“Both when they are right and when they are wrong, ideas are more powerful than is commonly understood. In fact, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. by Dr Harry Hagopian, LL.D Doctor in Public International Law (UK)

“Both when they are right and when they are wrong, ideas are more powerful than is commonly understood. In fact, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.  Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back … Soon or late, it is ideas … which are dangerous for good or evil.”

The British economist John Maynard Keynes, arguably one of the most influential social scientists in the world, once depicted history in those challenging terms. Indeed, ideas have serious consequences in history, and sufficiently powerful ideas or ideals can bend the course of history in new and unimaginable directions. Yet, academics and opinion makers have grown accustomed to think of the engine of history as either politics – often understood as the quest for power, and itself perceived as the capacity to impose the autonomous will of one party upon another – or else as economics. As such, ideas and ideals, moral passions and commitments, as much as the power of the human spirit, are ostensibly meant to be of interest only to philosophers – but certainly not to statesmen. 

However, did the Czech playwright and thinker Vaclav Havel not write once that ideas and ideals are the ‘power of the powerless’?  In so doing, did he not draw close to Christian theology as manifested in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ himself?  In fact, is it not a profound Christocentric tenet that the Word through whom the world was created remains the centre of the world and its history?  And since the Word has overcome the world (Jn 16:33), do those who are conformed to the Word not have a duty to speak out words of truth and address it to the world in power?

Indeed, where is the sheer power of ideas and ideals?  Why are the words of those who conform to the truth of the Word being muted in the midst of all the violence witnessed by this land in the past five weeks?  These are a couple of the perplexing thoughts that crossed my mind a few days ago as I visited the Palestinian town of Beit Jala and the adjacent Israeli settlement of Gilo. I was there with a television crew in order to record peoples’ reactions to the recent cycle of clashes between Israelis and Palestinians. As I heard ordinary men and women talk about their own situation, and as they expressed their reactions to the latest unequal confrontations between stones and bullets, I realised once again the degree of polarisation that has beset both peoples in this conflict. No matter how hard they tried to appear equable or moderate on camera, I could feel a pool of negative emotions – alienation, hatred, anger, bitterness, frustration, resignation, despondency, defiance, contempt, loss, doubt – swirling under the polite but hesitant veneer of sound bites.

Is it possible that this land has witnessed so much bloody violence in the past few weeks and has not yet managed to come up with new ideas or fresh ideals that chart a way out of a seeming impasse?  Is it also remotely conceivable that everyone has been talking about ‘peace’ for well over seven years now but practising ‘non-peace’ instead?  Have politicians been nothing better than false prophets who misled the people by referring to peace at times when there was no peace – just as the biblical prophet Jeremiah and his successor Ezekiel tell us in the Old Testament? Jeremiah said, “They act as if my people’s wounds were only scratches.  ‘All is well’, they say, when all is not well”  (Jr 6: vv 13-14). And Ezekiel also told a people whose nation was in crisis and weary of hearing bad news from their leaders all the time, “The prophets mislead my people by saying that all is well.  All is certainly not well!”  (Ez 13: 10


This week marked the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. A rally with well over one hundred thousand men and women took place at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to remember this man and to ‘vote’ for peace. To some extent, the Oslo process that has determined the uneven course of events between Palestinians and Israelis for the past seven years has become his legacy. Although the initiative and architecture in relation to this accord did not come from him – but rather from Palestinian and Israeli negotiators – it was nonetheless his signature as much as the all-too-symbolic handshake that committed Israel to peace with its long-suffering Palestinian neighbours. Yet, has this seven-year process generated ‘peace’ or ‘non-peace’?  Have we simply run out of ideas and ideals?  Where are those men and women who are meant to produce ideas and ideals that dent – let alone bend – the course of history?

Let me start off by taking stock today of a modest number of principles, lessons and realities impacting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after long weeks of bitter confrontations.  Might they perhaps help point the way forward?

