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

click HERE to access that initial interfaith conversation

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.

July 21, 2006

Many thanks, Phil, for posting this example of dialogue at its finest, and most difficult. 

For my part, my head (though not entirely) may be with John, but my heart is fully with Ruth and Michael.  What makes me hesitate to agree theologically with John is the point that Israel is in fact exercising a real amount of restraint, I believe for ethical as well as pragmatic reasons.  Ruth's mention of the leafletting of areas where civilians might be targetted is very much to the point here.  Likewise, the active support being given Hezbollah and Hamas by Syria and Iran must be taken into account.  These nation states have been for many years manipulating both Palestinians and Lebanese, "collectively."

If there is a sniper in a window of a building shooting at innocents on the street, can the cops shoot back at him even though there is a chance someone else in the room may be hit be a stray bullet? 

I'm not at all sure the term "collective punishment" is entirely aptly applied here.  This is a situation of war, of hot pursuit, if you will.  It is not a situation where Israel is calmly sitting in judgment in a courtroom considering "punishment," but a situation of shooting back in self-defense.  The statement of the Bishop Wenski, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop's Committee on Social Policy, I think, is more nuanced:  "The conflicts in the Holy Land and Lebanon are distinct, but they bear some fearful similarities. In both cases there were violent and provocative cross-border attacks on Israeli military personnel. The extreme armed factions of Hamas and Hezbollah, and their supporters, including Syria and Iran, bear grave responsibilities. It seems clear that these acts were intended to damage prospects for negotiation and to provoke strong responses that further weaken the chances for dialogue, agreement and progress. These attacks provoked Israeli military responses that are understandable in terms of the right to defense, but are disproportionate and indiscriminate in some instances."

Israel's response to the attacks on its civilians by heavily armed forces is inherently just and justifiable, but in some instances may have gone too far.  To categorize everything Israel has done in this crisis as "collective punishment" is to go too far rhetorically for me.

Eugene J. Fisher,
Associate Director, Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

July 21, 2006

I am one of those Catholics who understands and agrees with the jus ad bellum of Israel at this moment. I am also cautious in judging a disproportionate Israel attitude in bellum because I am naturally inclined to judge severely Hezbollah's disproportionality. But I am also seriously perplexed about at least one contradictory aspect of the theory of the 'Just War', which arise from the real motive of any war: hate.

No war exists without hate because you cannot explain except with recourse to hate all those attitudes typical of war: demonizing an enemy, multiplying hate, provoking, acting without pity, killing children, torturing, etc. .Yet, when you seek to set limits while engaging in violence and war (jus in bellum), you are asking for a war in which hate is banished in favour of a sort of respect or love for the enemy. This is paradoxical. From a humanitarian point of view, jus ad bellum and jus in bellum are justified only if their ultimate motive is not hate but the will to affirm the value of life even inside a situation of war.

The question is: how to give death in a way that is at the same time an affirmation of the value of life? How to fight injustice and violence so as to affirm your fundamental respect and love for human life, for peaceful coexistence? (This is the same question which concerns the reasons for death penalty.)

In my opinion, setting a "limit" is a way because only such limits recognize the insanity of war and do not multiply hate. But this limiting can be expected only from one who is dragged into the war. Only who did not want the war is in the position to denounce its absurdity. This tremendous task to react only inside fixed limits seems to be a burden on the one who is forced to protect oneself, if he really believes in peace.

Thus, this task becomes a sign, a powerful word before the world on the reliability of one's goodwill. For instance, who could forget what the heroic resistance of Israel to the provocation of the Iraqi Scuds during the Gulf War meant for the Middle-East?).

As a Christian, I ask myself what is the meaning of the tremendous road the Gospel points to: "offer no resistance to one who is evil" and "love your enemies" (Matthew 5,39.44). Perhaps one answer is that the setting of limits is the only way to react without producing hate or fostering the conditions for an irreversible escalation of a conflict. Limit, or in any case paying attention to the innocent, is a tremendous responsibility, the only one which could proportionately face the enormity of war. 

Ombretta Pisano
Documentalist at SIDIC

Webmaster's Note:
The following was not submitted as a direct response to the "Informal Dialogue," although some of its authors were involved in the e-mail exchange that led to it. The attached letter or statement is certainly relevant to the topic.



