Philos Project President Robert Nicholson explains the current crisis between Hamas and Israel.
Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with the pleasure of speaking with my friend and collaborator Robert Nicholson, president of the Philos Project and expert on all things mid-East related. He’s going to give us a primer on what’s happening now with Hamas rockets and Israeli efforts to defend its cities from those rockets. So, Robert, pretend as though you’re talking to someone who knows absolutely nothing about what’s happening right now between Gaza and Israel. So, just give us a basic overview of how this situation began, and what are its implications.
Nicholson: Sure. Well, it’s a terrible situation and, honestly, the worst round of violence between Israelis and Palestinians that really we’ve seen since we started the Philos Project in 2014. It is a clash obviously between the two sides that started from a combination of different things that sparked the simmering conflict that has been going on for about 100 years. The latest spark was a couple of different things, one of them was a property dispute, without going into too many details here, between some families who were living in a neighborhood of East Jerusalem and Jewish landowners who wanted to evict them for not paying rent. That case went to court. There was a big hubbub in the Arab community and protests, rallies began to form, and those protests and rallies were exacerbated by the fact that all of this happened during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan when you have thousands and tens of thousands of Muslims coming from all over the land into Jerusalem to pray at Haram al-Sharif, or the Temple Mount. And these two things sort of came together, right. Protests over these threatened evictions, religious fervor, anger at the Israelis, and it didn’t help matters that all of that was exacerbated by another holiday that fell right on the last day of Ramadan, the holiest day of the month, which was Jerusalem Day. It’s the day that Jews and Israel celebrate the reunification of the city in 1967. So, you have large Muslim crowds, large Jewish crowds, and it was only a matter of time before they started to clash. You add to that the fact that Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza have been unable to vote for new political leaders since 2006. We’re talking almost twenty years. They had elections scheduled for right about now. And sure enough, just as it has many times in the past, those elections were called off at the last minute with very little explanation, leaving Palestinians more frustrated, more angry than ever. You throw in some really angry voices from the international community, who seem just fine with kind of egging on things from the sidelines, and the usual kind of mythological fixation on the Jews, and you have really the perfect storm. And, of course, Hamas, the terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip, saw an amazing opportunity and, on the pretext of defending Jerusalem, unleashed a barrage of rockets on Israeli civilian centers starting on Monday. What we’ve seen since then is clashes between Hamas and the IDF, which is responding and trying to defend Israeli civilians, both Jewish and Arab.
Tooley: And what has the reaction been so far?
Nicholson: Well, the US reaction has been mostly good. The Biden Administration, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken in particular, have expressed support for Israel justifiably defending itself from this barrage of missiles. Also, the Secretary of Defense has reached out. There been many phone calls between the two sides. President Biden himself has been relatively quiet. He did finally make a phone call to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently and expressed, as many American political leaders have, support for Israel’s right to defend itself. I think there’s more that the US could do, but right now, thankfully, the US has been mostly supportive of the Israeli position. Now there have been, of course, voices in the American Congress, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, some of the people you might expect to be speaking out in the other direction, who have in fact been doing so. But on the whole, the US has been mostly good. I think it’s kind of obvious that there’s a little bit of a gap here in so far as the Biden Administration is very eager to restart negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran on its nuclear deal at the very same time that Iran is paying for, quite literally, and supplying all of these rockets that are now landing on Israeli towns. So, as much as the Biden Administration is expressing support for Israel, that support is very much undermined by the fact that it is interested in lifting sanctions on Iran, which of course will allow even more weapons to come into the Gaza Strip.
Tooley: Robert, you spoke about the propensity of Christians, American Christians, and other people, many faith groups, to mythologize the Jewish people favorably or negatively. Could you expand on that a bit?