* The State of Israel is a reality. It cannot be denied by Palestinians, the Arab countries or the rest of the world. But the Palestinians are also a living reality in quest of statehood, and they – as much as their quest – cannot be ignored either;

* Although the process of negotiations between the two parties ought to resume sooner rather than later, it has nonetheless become quite evident that the Oslo framework is no longer workable. The parties can call the next round ‘Oslo III’ or ‘Camp David II’ or even ‘Madrid II’, so long as they take their negotiations in a fresh direction that respects the principles of international legitimacy as underlined by the binding UN Security Council resolutions;

* To revert to the status quo ante, in other words to 28 September 2000, and to claim simply that it is possible to continue where the parties left off, makes a mockery of the last six weeks of confrontations, deaths and subsequent alienation. It will not succeed, since the relative lull in violence will eruct once more into another – even bloodier – explosion;

* The repercussions of this conflict are no longer constrained to the Israeli-Palestinian dimension. The Arab world has been substantially impacted by it too – be it through their governments, populace or economic interests – as have the USA and many other countries.  Furthermore, the USA can no longer remain the sole broker, and another parallel body – such as the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council – needs to join the negotiations. In some sense, I view the request for an international fact-finding commission or even the lobby for an international protection force (such as TIPH, MFO, UNTSO or UNIFIL) as ways of internationalising the ambit of representation and thereby reducing unilateral American involvement – particularly in view of the hiatus following the US Presidential elections;

* The struggle today is for land that was occupied by Israel in 1967 – otherwise said, the eastern sector of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. To quote the words of the Israeli columnist Tallie Lipkin-Shahak, “Thinking that the insatiable Palestinians will seek to expand their as-yet-undeclared state beyond the Green Line spits in the face of the IDF and its ability to counter such an attempt” (JP, 27 October 2000).  And to quote MK Yael Dayan from the Labour Party, They [the Palestinians] only want Judaea and Samaria, not Tel Aviv” (JP, 7 November 2000). Indeed, Palestinians have already conceded the larger territories of 1948 and are negotiating on a meagre 22% of historical Palestine.  Any fears that some Israelis harbour about the further expansionist designs of Palestinians are both old and unrealistic;

* Settlements – not only the larger blocs but all the remote ideological or state-subsidised settlements dotted across the West Bank and Gaza – with an average of 200,000 settlers living in them are inimical to peace. In the words of David Newman, Chairperson of the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, “Negotiations [between Israel and the PA] have been held up time after time because of the impossibility of a situation in which the location of many settlements prevents the creation of a contiguous territory which would serve the needs of a Palestinian state … Even if the Six Day War [of 1967] was completely unavoidable, it should not have taken another thirty years to withdraw from these territories.  Occupation, by its very definition, corrupts, and it has made Israel into a hard, unmerciful society” (JP, 1 November 2000).

* The amount of bitter hatred and extreme polarisation that has surfaced in the last few weeks will not disappear without a large degree of effort from both sides – official, institutional, religious and people-to-people. This will take time, and although the wounds might ultimately heal, it will take at the very least another couple of generations;

* One group that has been an unfortunate – and often controversial – victim of those confrontations are children. They are exhibiting serious psychological problems that are manifested by symptoms such as bed-wetting, thumb-sucking or separation anxiety. According to Dr Elie Awwad of the Red Crescent Society in Bethlehem, some Palestinian children are so traumatised that they have become automatons who fail to internalise the perils or consequences of their deeds;

* Joining those children are also the many mothers who have lost their sons. At the moment, some of them are on a high in terms of the pride associated with the sacrifice of a child for the national struggle. They are not processing their loss.  However, once those mothers go past this euphoric phase, they will enter a grieving phase when their psychic wounds will become far more palpable and far more traumatic. No mother freely volunteers her child(ren) for death;

