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Since it was announced that President Barack Obama was going to be giving the commencement address for the 2009 graduating class of Notre Dame, the Vatican has been deafeningly silent. Close observers interpreted this silence as tacit approval of the Obama administration, and as a friendly opening for dialogue. This contrasted sharply with the outspokenness of a small group of Conservative Catholics (both among the laity and hierarchy) who have been against the President’s visit and the honorary degree the school was going to give him. Again, this was a small group, only 28% of Catholics, while half of Catholics approved of the President’s address and the remaining 22% not having an opinion either way. A recent poll also shows that 67% of Catholics approve of the way President Obama has run the country. Last November, 54% of Catholics voted for Barack Obama.
Ah, but the Vatican has ended its silence, which might prove problematic for Conservative Catholics.
Giuseppe Fiorentino, writing in the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, has concluded that President Barack Obama has been a somewhat cautious leader, not the radical socialist Conservatives had portrayed him as. Fiorentino also cites Obama’s approaches to the economy and banking regulations, which have not been exactly bold; in other words, he has not used this as an opportunity to lead the U.S. towards socialism.
Obama’s stance on so-called “life issues” has not been as “apocalyptic” as some U.S. Catholic leaders have suggested, according to the paper. “The new guidelines regarding research on embryonic stem cells do not in fact follow the change of course planned months ago. They do not allow the creation of new embryos for research purposes or therapeutic cloning for reproductive purposes, and federal funds may only be used for experimentation with redundant embryos,” Fiorentino writes. “The search for common ground seems to be the road chosen by the President of the United States, Barack Obama, to confront the sensitive abortion issue,” L’Osservatore says. Instead of confronting his opponents, Obama has shown that he wants to engage in a positive dialogue and find “common ground.” They are also heartened to hear that he does not intend to pursue ultra-liberal laws regarding abortion.
The paper also noted President Obama’s intention to include a “conscience clause” in the Freedom of Choice Act, which would allow doctors who are morally opposed to abortion to refuse participation in abortion procedures. In addition to seeking dialogue, the President, Fiorentino writes, also wants to reduce the number of abortions, which includes a plan to facilitate the adoption process, and providing health care for women who do decide to keep their unborn child.
This article has been yet another positive sign from the Vatican, following its early May issue entitled Obama in the White House: The Hundred Days the Didn’t Shake the World.
Here is the full article:
Obama in the White House
The hundred days that didn’t shake the world
One thousand three hundred sixty-one days separate Barack Obama from the end of his mandate. No one can know nor imagine what will happen in this time. In fact, many analysts describe the “occupation” of the president as a reactive one. Planned political strategy leaves the post — as the case of the Bush presidency after 11 September 2001 proves — to choices dictated by events.
In another perspective, this 29 April marks a hundred days of the first African-American president in the White House, traditionally a much-awaited point for an initial assessment, however inevitably partial. But rivers of ink have already flowed over these weeks that, according to many commentators, they’ve signified a decisive turn from the past, a redefinition of the very image of the United States in the world.
It might be that this capacity to communicate is one of the great traits of the president, recalling that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Like the architect of the New Deal, Obama utilizes the modern media — radio then, internet today — to spread the message of hope which the nation needs. The great crisis of 1929 can’t be compared to the current one. And still the imprint seems the same. So too the ability of shifting the attention of public opinion in a pragmatic and functional way.
In these months Obama has seen his popularity grow only by having opened the doors to changes: he proposed direct negotiations with Iran to resolve the question of Tehran’s nuclear program and invited Russia to new discussions for the reduction of its strategic arsenals. Above all, he’s proposed a different role for the United States on the American continent, beginning to imagine new relations with Cuba. But in other and more concrete international scenarios, continuity in respect to the past is anything but compromised. Like in Iraq, where the administration is applying the exit strategy begun by Bush, and in Afghanistan. Here — Obama declared — is found the new front of the fight against terrorism. New only to a point, as it was in Afghanistan where the first US military intervention after September 11 took place. And not everything as a wish for discontinuity can be seen by the retention of Robert Gates at the helm of the Pentagon.
Even when, opening to Cuba, he’s broken a taboo, Obama isn’t much moved from his predecessors in the request for tangible signs on the part of Havana.