Dear Colleagues and Friends:

Once again, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has erupted into large-scale violence.  All of us agonize over media images of the dead and wounded, too many of them civilians.   Because the Palestinian and Lebanese casualty figures are inevitably greater than those suffered by Israel, there is a tendency among some observers to conceptualize the conflict as the Arab David vs. Jewish Goliath, placing an unfair burden of blame on Israel.  This has caused inter-communal tensions between Christians and Jews in recent years.

It is the sacred responsibility of religious leaders to speak out in the face of violence.  We are writing colleague-to-colleague in the hope that you will keep in mind some basic facts about how this round of hostilities began, who started it, who is sponsoring Hamas and Hezbollah, and for what purpose?  No evaluation of the situation can be fair unless it is grounded in these realities.

We are especially sensitive to concerns regarding proportionality or collective punishment.  After all, it was Abraham, the first Jew, who challenged God's justice in "sweeping the innocent away with the guilty."   Does the search for three kidnapped soldiers justify Israel's aerial operations and its use of heavy armor and artillery?   Why not negotiate a prisoner exchange?   Because these questions the focus of debate among Jews in Israel and throughout the world, we understand how non-Jews who support Israel's right to defend itself (jus ad bellum) might oppose the way in which the operation is being conducted (jus in bello). 

In this regard, we ask that you remember that proportionality is calculated not by the event, but by the threat.  In the present instance, the menace facing Israel is larger than the specter of three captured soldiers.  Israel is confronting a regional threat, which begins with Iran, Syria and their proxy, Hezbollah, and stretches to the radical Islamic Palestinian group Hamas.  We endeavor to demonstrate this in the attached material. 

The four of us writing this letter cannot be characterized as "hawks."  One was primary drafter of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago's letter urging President Bush not to invade Iraq.   We are unanimous in advocating mutual concessions through diplomatic negotiations as the pathway to peace.  But we also appreciate that the exigencies of real-life situations must be considered when applying theoretical constructs. 
This letter, with its attachment, is intended to initiate a conversation, not end it.  We are eager to receive your response, in any way you choose to send it.   At day's end, all of us are committed to peace.  Let us not allow our differing visions of how peace can be achieved impede our mutual efforts in pursuit of a goal mandated by the God of all humankind.


Rabbi Victor Mirelman 
President, Chicago Board of Rabbis 
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz
Past President, Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago
Rabbi Herman Schaalman 
Past President, Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago
Rabbi Ira Youdovin
Past President, Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago

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July 21, 2006


I just wanted to add a few reflections to my earlier remarks in the Boston College website's "informal dialogue":

1)  Please understand those remarks as essentially focusing on one major moral question--the morality of collective punishment.  They do not represent my full position on the situation.  I fundamentally  agree with the thrust of the recent statements from the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vatican that Hezbollah started this situation and must be assigned principal blame for it. I also affirm the right of Israel to respond militarily while observing some constraints in line again with the thrust of these Catholic statements.  I would affirm that the basic jus ad bellum conditions have been met in terms of Israeli military action. 

2)  Despite the tragedy and suffering of the present hour, I for one also see some political shifts taking place that may lay the ground work for new peace efforts. The information released on July 20th that Egyptian negotiators have resumed meeting with Hamas to try to convince its leaders to divorce their cause from that of Hezbollah, the statements from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries which do not support Hezbollah and the comments of sectors of the Lebanese community reported in the Chicago Tribune as well as on the internet which spoke of the Lebanese President calling for the demilitarization of Hezbollah offer some positive indication of a shift towards substantive negotiations beyond merely a ceasefire.  To be sure, nothing will come easy in this regard and the situation is volatile--one reason why I feel it is in Israel's interest to show some restraints lest this developing shift collapse. I am not a naive idealist but I do find a bit of light here.

John Pawlikowski

July 23, 2006

It is with a full dose of humility that a non-theologian wades into these lofty discussions, but a couple of statements were of particular interest:

1. In his first response to Ruth Langer, John Pawlikowski writes, "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."

Now that got my attention! I for one would like to hear more about the nature of the "growing gap." In the current context of stress related to Israel's actions in Lebanon, this sounds ominous and disturbing. Can we hear more about this?

2. I agree with Ruth Langer that Israel has not excelled at explaining its actions. This has been particularly noticeable first, during the recent re-entry of Israel into Gaza, and now with the strategy and tactics being employed in Lebanon. This failure to explain may derive from a combination of factors, but it creates a serious problem which is alluded to in John Pawlikowski's July 17 opening note to this dialogue. He wrote, "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."