* Finally, walking down the path of mutual confrontations is a recipe for mutual disaster.  It will wreak havoc in the lives of Palestinians and Israelis alike. An alternative is urgently required, and someone needs to take the moral lead.
So, what can be done?  What is the alternative?  Who can take the moral lead?  And what does our faith teach us?
In his Sermon on the Mount, as reported in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus articulated some quite radical views. He said that those who mourn shall be comforted, those who are peacemakers shall be called the children of God and those who hunger and thirst for justice shall be blessed. As such, the Church – in its larger sense as an assembly of believers rather than just the ordained clergy – cannot be inured or indifferent to injustice. To become peacemakers is not a discretionary addendum to the Gospel; rather, it goes to the heart of the Christian understanding of its mission. But this does not mean that peacemaking promotes violence either.  Rather, it promotes non-violent methods of struggle and resistance.

I wish to share with you today a few seminal ideas that could be transmuted into ideals and serve as a platform for future action. My thoughts are predicated on the recent writings of the theologian Leonardo Boff, the international jurist John Mudley, the political scientist Jean Dupuy, the non-violent activist Mubarak Awad and the journalist Monika Slowakiewicz.

* Following in the tradition set by countries such as South Africa, both parties should start off the process of healing by recognising the injustices and violence perpetrated upon each other. This is not an exercise in one-upmanship or comparative proportionality. It is a step in paving the way for an apology that ultimately culminates in forgiveness;

* A commitment to pursue a non-adversarial relationship between the parties which precludes violence and fosters negotiations between the parties on the symmetrical basis of the international principles of conflict resolution;

* Acknowledgement by both parties of the deep historical and religious nexus of this biblical land anto tanto with Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Such a step means that neither party decries the narrative of the other, but elevates the discourse from one of futile irredentism and negation to one that enhances inclusiveness and coexistence;

* Education of both Israeli and Palestinian societies to curb all aggressive postures, incitements and negative publicity that only serve to de-humanise the other, and to empower instead channels of communication between the parties;

* According to UNRWA figures, there are well over 3.5 million Palestinians refugees. One third of those refugees are living in fifty nine camps in Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The principle of a right of return for those refugees should be admitted by Israel, even though a very small percentage would probably return to live within Israel. The appropriate mechanisms of compensation should also be activated for them as well as for the hitherto host countries;

* The Old City of Jerusalem represents the jewel in the crown for all three monotheistic religions. It is quintessential to posit a plan that accommodates the religious aspirations of all three faith communities on an equal footing.

On the occasion of the Feast of our Lady Queen of Palestine on 29 October 2000, HB Patriarch Michel Sabbah asserted in his homily at Deir Rafat, “In these difficult days, in the midst of the actual conflict, we say that Palestinians should regain their freedom and justice as part of their legitimate rights. Israelis should also enjoy justice and security. Both of those peoples are linked together, and the peace of one is the peace of the other, whereas the deprivation of peace or justice for one is the deprivation of peace and justice for the other.”

Such hopes, as articulated by the Latin Patriarch, represent a challenge to all peacemakers across the world. But in the final analysis, when we speak of ideas and ideals, we are also speaking of the strength of the human spirit and the steadfastness of human sovereignty. As George Weigel puts it, the fundamental human ‘sovereignty’ is not political but spiritual. The spiritual sovereignty of the human person expresses itself through the creativity of the individual and the culture of nations, giving rise to a distinctive form of power. That is the sovereignty we believers are called to cherish, guard and ennoble, as we seek to build the foundations of a house of freedom capable of meeting the challenges of the twenty first century.

In the Holy Land, is it possible to discover this sense of human sovereignty that falls within the density of the human spirit and its relentless journey toward the transcendent?  Can we unlock the key to an intractable conflict in this land? Where do we Christians – clergy and laity alike, in the Holy Land or all over the world – place ourselves?

“Soon or late, it is ideas … which are dangerous for good or evil.”  My question today is whether we are strong enough, mature enough and faith-centred enough to make good this statement with ideas that are built upon ideals ..?

(c)harry-bvh @ 7 November 2000