Similar evaluations can be made for the economic stimulus undertaken by the president. It’s been accused of excessive statism by some, if not placing the country on the path to socialism. A calmer analysis, however, notes that Obama moves with caution: very reluctant in the face of the nationalization of financial institutions, he opened the private sector to his plan to save credit institutions. Revealing, according to the International Herald Tribune, an unexpected similarity with Ronald Reagan, the president who placed a flag for the state’s retreat from the private sector. And much more statism revealed itself in the final months of the Bush-Paulson team with the partial nationalization of the titans of property lending, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Even on ethical questions — which, from the electoral campaign, have been the forceful concern of the Catholic episcopate — Obama doesn’t seem to have confirmed the radical changes he had aired. The new guidelines regarding embryonic stem-cell research don’t, in fact, line up with the changes foreseen months ago. They don’t permit the creation of new embryos for purposes of research or therapy, for cloning or reproductive ends, and federal funds may be used solely for experimentation with surplus embryos. These don’t remove the motives for criticism in the face of unacceptable forms of bioengineering that contrast with the human identity of the embryo, but the new regulations are less permissive.
A certain surprise has otherwise come about in these days through a bill designed by the Democratic party: the Pregnant Women Support Act would move to limit the number of abortions in the United States through initiatives of aid for distressed women. It’s not a negation of the doctrine until now expressed by Obama on matters of the interruption of pregnancy, but the legislative project could represent a rebalancing in support of motherhood.
Signals of innovations in the Obama administration are undeniable. Above all on matters of the care of environment and in particular the partnership that seems born with Beijing. But maybe it’s early to talk of revolution or imbalance in judgment, whether positive or negative. These hundred days have not shaken the world. Better to await the next one thousand three hundred sixty-one.
I recently wrote about a local figure and a family friend named Ted Zenich, who was diagnosed with ALS in the last year. His battle against the debilitating disease came to an end on Friday, May 15th. His daughter commented on the blog piece:
Thank you for your thoughts and prayers regarding our Dad Ted. As I am sure you have heard, Ted passed away on Friday May 15th, peacfully at home. Your article was very touching and really appreciated. Please feel free to contact us via email if you would like. Memorial Service will be on Thursday May 21, 2009 from 12:00 to 5:00 at the VFW Lodge on Battles.
Thank you again.
I would also like to ask people to keep Ted and his family in your thoughts and prayers. If you want to learn more about ALS, or donate money to research, click on the following links:
First of all, for those who are unaware, I am a practicing Catholic. Now…
Conservative Catholics have lost their minds. They have confused their faith with their extreme right-wing ideology. These wayward souls have even gone so far as to align themselves with right-wing Christian groups who hate the Catholic Church, have likened the Pope to the anti-christ, and regard the Church as inherently evil. Have these Catholic Conservatives no shame? Do they not realize that they have made a pact with people who hate them and are only using them for political gain?
The reason I write this today is because President Barack Obama gave the commencement address at Notre Dame, where he was also given an honorary degree. Conservative Catholics, along with their right-wing Christian/Republican friends, have gone mad over this development. Michael Steele, the Republican National Committee Chairman, said it was “inappropriate” for Notre Dame to give Obama an honorary degree. Other U.S.Catholic leaders have rebuked Notre Dame for its invitation of President Barack Obama and intend to boycott his visit to the University. The president of the Catholic League, Bill Donahue, was quite vocal in his opposition to the President’s presence at Notre Dame, saying, “To give him an honorary degree would be like Howard University giving David Duke a degree in racial politics.” Donahue, keep in mind, is a flaming Republican, who rarely speaks out against the shortcomings of Conservative politicians. Only 55 American Bishops (roughly 20%) have complained about Obam’s address, as have some Cardinals including James Francis Stafford. He has gone so far as to say that Obama has “an agenda and vision that are aggressive, disruptive and apocalyptic.” Strong words, but do they reflect reality?
The protests against the President’s address at Notre Dame included Alan Keyes, and other Republican figures. As many as 39 people have been arrested because of the address, including Norma McCorvey, better known as “Roe,” the plaintiff in the Roe v. Wade case that made abortion legal. She has since become a pro-life activist. Protesters, including Keyes, were pushing strollers containing dolls covered in fake blood. Among those who were arrested was a Priest, who complained aloud, “Notre Dame is arresting a priest. Why are you arresting a priest for trying to stop the killing of a baby? You’ve got it all backward.” Well, apparently trespassing is illegal, and that was why he was arrested, along with Keyes. Many of the critics of the decision to invite the President have also called for the resignation of Notre Dame’s President Rev. John I. Jenkins, gathering some 360,000 online signatures. Though the protests and criticisms have been strong, Jenkins has been quiet and resolved. He did, however, put out a statement: In a statement well before the ceremony, Jenkins wrote that the invitation: This “does not mean we support all of his positions … [on] abortion and embryonic stem cell research.”
