Even before 9/11 there was little doubt that winning the propaganda war can turn the tide in a real war. This should be kept in mind as we assess the recent Israeli attack on the Gaza aid flotilla. An excellent place to start is by reading George Friedman’s Flotillas and the Wars of Public Opinion, published by Stratfor Global Intelligence. The Turkish NGO that organized the aid flotilla was apparently doing more than to assist innocent Palestinians suffering from an unjust blockade. Its leaders sought to provoke an Israeli over-reaction that would bring down the world’s condemnation, damage Turkish-Israeli relations, alienate the United States from Israel, and possibly provoke an internal political crisis in Israel itself. In so doing, the flotilla’s organizers were borrowing a strategy employed by Zionists against the British in the late 1940s in the run-up to Israeli independence.
The current Israeli government has played along with this strategy, seemingly falling into the trap set for it and willingly suffering the consequences hoped for by its enemies. I will not leap to Israel’s defence here. Given that virtually all my Cypriot relatives lost their homes in 1974, I have considerable sympathy for the plight of Palestinian refugees. At the same time, the complexities of the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian standoff should rule out any rush to judgement against Israel. A functioning Palestinian state could have got off the ground long ago, if Palestinians had been better served by their own leadership.
How have North American Christians responded to the events of a week ago? As indicated on the National Council of Churches website, the major protestant denominations and the World Council of Churches have condemned the Israeli attack. On the surface it is difficult to disagree with these assessments. Israel’s blockade has caused hardship for the innocent residents of Gaza, and it has had next to no impact in loosening Hamas’ hold on that troubled territory. The principles of the just war do not countenance a military strategy aimed at civilians.
That said, Hamas and similar groups do not shrink from hiding amongst civilians to achieve their goal of antagonizing Israel. When Israel strikes back as expected, and when civilians die, virtually the entire world blames Israel and not the cowardly terrorists who initially provoked that country into its action and, in effect, used innocent Palestinians as hostages. The churches chime in along with these others, offering no distinctive insight that might flow from their commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I am not particularly enamoured of churches as institutions pronouncing on complex issues of public policy and international relations, at least partly because of their tendency to assume that all such issues can be viewed as cosmic struggles between a good side and an evil side, the line between which can be easily identified. However, real-life politics does not admit of such facile categorizations. Few political issues see an obvious division between justice and injustice, oppressor and oppressed. One is far more likely to see conflict between two different conceptions of justice — between two groups pursuing competing but plausible visions of the public good.
This is not to say that Christians should not be involved in the political process. They should indeed, but not as representatives of church institutions, which have their own God-given task in his world. Christians should organize as members of the corpus Christi, a global community manifest in every walk of life. They should, moreover, do so politically and not as moralistic preachers. This calls for acquiring a deep knowledge of real-life political practice and refraining from building ideal cities-in-speech, along the lines of Plato’s famous republic. To work for justice is not to try to construct the “just society,” as the late Pierre Trudeau put it. It is rather to listen to the day-to-day appeals for justice issuing from all quarters; to weigh them carefully in the balance; to recognize, where present, the legitimacy of the competing claims; and to assess these claims fairly.
I will not pretend to point the way to a resolution of the long Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, which has eluded three generations of foreign policy officials in many countries. That said, one-sided condemnations do nothing to advance justice and are far more likely to play into the hands of those who have an interest in obstructing reconciliation. Well-meaning churches should not put themselves in the position of being used by terrorist groups for their own purposes.