Homily prompts for remembering Israelis in our hearts and prayers this Christmas
As Christian homilists finetune their Christmas messages for 2023, words and images highlighting the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza, and in Bethlehem in the West Bank too, loom front and centre, along with prayers for peace in the troubled holy land. One poignant image circulating Christian networks is the figure of the Christ-child lying in a manger of concrete rubble. As a depiction of the Christmas crib, it is indeed a powerful image.
There is no doubt that Palestinians, including our own Christian brothers and sisters in Gaza and the West Bank, along with many more Palestinian Muslims suffering as casualties of the war in Gaza, deserve our heartfelt concern, love and prayers. At any time, and certainly at Christmas.
At the same time, let not our well-intentioned messages be subtly twisted into subliminal messages of hatred or lack of empathy for Jews and Israelis. Let's not oversimplify the bloodied, anguished complexities of the war in Gaza by overlooking the goodness of ordinary Israelis and the brutalities they have suffered at the hand of Hamas. Among the Israelis murdered or kidnapped on October 7 there were those who had spent their lives trying to build the foundations for peace and had been actively involved in humanitarian outreaches to Palestinians in Gaza.
Yes, let’s pray for peace. Let us grieve for the suffering of innocents in Gaza. Let us advocate for justice for Palestinians, for a safe and secure home for their children to grow and thrive in peace.
And let us also be credible witnesses to the suffering of Israelis who are so often denied their right to live in their own State in peace and security. Let us be advocates for justice for Jewish people everywhere in the face of the worst outbreak of antisemitism since the days of Nazi propaganda and their accompanying atrocities.
In what follows, I write from the premise that no Christian homilist needs reminding of the horrors of war that are being experienced by the Palestinian population in Gaza. We hear and see their terrible suffering detailed every day in the secular and religious press. However, Christian homilists may need reminding to speak words of compassion for Israelis and for Jews. They may need reminding that October 7 was not just a day; it was a massive act of terrorism that continues to unfold in the lives of countless innocent Israelis and in the lives of Jewish families around the world who have been profoundly affected.
No Christian homilist needs reminding of the horrors of war that are being experienced by the Palestinian population in Gaza... However, Christian homilists may need reminding to speak words of compassion for Israelis and for Jews.
Our remembrance of Israelis and Jews at Christmas time in 2023 could include any of the following facts:
The child in the manger is a Jewish child, born in the homeland of the Jewish people, a people torn from their land by the Romans, exiled for 2,000 years, and persecuted through the centuries, including in Christian societies.
The antisemitic and genocidal forces that, historically, have wreaked havoc in the lives of Jews and in the cause for peace, were at work again in unspeakable ways on 7 October 2023 in peaceful communities in southern Israel.
What occurred on October 7 in Israel was a major pogrom (mob violence) of premeditated murder, torture, mutilation and abduction of civilians, including sexual violence against Israeli women and girls of extraordinary ferocity.
The traumatic impact of these atrocities continues in the lives of those victims who survived and for the families of all victims. E.g., Homes are being found for Israeli children who lost both parents on October 7 and who witnessed their parents’ murder. Many more have lost one parent, through death or kidnapping. Psychological trauma is part of the unseen wounds carried by Israelis, children and adults alike, especially in light of the history of the Holocaust.
The entire Israeli population directly affected by these events, in what were the townships and small communities bordering Gaza, have been displaced since October 7. They cannot return to their homes, even if they were to be rebuilt. While Hamas remains in power in Gaza, they can no longer live safely in their own homes.
As well as the ongoing attacks from Gaza, Israelis elsewhere in their country are living under the threat of attacks from Hezbollah in the north and the aggression of Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in maritime settings in the south. Violent unrest in the West Bank is also part of the picture.
On October 7, more than 240 men, women, children and a nine-month-old baby were taken hostage by Hamas. An estimated 129 remain in captivity, while the remainder are either recovering from their traumatic ordeal since their release, or they have been killed. Each of the hostages has a family and community that is gravely impacted by their abduction.
Israelis have been attending funeral after funeral as they mourn the deaths of victims of October 7, the deaths of sons and daughters in the army and the deaths of hostages. They also mourn the devastating loss of Palestinian lives in war, and the death of dreams for peace.
Since October 7, Jewish communities around the world have been subjected to unprecedented levels of antisemitic violence, harassment and hate speech. In Australia, antisemitic incidents have surged by 738 percent since October-November the previous year.
Our Jewish friends and most Israelis won’t be celebrating Christmas — it is not their tradition. But it would be a terrible injustice and distortion of the gospel, to airbrush them out of our Christmas messages – or worse, to refer to them in negative ways - and to speak only of compassion for Palestinian Christians and Muslims.
May our Christmas messages this year be inclusive, loving and wise.
Photo: A different kind of image of 'mother and child':
Terrified mother, Shiri Bibas, is seen being taken hostage, along with her baby Kfir and 4-year-old son Ariel. They have not returned from Gaza. Source: Set Them Free
To participate in a prayer initiative for the hostages held by Hamas, go to change.org
Teresa Pirola is a Catholic freelance writer, and author of Catholic-Jewish Relations: Twelve Key Themes for Teaching and Preaching (Paulist Press/Stimulus, 2023).