In what appears to be a somewhat silent break with American Catholic officials, the Vatican has been mum on the controversy. In late April, for instance, the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, essentially chastised the American Catholic leadership for exaggerated “forceful concerns”. The document, though pointing out differences with President Obama, seems to be reaching out to the new President: “On ethical questions, too — which from the time of the electoral campaign have been the subject of strong worries by the Catholic bishops — Obama does not seem to have confirmed the radical innovations that he had discussed.” In other words, he is not the radical they worried about initially. Indeed, the Vatican seems more interested in building stronger ties to Jewish and Muslim communites, as well as encouraging progress on peace in the middle-east. Since Obama’s election, the Vatican has shown signs that they are quite impressed and enthusiastic about the new President, and their silence on this issue is yet another sign that the Vatican is looking forward to working with this administration on a range of issues including, Global Climate Change, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, combating poverty, encouraging fairer economic policies for poor families, health care, a living wage, working with women who are pregnant in order to help them choose life over abortion, and a whole host of other issues.
In short, the Vatican and the Obama administration have far more issues in common than issues that divide them.
The same is true of Catholic American laity. 67% of Catholics approve of the way he is running the country, according to a Pew Poll. Pew also found that half of American Catholics supported Notre Dame’s invitation of Obama, while only 28% opposed the invitation. 22% had no opinion. Just as a reminder, it is also important to remember that Obama won 54% of the Catholic vote in November’s election. Again, it is the small, albeit vocal, group of Conservative Catholics who confuse their allegiance to the GOP with their faith that are opposed to Obama’s commencement address.
As President Barack Obama took the stage and began his speech before the 12,000 people, there were some boos, which were interrupted and quieted by the graduating class and commencement audience. One heckler was likewise heckled until silenced. Before he spoke, Rev. Jenkins praised the President for his ability to speak with people who disagree with him, unlike those “who [stop] talking to those who disagree with him.” This was a not-so subtle jab at those who opposed Obama’s address. As the President spoke, he was supported with cheers, loud applause, and standing ovations. Many students had the words “Viva Obama” written on their caps. Critics wondered what Obama could possibly say, assuming, I suppose, that being pro-choice would only confound him whilst among a pro-life audience. Instead, as the President often does, he reached out to the critics, offering an opportunity for “fair minded” discussions about abortion. Striking a different tone than those zealots who would shut him up, he also highlighted their similarities: “Let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions. Let’s reduce unintended pregnancies. Let’s make adoption more available. Let’s provide care and support for women who do carry their child to term.” He recognized that “no matter how much we want to fudge it … the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable,” but he urged that people stop “reducing those with differing views to caricature. Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words. It’s a way of life that always has been the Notre Dame tradition.” “I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away,” the president said. “Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.” His speech was quite inspiring, and it demonstrates the President’s commitment to bridging the gap between “enemies” with communication. He’s a uniter, not a divider.
But it was not only the President asking for “fair-minded” discussions, the Valedictorian, Brennan Bollman, (in an interview with the Huffington Post) said that “this issue has not divided the campus by any means,” because the President is bringing “everyone to the table.” In response to those Catholics who have seen red over the President’s address, Bollman responded: “We know exactly what it is to be Catholic because we are inviting President Obama to speak to us.” She even went as far as to say that President Obama has “given [respect] to human life through many of his policies,” adding that many of his policies reflected Catholic values: “President Obama takes a lot of pro-life positions. I don’t think that he is strongly pro-abortion.”
Catholics, like myself, are proud of the President’s speech. We’ll see how the Conservatives will respond.
Below is the full text of the address:
Well, first of all, congratulations, Class of 2009. Congratulations to all the parents, the cousins — the aunts, the uncles — all the people who helped to bring you to the point that you are here today. Thank you so much to Father Jenkins for that extraordinary introduction, even though you said what I want to say much more elegantly. You are doing an extraordinary job as president of this extraordinary institution. Your continued and courageous — and contagious — commitment to honest, thoughtful dialogue is an inspiration to us all.
Good afternoon. To Father Hesburgh, to Notre Dame trustees, to faculty, to family: I am honored to be here today. And I am grateful to all of you for allowing me to be a part of your graduation.
And I also want to thank you for the honorary degree that I received. I know it has not been without controversy. I dont know if youre aware of this, but these honorary degrees are apparently pretty hard to come by. So far I’m only 1 for 2 as President. Father Hesburgh is 150 for 150. I guess that’s better. So, Father Ted, after the ceremony, maybe you can give me some pointers to boost my average.
I also want to congratulate the Class of 2009 for all your accomplishments. And since this is Notre Dame …
(Speech is interrupted by anti-abortion protesters.)
We’re fine, everybody. We’re following Brennans adage that we dont do things easily. We’re not going to shy away from things that are uncomfortable sometimes.
Now, since this is Notre Dame I think we should talk not only about your accomplishments in the classroom, but also in the competitive arena. No, dont worry, I’m not going to talk about that. We all know about this university’s proud and storied football team, but I also hear that Notre Dame holds the largest outdoor 5-on-5 basketball tournament in the world — Bookstore Basketball.
