While many in America and Europe have been unable to look away from the horrible images emanating from the Middle East since October 7th, another spectacle closer to home has also proven hard to ignore: the obviously less violent but still worrying confrontations playing out across university campuses, city streets, and most vociferously online between supporters of Israel and Palestine.
Like any truly contentious issue, the latest flareup in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict has forced the otherwise apolitical to choose a side, thereby revealing otherwise concealed moral fissures. Many were shocked to see, for example, a list of 31 Harvard University student groups representing a broad swathe of the school sign onto a statement that said, among other things, that “the Israeli regime [is] entirely responsible for all unfolding violence… The apartheid regime [of Israel] is the only one to blame.”
The reaction was swift, with some law students quickly losing previously secured job offers. Some student groups later recanted their endorsements of the statement, with some members of the student groups saying that they hadn’t even seen the statement before it was published. Nevertheless, even if these students did not intend to be quite so inflammatory, the sentiment that Israel truly is so culpable as to make Hamas look innocent really is shockingly widespread among young people.
Gallup recently reported that, while Republican support for Israel is basically the same as decades ago, Democrats are now, in aggregate, more sympathetic to Palestine. While in 2014 Gallup found that 58% of Democrats were more sympathetic to Israel versus 23% for Palestine, today support for Palestine among Democrats has eclipsed support for Israel at 49% to 38%. Among millennials, net support for Israel across independents, Democrats, and Republicans is at -2 points and presumably Gen Z will only continue the trend. What could have caused such a seismic shift in so little time?
In 2021 Tom Holland, author of Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, appeared on Plough Quarterly’s podcast to discuss the legacy of Christendom; the moral “empire of the mind” (Plough editor Susannah Black’s words) which followed wherever Christianity predominated. As secularization across the West hastens, the Christian ethical metanarrative, which even across significant cultural division could guarantee a degree of moral consensus, has exercised gradually less influence.
As Holland describes, after WWII the Western moral imagination became fixated upon Hitler and the Nazis as the embodiment of evil rather than Jesus and the saints as the embodiment of good. National Socialism, as the first ideology to really attempt to tear out Christianity root-and-branch from Western society, sought to revert the beatudinal inversions Christ preached: Hitler and millions of other fascists were convinced Darwinism and modern science proved that it is, in fact, better to oppress than be oppressed, victimize than be victimized, and crucify Christ rather than be Christ crucified. For Europe and America, already secularizing, Auschwitz & Dachau came to embody Hell without reference to Heaven in a way that permanently reshaped the Western imagination.
Following the war, social and political movements, like the African-American campaign for civil rights, swept across America. As most famously exemplified by MLK, Christian religious rhetoric played an enormous role in “summoning White Protestants… to a recognition of biblical truth, that all human beings are created equally in the image of God. That if there is no Jew or Greek, then there’s certainly no Black or White,” in Holland’s words. Yet, subsequent movements like Second Wave Feminism (+ sequels), gay rights, and trans rights, though taking moral inspiration from the civil rights movement, have largely understood themselves as pushing for emancipation from Christianity.
Nobody could dispute the validity, necessity, and Christian roots of the civil rights movement. Yet, the ideologies that emerged in the wake of MLK’s eloquent Christian rhetoric, everything today called “woke,” are best understood as heretical departures from historic Christianity. The beatudinal exaltation of the oppressed and conviction of human equality before God are absolutely present in progressive ideologies, yet without the cosmic drama of creation, fall, and redemption which properly contextualizes them. It’s for this reason Holland describes the 1960s as a period of theological turbulence comparable with the Reformation in the 1520s.
A significant consequence of the emancipation of our moral imagination from Judeo-Christian culture is the jettisoning any special reference to Jewish people as a class in need of protection. While Christians have their own history of antisemitism, recent events remind that hostility to Jews is in no way limited to the West. Yet, for many Westerners, Jewish people and Israel by extension still warrant particular attention; not only for Judaism’s legacy as Christendom’s forebear, but also in acknowledgment that Christians have often severely mistreated Jews. Nostra aetate, a declaration of the Second Vatican Council, is one example of a conciliatory gesture in acknowledgment of this sad truth.
What came as such a shock to so many in the wake of October 7th was the sudden evaporation of the long-presumed moral consensus around Israel. With some exceptions, most vocal advocates of the Israeli cause seem to be politically centrist Americans and Europeans; people who, even if not particularly religious, still imbibe not only a shared history and culture with Israel, but also a sense of moral obligation for the failure of the Christian West to treat Jews properly. Yet, looking at Gallup’s polling, this moral consensus is rapidly deteriorating.
Looking at young people in America today, there are two groups which are at best ambivalent and at worst hostile to Israel. The first is those whose identities have no connection to the broader Judeo-Christian history, let alone religion; people who identify as “none” on religious surveys and whose moral imaginations are defined by aversion to Hitler and racism instead of attraction to God. The second is those who do feel a deep connection to history, just not the West’s history. The most visible pro-Palestine, anti-Israel examples of this are Arab immigrants in the United States and Europe who, for historical and cultural reasons, identify strongest with the plight of the Palestinians.
It must be noted, however, that there is not universal support for Palestine outside of the US and Europe. Though India’s 1.4 billion people have diverse views on the conflict, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come out strongly in support of Israel; this despite having also recently unveiled a statue of Subhas Chandra Bose, a member of the Indian independence movement who attempted to broker a Nazi-Indian alliance against Britain in WWII. Celebrating an ally of Hitler while strongly supporting Israel strikes the Western moral imagination as inconsistent, even schizophrenic. Still, India has its own sense of history and its place therein where the story of the Holocaust is a sad but ultimately tangential event, something to be ignored or highlighted when convenient.
Everything said heretofore has been to highlight how history is always ethically interpreted through religious and cultural lenses. Acknowledging this fact is not to concede the inevitability of relativism. Rather, it’s to say that since all moral disputes are at bottom theological in nature, only the language of theological ethics can coherently speak to such debates. The problem is, as Holland remarked in his interview, that progressives do not believe themselves to be speaking in religious terms. Bearing this in mind, America and Europe are looking at a future where public reason will be informed by three categories of moral language: self-consciously Judeo-Christian, unconsciously heretical Christian, and entirely non-Western.
Among Christians and people on the right in general, moods about the collapse of cultural Christianity range from apocalyptic to sanguine to even approbatory. Many Christian public intellectuals like Russell Moore, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, frequently argue that the decline of cultural Christianity is beneficial because people motivated by anything other than pure and true religion, even if their actions are good, cannot reach Heaven.
But are there really no positives associated with a generally Christ-informed sense of morality as discrete from the genuine religious feelings some have? At least in the case of Israel and Jewish people generally, it would seem the decline of the West’s Judeo-Christian identity is not something to laud. Only time will tell which other moral precepts, previously thought universal, will disintegrate as we enter the post-Christian West.