An Informal Catholic-Jewish Dialogue on the Israel - Hezbollah Conflict

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  The opinions contained below represent the opinions of their respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the staff of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning or of the Board of Trustees of Boston College.

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The Participants

Ruth Langer
Associate Professor
Associate Director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning
Boston College

John Pawlikowski
Professor of Ethics,
Catholic Theological Union, Chicago;
President, ICCJ


Michael A. Signer
Abrams Professor of Jewish Thought & Culture,
University of Notre Dame



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.



Just War Theory

Adapted from National Council of Catholic Bishops, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, May 3, 1983. Just War theory was articulated by Augustine of Hippo and refined by Thomas Aquinas. The changes in warfare brought about by the invention of weapons of mass destruction raise questions about the applicability of Just War theory today.

All of the following are understood as exceptions to the general presumption against the use of force:


Jus ad Bellum
(why and when recourse to war is permissible)

Competent Authority: war must be declared by those with responsibility for public order, not by private groups or individuals.

Comparative Justice: which side is sufficiently “right” in a dispute, and are the values at stake critical enough to override the presumption against war? Do the rights and values involved justify killing?

Right Intention: war can be legitimately intended only for the reasons set forth above as a just cause.

Last Resort: in order for war to be justified all peaceful alternatives must have been exhausted.

Probability of Success: functions to prevent the irrational resort to force or hopeless resistance when the outcome of each will be disproportionate or futile.

Proportionality: the damage to be inflicted and the costs to be incurred by the war must be proportionate to the good expected by taking up arms.


Jus in Bello
(how the war is conducted)

Proportionality: once we take into account not only the military advantages that will be achieved by using a particular weapon or strategy but also all the harms reasonably expected to follow from using it, can its use still be justified?

Discrimination: prohibits directly intended attacks on noncombatants and nonmilitary targets. It raises questions about the accuracy of weapons and the extent of “collateral damage.”


July 17, 2006

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 here.

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 consequences. 

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.





Dear John,

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 tourism industry.

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.


John -

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.

The 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.


Dear John,

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 friends.

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.


Two observations:

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 the dialogue.



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.




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