The Modern Priest as Bridge Builder
After more than a decade in the Holy Land, Fr. Michael McGarry returns to the U.S. as president of the Paulist Fathers
BH: Can you tell us about the Tantur Ecumenical Institute and what sort of work you were involved in there?
MM: Tantur — which is an Arabic word meaning “hilltop” — is located on an extraordinarily beautiful location between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It was really a fruit of the Second Vatican Council when Pope Paul VI said, “I want the dialogue that began within and because of the Second Vatican Council within the Christian community to continue.” He asked Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame, for help, and Fr. Hesburgh helped in getting the money to establish Tantur. It was a place for Christians from around the world to come and do their scholarship together, live in community, eat together, pray together; in the 1970s, this was quite avant-garde. It’s become quite normal, thanks be to God. But in the last twenty years, the Institute has branched into not only being a place for scholars, but also a place for sabbaticals for church workers, and interested lay people, from all parts of the Christian family: Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican, Catholic. So it’s a place for Christians coming together across the Christian family and also from across the globe. In addition, because of its unique location between Israel, Palestine, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, it became a place where Israelis and Palestinians courageous enough to work for peace would find a place where they could talk with one another; it became a place of peace because it was neutral but not indifferent. It was committed to being a place where both sides were welcome; whether you wear a keffiyeh [that's the Arab headdress], a kipa [the Jewish skullcap], or the cross [the Christian cross], you were treated as a child of God. So we became a place that was well known by both sides as not being owned by either side, welcoming Israelis and Palestinians who would work for peace. So many times we had conferences that advanced peace.
BH: That must’ve been a pretty interesting time to be there.
MM: Very exciting, although the numbers of Palestinians and Israelis who want to talk peace are getting smaller for a lot of reasons, particularly because both sides feel they have suffered too much to talk to the other side. One of the big problems in Israel and Palestine is how the educational materials depict the other. There are very anti-Semitic materials in the Palestinian literature, very anti-Arab materials in the Israeli literature. And how they can come together and produce educational materials that both sides recognize as clearly and authentically depicting their own side, or come and talk about issues like water, or issues around religion — lot of times these would be more secular types, because a lot of time the more religion people have, the less open they were to talking to others, sad to say.
BH: I think most people assume the Middle East is one of the most hotly divided places on earth. How does the tension in the Middle East compare to the U.S.?
MM: Well, number one, it’s not the most contentious place in the world: in the last ten years, more than 5 million people have died in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We know about the Rwanda genocide. It’s an obscene thing to compare tragedies and to compare pain, but one also has to keep a certain measure of what one is talking about. That’s number one. Number two is, the Jerusalem where I lived is much safer as a city than the one I’m sitting in right now, which is New York City. When I arrived here on May 1, there was a bomb in Times Square; there hasn’t been a bomb in Jerusalem in five years, thank goodness. And in some ways Jerusalem works as a city much better than people give it credit for. If I had a longer time, I could give you very concrete examples, but there is very little street crime in Jerusalem. You can walk on the streets at night; for the most part, you can go for weeks and weeks and weeks without any terrorism. That’s not to say there are no conflicts there; there are terrible conflicts because there’s a basic war about the West Bank and Israel proper: who’s going to get the land, where the borders are, and who’s going to be living in the West Bank. And there’s a very strong party, the Israelis, and a very weak party, the Palestinians. And in this very asymmetrical relationship, there are terrible things done by both sides. And there are many games each side plays.
One of the favorite games people play out is, “Who’s been the greater victim?” Have the Jews been the greater victim? Look at the Holocaust, look at the bus bombs, look at the numerous wars of the Arabs, look at their small Jewish nation surrounded by twenty Arab nations. They’re the greater victims. Or, are the Palestinians the greater victims? They have a human stranglehold on their economy. They can’t go from one part of their territory to another; they can’t even build in their own territory, the vast majority of the West Bank. They can’t go for the most part into Jerusalem to exercise their religious freedom. They can’t use Ben Gurion airport, they can’t drill a well without Israeli permission and usually the Israelis don’t give them permission. I’ve just given you a little sample and there will probably be a thousand people calling you on either side telling you, “Our side suffers more than the other side.”
The second biggest game is, “Our perpetrators aren’t as bad as your perpetrators.” Isn’t it terrible how the Israelis have their F16s and they bombed Gaza, killed three people yesterday, killed nine people the other day, they turn off the electricity for Gaza, they make it impossible to get medical supplies into Gaza; okay, their perpetrators are worse, but look at the Palestinian perpetrators, they bomb discotheques, they bomb buses, who could be worse than that?
But the worst game is the one I’m always being drawn into, and that is, “If you’re going to be my friend, hate the people I hate.” Well, I became friends obviously first of all with the Jewish people. I studied at Hebrew University; I’m passionate about reconciliation between Jews and Christians. But as I came to understand some of the Palestinian story, some of the Arab story, the Palestinian and Christian story — I came to care about them. As one of my friends said the other day, “You used to be on the Jewish side, now you’re on the Palestinian side,” but I’m not going to play that game of, “If you want the Palestinians to thrive, you have to want the Jews not to thrive.” That’s nonsense. But as I became friends with both sides, I came to weep for both sides. In fact, a colleague of mine who came before me said, “The first five years I was in Jerusalem, my sympathy was on the Jewish side and I couldn’t stand the Palestinians. My second five years, I came to see what these Israelis do on a regular basis to the Palestinians, my sympathies were with the Palestinians; I became anti-Israeli. But my third five years there, I came to be mad at both of them for what they do to each other, and my last five years, I came to weep for both of them.” And that’s where I am right now; my heart breaks for both sides.