Now this excites me. I want to congratulate the winners of this year’s tournament, a team by the name of “Hallelujah Holla Back.” Congratulations. Well done. Though I have to say, I am personally disappointed that the “Barack OBallers” did not pull it out this year. So next year, if you need a 6-2 forward with a decent jumper, you know where I live.
Every one of you should be proud of what you have achieved at this institution. One hundred and sixty-three classes of Notre Dame graduates have sat where you sit today. Some were here during years that simply rolled into the next without much notice or fanfare — periods of relative peace and prosperity that required little by way of sacrifice or struggle.
You, however, are not getting off that easy. You have a different deal. Your class has come of age at a moment of great consequence for our nation and for the world — a rare inflection point in history where the size and scope of the challenges before us require that we remake our world to renew its promise; that we align our deepest values and commitments to the demands of a new age. It’s a privilege and a responsibility afforded to few generations — and a task that youre now called to fulfill.
This generation, your generation is the one that must find a path back to prosperity and decide how we respond to a global economy that left millions behind even before the most recent crisis hit — an economy where greed and short-term thinking were too often rewarded at the expense of fairness, and diligence, and an honest day’s work.
Your generation must decide how to save God’s creation from a changing climate that threatens to destroy it. Your generation must seek peace at a time when there are those who will stop at nothing to do us harm, and when weapons in the hands of a few can destroy the many. And we must find a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity — diversity of thought, diversity of culture, and diversity of belief.
In short, we must find a way to live together as one human family. And it’s this last challenge that Id like to talk about today, despite the fact that Father John stole all my best lines. For the major threats we face in the 21st century — whether it’s global recession or violent extremism; the spread of nuclear weapons or pandemic disease — these things do not discriminate. They do not recognize borders. They do not see color. They do not target specific ethnic groups.
Moreover, no one person, or religion, or nation can meet these challenges alone. Our very survival has never required greater cooperation and greater understanding among all people from all places than at this moment in history.
Unfortunately, finding that common ground — recognizing that our fates are tied up, as Dr. King said, in a “single garment of destiny” — is not easy. And part of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of man — our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos; all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin. We too often seek advantage over others. We cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar. Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism; in which the world is necessarily a zero-sum game. The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustice. And so, for all our technology and scientific advances, we see here in this country and around the globe violence and want and strife that would seem sadly familiar to those in ancient times.
We know these things; and hopefully one of the benefits of the wonderful education that you’ve received here at Notre Dame is that you’ve had time to consider these wrongs in the world; perhaps recognized impulses in yourself that you want to leave behind. You’ve grown determined, each in your own way, to right them. And yet, one of the vexing things for those of us interested in promoting greater understanding and cooperation among people is the discovery that even bringing together persons of good will, bringing together men and women of principle and purpose — even accomplishing that can be difficult.
The soldier and the lawyer may both love this country with equal passion, and yet reach very different conclusions on the specific steps needed to protect us from harm. The gay activist and the evangelical pastor may both deplore the ravages of HIV/AIDS, but find themselves unable to bridge the cultural divide that might unite their efforts. Those who speak out against stem cell research may be rooted in an admirable conviction about the sacredness of life, but so are the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes who are convinced that their son’s or daughter’s hardships can be relieved.
The question, then — the question then is how do we work through these conflicts? Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort? As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without, as Father John said, demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?
And of course, nowhere do these questions come up more powerfully than on the issue of abortion.
As I considered the controversy surrounding my visit here, I was reminded of an encounter I had during my Senate campaign, one that I describe in a book I wrote called “The Audacity of Hope.” A few days after I won the Democratic nomination, I received an e-mail from a doctor who told me that while he voted for me in the Illinois primary, he had a serious concern that might prevent him from voting for me in the general election. He described himself as a Christian who was strongly pro-life — but that was not what was preventing him potentially from voting for me.
What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my Web site — an entry that said I would fight “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.” The doctor said he had assumed I was a reasonable person, he supported my policy initiatives to help the poor and to lift up our educational system, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable. He wrote, “I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.” Fair-minded words.
After I read the doctor’s letter, I wrote back to him and I thanked him. And I didn’t change my underlying position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my Web site. And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that — when we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe — that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.
That’s when we begin to say, “Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually, it has both moral and spiritual dimensions.”
So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, let’s reduce unintended pregnancies. Let’s make adoption more available. Let’s provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women.” Those are things we can do.
Now, understand — understand, Class of 2009, I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. Because no matter how much we may want to fudge it — indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory — the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.
Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words. It’s a way of life that has always been the Notre Dame tradition. Father Hesburgh has long spoken of this institution as both a lighthouse and a crossroads. A lighthouse that stands apart, shining with the wisdom of the Catholic tradition, while the crossroads is where “differences of culture and religion and conviction can coexist with friendship, civility, hospitality, and especially love.” And I want to join him and Father John in saying how inspired I am by the maturity and responsibility with which this class has approached the debate surrounding today’s ceremony. You are an example of what Notre Dame is about.
This tradition of cooperation and understanding is one that I learned in my own life many years ago — also with the help of the Catholic Church.
You see, I was not raised in a particularly religious household, but my mother instilled in me a sense of service and empathy that eventually led me to become a community organizer after I graduated college. And a group of Catholic churches in Chicago helped fund an organization known as the Developing Communities Project, and we worked to lift up South Side neighborhoods that had been devastated when the local steel plant closed.
And it was quite an eclectic crew — Catholic and Protestant churches, Jewish and African American organizers, working-class black, white, and Hispanic residents — all of us with different experiences, all of us with different beliefs. But all of us learned to work side by side because all of us saw in these neighborhoods other human beings who needed our help — to find jobs and improve schools. We were bound together in the service of others.
And something else happened during the time I spent in these neighborhoods — perhaps because the church folks I worked with were so welcoming and understanding; perhaps because they invited me to their services and sang with me from their hymnals; perhaps because I was really broke and they fed me. Perhaps because I witnessed all of the good works their faith inspired them to perform, I found myself drawn not just to the work with the church; I was drawn to be in the church. It was through this service that I was brought to Christ.
And at the time, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was the Archbishop of Chicago. For those of you too young to have known him or known of him, he was a kind and good and wise man. A saintly man. I can still remember him speaking at one of the first organizing meetings I attended on the South Side. He stood as both a lighthouse and a crossroads — unafraid to speak his mind on moral issues ranging from poverty and AIDS and abortion to the death penalty and nuclear war. And yet, he was congenial and gentle in his persuasion, always trying to bring people together, always trying to find common ground. Just before he died, a reporter asked Cardinal Bernardin about this approach to his ministry. And he said, “You can’t really get on with preaching the Gospel until you’ve touched hearts and minds.”
My heart and mind were touched by him. They were touched by the words and deeds of the men and women I worked alongside in parishes across Chicago. And Id like to think that we touched the hearts and minds of the neighborhood families whose lives we helped change. For this, I believe, is our highest calling.
Now, you, Class of 2009, are about to enter the next phase of your life at a time of great uncertainty. You’ll be called to help restore a free market that’s also fair to all who are willing to work. You’ll be called to seek new sources of energy that can save our planet; to give future generations the same chance that you had to receive an extraordinary education. And whether as a person drawn to public service, or simply someone who insists on being an active citizen, you will be exposed to more opinions and ideas broadcast through more means of communication than ever existed before. You’ll hear talking heads scream on cable, and you’ll read blogs that claim definitive knowledge, and you will watch politicians pretend they know what they’re talking about. Occasionally, you may have the great fortune of actually seeing important issues debated by people who do know what they’re talking about — by well-intentioned people with brilliant minds and mastery of the facts. In fact, I suspect that some of you will be among those brightest stars.
And in this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you’ve been raised and educated. Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake. Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey. In other words, stand as a lighthouse.
But remember, too, that you can be a crossroads. Remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It’s the belief in things not seen. It’s beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us. And those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.
And this doubt should not push us away our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open and curious and eager to continue the spiritual and moral debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us even as we cling to our faith to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works and charity and kindness and service that moves hearts and minds.
For if there is one law that we can be most certain of, it is the law that binds people of all faiths and no faith together. It’s no coincidence that it exists in Christianity and Judaism; in Islam and Hinduism; in Buddhism and humanism. It is, of course, the Golden Rule — the call to treat one another as we wish to be treated. The call to love. The call to serve. To do what we can to make a difference in the lives of those with whom we share the same brief moment on this Earth.
So many of you at Notre Dame — by the last count, upwards of 80 percent — have lived this law of love through the service you’ve performed at schools and hospitals; international relief agencies and local charities. Brennan is just one example of what your class has accomplished. That’s incredibly impressive, a powerful testament to this institution.
Now you must carry the tradition forward. Make it a way of life. Because when you serve, it doesn’t just improve your community, it makes you a part of your community. It breaks down walls. It fosters cooperation. And when that happens — when people set aside their differences, even for a moment, to work in common effort toward a common goal; when they struggle together, and sacrifice together, and learn from one another — then all things are possible.
