‘This is one of the most emotionally charged times I have known’

Israeli and Palestinian activists join in a protest for peace near Jericho in the West Bank Feb. 9. Photo: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters
Published April 1, 2024

Rising tension and polarization in Israel amid Gaza war, Jerusalem priest says

The surprise attacks by Hamas against southern Israel last Oct. 7, which involved the targeting of civilians and the taking of hundreds of hostages, and Israel’s subsequent attack on Gaza marked a dramatic new escalation in the Israel-Palestine conflict. By the time this issue was being prepared in early March ceasefire talks were underway, but more than 30,000 Gazans and 1,400 Israelis had been killed. Israeli airstrikes had left much of Gaza in ruins, while an Israeli blockade of Gaza was preventing humanitarian aid from reaching its people, leading to widespread famine and disease.

Attitudes on both sides have hardened since the start of the war. According to polls by the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, released in early November 2023, 57.5 per cent of Israeli Jews thought the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had used too little firepower in Gaza and only 10 per cent supported a pause in fighting to exchange hostages. A poll released in December by the Palestinian Center for Policy Survey and Research, a think tank based in the West Bank, found that 72 per cent of Palestinians supported Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Fr. David Neuhaus is a Jesuit priest who has lived among both Palestinians and Israelis. Born in South Africa to Jewish parents, Neuhaus first arrived in Israel at the age of 15 and has since spent most of his life there. After converting to Roman Catholicism, he began an academic career and is now a guest professor of sacred scripture, biblical theology and Judaism at Salesian Pontifical University’s Jerusalem campus. Neuhaus shared his perspectives on the war and Israeli society by email with the Anglican Journal.

Can you tell us about your background, your faith journey to Roman Catholicism, and how you ended up working at your present position in Jerusalem?

Fr. David Neuhaus. Photo: Contributed

I am a Jew born in South Africa to parents who had fled Nazi Germany in 1936. In 1977 I was sent for the first time to Jerusalem in the midst of the unrest that would lead to the fall of apartheid many years later. From then on Jerusalem became the centre of my life. In 1980, when I finished high school, I became an Israeli citizen. An important element right from the beginning of my life in Jerusalem has been the fact that I was quasi-adopted into a Muslim Palestinian family and not only learnt Arabic but also became intimately familiar with Palestinian life in Israel-Palestine.

At the age of 26, I was baptized into the Catholic Church. This was the culmination of a faith journey that had begun at the age of 15 in Jerusalem, when I met an elderly Russian Orthodox nun who shone with the radiant joy of faith in Jesus Christ. It was joy that led me to Him, joy that despite the darkness that sometime enshrouds us, witnesses to the victory over death in Christ’s resurrection. When I completed my PhD in political science, I entered the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and began a formation process that took me to the United States, Egypt, France and Italy, and that peaked with my ordination to the priesthood in 2000. I then began teaching Scripture in Catholic institutions in Israel and Palestine. I have also been active for many years in pastoral work with migrants and asylum seekers.

You’ve lived most of your life in Israel. Have you noticed any significant change in attitude among ordinary people you encounter in your life and work since Oct. 7?

On the Jewish Israeli side, there has been a deepening of a sense of profound unease. Most Israelis have little knowledge of Palestinian life in Israel and under Israeli occupation in Palestine. The intense explosion of violence on Oct. 7, 2023, when about 3,000 militants from the Gaza Strip swarmed into Israel, leading to the murder of about 1,200, destruction and the kidnapping of over 240 people, has left many Israelis shocked, grief-stricken, fearful and angry. This is one of the most emotionally charged times I have known.

It coincides with the most right-wing government that Israel has ever known, a government that seeks to push Palestinians even further into the margins of history. This government contains extremists who already sought before Oct. 7 to completely dominate the Palestinians by processes of violent repression, racist incitement and discrimination. Since Oct. 7, they have tried to control public opinion, pushing the Israeli government to commit to further polarization and refusal of any negotiated settlement to a conflict that has been ongoing since 1948, when Israel was established, and even before then.

What are views about the war like among those you encounter? How would you characterize the respective feelings of Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs—whether Arabs in the occupied territories or those who are citizens of Israel?

Most Jewish Israelis support the war. They see it as a war of self-defense against aggression from the Palestinians. Many seem to believe that the problem began on Oct. 7 with the invasion of the militants, choosing to ignore the long decades of brutal Israeli occupation and far-reaching discrimination inside a state that has become more and more ethnocentric. Many Israelis feel attacked on all sides, from Gaza but also from south Lebanon with the military actions of Hezbollah and those of the Houthis in Yemen.

Israeli soldiers embrace at the funeral in Rishon Lezion, Israel Feb. 22 of a comrade killed in the Gaza Strip. Photo: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

Furthermore, many Israelis sense a change in public opinion worldwide, claiming that there is a resurgence of antisemitism. However, it is also true that much of Israeli media focuses almost uniquely on the horrors of Oct. 7 and Israeli suffering in the wake of the latest round of the war, ignoring to a large extent the catastrophic consequences of the war on the residents of the Gaza Strip.

For Palestinians, the present war is just another stage in Israeli aggression, even if intensified in the past months. They demand justice, which means both freedom from occupation and equality, meaning having the same rights as Jewish

Israelis. Palestinians, whether living under Israeli occupation or within Israel as second-class citizens, see the war as another stage in an ongoing Nakba (the word used to describe the catastrophe that began with the loss of their homeland in 1948). Palestinians demand not just an end to the war, but a long-term settlement that will ensure a peace based upon justice.

You were born in South Africa. Do you think comparisons between South African apartheid and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians today are fair?

