Theological Reflections on the Events that have unfolded in Israel and Gaza

Shortly after the tragedies of October 7, 2023 occurred in Israel and the response by Israel Defense Force in Gaza, members of the theology committee of the ICCJ offered personal reflections on these events.

These reflections emerged from members’ religious perspectives. They are not definitive, nor intended to determine how others are to think about these tragic events. We sought, back then, to offer ways of bringing our respective traditions to bear on the tragedies that unfolded and continue to do so. We hope and pray for the release of all hostages and a genuine and lasting peace.

Michael Trainor
Chair of the ICCJ Theology Committe
March, 2024

On October 7, 2023, both a Sabbath and a Jewish festival, the nihilistic terror organization, Hamas, carried out a rocket attack as well as a cold-blooded massacre on the ground of civilian Israelis, most of whom were Jews, including infants and the elderly. About 1200 Israelis and others, such as foreign workers, were killed. The attack involved unprecedented brutality, including mass rape, and the taking of many hostages into captivity in Gaza.

In response, the State of Israel, through its Army and other defense forces, declared war on Hamas. As of early January, 2024, this war is now ending its third month, with massive destruction, including a high toll of civilian casualties, in Gaza. What is of special concern to those of us engaged in interreligious dialogue is the unprecedented rise in antisemitic incidents throughout the world, since the beginning of the war. There has been popular conflation of Hamas with the Palestinian people, and a conflation of the present Israeli government with Israel or even world Jewry. Even on elite university campuses, there seems to be no awareness of the complex issues involved, as shallow, ignorant slogans are chanted in the name of “woke” consciousness.

As religious Jews and Christians, the life of all human beings, created in the Divine Image, is sacred. Thus, we feel compassion for the innocent victims on both sides of the conflict.

Since the Second Vatican Council, many Jews have begun to see Christian and Christian institutions as partners in the struggle against antisemitism. Unfortunately, institutionalized Christianity has been replaced as a source of antisemitism by some radical groups within Islam. Groups like ISIS and Hamas have become a major challenge not only to the Jewish people but to the entire civilized world. Hamas is a genocidal, racist, misogynist and homophobic organization which should be seen as such.

The lionizing of Hamas and the demonizing of Israel are theological challenges for Jews and Christians alike.

Dialogue may sound soft, but history suggests it is hard. It takes its toll. It may be pleasant at the beginning (the “bagels and samosas” phase), when parties are delicately getting to know each other. (This is not to dismiss this stage; it is typically necessary.) But the substance of dialogue is serious engagement with difference. It is not impossible that dialogue can lead to agreement; it is more likely to mean a better quality of disagreement. There is nothing defeatist in this. Apparently, Wittgenstein thought that the saying “it takes all sorts to make a world” was among the most profound. I am inclined to agree.

I am a Briton and an active member (ordained priest) in the Church of England. This greatly shapes my perspective on the nature of “dialogue”. In the first place, I come to the discussion with real embarrassment. My own Church – and even more so the Anglican Communion it belongs to – is riven with calcifying division and raw conflict. If you know (of) my Church, you will know the subject matter: it is sexuality and in particular the sexuality of persons who identify as LGBT+. The Church of England has had its own detailed dialogue-process, called Living in Love and Faith. I pass no comment on that. I have not been involved. But I have had some engagement with the wider debate. And here the conversation tends to involve all the machinations of a secular political slanging-matches. It can be slogan against slogan (“The Bible is clear”… “love is love”…). I believe that sloganizing severely betrays the true genius of Anglicanism, namely a careful, time-consuming, gracious interweaving of Scripture, tradition, and reason (articulated best by Richard Hooker,1554-1600). My Church can leave me deflated.

As a Briton, and more particularly as a Briton in my 50s, however, I am not given to despair, in considering conflicts. The singular greatest news item from my youth was “The Troubles” in the North of Ireland. These seemed intractable. Indeed, it was not unheard-of for my fellow countrypeople to consider that the conflict was innate. A colleague, who was far from stupid or bigoted in general, once put the whole thing down to “those Celts”. Nevertheless, a peace settlement came about (which is not to say that Northern Ireland is a shining example of a modern inclusive democracy). By happiest coincidence I landed in Ireland as a student just days after the Combined Loyalist Command declared their ceasefire. I feel close to this context. I cannot say this makes me optimistic (probably not in my nature) or hopeful (in the sense of full of hope), but it does make me consistently hope-bearing.

