Understanding The Other: The Way Forward In The Middle East

In this 2004 interview, CIU Director Rabbi Jack Bemporad spoke about the crisis in the Middle East. He offered his thoughts on what constitutes a just war, how the history of Jewish-Catholic relations can serve as a model of interreligious understanding, and his advice for a way forward.

Many people argue that there is no solution to the current situation in the Middle East. Do you agree?

Those people who are claiming that ultimately this is hopeless-that there’s no real resolution to this problem because it’s been going on for so long-should understand that if you start out with the assumption that it is impossible to find a way of dialogue, then you’re not going to find it. There were a lot of people who felt that Jews would never get along with Christians and there would always be this antagonism, which was rooted in theological texts and was very hard to change. But there was a real sense of: “Something in the past wasn’t right. We have to make up for it or change it.”

What about the recent transformation of the Jewish-Catholic relationship can point the way forward?

Leadership is very important. Someone has to take the initiative. John XXIII took the initiative; Paul VI continued it and John Paul II expanded it. Whether people vilify him or not, Israeli Prime Minister Rabin articulated the solution by saying, “Enough of killing one another. Let’s find a way to talk to one another.” That’s always a very difficult thing to do, because we speak different languages; we have different mindsets, expectations, needs and histories. But the only way is to understand one another, and that’s the whole point of our Center – to try to bring about better understanding and a feeling that there is some fundamental common humanity that we have to respect when dealing with the other.

Aside from strong leadership, what are the other key factors of interfaith understanding?

 It has to be a leader with the idea that peace can happen, a vision of how it can happen, and the authority to bring it about. For instance, King Abdullah II of Jordan’s Amman Message was a very important first step, because he has authority. He’s taken that message to the Catholic, Jewish and Christian communities and said, “I have convened 175 Muslim leaders and we signed on to three things: 1) No Muslim can call another Muslim an infidel. 2) Not just anyone can issue a fatwa; you have to really have the authority to do it; so Osama Bin Laden can’t do it. 3) The Koran is completely opposed to suicide bombing and killing innocent people.” They agreed to that, and that was a beginning. Now he’s trying to expand it. It makes a big difference if you have someone like the Pope addressing a problem – a hundred million people will listen, whether or not they agree with him.

Was there a turning point that spurred the Catholics and Jews to action?

Well, unfortunately, what happened was the Holocaust. There was a sense that perhaps the Christian community didn’t do as much as they could, and I think it dawned on people like John XXIII to ask: “How can Europe call itself a Christian society and be indirectly responsible? We have to honestly examine what we have taught that brought this about.” I think that’s a good precedent, because it’s good for all of us to say, “What have we done that has brought about the vilification of the other-the stereotyping, the denigration?”

What concrete actions did the Catholics take to improve the relationship with the Jewish people?

In the Catholic Church, when they changed their attitudes, they not only said, “We’re going to pass a resolution.” They embodied it in universities and parochial schools and parishes. John Paul II included some of these teachings in the new Catechism, which was translated into different languages. The Catholics examined all their textbooks to see if there were statements about Jews and Judaism that were wrong, and they changed them. They established chairs of Jewish studies in all the Catholic universities and courses in Judaism. I teach at the Angelicum University in Rome, for example.

How do you get from vilification of the other to understanding?

The first thing is to examine how we conceptualize the other person. Unfortunately, the first casualty in war is truth. You conceptualize the other person as less than human. “They’re behaving like beasts,” or “They have no conscience.” Each side does that. Especially today, you’re dealing with war that has very little do with the reasons that they are fighting – they have a whole other agenda. It’s complicated. I think that genuine attempts to perceive the other by trying to see why they’re doing what they’re doing are important. There are a lot of small groups that are trying to do this with meetings at a local level and talking to one another about key issues.

When faced with a direct, immediate threat to your life, how do you not vilify the other?

That’s essentially the whole role of religion-to say: “It doesn’t have to be that way.” The reason you develop just war theories is because people believe war will never end. The great vision of the Bible is the idea that there would be a time when there would be no war. If you start with the premise that there’s no end to war, you’re not going to have an end.

What are your thoughts on just war theory?

War can never be seen from the perspective of anything but peace, and a just war is a war that has to bring about peace. It’s not only justice in what leads to war or how you conduct a war. It’s post-bellum-after the war you have to find a justice that will establish a structure that won’t lead to another war.

Is there a great Jewish lesson or value at the core of how you get to that place of understanding?

The Jewish people have always emphasized peace and reconciliation. The situation with Israel is a little more complicated, because they don’t want to see Israel as another Holocaust. That would be really intolerable for the Jewish community-not that I think it’s going to happen, but a lot of people have that fear. So you have to accept that that’s a fear that they have and not act like that doesn’t matter.

What would be your message to the leaders of all parties today?

Be clear that you understand the other and do not make assumptions. In the movie The Fog of War, (Former United States Secretary of Defense Robert) McNamara said the worst thing about the Vietnam War was that we simply misunderstood each other. We didn’t know how to communicate. Make sure that your intelligence and understanding is accurate, and not just a political or ideological frame. The other should never be demonized or reduced to something less than human.

What gives you hope?

Two things give me hope. One is the fact that it doesn’t have to be this way. And two, people are continually creative. They’re continually seeking solutions. There is no intrinsic reason why these issues can’t be resolved. There are a lot of political reasons why it’s difficult to resolve them. There are a lot of people that have a stake in maintaining a situation of antagonism and conflict. But it’s not the kind of thing where it’s totally hopeless.