will spare no criticism
of Hezbollah and its ongoing activities in South Lebanon. But having said that
I must confess to disagreement with you regarding jus in bello. Its application
does not depend on the moral quality or lack thereof of one's enemy. If that
were the case there would be no basis for critique of the saturation bombing
of Dresden, of the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo, etc. I doubt that any
of your colleagues in ethics at Boston College would accept your interpretation of when
jus in bello is to be applied.
I hope the opportunity will present itself to discuss this at further length. There is a growing gap between Christians and Jews on some of these issues that
we cannot ignore much longer if the Christian-Jewish dialogue is to remain strong. I do hope
we can find opportunities, even structured ones, for discussions among respected
colleagues in the dialogue.
My very best and my prayers in what I know is a very difficult time.
I do think basic Catholic support for Israel has been there. In fact, I think it was somewhat on the upswing prior to the current situation. There is the danger that it will now go downhill.
In my judgment, the basic moral issue is the notion of collective punishment. No one wants to preach to the Israelis. But just as the saturation bombing in Dresden, the efforts by the current American administration to obliterate the Geneva convention re: Guantanamo, etc. have been evaluated as part of the jus in bello tradition, so I believe "collective punishment" must as well. As one who has committed myself
to a lifetime of such reflection as a social ethicist, I cannot suspend such evaluation in the present circumstances as trying and painful as they are for the Israelis and the Jewish community at large.
I agree that there is lots of room for dialogue here, and I would like
to come to understand the Christian teachings on this more fully.
However, there is a difference between a group of prisoners with
questionable connections to Taliban, Al Qaeda, etc., none of whom are
suspected of significant leadership there, and an opponent who has been
given 10,000-12,000 missiles to play with, designed only to drive Israel
into the sea with no regard for civilians or any of the other categories
of the Geneva conventions (including installing these missiles where it
is impossible to distinguish between civilian and military targets).
I would note that the Israel Defense Force has a clearly stated set of ethical values.
Iranian source of many of these armaments makes no bones about their
purpose either. For Israel to fail to respond is for Israel to commit
suicide. For Israel to fail to respond decisively is for Israel simply
to prolong the suicide process. That cannot be the goal of jus in bello if it is a teaching I can learn from.
You are in a better position to locate the barometer of Catholic support
for Israel than am I. My own assessment is based on experiential evidence of the situation here at the University of Notre Dame, my experience at the Pontifical Gregorian University,
and what I read in Catholic periodicals. Since I've never been one to
urge my Christian colleagues to take public stands on Israel, I would
not be able to judge whether support has gone "up' or "down." Surely,
for Catholics, the Holy Land and environs are one of many sites of
concern. Both of our communities share a concern for what is happening
in Darfur and in India as well as North Korea. Perhaps this diffusion
of interest makes it harder for me to distinguish Catholic support for
Israel and the solidarity that some Catholics have with their Jewish
I always appreciated the even-handed approach to the Middle-east
conflict taken by Pope John Paul II: security for Israel with justice
for the Palestinians. That is the road, it seems to me, that should be
the leitmotif in the current situation.
I surely respect your criticism of the bombing of civilians and escape
routes in Lebanon. Yes, there are always choices that governments and
military leaders have to make. However, as we've observed from Vietnam
and Iraq and other "modern conflicts" there are very difficult military
decisions that have to be made about strategic targets. Weapons are
simply no longer located in well fortified arsenals. Hezbollah is not
the army of Lebanon. It deliberately hides weapons in civilian
locations. When Iran is calling for a cease-fire--after their
president's genocidal threats about Israel, one begins to wonder....
The problem in Lebanon may, it seems to me, be separated from the
conflict in Gaza. Until the two kidnappings, one could be more
sure-footed in making critical comments about the treatment of Mr. Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. However, the constant barrage of rockets from the Gaza
strip was "tolerated" and perhaps for far too long.
Yes, John, it is a mess with very narrow roads out. The German papers
today suggested that the UN force may be authorized to do more than"observe." We've seen from the Balkans and Africa that Blue Hats hardly
have a moderating force within some power of enforcement. Look at the
campaign now to get them to Darfur.
As I indicated before--prayer is probably a good response right now.
I'm grateful to Phil Cunningham and Audrey Doetzel for making their
website a place where we can all travel to read the latest statements. Keeping communication among ourselves is very important.
The issue of Guantanamo is not the nature of the prisoners but the
attempt by Administration lawyers to obliterate the Geneva Convention in
terms of their treatment.
Secondly, the central moral issue in terms of jus in bello is the
notion of collective punishment. This is what requires moral
reflection in these trying times. As an ethicist who has wrestled
with this issue for many years with respect to my own government, I
cannot suspend such reflection today even as I fully recognize the
very difficult circumstances faced by the Israelis. Let me also
underscore that the very same reflections must be applied to the
blatant Hezbollah attacks on civilian population targets.
I really do appreciate this exchange.
I forgot to mention earlier that I agree with your Incarnational
emphasis. One of the problems we have in terms of Catholic perspectives here is a heavenly, non-historical
definition of the church, which undercuts social commitment in my judgment. Remember that F. Heer once
wrote that this Augustinian emphasis can easily devolve in contempt for the world.
I think this is an important point for further discussion regarding the State of Israel in
I understand and accept that one must hold the value of avoiding
collective punishment. But when the enemy knows that a way to weaken you
is to create a situation that leaves no alternative, in this case by
locating military/terrorist bases among civilians, can this be the
overarching consideration? War requires some degree of compromising of
ethics, no matter what. A fully ethical society would not resort to war.
But when war is thrust upon one, in spite of efforts to disengage from
it (I'm thinking of Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon and from Gaza), one
is not in that ideal situation. Israel at least is asking civilians to
leave in advance of its attacks. But the blame for the places that it
must attack in responses to attacks on its civilians (and military) does
not rest squarely on Israel's shoulders -- rather the opposite.
As to Guantanamo -- I agree that the Bush administration is riding
roughshod over the prisoners' rights and it seems, the rights of all
Americans. But there is a line to be negotiated, and that we can
negotiate in a democratic society, between the absolute value and what
is necessary to defend oneself from further attacks. I don't see it as a
black and white issue, but rather a complex set of negotiations between
the ideal and the reality in which we exist. Giving prisoners proper
trials and process seems to me to fall in the area where maintaining the
absolute value ought to be pretty easy.
Dear John and Ruth,
Members of the Jewish community will not understand the distinction between causes of war and jus in bello. Reuven Kimmelman has an essay that he wrote on war and peace in the Jewish tradition that is relevant. [For this essay, click HERE.] Clearly, I think that John's introduction of the ethical dilemmas posed during combat are relevant to the discussion. Our disagreements are also instructive and hopefully might model the type of conversation that Christians and Jews might have about this conflict. I put particular stock in my phrase, "incarnational issues" because I believe that approach is helpful getting Christians to understand what Jews feel and think about Eretz Yisrael.
Let's just hope for the return of the prisoners and the return of sanity---but that seems to be more fantasy than hope.
I'll let you have the last word on this for the time being!
At the conference in Rome we both participated in last September you called for dialogue regarding Israel.
I consider our exchange an example of such conversation. I
supported your call (with explicit reference to your talk)
in a recent article.