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Moral Clarity About Israel/Palestine Begins by Admitting the Complexity

by Skye Jethani

Note: This is the first in a series of reflections Skye is writing about his recent trip to Israel/Palestine.

Last week, the former U.N. ambassador and Republican presidential candidate, Nikki Haley, visited Israel. She was photographed writing "Finish Them" on an artillery shell just hours after the Israel Defense Forces used similar American-made weapons to bomb a refugee camp in Gaza killing 45 Palestinians including innocent women and children. Given the timing of the photo-op, Haley was widely criticized in the media for the ambiguity of her message. Was she calling for the destruction of Hamas terrorists or all Palestinians?

"Finish Them" has become a ubiquitous slogan in Israel since the terrorist attack on October 7. I was in Israel/Palestine at the same time as Ambassador Haley. I saw the phrase—in both Hebrew and English—prominently displayed on buildings, buttons, bumpers, and at security checkpoints. The vagueness of "Finish Them" explains its popularity. Traumatized and angry Israelis can interpret the phrase as narrowly or as broadly as their ideology will allow.

Progressives who favor equal rights for Palestinians and sharing the land can apply "Finish Them" to the Hamas terrorists that derailed their hope for peace. For far-right conservatives, who believe Israel alone has a divine right to the entire land, "Finish Them" is a call to expel all remaining Palestinians from the Holy Land. For Palestinians, like a shop owner I met near Tel Aviv, it's unclear whether the slogan is rhetoric targeting the terrorists who conducted the October 7 attack, or a genocidal anthem aimed at all Palestinians.

"I've never been more frightened," she told me. The store owner is among the 2.1 million Palestinians who are Israeli citizens but live in neither Gaza nor the West Bank, and whom the government officially identifies as "Arab citizens of Israel" to distinguish them from Jewish citizens. Since October 7, she and her employees have seen a dramatic increase in intimidation, including from armed Jewish Israelis entering the shop. Although she hopes her Israeli neighbors are focusing their anger on the terrorists, as harassment increases she's worried that "Finish Them" carries a broader meaning for many of her neighbors. "We hear things all the time like 'Send them all to Gaza'," she said. "I just want to survive."

Broad slogans about the war in Gaza are not limited to Israel. Here in the U.S., both political and religious leaders have also employed ambiguous phrases to rally support for the war. And many more have avoided the complex history and messy details that complicate the conflict. For example, on October 7, my friend and Christianity Today's editor-in-chief, Russell Moore, wrote about the need for "moral clarity about this war." He argued that America should support Israel because both countries are liberal democracies and that Christians must "stand together with Israel" because Jesus is "a Jewish man from Galilee. Rage against the Jewish people is rage against him, and, because we are in him, against us."

Moore called Israeli Jews "our extended family." But his article made no mention of our immediate family affected by this war—the 200,000 Palestinian Christians in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. By only focusing on Jesus' Jewish identity, and ignoring the Christian identity of many Palestinians, the article did little to challenge the simplistic view of the conflict already held by too many American Christians. Moore correctly maintains that violence against Jews should be seen as indirect violence against Christians because Jesus was a Jew. But he missed a critical, but complicating, fact—the current war involves direct violence against Christians. Should that not factor into our moral discernment as well?

To be fair, I share Russell Moore's desire for clarity, and I understand the appeal of simple categories, slogans, and avoiding inconvenient details. But not all clarity is moral, and not all simplicity is helpful. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “For the simplicity that lies this side of complexity, I would not give a fig, but for the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity, I would give my life.” If we are to find any moral clarity in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it won't come by ignoring facts or parroting bumper sticker slogans on bombs. We need clarity that comes by first entering into the complexity, not denying it.

That is why I spent seven days last month in Israel and Palestine with a small group of American Christians. We met with victims of the October 7 attack, family members of hostages, and Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank—both Muslims and Christians. We spoke with Israelis and Palestinians who've lost parents and children in the conflict and with representatives from aid organizations on the ground in Gaza. Over the next few weeks, I will be writing a series of articles about the people I met and what I learned. What I share will undoubtedly complicate your understanding of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. But I hope that we will arrive together at a more valuable clarity on the other side of the complexity.


I can't help but hope this clarity through complexity acknowledges both your own and a particular guest's simplifying the protests against US involvement in this war - referring to the childishness of it and focusing on claims of antisemitism while ignoring the moral center of the protests. I hope that any further guests you discuss the war with can acknowledge the complexity of the situation in a real way.


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Question: Don't all wars have this simplistic and complex aspects to them?

Question: Don't all media react the same way to war-- with pithy comments or slogans?

Question: Unless I am personally vested in the tragedy of any war I can only cope with it by boxing it up and compartmentalizing it so that I can go forward in my own life.

While I think it is important to pontificate these world problems, it seems that my contribution to the world think tank is minimal.

Changing peoples minds.... takes loads of time and a heavy stream of information. It also takes a heart postured to listen and consider.

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