Fr. David Neuhaus (Catholic Press Photo)

What future for the Holy Land?

Fr. David Neuhaus, a Jesuit scholar based in Jerusalem, explores the origin of the ‘two-state’ solution, testifying to the preciousness of the Christian presence in the region.
Maria Acqua Simi

Fr. David Neuhaus is a Jesuit, Professor of Sacred Scripture at the Latin Patriarchate seminary in the Holy Land. Born in South Africa in 1962 to German Jewish parents who escaped Nazism, he is familiar with the suffering of those who experienced the Shoah and Apartheid. He arrived in Israel at the age of fifteen, and his life was turned upside down by an encounter with an 89-year-old paralysed Orthodox nun. "I went to meet her because I was passionate about the Romanovs and Russian history of which she was an expert. In our conversations I realised that she was the happiest person I had ever met and I wanted to know why. One Saturday, skipping classes at the Jewish College, I returned to her. ‘Mother, I want to ask you just one question: why are you so happy?’ She looked at me embarrassed, because she knew I was a Jewish boy. I insisted: ‘I want to know!’ So, a little hesitantly, she answered, ‘All right. I am in love!’ I said to myself that she was crazy and that explained everything. I asked her again: ‘What do you mean in love?’. Then she said. 'There is a man called Jesus'.”
Thus began Fr. David's Christian journey, which led him to consecrate himself in the Society of Jesus and to study the Bible and the origins of Christianity in depth. In this interview, conducted before the beginning of the truce between Israel and Hamas, he accompanies us in a historical-political analysis of the delicate situation involving the region, going to the roots of a faith, the Christian faith, still capable of generating good where pain and death seem to have the last word.

Yours is a very special story. What does living and serving the Holy Land mean to you?
I live in a Holy Land that is also Israel and Palestine. These three terms identify the same place, but they imply three different ways of living. For my part, I feel a deeply rooted vocation to live all three. In chronological order, I first discovered Israel as a Jew, growing up in South Africa in a family that had fled there from Nazi Germany. Educated in a Hebrew school, we were led to believe that Israel was our homeland, the biblical place destined for us and the possibility of a country in which to live in safety after two millennia of exile and suffering. Arriving there at the age of fifteen, leaving the South African apartheid behind, I immediately felt empathy for the Palestinians, for their inequality as citizens in a state that calls itself Jewish and the occupation in the territories controlled by the Israeli army. The use of the Bible to assert my right, newly arrived, as opposed to the right of a Palestinian whose ancestors had always been here, struck me as particularly problematic. I was immediately attracted to those Jewish voices critical of Zionism and Israeli policies, great Jewish intellectuals like Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt. As a Jew, very aware of my family's suffering in Nazi Germany, I was deeply disturbed by the fact that we, as Jews, were imposing discrimination and occupation on others.

Are there facts, or people, that have allowed you to keep an open mind?
Yes. For example, it was only when I met Oussama, my best friend for over forty years, that I started to learn about Palestine. Oussama's family also became mine. I travelled around the country with him, and I saw the land under the Israeli cloak. I got to know the stories of refugees from the 1948 war, the reality of life in Israel as a second-class Arab citizen, the anguish of those living under Israeli occupation deprived of basic freedoms. However, it was when I learned to speak Arabic, studying Arabic-speaking Islam and Christianity, that I was able to truly grasp the life of a Palestine pulsating under the blanket of Israeli hegemony. For me, together this land is the Holy Land. A few weeks after my arrival, I met Mother Barbara, an Orthodox nun. It was she, in her radiant joy, who showed me the face of the risen Jesus. He became the centre of my life and therefore the centre of this land for me. I travelled the road to the Catholic Church slowly, carrying with me the concerns of my Jewish family, the questions of my newly adopted Muslim family, the curiosity of my Israeli and Palestinian friends and colleagues. I was baptised in the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community, entered the Beirut province of the Society of Jesus, and was ordained a priest by our beloved Patriarch Emeritus Michel Sabbah, an eloquent spokesman for justice and peace. I now teach Holy Scripture in Hebrew and Arabic in Israel and Palestine. I am privileged to live in Israel, Palestine and the Holy Land.

For more than 75 years, there has been talk of the ‘two-state' solution, which was also recently recalled by Pope Francis. Why was this division originally proposed?

