By now you’ve seen or read about Sen. Ted Cruz’s speech at the In Defense of Christians summit in Washington, D.C. His focus on Israel to a room full of persecuted Christians with divergent views on the Jewish state received wildly mixed responses both among attendees and the general population.
You probably have your opinion. I have mine. I wrote “Ted Cruz Is No Hero For Insulting A Room Of Persecuted Christians.” My friend and colleague David Harsanyi wrote “Ted Cruz Was Right (And The People Who Booed Him Were Wrong).”
I could list many more articles explaining one side or the other. But what I’m worried about now is that we’re all so entrenched in our views that we’re burrowing in and starting to malign the motivations of those with whom we disagree. My email and social media were full of so much unhinged reaction that it was hard to be open-minded about the good critiques. I also saw some frightening or over-the-top pro-Cruz takes from people I generally like and respect. And then on the other side of the ledger, I saw some people on my side of things get very emotional and be jerks. And I saw extreme commentary from the hoi polloi on Cruz-defenders and, in some cases, Israel itself.
What if we just tried to see the best parts of other people’s arguments — just to understand each other a bit better?
Luther’s Small Catechism teaches about the commandment against bearing false witness: “We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.” I have it memorized because I need to be constantly reminded of it.
The best construction I have right now is that we’re all laser-focused on different things. It’s not necessarily that we all disagree with each other so much as that we’re focused on different areas of concern. And each of these areas of concern at the very least has legitimate angles. Let’s take a trip through those different things.
1) These Are Bad Guys The Christians Keep Aligning With
Reports coming out of the In Defense of Christians Summit through its first couple of days were quite positive. The media coverage wasn’t much but the group had gotten a wide variety of Christians to participate, both globally and in the United States. The first sign of trouble came on Wednesday, when the Washington Free Beacon ran a story headlined Cruz Headlines Conference Featuring Hezbollah Supporters.
Many people have criticized that story but let’s remember we’re trying to just look at the best parts of everyone’s arguments. And the best version of this argument is simply that it’s absolutely true that all sorts of Christians in the Middle East have aligned with all sorts of bad guys. It’s something everyone does, sure, (we went with Stalin in World War II, for example) but that’s not a blanket excuse for same.
Syrian Bashar al-Assad is a horrible tyrant. He may be keeping the Christians alive right now, but he’s still a bad guy. Assad has killed who knows how many of his people in recent years, even using chemical weapons and bombs. His forces rape and pillage. Even if he’s protecting Christians currently, he’s also known for killing them. Lee Smith, a prominent voice whose focus is on the bad guys, notes:
I lived in Beirut during one of Bashar al-Assad’s anti-Christian campaigns, when his spies and allies assassinated Christian politicians and journalists and bombed Christian-majority regions of Lebanon.
Other participants in the conference have connections to Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist militant group based in Lebanon and funded by Iran. The argument of groups such as the Free Beacon and Smith are that these guys are every bit as bad as ISIS, so a conference organized around that threat shouldn’t have people who are supportive of equivalent groups.
To be sure, the argument that Hezbollah is as bad as ISIS is debatable. One can acknowledge that Hezbollah is hideous and evil, but one can’t quite imagine ISIS handing out press passes to critics to cover their rallies, much less aligning with Christian groups.
And while it is also true that Assad has killed lots of Christians, so did the United States in World War II. So did Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War. But there is a difference between killing Christians who are your enemy in war and killing Christians because they are Christians. Before we call these groups equivalent as it relates to Christian persecution, we should point to Assad saying something like, “Well, we’ve got to wipe out this specific group of infidels on the grounds that they are infidels.” A lot of what we’re talking about with regard to the persecution of Christians hinges on motivation and not just being tyrants over everyone.
Having said all that, we should not lose sight of who bad guys are. A lot of Arab Christians do exactly that, and move from making alliances with the Assad regime because it’s protecting them right now to deciding that same regime is good. That’s undoubtedly an important point to counter.
You may not like how these people made these arguments, or some of the dismissive ways that they treated the issue of Christian persecution, but hopefully you can see that these are, in fact, good points. It’s their focus.