Nicholson: Well, it’s something that you notice. It’s very obvious as you watch the discussion around all of this, and it’s like the discussion around anything involving Israel or the Jews. The attention that is paid to anything done by Jews or the Jewish state is just wildly out of proportion to attention that’s paid to any other conflict anywhere in the world. It’s the international story that never goes away. Here at Philos we’re always trying to get attention for the plight of Christians in the Near East. We’ve talked a lot about Yazidis in Sinjar, we’ve been interested in what happened in Ethiopia recently, we have lots of friends in this religious freedom space advocating for Christians in Nigeria, but good luck trying to get anyone to care for more than five minutes about any of those conflicts. Notwithstanding the fact that thousands of people have been killed, and maimed, and raped, I mean, just horrific, horrific stories. And we at the Philos Project have been, I have to say, very unsuccessful in attracting attention. But five Arab families are threatened with eviction, not even actually evicted, in East Jerusalem, and everything just completely blows up. And I think it actually speaks to something much deeper. And that is the fact that the Jewish people are in some sense an archetypical people. They are the world’s most infamous nation, right. You can say that it’s their fault, or God’s fault, for making them the chosen people and spreading that message around the world through the Bible, but I don’t think what we’re seeing today exactly tracks with that. Of course, many Christians, myself included, see those people as a unique people, certainly uniquely connected to Christianity, to the Christian world. I would argue that there really is no church without the Jewish people, and so, anything involving the Jewish people for me is sort of seeing through that lens, right. Even I myself see the Jewish state through some sort of mythological lens, but the flip side is that people have taken that idea of Jews as divinely called in history and flipped it on its head, making the Jews divinely cursed. The villain of history, the ultimate villain, so that anything the Jewish people do is subjected to the ultimate standard of scrutiny. A standard that really no one else is ever held to, ourselves included, by the way. It’s interesting how we are quick to sit in judgment over the Jews, overlooking our own sin as Christians or as Americans or from wherever we are.
Tooley: And does this latest crisis really seal the doom of any idea of a unified single state with Israeli Jews and Palestinians together? And does it underscore the need for a separate Palestinian-governed entity, in your view?
Nicholson: Yes, absolutely. The idea that there is a one-state solution in the offing, right, that Jews and Arabs can put the past behind them, let bygones be bygones, and sort of lock themselves into one single unitary state is certainly this week about as an absurd as an idea as one could have. The Palestinian people and the Israeli people are too distinct, they have two very different views of 1948, what it meant, and whether it was good or bad, to ever share a political regime that would be viable. One of the most concerning things that we’ve seen in this latest round of conflict is something that I really haven’t seen in other rounds, which is inside Israel proper citizens of Israel, Jews on one side, Arabs on the other, forming these ad hoc mobs and going after each other in the streets, totally overwhelming the police forces’ ability to contain them. These mobs were started in Arab communities. Arab communities in Lod started burning synagogues and destroying Jewish neighborhoods, and Jewish mobs decided to take matters into their own hands and do the same thing. So, it is incumbent first of all on leaders from both sides to denounce these thugs and to deploy the police to contain them and arrest them. But in the long term, the idea that there’s a one-state solution here is just preposterous. I mean, these samples show that, on the slightest pretext, all of the goodwill that has been built falls apart. Those Arab Israelis who are citizens of the state of Israel, I think most of them are not part of these mobs, just as most Jews are not part of these mobs. So, this can be overcome, but the idea of sort of stitching together the West Bank and Gaza together with Israel proper to make one giant thing is just, we’re about as far from that as I think we’ve ever been.
Tooley: And finally, Robert, you may have seen a poll the last few days showing, at least according to this particular poll, a decline in the percentage of Americans who feel “emotionally” attached to Israel. I think it showed from 68% down to 58%. Are you concerned about present trends in American public opinion and attitudes towards Israel or do you think the traditional friendship between the two nations is very secure?
Nicholson: Very secure, maybe not. Secure for now, for the short term, medium term, I think yes. I think there’s a danger in overstating the risk the erosion, but the erosion is there. And it’s an empirical, it’s been tracked now by a number of different polls over the last few years. You see it in the Christian community just as much as you see it in the non-Christian community. It’s driven by a number of factors, generational change, changing political climate, social climate in the US, obviously, the advent of social media. The expansion of social media has exacerbated any social trend in America, and certainly this is one of them. So, I am concerned, right, to the extent that we as a country, the United States, as one scholar has written, is a Hebrew republic or a country that was very consciously based on a biblical foundation in a way that revolutionary France or imperial Germany never was. We have a deep connection to the Jewish people, to Jerusalem, that is not only important for people who live in Israel, it’s important for us. It’s important for our own national self-understanding. And for me, when I see those numbers, it’s not just about oh wow, the American-Israeli alliance is in jeopardy. To me, it speaks to a deeper cultural rot within our country, right. Alienation from our origins, even a conscious rejection of this Hebraic or Judeo-Christian tradition that so much of our public culture is based upon. And that to me, certainly taken in light of all the other events happening in the US these days, is very worrisome indeed.
Tooley: And of course, you’ll be writing a book about all of this, won’t you Robert?
Nicholson: I am in fact working on a book right now as we speak, Mark. And God willing, it will be out next year. I just have to finish it first.
Tooley: Robert Nicholson, president of the Philos Project, thank you for, as expected, a very insightful overview of the situation in the Middle East right now.
Nicholson: Thank you, Mark.