Being a member of one of those Jewish institutions, I agree. In my various interactions with Christians on the subject of Israel, I think one element of tension in discussions is the failure of the Jews in the room to allow for any moral failing (let alone failure of tactical or strategic military strategy) on the part of Israel. Thus, I take seriously John Pawlikowski's caution, "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 hear that not as a threat but as a loving admonition. As I told a Jewish colleague of mine today, "The divestment discussion was a fight about a hypothetical problem. That's now a distant memory. The real issue that Jews should be concerned about is not the hypothetical but real: is it possible that distrust and anger at the current administration's foreign policy fiascoes, combined with perceived brutish tactics on the part of Israel, can erode traditional support for Israel?"

As a loving defender, and loving critic, of Israel, that would be cause for concern indeed.

Eric Geller

July 25, 2006

Dear Colleagues:

One should not forget that Hezbollah is hiding behind civilians, instrumentalizing them not only as human shields but also as a calculated tool for propaganda against the Israeli side. This is not an act of cowardice but an act of psychological warfare. The dilemma in which the Israel Defense Force finds itself is not the one of its enemy. Its enemy is ruthless enough to sacrifice its own civilians. It does not have a moral problem with that. On the contrary: Hezbollah justifies such sacrifices as martyrdom.

Of course: Israel and her army has to abide to international laws and their own laws and moral standards according to the given framework by its enemy. But we have to understand that the disproportion is first and foremost on the side of Hezbollah and its Iranian mastermind who do not accept international laws. Their hatred is as unlimited as their intention to perpetrate atrocities. They have time and again declared that they are aiming to eliminate the Jewish State. Wars are always asymmetric. I worry whether in the end Israel is to pay a price because of the international community's illusions concerning the enemy and their permanent calling on Israel for proportionality. It is time to call on Hezbollah to restrain from blending with the civilian population. Of course Hezbollah will laugh at that. But the international community should put the blame on Hezbollah and its Iranian masters for civilian casualties and losses of infrastructure.

A debate on jus in bello which does not take into consideration who has started this war and what are their aims and means is turning a blind eye to the evil represented by Hezbollah.

Ekkehard W. Stegemann
Professor of New Testament at the University of Basel, Switzerland

July 28, 2006

These clearly are deeply troubling and difficult times, and I know that many people are struggling to find a framework for assimilating what is going on. Some of my own reservations and concerns as to certain attitudes being expressed by some Catholic intellectuals appear in the attached analysis of the statement recently issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, to which I would add the following observations:

A number of Israelis have been talking of creating a “new paradigm,” and I think that what is happening already reflects some of that. In none of its previous conflicts with an external enemy have the citizens of Israel themselves so borne the brunt of direct attack, with cities shelled and civilians killed and wounded on a daily basis. This is thus a unique war on the home front, but it is also reminiscent in one way of the 1967 War, when the Soviet Union was stirring the pot in an attempt to advance its (anti-American) hegemony in the Middle East as Iran can be said to be doing today. What is also unique about this conflict, however, is the religious component, with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas driven by a radical Islamic ideology that is colored by apocalyptic fervor.

In that light it has been said that this is the first war in which Israel is engaged which is not at its core an Israel-Arab conflict, and the response of some of the Arab states shows that they understand that. Given the basic principles and goals of Israel’s current adversaries, for whom this is a fight to the finish, reconciliation is not a possibility and negotiations and compromise make no sense. Most Israelis realize that, and I suggest that these are some of the realities that need to be taken into account by those who call for what they regard as a more “proportionate” response to the threat that Israel faces. Finally, I would point out it is not only Israel that is threatened by the Hezbollah-Syria-Iran axis but also Lebanon, “moderate” (mostly Sunni) Arab nations, and American interests.

None of this is meant to say that we should be unfeeling regarding the pain and suffering of Lebanese civilians. What it does mean is that there are complex issues at play here, some of them quite new, which it behooves us all to do our best to try to understand. And these kinds of observations perhaps explain why so many members of the Jewish community are troubled when they hear voices condemning Israel’s behavior that seem to fail to acknowledge what Israel in fact is up against.

Michael C. Kotzin,
Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago

July 28, 2006

Dear friends,

I am grateful to Michael Signer and others for sending us information directly from Jerusalem and Haifa. Perhaps otherwise in America and Europe despite our empathy the situation on the ground remains too distant from us. During these days I have been in touch with Jewish and Christian friends in Haifa, with some of whom I had met only a month ago at Stella Maris, a place that apparently has been hit by a Hezbollah rocket.