For theological resources, I must and gladly do echo the emphases of my colleagues here, who bring us back to the biblical fundamentals: every human being – including the ones who oppose you, or whom you cannot stand – is made in the image of Gd. There is a core equality in a core dignity. It is worth noting that this has never been a belief which can “come naturally” to us. Our every experience of the human family is one of radical difference, including in the nature of dignity human beings demand and receive. To this, we indeed remember that the command to “love your neighbor”, shared similarly between Jews and Christians, is about that core respect, and a discipline of practice. It neither requires nor assumes warm feelings.

I may add that I do not believe the giving and receiving of equal dignity is merely notional. It requires that in any dialogue, the structures are fair, are agreed-on. All parties have equal time. All parties commit to active listening. Ideally, all parties will summarize the position of the other in a way the other will recognize, before adding their own views. “Time out” is better than recourse to an anger which feeds on itself. This list is suggestive, not exhaustive. These are real onerous demands, and participants will fall short. But they are best set out as the frame. In this context, I am reminded of an assertion from Stanley Samartha (1920-2001), first director of the Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies of the World Council of Churches, who said that he would dialogue with the very devil, providing the medium was the language of Indian English! We may stop short of that. But equally we know that if we – be it subconsciously – seek out people from other faiths whose core disposition is pretty much like ours, we have cheated ourselves.

None of this describes how dialogue happens when dialogue has broken down. But it seeks to clear an imagined space for dialogue, and insist that in that space something – some good thing – remains possible.

I sit here in the quiet of a comfortable Brooklyn apartment. Outside the winter sun shines brilliantly. Somewhere a jackhammer throbs; some sort of repairs are being done. I want to say something meaningful, drawing on my tradition. What does my tradition have to say that can give me a framework in which to make meaning of the unspeakable tragedy of Oct. 7 and the war that has ensued?

The war is not “over there” being waged in Israel and Gaza. It has spilled over in a wave of antisemitism that has not been seen in the U.S., where I write this, since World War II. Death threats are made, vandalism, tearing down posters of the hostages, and the creation of a climate of fear in many sectors as groups of people face off: pro-Palestinian versus pro-Israel. Palestine and the Palestinians are confused with Hamas, Jews equated with the present government of Israel. The legitimacy of Israel’s existence is called into question. In this country the surge in antisemitism is occurring in a context of social, political and religious polarization. People demonize those holding different identities, opinions or political positions from themselves. Jews in this country are experiencing not only the trauma of Oct 7, with the loss of lives – often of loved ones – and the loss of sense of safety that Israel has given Jews in the diaspora as well as in Israel itself. They are also experiencing a resurgence of antisemitism in this country, on the left as well as on the right.

I find it very difficult indeed to speak meaningfully in this context. There are two elements in Christian tradition that help me. The first is the tradition that human beings – all human beings – are made in the “image of God” (Gen 1:27). That image may be obscured by the person’s decision to engage in evil, by a person’s refusal to acknowledge the divine image of the other. But, in the midst of the polarization, I must treat the other person as being the image of God. I cannot allow myself to be swept into the politics of demonization that obscures that image.

That is easy in relation to Jewish friends, neighbors, colleagues. It is not so easy in relation to those who are on “the other side.” There is a second element in Christian tradition that helps me.  I think that the most radical statement in the Christian tradition is “love your enemies” (Lk 6:27-36; Matt 5:43-38), a teaching that needs to be seen in the context of Jewish traditions present already in Scripture (Lev 19:18; Prov 24:17; 25:21) and Second Temple sources such as Sir 27:30-28:7. The teaching about love of enemies does not have anything to do with feelings. It has to do with how we regard and treat our “enemies.” Matthew and Luke both tell us this is grounded in the divine example (“be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”; Matt 5:48; “Be merciful as your Father is merciful”; 6:36).

Jewish-Christian dialogue is always many faceted. Thinking about the U.S. context, where so many Jews feel alone in the wake of Oct. 7, I am reminded that Jewish-Christian relations are primarily about relationships. Sometimes – often – institutional response to the tragedy of Oct. 7 has been inadequate or even insensitive, but on the micro level, it calls for the maintaining of those relationships. In many ways, I as a Christian friend, can say nothing, much as I can often say nothing in the face of a grieving friend’s loss of a loved one. But I can send a brief email, make a phone call, go for coffee. I can listen.     