2) Israel Is A Good Ally To Christians in the Middle East
The video indicates that a subset of the “In Defense of Christians” crowd booed when Ted Cruz said that “Christians have no greater ally than Israel.” Some people got very upset at the crowd because, they argue, Israel is a wonderful ally to Christians in the Middle East.
My colleague David Harsanyi made the case well here, in which he argues that Israel and Middle East Christians share “the same enemies, the same broader geopolitical aims and the same moral outlook.” He also notes that the Christian population in Israel is growing and is the only stable Christian population in the region. He also writes that “The Israeli government has actively attempted to better integrate Christian Arabs, who are politically dissimilar from many Muslim Israeli Arabs.”
3) Christians Should Support Israel
Many American Christian supporters backed Ted Cruz for the simple reason that Christians should love their neighbors and, they say, there should be special affinity for Jews. A large part of that support is very likely dealing with particular theological views held by millions of American evangelicals and fundamentalists. The view, called dispensationalism, is based on the writings of John Nelson Darby and spread via the popular Scofield Reference Bible. Dispensationalists believe that the nation of Israel is distinct from the Christian Church, populated by God’s people, and that God has not yet fulfilled his promises to Israel. These views are not popular at all in older Christian churches.
But whether or not Americans hold to dispensationalism, there’s wide support for Israel in general and very low support for criticism of same. It is obvious to many that there is a very fine line between criticism of Israeli policy and criticism of Jews in general. This makes it difficult to find safe spaces to critique Israel but it’s also true that anti-Semitism is a huge global problem and Christians are wise to be concerned about it.
Viewed in these ways, Ted Cruz was valiant for standing up to an ugly sentiment as well as valiant for standing up to people making stupid alliances.
4) Christians Are Dying
For people focused on this issue, the over-arching concern is the plight of Middle Eastern Christians, a shrinking and threatened minority throughout the region. It’s as simple as that. These people are dying out and need help. All people of goodwill should set aside political differences and secondary concerns and focus on saving them, which was the stated goal of the conference.
If you want to talk about all the things these Christians shouldn’t be doing, people who hold to this view say, that’s fine, but U.S. Senators should consider the context of when to talk about it and how such conversations might disrupt the already tenuous ecumenical gathering.
Nobody is going to have their mind changed by these simple summaries of arguments being made by others but if we do our best to view everyone as people of good faith but people with different focus, we may be able to broaden our perspectives. In fact, I bet that some of us could find agreement in each of these categories. I have not changed my position on the propriety of Cruz’s actions, but I acknowledge that there are important points made by those who don’t share my views.
OK, Let’s Talk About Middle Eastern Christian Ideas On Israel
This is the elephant in the room, the fact that some Middle East Christians don’t like Israel. Why, some people wanted to know, would Middle Eastern Christians do anything but support Israel? Well, who knows all the reasons. There are things Christians in the region have said that sound almost as bad as Islamist calls for eradication of Israel and there are things Christians have done there that are best described as terrorism. And then there are plenty of legitimate reasons that Christians might not find Israel to have been the best ally. For one thing, it’s not really the job of Israel to be an ally to Christians in the region, except insofar as the alliance works for all parties. That’s not the purpose of the nation of Israel, even if Christians fare better in Israel than many other countries in the region.
In any case, Rep. Henry Hyde wrote a letter to President George W. Bush in 2006, described here:
Rep. Henry Hyde… is pleading the case of endangered Palestinian Christians to President Bush. A faithful supporter of Israel over many years, Hyde said in a letter sent Friday to the White House: “I cannot be blind when Israeli actions seem to go beyond the realm of legitimate security concerns and have negative consequences on communities and lands under their occupation.” He urged the president to take up this issue with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on his Washington visit this week. Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, sent along with his letter a five-page, single-spaced report prepared by his staff based on visits to Israel and Palestine over the past two years. It contends “the Christian community is being crushed in the mill of the bitter Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The Israeli security wall and expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the report continues, “are irreversibly damaging the dwindling Christian community.”