This evening I was able to speak on the phone with several people in the Focolare* community in Lebanon. In their retreat center in the mountains above Beirut they have taken in 120 refugees, most of them Muslims. They told me how the other day they decided to get together to read texts about peace. At the end they had a moment of prayer for peace, in which people expressed themselves in their own different ways. Living together so closely, and praying together in these trying times, has led them to a new and hitherto unthinkable depth of interfaith relations.

They expressed hope that the current crisis will end soon and that all the suffering will not be in vain, 

With warm regards,


Joseph Sievers, Director
The Cardinal Bea Centre for Judaic Studies,
Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome

[* Focolare is a Catholic movement of families, priests, women's and men's religious congregations, and Catholics of all ages that promotes the ideals of unity, dialogue, and universal brotherhood.]

July 31, 2006


I write this letter in response to the fascinating exchange on your site. Peace had a major influence on my life. I made a choice to come back to Israel as to my surprise peace erupted during the Oslo initiative and the process that followed. I was a strong supporter of the process and still am a peace dreamer.

Today, I write this email from my study at home, in my home city of Haifa, that has suffered a strong and most effective attack these days, claiming more then ten lives and wounding many others. I write from my home town where my wife, my kids, and I have been staying indoors for more then three weeks now, suffering tens of "live" attacks (in which a clear <boom> reflects the nearby fall of a bomb) and even more so false alarms (in which only terror arises and no falls - meaning it may still come ...). . So, I do not write from an objective bystander position, but I do write from a part of Haifa (Kababir) that is a Muslim and Jewish neighborhood, with a real belief that co-existence is a possibility and an alive and kicking reality.

I have read your discussion on the Jus in Bello criteria and I must say it does perplex me. No matter how I think about the issues of right and wrong in this war, I do not agree that Jus in Bello can be simply applied. Let me explain: The issue of proportionality is not related to the proportionality of damage inflicted on you but only in relation to the cause of using the force; retaliation is not a cause and not reason to use force, thus killing just the same numbers if it does not help in stopping the aggression is not justifiable according to any moral norms, including jus in bello.

Whom you attack is also an issue: you need to target the offenders. While it is common even in Israel to separate the Hezbollah from the Lebanese people, this is very problematic reasoning. The facts that there is a Hezbollah member in the Lebanese government, that there are Hezbollah members as an integral part of the Lebanese parliament, and that most if not all these terrorists are Lebanese in nationality and residence make this whole distinction questionable. Yet, it might perhaps become an effective perspective and therefore I am in favor of redefining the government and state responsibility in the Lebanese case. Lebanon may be a partner for peace (not a friend, a partner) and the Hezbullah probably will not..

I am, however, not in agreement with those who invoked Jus in Bello regarding excessive force. One may argue that the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were excessive force. They were clearly effective in bringing further aggression to an end, yet the argument will always be whether less force or one less bomb, or conventional force without resorting to "the bomb" would have done the job. Moreover, I think that although large parts of Beirut were hurt, it is a fact that most parts were not - that reflects discrimination. Should there not be such discrimination a vast minority if not the majority of the Israeli public would turn against this war. Any Israeli leader knows it. Furthermore, discrimination in Lebanon is part of what Israelis see as effectiveness, we want the majority of Lebanese against Hezbollah, not with it against us.

I think we should invoke what I call the Principle of Moral Economy: the need to choose the most effective measures to reach the just goals of unavoidable war while inflicting minimum damage on soldiers, non-combatants, and non-military targets. In the war against Terror in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Gaza - it is definitely my feeling that we resort to "Just War" too easily and simplistically. I have a clear feeling that we have all violated Moral Economy in the ways we get caught in a cycle of escalating measures. We all resort to just the "Just War" self-servingly. I personally, would rather see an international shift to avoidance of war first, Moral Economy if the war started and leave the discussion on Just war to the very important post-mortem analysis of war.

It is with grief that I learned of the events in Qana. As a father myself, especially in recent weeks, I identify with the victims. As an Israeli I understand the energetic if not joyful reaction of the Hezbollah. They have been the only winners in this situation. There could not have ever been something so damaging to Israel. But I mostly grieve about the issue of moral economy. The whole international community is taking a narrow "just" but not a "morally economic" call for an immediate ceasefire. This will clearly lead us to another round of violence very soon - that will be more disastrous and certainly escalate. What is needed is "a solution" not a cease fire per se. This solution needs to take into account the imperfect way the leaders in the area think and react, the needed balances and the neighboring players, Egypt, Syria and Iran included, making sure Egyptian superiority in the area and hegemony in the Arab world will be sustained.