I use the material cited above, not as a reflection on the conduct of the war, but as a resource for ongoing dialogue in this country, where conversation so often breaks down. How can we be present, stay in the same metaphorical room with those who are different? The best of my tradition challenges me not to fall into the patterns of polarization, but to join with others in finding a way through the conflicts here in the U.S. around the war. When that is not possible, I am still commanded to love my enemy. If I join in actions, such as signing a petition for a cease-fire, I can use some guiding questions:
- Does it recognize the full humanity of Palestinians?
- Does it recognize the full humanity of Israeli Jews?
(see: "Israel Therapy: Should I sign an open letter calling for a cease-fire?" by Libby Lenkinski,, 17.11.2023)
Finally, there is the need to be informed, not only among ourselves, but even more in relation to those others whose lives we touch, who may have very little adequate information. HaAretz and The Forward are online English-language sources readily available.

In the aftermath of October 7th, those involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue are facing new challenges. Certainly, this statement can be made with regards to dialogue at other levels, including those beyond religion, but my focus in this paper is specifically on Jewish-Christian dialogue. In particular, the participants in Jewish-Christian dialogue need to constructively respond to the question of how to build upon, and even deepen, the achievements made in the field throughout the decades after the Shoah in light of the current developments. The atrocities perpetrated on Israelis by Hamas on October 7th and the subsequent upsurge of expressions of antisemitism throughout the world were followed by the (rightful!) feelings by many Jews of being hurt and betrayed due to what they perceived as a lack of support and solidarity from their Christian partners in this difficult situation. At the same time, there is the terrible plight of Palestinians and the (again, rightful!) perception by many Palestinians that Palestinian lives do not matter. This, inter alia, leads many to ask how to go about the Jewish-Christian dialogue, if not to outright challenge its meaning.

In this brief text, I cannot possibly provide any ready-made solutions to address this situation. What I would like to aim at is suggesting tradition and trust as two key ingredients to be considered when thinking about the future of Jewish-Christian dialogue. Now, these concepts are certainly no newcomers in the field of dialogue (quite the contrary!) but I believe they now deserve a higher degree of attention and prominence than ever.

First, the importance of engaging tradition critically but constructively should be highlighted. I do not see tradition as a mere addendum to Scripture, as is often the case in the Protestant Christian discourse. In my understanding, tradition is a broad and dynamic movement throughout time and space which situates oneself in relation to the divine, other human beings, and the world. Through my Protestant Christian lens, specifically, tradition can be (helpfully, I believe) understood in terms of a story of God with God’s creation. In principle, it is an open story. One is invited to situate oneself therein and to find one’s place and construe one’s identity with regard to God, people, and creation. Now, there are many challenging, problematic, and even potentially destructive elements in tradition. The way to go about them, I am convinced, is not to ignore them. We are not to turn a blind eye and pretend they do not exist. However, I am equally convinced that dismissing tradition is not the way to go either. (After all, I do not think it is even possible; one cannot basically start from scratch – there is always a story we enter). A constructive way is to address the challenging and/or problematic aspects, critically and constructively. It is possible to couch this process in terms of revisiting, reimagining, and reinterpreting. Not only as an individual but as a community. And this is where the role of the partner in dialogue becomes crucial, even indispensable. We can help each other to see our blind spots and respond to our sore points.

However, to be able to walk this path, trust is required. And thereby I am coming to my second point. Trust is a sine qua non of dialogue. In Jewish-Christian dialogue, as elsewhere, this insight has been established a long time ago. Personal relationships and friendships as the basis of trust have been built over years and decades. What I would like to point out here, however, is that trust is never given once and for all. It is something that one needs to constantly work on; it is, at the same time, a horizon we are together walking toward and the air we breathe while walking the walk. And the events and circumstances, such as those described above in this text, pose a constant challenge to trust. Again, the constant, intentional, and everyday pursuit of fostering personal relationships is, I believe, the best way to build trust. Even before October 7th, its importance became evident, I note, during the Covid-19 pandemic when we were all limited to living in our tiny social bubbles for in-person encounter. Broader connection was possible via online encounter only. To use the financial language, during that time one lived off the interests on the investment made through personal relationships from the pre-Covid-19 times. What I seek to argue here is that in-person relationship is irreplaceable; online encounter alone does not seem to be an adequate alternative. Again, speaking from my Protestant theological perspective, we as people are embodied beings, rooted in our particular contexts and stories. As such, we interact with others. Similarly, trust is something that we pursue and work toward as embodied beings, fostering our relationships and friendships.

Revisiting, reimagining, and reinterpreting our traditions and, at the same time, engaging in the constant pursuit of trust in our relationships as embodied beings, I hope and pray that the situations we live in can become a catalyst for deepening Jewish-Christian dialogue.

