Maybe it seems beside the point, even on the eve of Christmas, to ask ourselves what would Jesus do in the Holy Land today. The narrow confines of Gaza, Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria are places where God's love was long ago supplanted by war for land and ill will among men. It has been a year now since the bloody and fruitless Israeli effort to crush Hamas in what amounts to a massive prison for a million people. Peacemakers in the Middle East are rarely blessed, and often reviled; just ask special envoy George Mitchell. And the truth rarely sets anyone free, as proved most recently by the fact-filled United Nations report by South African Judge Richard Goldstone, which was dissed by Washington and dismissed by Israel.
But given that it's Barack Obama who's president of the United States, the Jesus question has a relevance today it wouldn't have had even a year ago. No, Obama is not the messiah. I'm not saying that. But Obama actually uses the word love in a way that Jesus would have understood. So while the question of what Christ might do in today's Holy Land is hypothetical, the question of what Obama will do is not. And some of his most cherished ideas about peace, love, and understanding could be put to the test Dec. 31 when activists are hoping to stage a massive Gaza Freedom March.
It is precisely the kind of protest Obama himself called for in his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo last June when he said Palestinians must abandon violence, and held up the example of the civil-rights movement in the United States, and of similar struggles by people from South Africa to South Asia, from Eastern Europe to Indonesia.
The choice would seem to be a clear one between the policies of terror, occupation, corrosive combat, and cynical politics that we've seen for so long from both the Palestinian and Israeli leadership, or policies of civil disobedience and sweet reason, which is what Obama says he wants. But don't expect to hear much about that march when it happens, if it happens at all. Egypt as well as Israel may make it impossible for foreign peace activists to join the marchers in Gaza. Protests come and go in the Palestinian territories, but only blood normally draws media attention and even then, not much.
Perhaps the only hope that a massive nonviolent march will have to make an impact is if Obama himself takes note. But since Cairo, he has been stymied by hardball politics in Israel. Thus in June Obama flatly stated that the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements, which sounded tough. But he quickly discovered that Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu didn't really give a damn what Obama accepts. After much hand wringing, Washington finally coaxed Netanyahu into announcing a partial temporary freeze on some new apartment blocks and houses on the West Bank, but construction of public buildings and projects already begun goes right ahead.
Oslo was a chance for Obama to set things straight: either he believes in the power of nonviolent protest to affect the future of peace in the Middle East or he does not. But as he made his pitch to the Europeans to send more NATO troops to the "just war" in Afghanistan, he wandered away from his old theme in the Middle East. The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it, Obama said. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince Al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism—it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
Fair enough. But few conflicts are as clear-cut as the fight against the SS or Osama bin Laden.
I kept wondering when Obama, this admirer of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, would pay more than lip service to their greatness and get down to the core question of peace among Arabs and Jews. In today's wars, many more civilians are killed than soldiers; the seeds of future conflict are sown, economies are wrecked, civil societies torn asunder, refugees amassed, children scarred, he said in Oslo. And nowhere is that truer than in Gaza. But Obama did not mention Gaza.
The American president called on all nations, strong and weak alike, to abide by international standards that govern the use of force, but there was no reference to the many detailed allegations in the Goldstone report and elsewhere charging that Israel and Hamas both committed war crimes.
I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation, said Obama. But he was talking about Iran and North Korea, Burma and Zimbabwe. He did not say the United States should engage with Hamas, and he did not encourage the Israelis to do so.
In a ringing phrase, Obama declared no holy war can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint, no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or the Red Cross worker, or even a person of one's own faith. Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but I believe it's incompatible with the very purpose of faith—for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. But was Obama talking about radical Israeli settlers in the West Bank or the Israeli forces blowing apart factories, farmlands, and private homes in Gaza a year ago? Or for that matter Hamas? He didn't mention them.
Adhering to the law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature, said Obama as he moved toward the end of his speech, using without reservation that word that is at the core of the Gospels. And Obama called on us to reach out for that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls. But the only specific reference to the Holy Land that he offered was a passing remark that the conflict between Arabs and Jews seems to harden.
No, I don't know what Jesus would do, but I know what Obama should do. He can embrace the most important finding of the Goldstone report, which is essentially a call for Israel and Hamas to embrace a process of truth and reconciliation similar to the process that helped to heal the wounds of apartheid. (Thus far, the State Department has been claiming the report is actually an obstacle to peace.) And Obama should use his moral authority, while there's some left, to open the way for peaceful protest in Gaza, instead of allowing Israel and Egypt to shut it down. When the president visited a Boys and Girls Club in snowy Washington the other day, he told the kids that what the birth of baby Jesus "symbolizes for people all around the world is the possibility of peace and people treating each other with respect." It's time Obama worked harder to apply that principle in the part of the world where Baby Jesus was born.