During his 28 years living in Jerusalem, biblical scholar Fr Justin Taylor, SM, could not remain indifferent to “the situation”, as it was euphemistically termed, in that part of the world, namely the ongoing tension and violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
For most of the time between 1983 and 2011, he lived at the Ecole Biblique – the Biblical and Archaeological School – of the Dominican Fathers in Jerusalem.
Now a scholar in residence at Te Kupenga – Catholic Theological College in Auckland, Fr Taylor was the guest speaker at the AGM of St Michael’s parish, Remuera, on August 14.
“Like many westerners who went to the Holy Land in the decades immediately after the Six Days War, I was inclined at first to be rather pro-Israeli, largely in reaction to what were seen as the treacherous attacks made on Israel by its Arab neighbours in 1967 and again in 1973,” Fr Taylor told the AGM.
“Living there, however, and especially becoming aware of the national aspirations of the Palestinian people and of the realities of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem raised new questions for me and many others like me,” he said.
At first, he was optimistic that a “two-state” solution, involving sharing of the land, as supported by the UN, the Holy See and many Western nations, could prevail. “Countless plans along these lines have been proposed, even adopted by representatives of both sides, only to fail. There just didn’t – and doesn’t – seem to be enough mutual trust and goodwill,” Fr Taylor said.
Anger at each side or both does not get anyone very far, he added.
Fr Taylor explained that he was in no position “to be self-righteous about the Israelis, since, as I put it to myself, every time I looked in a mirror, I saw an Israeli”.
“That is to say, I came to realise that the Israeli-Palestinian relationship was fundamentally one of colonialism, but also realised that a third-generation Israeli, like a third-generation Pakeha New Zealander such as myself, had nowhere else to go. The slogan of Zionism had been ‘A land without people for a people without land’. And yet the land did have people. There were towns and villages, and cultivated lands, and even the seminomadic Bedouin had territorial rights from time immemorial. As I compared New Zealand and Israel, I began to understand each better.”
He admitted that one hears the statement that the situation is very complex, which it certainly is.
“A recent novel by Colum McCann that deals with Israeli-Palestinian relations bears the title Apeirogon, which turns out to be the name for a geometrical figure with an infinite number of angles. The longer one is there, the less able one seems to say anything at all. You often hear as a joking remark: ‘When you’ve been here a month, you think you could write a book. After a year, the book becomes an article. Eventually you give up on the idea of writing anything.’”
Fr Taylor went on to state that, in the immediate aftermath of the Six Days War, David Ben Gurion, the founder of the State of Israel, took a helicopter ride over the newly conquered lands and said: “We have to give these back”.
“But to whom? Fr Taylor asked. “There was no Palestinian entity at the time, and the lands in question had been won by Jordan in the war of 1948, and, before that, were part of the British Mandate of Palestine under the League of Nations, and before that, were part of the Ottoman Empire. But in any case, the Palestinian territories are the morsel that Israel has not been able either to swallow and digest or to spit out.”
So, Fr Taylor asked, how can peace be brought to the Middle East or to any other war zone or troublespot in the world?
“I have been greatly helped by reading the diaries and letters of Etty Hillesum published under the title An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork,” he said.
Etty Hillesum was born into an assimilated Jewish family in Amsterdam in 1914. Fr Taylor explained that, after the German occupation of the Netherlands in 1940, she was detained with the rest of her family in the transit camp of Westerbork. “There she worked for the Jewish Council, doing what she could to make life a little more tolerable for her fellow detainees. She was finally sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she was murdered on November 30, 1943, at the age of 29”.
But her writings show that she refused to hate, even those who had invaded her country and were destroying her people and would destroy her, Fr Taylor said.
“She gives her reasons: ‘Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.’”
Fr Taylor concluded: “So, as St Paul writes, ‘the life and death of each of us has its influence on others’ (Romans 14:7). In particular, hatred and violence in our own heart contribute to the hatred and violence that are working such evil in the world. On the contrary, if we renounce hatred and inner violence of thought and feeling and remain at peace, we are contributing to the peace of the world. In the last analysis, this is a profoundly mystical insight, which implies a vision of the interconnectedness and unity of all persons and indeed of all beings.”