Letter for Palestine: to My Faculty’s Executive Council

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Professor Mark L. Taylor, Theology Department, PTS, January 14, 2024

With this note I make appeal to Princeton Seminary’s Faculty Executive Council. I request that the FEC begin to take steps towards organizing the faculty toward the making of a Collective Faculty Statement to be completed and issued to the public as soon as is reasonably possible. The statement would be grounded in our faith and call for a permanent ceasefire of the war on Gaza.

One model for what I am calling would be the 2017 collective statement by 33 active PTS faculty, 13 emeriti and 7 adjunct faculty, entitled “In Defense of Christian Faith and a Democratic Future.” In it, PTS faculty focused on the dangers of American nationalism we discerned in numerous policies that were unleashed in the weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Why should faculty press toward issuing such a statement now, one calling for a permanent ceasefire in the U.S.-supported war by Israel on Gaza?

  1. The human need in Gaza is now not only horrifically dire but also could be stopped by combined U.S. and Israeli efforts.The present war on Gaza is compounding the October 7 attacks by Hamas into Israeli territory, which included killing 373 IDF soldiers and security personnel, murder of and war crimes against 766 Israeli and other international civilians, with over 200 people taken as hostages into Gaza. Also, as a result of the attacks and continuing rocket-fire, over 100,000 people in Israel have been displaced. Israel’s retaliation after October 7 over the following 100 days and counting, has subjected Gaza to unrelenting aerial and ground bombardment, using hundreds of 2,000-pound bombs in highly populated Gaza. At this count, Israel’s retaliation has claimed the lives of over 24,600 Gazans (70 percent of the total killed being women and children). Over 60,000 Gazans have been maimed or injured. Almost 10,000 of the killed are children. The 3,195 children killed in just the first three weeks of Israel’s assault on Gaza is, according to Save the Children “more than the number killed in armed conflict globally – across more than 20 countries – over the course of a whole year, for the last three years.” A sobering 85 percent of all Gazans have been “forcibly displaced,” some 9 million of its 2.3 million inhabitants of the Gaza strip, a zone equivalent to a 5-mile-wide corridor roughly equal to the distance from Princeton to Metuchen, NJ. Whole families of Gazans have been wiped out in their residences. 134 UNRWA facilities have been hit. 148 UN and NGO staff have been killed. Churches, mosques and schools have been attacked. At least 82 journalists, 75 of whom Palestinians, have been killed while reporting in Gaza. With winter coming, the specters of disease and starvation now loom. An Israeli Human Rights Center, B’tselem reports that “Israel is Starving Gaza.” Only 11 of Gaza’s 36 hospitals remain to handle coming disease with continuing war casualties. “More than 10 children on average have lost one or both of their legs daily in Gaza since October 7, with many amputations taking place without anesthesia…”. The southern city of Rafah, declared by Israel as a safer haven, continues to be bombed. Last week a Gazan journalist’s life was taken in Rafah by an Israeli assassination strike on his car, confirmed by reputable Israeli journalists like Amira Hass. Rafah endures continuing bombardment, even though its pre-war population of 280,000 has now been swelled by displaced people to over 1 million people. “No other place on earth is as horrifying as Gaza right now,” wrote one UN observer. No place is safe in Gaza. It is “uninhabitable.” Conflict has also been increasing dramatically in the West Bank, as IDF-backed Israeli settlers unleash additional attacks on Palestinians there.
  2. Palestine/Israel is a region of the world that is a key geographic reference for Christians, with its topography’s place names shaping much of Christian consciousness, its scriptures, and important traditions. PTS teaches and variously relates to that region of the world. This is evident in the special seminary trips supervised by the Bible and Theology Departments and other faculty who have guided visits to Israel/Palestine. For Christians everywhere, there persists a geographic dimension to their structures of meaning and faith. Christians’ sense of relation to Palestine has a long history, as many churches of Europe and the United States cultivated a Zionism and theologies of “restoration” (of Jews to Palestine), which preceded, prompted and gave religious support to the secular Zionism that led to the founding of Israel. Palestinian Christians in Palestine today, challenge the ways Christian Zionism still often supports war instead of peace in “the holy land.”  This is a highly contentious topic, demanding historical, political, and theological treatment by US theological faculties. Wars today, among peoples in the lands of Jesus of Nazareth, make a special claim on the hearts and minds of Christians everywhere, and should be in the foreground of concern for Christian scholars who pray, work, and teach for peace and justice.
  3. Our seminary is an institution in the United States, and most of us are U.S. citizens. Our country funds war in “the Holy Land” by providing nearly 4 billion dollars annually in military aid to Israel. Today’s highly concentrated, extreme war in Gaza could not happen without U.S. aid and support. Those annual amounts of military aid have been supplemented during the war on Gaza by an additional $14 billion. Two special shipments of weapons supplies to Israel were recently expedited by President Biden without congressional approval. As US citizens and taxpayers, we have a special responsibility to assure that the US policies abroad work for peace, not war.
  4. Princeton Theological Seminary is one of the most influential Christian institutions in the country. It has also long been part of a wider institutional fabric that strengthens American culture and so shapes and expresses national public opinion. Individuals in our institution may hold very different opinions on the major crises of our times, ranging from support to dissent on U.S. government policies. As an institution, though, the default assumption by the public will usually be that PTS supports U.S. government policy, barring the seminary’s issuing of a public, collective statement to the contrary. The seminary’s collective silence today about the war on Gaza implies support, as an institution, for current US policies. When and if those policies are unjust or disruptive to peace – and indeed Israel and the U.S. are being charged withwar crimes as well as genocide and/or complicity in genocide – our institution also becomes complicit. A collective statement by our institution, can have a valuable impact on the nation’s institutional culture, and by extension be one influence on national policy, toward stopping the war.

For these four reasons, the war on Gaza poses a distinctive need, and calls forth from us a distinctive and urgent response. It is not just one of “the wars we always have with us.” It calls for a specific redress and response, beyond being listed among other wars we name in our prayers for peace and reconciliation.

There are many possible ways toward forming such a collective faculty statement now about the war on Gaza. The 2017 statement began with a faculty vote which designated a “writing committee.” I would propose something like that as a beginning now, also.

Further, I suggest that conversations begin not so much with expressing and debating our different positions on the war, but instead with how we as scholars are forming our opinions about the war. Michelle Goldberg named as “epistemological nightmare” the difficulties in getting accurate information about October 7 attacks and the 100-day Israeli war that has followed. So, we might begin by conversing with one another as scholars, first, about the various sources we view as reliable for forming principled and intelligent stances on the war: historical analyses in books and articles, contemporary media outlets, social media, friendships, and acquaintances perhaps who have knowledge of the conflict, and critical reflection on all these. Scholars do this. Moral clarity requires this.

The 2017 collective faculty statement – though it involved almost all our faculty, and thus carried important weight – did not claim to be “the official opinion of the seminary” (largely because of the so-called “neutrality clause” announced in the Faculty Manual). Our statement about the war on Gaza would have a similar status.

Finally, it should be noted that all signers in 2017 had to compromise when voting for the faculty document. All of us, if writing singly would have used alternative language. We all voted for and signed the collective one, because of the perceived crisis of that political moment.

Can we find a similar unity toward a collective statement about the current war on Gaza?

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