After all, I stand here today, as President and as an African American, on the 55th anniversary of the day that the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Now, Brown was of course the first major step in dismantling the “separate but equal” doctrine, but it would take a number of years and a nationwide movement to fully realize the dream of civil rights for all of God’s children. There were freedom rides and lunch counters and Billy clubs, and there was also a Civil Rights Commission appointed by President Eisenhower. It was the 12 resolutions recommended by this commission that would ultimately become law in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
There were six members of this commission. It included five whites and one African American; Democrats and Republicans; two Southern governors, the dean of a Southern law school, a Midwestern university president, and your own Father Ted Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame. So they worked for two years, and at times, President Eisenhower had to intervene personally since no hotel or restaurant in the South would serve the black and white members of the commission together. And finally, when they reached an impasse in Louisiana, Father Ted flew them all to Notre Dame’s retreat in Land OLakes, Wisconsin — where they eventually overcame their differences and hammered out a final deal.
And years later, President Eisenhower asked Father Ted how on Earth he was able to broker an agreement between men of such different backgrounds and beliefs. And Father Ted simply said that during their first dinner in Wisconsin, they discovered they were all fishermen. And so he quickly readied a boat for a twilight trip out on the lake. They fished, and they talked, and they changed the course of history.
I will not pretend that the challenges we face will be easy, or that the answers will come quickly, or that all our differences and divisions will fade happily away — because life is not that simple. It never has been. But as you leave here today, remember the lessons of Cardinal Bernardin, of Father Hesburgh, of movements for change both large and small. Remember that each of us, endowed with the dignity possessed by all children of God, has the grace to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we all seek the same love of family, the same fulfillment of a life well lived. Remember that in the end, in some way we are all fishermen.
If nothing else, that knowledge should give us faith that through our collective labor, and God’s providence, and our willingness to shoulder each other’s burdens, America will continue on its precious journey towards that more perfect union. Congratulations, Class of 2009. May God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.
For anyone that was curious, I am against the Death Penalty. It is not only an ineffective deterrent, it is not only an expensive process, it is also an immoral practice.
As a Catholic, I am always annoyed by non-Catholics trying to obfuscate the church’s position, which is quite clear. There are even some Republican Catholics who try to ignore the church’s clear position on the matter.
What I find funny, is that Protestant Christians are totally gung-ho about war, the death penalty, and endorse many Conservative policies, which are clearly in opposition to a dignified life. They forget that they claim to be pro-life, yet they are more or less anti-abortion, not pro-life.
On the blog NewsBusters.org, the author blasts a CNN report by Roland Martin during which he presses a Republican Catholic commentator to acknowledge that the death penalty and abortion are both life issues. The blog’s author, Matthew Balan, writes, “He teamed up with the liberal Catholic priest to incorrectly give the impression that the Catholic Church’s opposition to the death penalty rises to the same level as its opposition to abortion.” What he does not realize, as a non-Catholic, is that Roland Martin is absolutely correct: the Death Penalty and abortion are on equal footing, in terms of being unacceptable.
Balan goes on to cite the Catholic Churches Catechism in a lame attempt to justify the use of abortion: “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” While the Catechism does say this, he neglects to include the whole passage, which is as follows:
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm—without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself—the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
Notice the last phrase “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
What this blogger also fails to understand, is that the Catholic church was a huge supporter of the UN’s resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty across the globe. A Vatican spokesman, Father Lombardi, following the passage of the December 2008 resolution, said, “It shows that despite the persistence of so much violence in the world, there is a growing awareness in the human family of the value of life, of the dignity of every person and of the concept of a nonvindictive punishment”. The Vatican also condemned the execution of Saddam Hussein: “Cardinal Renato Martino, Pope Benedict XVI’s top prelate for justice issues and a former Vatican envoy to the United Nations, said that Saddam’s execution would punish ‘a crime with another crime’ and expressed hope that the sentence would not be carried out.”
Pope John Paul II forgives the man who shot him in an assassination attempt
Pope John Paul II was a fervent opponent of the death penalty. In 1999, JP2 proclaimed, “Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.” Not only did he remind us that Christ, too, was given the death penalty, but that he offered hope to the criminals who were also being crucified: “I tell you with certainty, today you will be with me in Paradise.” The Pope was clear in his opposition to capital punishment. He clarified that, it being the ultimate form of punishment, it denied the convicted the opportunity of redemption and reform. “We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing.” He also put the death penalty on par with abortion, as they both are symbolic of “a culture of death.” Most Protestant Christians base their support of the death penalty in the Old Testament: however, as Pope John Paul wrote, “in the Old Testament this sense of the value of life… does not yet reach the refinement found in the Sermon on the Mount. This is apparent in some aspects of the current penal legislation, which provided for severe forms of corporal punishment and even the death penalty. But the overall message, which the New Testament will bring to perfection, is a forceful appeal for respect for the inviolability of physical life and the integrity of the person.” Capital punishment, in short, is not in keeping with any biblical teachings about the sanctity of life, despite weak attempts by Protestants to justify the death penalty.