And let’s look at some of the Christians who have taken up arms against Israel. Such as George Habash, who founded the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and was its secretary-general until 2000. This is a revolutionary-leftist group that makes Fatah seem moderate by comparison. In his obituary, the BBC wrote:
Over the next decade the PFLP would carry out some of the defining attacks of the era. These catapulted the Palestinian cause onto the international news agenda, but did not always generate sympathy for the Palestinians. Many people in Israel and the West thought that George Habash was a terrorist. For many Palestinians and Arabs he was a patriot.
And he’s not the only Arab Christian to have fought against Israel (or Arab governments, for that matter).
In an interview with Kathryn Jean Lopez, executive director of In Defense of Christians Andrew Doran said:
Over the last several years, I’ve had many conversations with Christians from the Middle East about Israel and their views land anywhere on a broad spectrum of opinion. Some are sympathetic but can’t say so because to do so would put their lives at risk; it should be sufficient to say that minorities tend to be sympathetic to other minorities. Others remember being forced to leave their villages in Palestine never to return. And still others are proud citizens of Israel. So there must be more options for Middle Eastern Christians than outspoken support for Israel and anti-Semitism. The Middle East is complicated and nuanced, whether politicians want it that way or not. That’s why serious statesmen are measured in their remarks: When they’re not, it puts lives at risk.
That’s undoubtedly true. I remember on my flight to Israel sitting next to an Arab Christian who lived in Northern Israel who praised Israel. I spoke to some others there who sounded like they were auditioning for an anti-Semitic title. The spectrum of postures goes back decades. Remember that Cruz said:
Our purpose here tonight is to highlight a terrible injustice. A humanitarian crisis. Christians, are being systematically exterminated. In 1948, Jews throughout the Middle East faced murder and extermination and fled to the nation of Israel. And today, Christians have no greater ally than the Jewish state. Let me say this, those who hate Israel, hate America. And those who hate Jews, hate Christians.
Incidentally, that entire interview is worth reading and includes some perspectives and quotes from Middle East Christians that are worth considering.
Anyway, it’s an important year not just because of how Jews were fighting for their lives and property throughout the Middle East — just years after the end of the Holocaust, mind you — but also because it was the year that Israel won its war of independence. That was a war largely fought against Muslim Arabs but against some Christian Arabs as well. And beyond that, many Christian Arabs were caught in the crossfire between warring factions. It’s not exactly a fond memory, whether the Christians were working with Jewish forces or against them.
Professor Benny Morris’s book 1948 does a decent job explaining what the war that year was like for all sides. After one battle, he writes, “In Jerusalem, the Christians were eager to leave, but the Muslims threatened to confiscate or destroy their property. Outside the town, Muslim villagers overran the monasteries at Beit Jimal and Mar Saba, in the former ‘robbing and burning property,’ in the latter ‘murdering [monks] and robbing.'” Many Christians simply fled. Many others were forcibly expelled to Lebanon or forced to move to other parts of the country. It might be worth reading a bit on the Palestinian Christians of Iqrit. I don’t want to overstate the situation. Here’s another good part of the book that explains what happened when majority-Christian Nazareth fell to the Israeli Defense Forces:
But the following afternoon, [Moshe] Carmel and [Haim] Laskov ordered the town’s new military governor, Seventh Brigade OC Colonel Ben Dunkelman — a Canadian volunteer with armored experience from World War II — to expel the inhabitants. Dunkelman refused. Laskov appealed to Ben-Gurion: “Tell me immediately, in an urgent manner, whether to expel [leharhik] the inhabitants from the town of Nazareth. In my opinion, all should be removed, save for the clerics.” Ben-Gurion backed Dunkelman. Perhaps he was moved by possible world Christian reactions; perhaps he thought the idea objectionable as Nazareth’s inhabitants had not resisted. Orderly administration was imposed under the new governor, Major Elisha Sulz. IDF troops — except those serving in the military government — were barred from the town, and normal life was rapidly restored. Indeed, Nazareth soon filled with returning locals and refugees from surrounding villages.
