Advent Thoughts About Gaza and Israel, From a Muslim Who Became Catholic
‘Lord, Let Us See Your Kindness, and Grant Us Your Salvation’ (Psalm 85)
I was about 5 years old when I saw the image of an Israeli soldier on the news on television. He was firing a tear-gas canister during the First Intifada (1987-93). It was then explained to me that the Israeli soldiers had tanks and guns with which to fight, whereas all that the Palestinians could do in exchange was to hurl rocks at them. It seemed so unfair. That was my introduction to a narrative of good and evil, a conflict between an “oppressor” who was entirely at fault, and the “oppressed” who did no wrong.
I figured that this narrative surely must have been true over the years that followed. I’d heard it reinforced, time and again, at the mosque. I’d heard it reinforced, time and again, in the houses of family and friends. The suspicion that the “Jewish media” dominated news coverage, thus brainwashing the American public at large, even instilled a particular pride in many of us Muslims for having known that which most of our neighbors had failed to grasp.
I had plenty of friends and relatives who’d pointed out that “he’s a Jew” whenever some sort of dispute or disagreement happened to arise with one. By my teenage years, I myself had begun taking note of whether some fellow schoolboy, whom I’d had some sort of schoolboy disagreement with, just happened to be Jewish. It was a way for us to be able to say “you see” to one another.
A few of my fellow Muslims had expressed loathing and suspicion of Jews. Others, whom I’d considered to be far more refined, expressed that their qualms were not against the Jewish people themselves, but against the Zionist state — an “apartheid state,” as we typically called it.
Israel was a nation made up of Baruch Goldsteins, in the minds of so many of my fellow Muslims, and attacks perpetrated by Palestinian terrorists were often considered the desperate resort of a people fighting to preserve their dignity. I even, on occasion, got to hear some rather wild (and hilariously preposterous) conspiracy theories of what the Jews (often in collaboration with the CIA) had planned against the Muslim world.
“Come on,” I once told a fellow Muslim pal back in 2003, who was a fellow student at the University of Michigan, when he’d left a meager tip on the table for our waitress, “Don’t be a Jew.” His eyes immediately lit up, and he dramatically slammed an additional bill onto the table. I knew that that tactic would work.
“The worst insult in the Somali community was to be called a ‘Jew,’ not that any of us actually knew one,” Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born former Muslim, who very recently announced her conversion from atheism to Christianity, wrote in the Daily Mail in October. “I vividly remember sitting with my female fellows in mosques, cursing Israel and praying to Allah to destroy the Jews. … We were taught to want to see Israel wiped off the map.”
Those of us in the United States were geographically removed from the Holy Land by thousands of miles. My relatives in Pakistan were, likewise, far removed geographically. The conflict was a concept for most of us, rather than a reality to face, and so it was easy enough to go on expressing whatever ideals we regarded to be the “correct” while the families of others, both Palestinian and Israeli, suffered from such safe distances.
I’ll even admit that having an enemy, even an abstract enemy, felt rather good. By expressing the “correct” opinions regarding the conflict in the Holy Land, thus expressing our “compassion” and “concern” for our fellow Muslims, many of us could give ourselves an excuse, and the thrill that comes along with it, to consider ourselves “holy.” Having an “enemy” without, to assign blame to, could distract many of us from the unpleasant task of considering what could be within.
There are many people for whom hate and rage pay a higher dividend of immediate satisfaction than love. – Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudon
I’d lost attachment to that black-and-white narrative years ago. The Sept. 11 attacks, along with several far more localized events and interactions, did much to awaken me to the implications of the narratives I’d grown up immersed with. I’d likewise developed a strong distaste, while at the University of Michigan, of all places, for when victim mentality continually conjures up excuses for individuals who just so happen to fall into a category labeled as “oppressed,” at the cost of personal accountability.
In 2006, I’d quit calling myself a Muslim, having no intention whatsoever to be involved in any formal religion. In 2007, I became a Christian.
My willingness to lend an ear to Israel’s side of the story, and to accept that the Arab leadership had no shortage of shortcomings, grew in those years leading up to my conversion. Those “oppressors,” doing that which was necessary to hold onto a homeland where they wouldn’t be dominated, certainly weren’t demonic. The leaders and supposed allies of the “oppressed” certainly weren’t a choir of angels. The real narrative is very much gray.