In 1917, the British, on the verge of conquering Palestine from the Ottomans, announced that they would work to create a homeland for the Jewish people. Inspired by the Bible, concerned about Jews being victims of anti-Semitic violence, and thinking of Jews as future allies in the region, the British did not consult the indigenous people living in Palestine at the time. They promoted Jewish immigration into the country, encouraged the development of Jewish institutions and, when violence broke out between the newly arrived Jews and the indigenous population of Palestine, suppressed it with an iron fist. Jewish immigration increased dramatically before and after the Second World War, following the scourge of Nazism. By then, the British were already trying to limit this immigration, having realised that their policies had ignored the Palestinians and provoked great resentment. However, the Shoah motivated many observers to support Jewish national aspirations in Palestine.

And so came the UN-sponsored Partition Plan for Palestine...
Yes. In 1947, in the light of the conflict that had developed between the 600,000 Jews (mostly new arrivals) and the 1.3 million Arabs, the British feared that they could no longer govern the territory and asked for UN intervention. A UN commission decided that the territory should be partitioned, proposing 56% of the land for a Jewish state and 44% for a Palestinian state. Jerusalem was to be a separate territory administered by the UN. The majority of the UN supported this proposal, and so did the Holy See. The Jews rejoiced at this recognition, the Palestinians and their Arab allies condemned the proposal as legitimising a colonial presence in their land.

It was the origin of the conflict that continues, in alternating phases, to this day...
When the British left Palestine in May 1948, the State of Israel was formed and a great war broke out. Israel, supported by the Soviet Union and the United States, as well as European countries, conquered 78% of the territory and the Armistice Agreements of January 1949 recognised this territory as the State of Israel. The remaining 22% was occupied by Jordan and Egypt, leaving the Palestinians without a state of their own. In 1967, Israel conquered this 22% as well, placing it under Israeli military occupation. This is the context of the internationally supported 'two-state’ solution of the conflict.

Today, however, the situation has changed profoundly socially, politically and demographically. Does that division still make sense?
In 22% of the territory conquered in 1967, Israel built settlements and developed infrastructure that undermined the possibility of it becoming a Palestinian state. Although Israel eventually withdrew from the Gaza Strip and granted some autonomy in the cities of the West Bank after signing agreements with the Palestinians in the 1990s, it has nevertheless continued to colonise large areas of the West Bank by amalgamating them with Israel. Many believe that it is no longer possible to create two states due to the proliferation of Israeli settlements. Today, seven million Palestinians and seven million Jews live in the lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Some suggest that perhaps a single secular and fully democratic state might be a more coherent solution to the conflict than the two-state solution. To date, however, a peaceful resolution of the conflict still seems unlikely.

Politically, the situation seems irresolvable. Yet Patriarch Pizzaballa has called for something different. In his last letter, the Cardinal wrote: “It was on the cross that Jesus won: not with weapons, not with political power, not by great means, nor by imposing himself. The peace He speaks of has nothing to do with victory over others. He won the world by loving it." What does it mean for you that “Christ has already won”?
Both sides in the conflict proclaim incessantly that they are the true victim, that the other side is the embodiment of evil, and that the war will bring victory. 'Victory will be ours' is perhaps the most poisonous myth of any conflict. Fuelled by what seems to be an unquenchable thirst for revenge, the belief that victory is attainable by defeating the enemy in a ruthless war is at the heart of the rhetoric of war. Humanly, one might hope that the intensity of the current conflict and the terrible casualties on both sides would take us beyond the horizon of endless war, with a growing realisation that victory is illusory and that continued violence is ultimately suicidal. As the Holy Father said on 8 October at the Angelus: "[..] it must be understood that terrorism and war bring no solutions, but only to the death and suffering of so many innocent lives. War is a defeat, every war is a defeat!". The certainty that Christ has already won is at the heart of our faith and the good news we proclaim.

Read also - Holy Land: Another logic

Is it not strange to speak of certainty while everything around you collapses?
It is what Christians have to offer the world: the certainty that, although death still dominates the world, Christ has already conquered death in His resurrection. It seems like madness when one looks at the images of the October 7 massacres in Israel and those of the incessant Israeli bombing of Gaza. However, this must be our madness today in the Holy Land. Our Patriarch, Cardinal Pizzaballa, recently said that in the heart of Jerusalem is the immolated Lamb, the crucified and risen Christ, the light that allows us to see all things renewed. It is the encounter with the risen Christ that opens a horizon closed by the denial of the other, the rejection of their humanity, the endless desire for revenge, the endless cycles of violence. Ultimately, only the loving union between the Holy Land, Israel and Palestine offers us a way out. No one reality will be victorious over the others, despite all the rhetoric of military victory. The only victory will be the victory of all, the victory of love, because the victory of one person means death and destruction for all. This is the witness to which we are called as Christians. I am among the lucky ones, torn by love for my family, my people, love for Oussama, his family and his people, love for the Church of the Holy Land called to serve one another in Israel and Palestine.