I write these words aware that I am not amid the suffering and tragedies that are unfolding in Israel and Gaza, that I am neither Jewish or Muslim, and that I write from a relatively safe environment on the edge of the universe far away from where the war occurs. I am an Australian Catholic Christian and cannot speak with any authority on what is occurring. I even think that I am perhaps even not worthy to say anything, knowing of the suffering of Jewish and Muslim friends deeply affected, even traumatised by these historic and painful events.
But I have been reflecting on what is happening and offer two thoughts, realising the inadequacy of these words, even thinking that perhaps silence is the best response.

The first is that as a Catholic priest in a parish of a suburban parish in Adelaide, South Australia, I gather weekly, sometimes daily, with parishioners. I carry into my worship and prayer my connection with Jewish and Muslims friends that I am in contact with, and I know are suffering. We, in the parish, are with them as we pray for peace and a quick resolution to the war between Israel and Gaza and the return of hostages. Every time we gather for Eucharist, we gather the kidnapped, the poor, the sick, the dying and the dead, our Beloved Dead and those thousands who have died in Israel and Gaza. When I celebrate the Eucharist with the parishioners I place on the altar-table our parish’s “Book of the Dead”. This is a symbolic connection to all those I think about who have died. They, too, are with me in the prayer.
When I pray the Eucharist with parishioners the are several forms that this prayer can take. There is one form that I have been using consistently over these weeks. It comes from “Masses of Reconciliation”.  Its sentiment and spirit are so pertinent to what is unfolding around us. This prayer, addressed to God, begins with these words,

  • It is truly right and just that we should give you thanks and praise, O God, almighty Father, for all you do in this world, through our Lord Jesus Christ. For though the human race is divided by dissension and discord, yet we know that by testing us you change our hearts to prepare them for reconciliation. Even more, by your Spirit you move human hearts that enemies may speak to each other again, adversaries may join hands, and peoples seek to meet together. By the working of your power it comes about, O Lord, that hatred is overcome by love, revenge gives way to forgiveness, and discord is changed to mutual respect.

When I pray these words I pray that they will become a reality in our world, especially in Israel and Gaza, that hearts will be “changed” and “moved” towards reconciliation, and that enemies enter into dialogue with each other, that there will be real negotiation and that hatred, revenge and division will be finally replaced by love, forgiveness and mutual respect. The sentiment of this prayer must be the way of the future in any war or conflict. Violence only breeds violence. I think, too, of those countless children, of a whole generation who will grow with the tragedy and suffering that they have experienced. How will the next generation deal with the aftermath of the present? What will their future look like? And, in years to come, how will they look at the other person who is culturally or religiously different than them?
Somehow, from this part of the world, from our parish and amongst parishioners, we seek to deepen the much-needed spirit of forgiveness, offer hospitality and friendship to each other and continue to do little deeds of kindness that might have some small but wider influence.

Second, I am touched by these words from Sister Camelia, a Sister of Nazareth, who is associated with a convent to which I have brought pilgrims and students over the years on my pilgrimages to Israel and to Nazareth. She writes,

  • We are tired of the darkness of ideologies in a land where the Lord illuminated the world with his glorious Resurrection, tired of discrimination in a land where Christ came to unite the children of Abraham. Are we still capable of throwing off our cloaks, running to Jesus and hearing him say to us: "What do you want me to do for you?" Anything is possible: when I extend my hand in greeting and say a word of hope and life; when I join my Muslim neighbour who asks me to pray with him and beg Allah to save us from this catastrophe; when I listen to a Jewish technician rebel against hasty decisions that lead to death; when my heart weeps for the victims, whatever their background. When, instead of hiding behind the veil of fear, I use it to wipe the disfigured face of humanity. (see: "In the Holy Land, wiping the disfigured face of humanity" by Marie-Armelle Beaulieu,, 6.11.2023)

These words invite meditating upon. Sister Camelia sees in Jews and Muslims whom she meets an opportunity to be with them, to extend a hand of greeting and a word of hope. They invite her to “wipe the disfigured face of humanity.” Returning to my earlier reflection on celebrating Catholic Eucharist in the parish, I see us in my local Catholic parish join her in not hiding “behind the veil of fear” but “wiping the disfigured face of humanity”.

We continue to pray and act with faith and hope.

Please note:
The views, opinions, and conclusions expressed by the author(s) of this article do not necessarily represent the views of the ICCJ, its Executive Board, or its national member organizations.