I seized on Leon Uris’s chunky novel Exodus in my early teens and swallowed hook, line and sinker its version of the birth of a new nation. Politically immature, I wept my way through its 600-plus pages. I knew about the Holocaust and saw justice in the creation of a new country for its survivors. I willed the safe passage of the children being shipped in a rust bucket to the Promised Land.
With hindsight I see the book as a cowboy story with all the Jews wearing white hats and all the Arabs and British soldiers wearing black ones. It’s hard not to be harsh on my 15-year-old self.
Five years later when I heard that a neighbour had gone off to fight in the 1967 war between the Israelis and Palestinians, Uris’s romance was clearly still in my soul. I assumed the young man was on the side of the Israelis. Learning that he was fighting with the Palestinians, I scuttled back inside my shell of ignorance and started to do some serious reading.
How I wish I had been privileged to have the Rev Dr David Neuhaus SJ to guide me through Israeli-Palestinian history and relationships. But Fr David was a five-year-old in 1967 and few of us back then could get a handle on the ‘real’ situation.
That privilege had to wait until August 2017, when Fr David flew into Scotland to preside at a colloquium on Judaism entitled An Exploration of the Land at the invitation of the Interreligious Dialogue Committee of the Scottish Bishops’ Conference and the Conforti Institute.
Fr David is the Latin Vicar for Hebrew Speaking Catholics in Israel. His own story is fascinating (hear him talk about his life in this Youtube recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7c4LzclyiqA ). In 1967, that five-year-old was growing up in South Africa where his Jewish family had fled from Nazi Germany. Sent to study in Israel, he lived with a Palestinian family and converted to Catholicism. He joined the Society of Jesus in 1992.
Today he teaches at Bethlehem University and is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Bethlehem University creates a safe haven in which Palestinians can study – although finding work commensurate with their qualifications can be frustrating for graduates. Supply and demand in the labour market means a school cleaner can earn more than a teacher.
In five generous sessions, Fr David – a slight, wiry figure with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Christian and Jewish texts – explored the issue of ‘The Land’. He told us bluntly that he was ‘not here as some kind of balanced neutral person who has it all sorted out’, but a session in which we explored the vocabulary we use in relation to the Israel-Palestine situation may hopefully help us enter interreligious dialogue with greater sensitivity.
Jews, Christians and Muslims have deeply emotional ties to the Holy Land, first encountered in the opening verses of the Old Testament. Historic tensions led to prejudices despite our shared heritage, but Fr David reminded us of the shift in attitude required of Catholics towards Jews and Muslims by the Second Vatican Council, and more specifically of the Nostra Aetate document that followed, which condemned anti-Semitism and confirmed the esteem in which the Church regards Moslems.
The situation in the state of Israel became an issue of justice and peace from the moment that Palestinians were deprived of the land on which they had lived for millennia in order to accommodate a persecuted people for whom the land was notionally theirs.
Fr David reminded us that Popes John Paul II, Benedict and Francis have pushed at the door that could lead to justice and peace in the Holy Land. As individuals, there is perhaps little we can do to influence the complexities of the bigger world picture other than to put our faith into action by relating sympathetically to our Jewish and Moslem brothers and sisters in Scotland.