The comparison, long proposed by Palestinians, began to be seriously formulated by certain Jewish Israelis critical of their own government about 20 years ago. It began with the condemnation of the Israeli occupation of the territories ruled by Israel since 1967, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Residents of these territories do not enjoy basic freedoms and human rights, controlled by an Israeli military that seeks only to ensure the security of Jews in Israel. The political, social, economic and cultural development of these territories is severely impeded, and residents suffer continual violations of their rights to freedom of movement, political association and family unification.

For the past 57 years, Palestinians in these territories have not only been subject to Israeli control but also have had their lands confiscated to create extensive pockets of Jewish Israeli colonies which have been developed and expanded. These Jewish Israeli settlements do not live under Israeli military rule and their residents enjoy the freedoms enjoyed by all other Jewish Israelis. However, the problem is not only manifest in the territories under Israeli occupation.

Since 1948, a Palestinian Arab population has been an integral part of the citizenry of the State of Israel. However, these Israeli citizens do not enjoy the same rights as Jewish Israelis. Although they can vote and participate in political life, they are clearly discriminated against in the distribution of the state’s budgets, a discrimination that is manifest when examining development, education, health care, police activity and culture in Palestinian Arab neighbourhoods and towns as compared to Jewish areas.

Relatives mourn two Palestinians killed in an Israeli raid at a ceremony in Tulkarm, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Feb. 8. Photo: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

Israel prides itself on being a democratic and a Jewish state. However, in recent years legislation has been introduced strengthening the Jewish elements in the state, resulting in a more ethnocentric and less democratic political regime. For all these reasons, the suggestion that Israel is indeed guilty of practicing apartheid must be looked at closely.

What are your thoughts on South Africa’s case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) alleging genocidal intent by Israel in its attack on Gaza, and the ICJ’s preliminary ruling Jan. 26 that found it “plausible” Israel has committed acts in Gaza violating the Genocide Convention?

South Africa’s case against Israel with regard to the latest round in the war in Gaza is an important expression of support for the Palestinians and real concern about what is happening in Gaza. Supporters of Israel focus on the horrors of Oct. 7, 2023 and there is no doubt that horrific crimes were committed that day. However, South Africa has pointed out two things that are essential if we are to understand the present situation and formulate a discourse that leads us beyond the present reality.

Firstly, the war did not begin on Oct. 7. The reprehensible and criminal acts that were committed by Palestinians on Oct. 7 are inexcusable, yet they are a reaction to decades of repression, violence and discrimination. Seventy per cent of the population in the Gaza Strip are descendants of refugees who lost their homes in the 1948 [Arab-Israeli] War. Many have been living in dismal refugee camps since then. Israel occupied the strip in 1967 and did nothing to alleviate the situation. Unilaterally withdrawing in 2005, Israel almost immediately imposed a siege on the strip and has repeatedly attacked it, leading to massive loss of life and destruction. It cannot be a surprise that radical and violent resistance is born out of this human catastrophe that has endured for the past 76 years.

Secondly, Israel has claimed that it has the right to self-defence. However, the disproportionality in Israel’s reaction is shocking. More than 30,000 people have been killed by the Israeli military. Huge parts of the strip have been flattened. More than 80 per cent of the population has been evicted from their homes and forced to flee to the south of the strip, where there is no infrastructure to receive them. Israeli political and military leading figures have been making blood-curdling statements that reveal not only hatred but the desire for revenge, conjuring up images of genocide.

South Africa’s own history certainly makes it the appropriate country to raise the questions that were raised at the ICJ.

How do you see the role of Christians in this conflict?

Within Israel-Palestine, the Christian community is small but important because of its institutions (educational, health, welfare) and its integration and activism in Israel and Palestine. Most Christians are Palestinians and many are supremely aware that the continuation of war makes it more and more difficult for Christians to survive in the land of their ancestors, the land where Christianity was born. Marginal in [population] numbers (only two per cent in Israel and one per cent in Palestine), they can be ignored by the major actors and yet their voice is important because they can promote certain values that are all too absent from the public domain: non-violence, dialogue, reconciliation and pardon. Leading Christian figures like Roman Catholic emeritus Patriarch Michel Sabbah, Anglican Canon Naim Ateek, Lutheran theologians Mitri Raheb and Munther Isaac and others have been seminal in formulating a discourse that proposes these values for building a future in which Israelis and Palestinians can live together.

With regard to the Christian community abroad, it needs to play a more central role, especially in the United States and Europe. The tragedy in Israel-Palestine has its roots in the history of Western Christianity. It derives from troubling elements of Christian culture and politics: anti-Judaism and antisemitism, Islamophobia and racism, colonialism and the building of empires for the benefit of the Christian privileged classes. Jews made their way to Palestine at least in part because of the outbursts of antisemitic violence in European countries, culminating in the Shoah [Holocaust] during the Second World War. It was during the British colonial rule in Palestine that Jewish migration to Palestine was encouraged and a Jewish homeland there was envisioned, completely ignoring the local population of Palestinians.

Troublingly, the Bible was mobilized to justify the support for a contemporary political program that led to the creation of an ethnocentric Jewish state and the marginalization of the Palestinian people. There is a great need for the renewal of biblical studies in order to eradicate the manipulation of the Bible to foment conflict. [Christians must] continue to uproot the weeds of racist discourse, whether directed at Jews or Muslims, Arabs or Israelis. Most importantly, the role of Christians is essential in formulating a language about and a vision of the Holy Land in which peace based on justice is not just a rhetorical device, but a real possibility.


  • Matthew Puddister

    Matthew Puddister (aka Matt Gardner) is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Puddister worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Puddister has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He also supports General Synod's corporate communications.

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