Ofer Markman
Haifa, Israel

August 8, 2006

Thank you all for your exchange of views at this painful time. I have put the link to your discussion site into our newsletter, EcuNotes, at

Israel, of course, has the right to defend itself. Missiles raining down on the Israeli civilian population, whether two or two hundred are unacceptable. I understand that Hezbollah has built bunkers and imported missiles for the last ten years. That is an extraordinarily serious situation, which needs addressing, but perhaps not by Israel alone.
It seems to me that the situation needed addressing quite some time ago and that the Israeli-Palestinian situation, along with the Israeli-Lebanon struggle, has suffered because of a lack of U.S. leadership in the peace process. If Israelis and Palestinians could have made peace without our specific encouragement, it seems to me that they would have done so by now. But such encouragement has to be offered to all the actors, including the ones we are not fond of, if there is to be a realistic alternative to an eternal state of war, terrorism and survivalism.
I believe that the situation of a 'state within' (Hezbollah) being vastly better organized and equipped than the nation-state without (Lebanon) had to be addressed. Likewise I agree that Hezbollah in Lebanon is not a legitimate state actor. Yet, problematically, the leaders who have worked on behalf of the people in southern Lebanon and taken an interest in their lives and livelihoods appear to be none other than the pseudo-government of Hezbollah. It seems highly inadequate for Israel to tell the people of Lebanon by force of arms that they should not rely on religious zealots and warlords and at the very same time to further weaken the Lebanese central government.
In that vein I question the Israeli decision to destroy southern Lebanon's civilian infrastructure. The plunge into chaos can only favor those who have learned to prey on others in the midst of chaos. Civilians who might have been moderating their views toward Israel in peaceful times will now be pushed toward extremism.
In particular, the Lebanese people seem to have paid a disproportionately high price for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the 80s and now for the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict. Is their suffering a necessary price they are involuntarily paying for the security of Israel? Or, as once more, a proxy battleground between the superpowers, this time the U.S. and Iran? I would not now be asking these questions if such had not already happened several times within my lifespan.
My gut instinct regarding the IDF [Israel Defense Force] trying not to kill civilians and yet trucks and vans being fired upon, is that all of this is very reminiscent of the United States' actions in Fallujah, Iraq. The U.S. said it was not firing on civilians, yet past a certain point if you were a civilian in Fallujah or trying to get away from there, you were toast.  There were many, many reports--some from international human rights organizations--that the U.S. fired on refugee columns, on people swimming away from the city and on ambulances and civilian cars carrying injured people to hospitals. Armies say one thing and do another because their mission, generally speaking, is to destroy the enemy and anyone else who is in the way.
How a society solves its problems, internal and external, often depends on which subgroup is the most highly organized and laden with investment.  In a recent Commonweal review of Shlomo Ben-Ami's book Margaret O'Brien Steinfels described the long-term trend of the "'militarization" of Israeli foreign policy, in which military solutions seem to have been the preferred Israeli mode of settling differences. Ben-Ami reportedly contends that Israeli acquiescence to peace negotiations has been the exception rather than the rule. In conversations with Jewish friends who continue to work hard to support Israel I have heard analgous observations, to wit, that the best and the brightest people go into the Israeli army, not the rabbinate or scientific or social research in universities. For too long the Israeli army has, by default, commandeered social resources and quite literally called the foreign policy shots, leaving a scant role for diplomats, negotiators, economists, environmentalists and co-existence workers on both sides. 
I want to close by asking a question which has haunted me throughout this war: what is the desired end-state of Israel's actions in Lebanon? In an August 3 essay in the New York Times, Israeli Gershom Gorenberg asked similar questions: "Did those who proposed an Israeli version of 'shock and awe' consider ... how much support [would be] enlisted for Hezbollah, and how much [this policy would ] hurt those in the Arab world who sought accommodation with [Israel]?  Was anyone but the military asked for options, and had the military – in the years of watching Hezbollah – come up with no other possibilities? What options were presented beside massive force?"
You are all in my prayers-- as well as the peoples of Israel and Lebanon.
Louise Barnes Vera
Ecumenical and Interfaith Officer, Archdiocese of Cincinnati


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