That which I’d grown up “knowing” was not quite so.
Who were we, or who is anyone for that matter, to consider ourselves so “good,” and the other so “evil,” with an authority due to God alone? Is it not God alone who correctly perceives what is in each of our hearts? Could such absolutist division, driven by our “knowledge” of good and evil, not have had something to do with our fall?
What we’d often called our “love” for the Palestinian people was really our hatred for Israel. We were sinners (as all people are sinners), eager to point out the sins of others. How many of us were truly willing to consider the truth: that we too were perfectly capable of hating?
It really would be great if all of us could sing “Kumbaya” together around a campfire! Israel must grapple with this reality, of being hated throughout much of the world, and must understand what implications any ideals that others would wish to impose on her would carry.
“To the last I grapple with thee,” Captain Ahab said in Moby Dick, determined to destroy that white whale he hated, having lost any care for the welfare of his ship’s crew in his madness, “from hell’s heart I stab at thee, for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”
Hatred consumes. The loathing of a perceived enemy can be so consuming that one would rather see that enemy harmed than see a so-called “friend” be saved. Hamas is a group that has been consumed by such hatred.
“Hamas has made it clear publicly, and for decades,” Michael Warsaw recently wrote, “that it is driven by antisemitism and a desire for the eradication of the Jews. Catholics cannot and should never support Hamas.”
How much of the well-intended humanitarian aid (much of it from the West), meant for the people of Gaza, had been diverted to support the terrorist activities that led to this current war?
Could it have been that that common hatred for an “enemy,” felt throughout so much of the world, had helped to invigorate Hamas? Could they have felt more “justified” to go on to commit their actions on Oct. 7 by having known, very well, that millions upon millions of people likewise shared a hatred for the Jews? How often does it occur to any of us that our own hatred, by being used to “justify” an action that would inevitably provoke a response, would ultimately add to the plight of those whom we profess to “love?” Can any of us honestly say that what we hold in our hearts doesn’t carry weight?
The callous blockade of roadways, thus compelling Palestinian civilians to remain trapped in the warzone, many of whom are used as human shields, illustrates what a person or group is capable of when consumed by hatred. Such an action may very well result in a propaganda victory for Hamas, even if they’re doomed to lose the military campaign. The reputation of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) for “genocidal” butchery has grown in recent weeks. The potential recognition of Israel by Muslim states, most notably by Saudi Arabia, may very well have been derailed.
Thousands of Palestinian civilians have already been killed in the crossfire in the Gaza conflict. The list of those killed in the crossfire has grown, on and on, for 75 years.
I was too young to remember Mr. Ahmad. He was an academic, born in Pakistan, and living in the United States. He was the husband of one of my mother’s oldest friends and the father of a young daughter. He’d attended a sociology conference in Bombay. His return flight had been aboard Pan Am 73. The flight was hijacked during its stop in Karachi, Pakistan. The hijackers were Palestinian. I’d heard it from my parents that he had been very sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. He was shot anyway, and killed, on Sept. 5, 1986.
How much longer must this list, of those who get caught in the crossfire, continue to grow until we can learn to distinguish hate from love? How many of those Palestinian civilians, trapped in Gaza, were already fed up with conflict before the Oct. 7 attacks occurred?
And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is not yet…this is but the beginning of the sufferings. (Mark 13: 7-8)
Our Lord had warned us of “wars and rumors of war” immediately after he’d prophesied the destruction of the Second Temple. He knew, decades beforehand, what the tactics of the Zealots would lead to. He understood the futility of force, the power of love, and that truth must continue to navigate through the dark realities which our deceptions have constructed for a very long time to come.
And if his words of realism, assuring us of wars and rumors of war, are still proving themselves true today, could it be that that ideal which he’d given to us, of the coming of the Kingdom of God, that ideal promised to ultimately become our reality, is likewise continuing its forward march?
That is the hope that was passed on to us from generations past, and to be carried on by future generations, until the day on which the King returns at the end of time. And so long as any of us still has breath, we still have time to learn what it is to forgive, to prepare a world more fitting for his return.