In this one brief passage we can see the best and the worst of Israeli action in the War of Independence. Yes, some commanders were willing to expel Arab communities from their homes — and in some cases, like Iqrit, that’s exactly what happened. On the other hand, there was much humanity in how these forces treated those they had beaten. Israelis have every right to point to this as evidence that their record is generally better than their regional neighbors. But in this story we can also understand why Arab Christians in Nazareth aren’t entirely elated, particularly when their co-religionists nearby weren’t nearly so fortunate.
It was an extremely tough war. Arab populations scattered or were scattered. Many Israelis died and there were reports of massacres of Christians and Muslims. It may seem like ages ago, but for some Christians the cause of Arab nationalism remains paramount, for some Christians Israel is their beloved country and for some the feelings are simply more mixed.
South Lebanon Army
Or let’s look at another group that allied with Israel for a time, and how that ended up. The South Lebanon Army was allied with Israel from 1982–2000 to fight against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Hezbollah. Things went pretty well at first but toward the end, things weren’t going so well and Israeli casualties were mounting. Israelis were getting frustrated. Prime Minister Ehud Barak ran on a platform of ending involvement with the SLA and when he took over, he began pulling out without giving the SLA warning. The SLA was completely over-run and it led to the arrest of many and a mass exodus of Christians who feared they’d be tried as traitors.
Hezbollah’s Christian in Beirut
Here’s a New York Times story from 1983 about U.S. Navy gunfire saving a Lebanese Army garrison that was fending of Syrian and militia attacks. The story doesn’t get into it but the Army was mostly Christian and it was led there by a Maronite Christian named Michel Aoun.
If you heard his name recently it was because the Free Beacon named him in one of its stories as “Lebanese politician Michel Aoun, Hezbollah’s top Christian ally in the country.” Someone backing the conference was in trouble for being supportive of Aoun.
So how could Aoun go from working with Americans and Israelis to being a Hezbollah ally? Well, it’s worth looking at, particularly in the context of last week’s contretemps. We know this guy spent much of the 1980s fighting for Lebanese Christians, working with Israelis and Americans as it suited their interests. But in both cases, those allies left. By 1989 he decides to try to fight the Syrian occupation and liberate Lebanon. This wasn’t the wisest move as not only were the Syrians much better armed, they also had the backing of none other than the United States. They crush him. He goes into exile in France for 15 years, returning only after the Cedar Revolution and the departure of the Syrians.
And now he’s allied with Hezbollah, and it would seem that allying with Israel or the U.S. here wouldn’t really be an option as it doesn’t match his interests or theirs. I’m in no way defending this guy who has been involved with war and revolution for all of his adult life. He’s killed a lot of people. But his story is at the very least illustrative of how complicated alliances are in the region.
Folks interested in learning more about the actual views of Arab nationalism or the political views of Arab Christians have plenty of opportunity to read up on them — even if they come down as condemnatory as before.
Masquerading as victims?
People’s emotions were running high and, as we discussed, everyone had a different focus about what the main problem of last week was. But let’s not forget what Middle Eastern Christians are facing. ISIS hit one town in Lebanon with graffiti that read “We came to slaughter you, you worshipers of the cross” and “The Islamic State is coming.” Christians in Mhardeh, Syria, are facing a dire situation against al-Nusra. You can read here about the alliance of that city’s 17,000 Christians and Syrian forces against the threat.
If Americans who wish to stop ISIS and al-Nusra from killing Christians have ideas for what these Christians should do, now is the time to offer up those ideas and get moving. Yes, there are alliances with al-Assad and Hezbollah. Yes, these are very bad guys and groups. Do we have a better proposal for them as they face this existential threat? Let’s offer it.
And while many of us engaged in some regrettable fights with friends and others in the last week, one hopes that we also learned from each other and that we can work together to understand the plight of threatened Christians and other minorities in the Middle East, the problem of entanglements with bad actors, ways to support Israel’s existence, and the importance of working to correct the imprudent decisions made by each and every one of us.