BH: What effect can American policy have over there?
MM: It is not a religious conflict, but it will not be settled without an incredibly strong religious component, which I think is one of the big problems with President Obama’s initiatives. John Mitchell has been over to the Middle East more than 20 times and he’s yet to meet with any major religious figure. This is a recipe for disaster because there will be no safety, there will be no peace in the Middle East without religious cooperation, but most seculars feel that religion is the problem, it’s not the solution. But the opposite is not true; secularism is not the solution. It’s not going to bring peace when you have competing religious claims on the city of Jerusalem and the land. There will never be peace without a very strong religious component.
BH: What are some of the basic misconceptions Americans have about the region and the conflict there?
MM: It’s a very contentious society. I loved the Jewish contention over there; there are ways you can argue about policy over there you can never argue about over here. Because as soon as you start to argue policy over here, somebody’s going to tell you you’re anti-Semitic, or you’re a self-hating Jew, or something like that, whereas in Israel, they take the gloves off early and often and they are arguing about policy without calling people anti-Semitic and they talk policy. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but Israeli culture has really given itself to talk about policy, while America has insulated itself from it and only gives permission to do it if you prove that you have certain credentials for being on the Israeli side or on the Palestinian side; and as far as I’m concerned, it’s wasted time.
When I went to Tantur, our staff were all from the West Bank, and I came to understand the Arab society better, and the Arab Christian society better, which is basically a society quite invisible to Americans because for most Americans, when you say Arab, it’s the equivalent to Islam. It’s not. Christianity started in the Middle East, Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew, and some of the oldest parts of the Christian family — groups such as the Armenian Orthodox, the Syrian Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Chaldeans — are all Middle Easterners, but they’re quite invisible to us who feel that Christianity started in Rome and moved west through the Protestant Reformation. So I started to see our Christian society as much deeper and richer than I ever thought growing up, and this has been quite a blessing from God, for me to get to know the local Christians, and I came to be quite an advocate for their welfare, which is not at the expense of the Jewish or Israeli welfare.
BH: Is it impossible to talk about progress in terms of peace during your time in the Middle East?
MM: Well, I was there during the “Second Intifada” which broke out September 28, 2000; intifada is an Arabic word which means “shaking off.” So if you had a bug on your arm, you’d shake it off; that’s an intifada. And it was the effort of the Palestinian people to shake off the long occupation of Israelis over the West Bank. I was there during a very difficult time, and I started to have a very low measure of what constituted a good day; the successful day was when nobody was killed — no Israeli was killed, no Palestinian was killed. And those days were few between 2000 and say, 2005. So when you ask for progress, I feel when you have a week without anybody being killed, or two weeks, that’s pretty good. In terms of possibilities for peace, I think it’s farther away than it was ten years ago because I think there are two layers. One is the layer that people use a whole lot of clichés; all the news organizations do, they talk about the “peace process,” what does that mean? They talk about the “cycle of violence;” what does that mean? They talk about “terrorism;” what does that mean? They use all these buzz words that are slogans that masquerade as reporting something and it’s shorthand without having to do any thought. But we Americans, maybe not peculiarly so — we like things simple, we like to know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are — and so we use these clichés so we don’t have to think about it. So when you ask me about the progress, I think when you talk about 120 settlements on the West Bank, when you talk about 250,000 people living on the West Bank, when you talk about a maze of roads that break up the West Bank and then talk about progress, peace is just not going to happen. It’s kind of like saying we’re going to talk about cutting up the pizza while one side is eating the pizza. It doesn’t happen that way. Palestinians on their side have shown an amazing lack of imagination and courage. Easy for me to say, I’m not a Palestinian. Sad for me to say, and I’m happy to be corrected by any Palestinian, but they have not been well-served by their leadership, whether it be us or Arafat, a man who epitomized Palestinian national aspirations on the one hand, but when it came right down to making peace on the other hand, he didn’t seem able to be successful. And then after him, the leadership I think has not been as creative and imaginative as the situation requires. I think that the lack of leadership in the Middle East — right now the former Prime Minister is under indictment for all sorts of petty sorts of corruption, and Fatah, the major Palestinian party is notoriously corrupt, so you see there are very small people over there right now. Sad to say.
BH: When I visited and met you there, I thought, “this is a region that needs a Gandhi-type figure for peace” — somebody who is from there, who is trusted.
MM: You hear every once in a while — what the Israeli and Palestinian people say — is that what this place really needs is a Nelson Mandela. Well, Nelson Mandela was only born once as far as I’m aware, and his equivalence doesn’t come around very often, but they need extraordinary leadership. To be quite honest, I think there was a real time of optimism after the election of President Obama, that the only third party who has any cachet in the Middle East is the United States of America. There is no other agency — whether it be the United Nations, the Quartet [the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia], the United Kingdom — they don’t have it. It’s the U.S. or nothing. People thought that Obama might be able to sing a different song than presidents before him, but there have been a series of disappointments. Despite his extraordinary speech in Cairo more than a year ago now — an incredible speech — and despite his declaration of no settlements, he’s backed off on all of those things and he’s basically back to business as usual, so I think there’s been a great disappointment that the kind of leadership that people were hoping might come from the United States has not shown itself.