While Pope Benedict has not been as forthright as his predecessor, he has still been clear on opposing the death penalty. Where he has not been as vocal as his predecessor, there are Cardinals and Bishops across the globe who have been outspoken on the matter. For instance, Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said that the death penalty was “contrary to the great Christian values which sustain the universal rights of man,” and added that he looked forward to the day when the practice was “definitively eliminated.” Pope Benedict has argued, however, that it is not impossible for the death penalty to be justified, but noted that according to the Church’s criteria it is “practically impossible” in today’s modern society. He congratulated the President of the Phillipines for ending the death penalty; he did the same for Bill Richardson, New Mexico Governor, who recently ended the death penalty in his state.
In the final analysis, the death penalty is an unacceptable for of punishment. It stains our collective sense of justice and it makes us all guilty of murder. Though people who commit murder are deserving of harsh sentences, it is morally unacceptable, and illogical, to assume that reciprocating murder is justice. It is not.
Just before my wife and I left, I gave Ted Zenich a tight hug and wished him a happy Easter. Ted, a large man, now in a wheelchair, did his best to hug me just as tightly. Before I could pull away, he weakly held onto my arm and said, “I still have some months. Don’t worry about me.” I smiled and nodded, hoping that he would have more time than that. As I walked away, I took one last look back at Ted. It broke my heart to see him in the state he was in. For as long as I had known him, and for all of the decades my family has known him, Ted was a strong, boisterous, and loving man.
In the last year or so, Ted was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrigs disease. He has lost virtually all of his strength, forcing him into a wheelchair, making it impossible for him to feed himself, and quieting his once booming laugh. When I entered the home that Easter Sunday, I was not sure what to expect, but he recognized me. And, by the glimmer in his eyes, I could see that he was glad to see that I’d come to see him. He also was pretty happy to meet my wife Danielle, and, with some effort, he made sure to shake her hand. Clearly, his mind was still in great shape, despite his body’s betrayal.
As my uncle and aunt spoke to Ted’s kids (with whom they had grown up), they exchanged stories about Ted from their childhood. There was a lot of laughter, moments of quiet reflection, and under it all was a strong sense of respect. Here was a man who, with his faithful wife Darla, raised their children, helped to raise their grandchildren, and, for all intents and purposes, were currently raising their great-grandchildren. He and his wife are at an age when most people start to take things a little slower, but Ted and Darla are strong people who take care of their family. All the stories shared on that day attested to that fact, even if the stories were somewhat colorful and grand.
In Santa Maria, California, Ted is also an institution. Not only a strong supporter of fundraising efforts across the community, Ted is also a prominent local figure in the development of cheap and affordable housing. Since 1978, Ted has been on the Housing Authority board, and has been a vocal advocate for affordable housing in Santa Maria. In February 2007, on an empty 1.6 acre lot, construction began in earnest with a groundbreaking ceremony. By that point, there were 5,000 names on a waiting list. Clearly these homes were needed. But it had been an uphill battle since many in the community feared that affordable, low-income housing would bring an increase in crime, traffic, and lower home values in the surrounding areas. Nevertheless, the homes were approved by the city council, and by the beginning of 2008 the homes were built.
“It’s something you can go to sleep at night and say you did something good for the county and city,” Zenich said at the time. He had been tireless in his efforts, knowing that he was doing something lasting and good for his community. And it is because of his efforts that the 24-home complex was named Ted Zenich Gardens in his honor. And despite the opposition to the homes, crime rates have not changed, niether has traffic, and the homes have actually increased property values in the surrounding area. The homes are quite beautiful, and they serve as a vital opportunity for those among us who are low-income, yet need a roof over their head. Thanks to Ted Zenich, they have that opportunity.
And now, in the last week or so, Ted’s health has dramatically declined. It seems as though he is in his last days. It is a tragedy to see a man, especially in Santa Maria, who is so active in the community lose his life. Not only is it painful personally, painful for his family and mine, but it will be painful for a community that lacks leadership. So few people are willing to look beyond themselves and to the plight of others. I live in the Bible Belt of California, a pretty conservative area, yet I rarely see the kindness and community spirit from our Christian community– instead, I see selfishness and fear: fear of Mexicans and fear of the poor.
In my next blog, I will write more on ALS, and I will keep my blog posted on the health of Ted Zenich. Please keep him in your thoughts and prayers.
The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is the most misunderstood issue in modern times, yet it arguably evokes far more passionate and visceral emotions than most other issues. Misconceptions abound, but the claim that this is an ancient conflict is the most commonly heard. Most cite the Bible when they make the assertion: “When Yahweh, your God, has led you into the land you are entering to make it your own, many nations will fall before you… nations greater and stronger than you.” (Jerusalem Bible, Deuteronomy 7.1) Despite this rousing pronouncement (and similar ones found in the Old Testament), the conflict between Israel and the stateless Palestinians is a modern conflict, born out of renewed interest in Zionism at the turn of the twentieth century, exacerbated by confused policies and promises made by British imperialists, and intensified by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
The Zionists, who promoted the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, argued that they had historical ties to the land, which gave them the right to pursue statehood. They cited the Hebrew people, a pastoral people on-the-go, who were the descendents of Abraham (of Mesopotamia) and eventually settled on the land of Canaan (later known as Palestine). These were not a people who appeared to be of European descent—these were people with a dark complexion, a natural defense against the intense heat of the region. Around 1250 BCE, the Hebrews found a leader in Moses, who freed them from their enslavement by the Egyptians and guided them through the desert to the Sinai Peninsula (Ralph, 76). Yahweh spoke to Moses at the top of Mount Sinai, where Moses was told that the Hebrews would be Yahweh’s “chosen people” – so long as they obeyed him (Jerusalem Bible, Exodus 19.5). As Moses and his followers waited in Moab, after their arduous journey, Yahweh renewed his promise to the Hebrews that they would be victorious over the people of Canaan, and that the land they were promised would be “fertile” enough so that they would “never go hungry or ever be in need.” (Jerusalem Bible, Deuteronomy 8.7-10) Whether it was through God’s grace or the Hebrews’ diligence, they eventually conquered the land of Canaan and began to establish a Hebrew nation under the leadership of Saul, who was their King (Ralph, 76). Under Saul, the Hebrews were able to fight back the Philistines, but it was under King David, Saul’s successor in 1005 BCE, who made the greatest progress, eventually reducing them to a small area southwest of Canaan. After King David unified Canaan under his rule, he began constructing a grand capital at Jerusalem, a capital worthy of its people. That project would be completed under the reign of his son Solomon, who used slave labor from their northern neighbor Phoenicia. Though Solomon’s people tolerated his rule while he was alive, they immediately broke away from the unified Hebrew nation after his death and created their own kingdom (Ralph, 78). The formerly unified state then consisted of two separate kingdoms: the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah. Their split weakened the Hebrews and left them vulnerable to outside attacks; in 722 BCE, the Assyrians captured the Kingdom of Israel and laid waste to every major city; the Kingdom of Judah, though they fared better only nominally, eventually was captured by the Babylonians in 586 BCE (Ralph, 78). Despite these setbacks, the Judeans (henceforth referred to as the Jewish people) would return to the land.
Over the next six hundred years, the land of Palestine, inhabited by Jews, was to be ruled by foreign powers. The Babylonians allowed the Jews to return to Palestine, where they enjoyed limited self-rule. However, the Babylonians soon lost that territory to the brash, albeit genius, King Alexander the Great of Greece; however, Alexander died at an early age. He was succeeded by several generations of Greeks, including Antiochus Epiphanes. In 168 BCE, Antiochus began a campaign of destruction, intended to wipe out the Jewish religion. However, the Jews defended their land and their faith by gaining control over Palestine, which they shortly lost in 63 BCE to Rome (Ralph, 80). Their efforts at revolt only succeeded in angering the Romans. After destroying Jerusalem and burning the Temple to the ground, the Romans gained total control over Palestine (Ralph, 80). Thus began the period of Diaspora for the Jewish people.
However, both Arabs and Jews share a history that goes back to their Semitic roots in Mesopotamia. It should not be forgotten, as our nation is engaged in two conflicts in the Middle-East, that civilization was born out of Mesopotamia, or modern day Iraq. Out of this fledgling civilization came the invention of the wheel, the lunar calendar, a written language, documented history, and literature (Ralph, 30-31). It was out of this civilization that Abraham was born. As mentioned earlier, people of the Jewish faith claim to be descended from Abraham, a native of Mesopotamia from a region known as Sumer. However, Arabs also consider themselves to be descended from Abraham, because he fathered Ishmael; Ishmael, likewise, is believed by Arabs to be the father of Arabia. Nonetheless, both people originated from the same land, from the same people, and from a similar culture. To argue that these people were in conflict over the land and shared a hatred of one another denies the fact that they were both people living in times of great conflict. Nations were constantly in battle with one another for dominance and control, as evidenced by the number of times Palestine was conquered by various powers, as mentioned earlier. During the period of time that Palestine was under the thumb of Rome, for example, monotheism was required. Many were forced to embraced either Judaism or Christianity, further tightening their shared history in the region.
After the death of Muhammad in 632 AD, Islam began to flower and spread across the Arabian Peninsula. As a military force, they conquered most of North Africa, parts of Spain, and most of the Old Roman Empire within a century’s time. In 638, Jerusalem also came under their control. Jews, who had previously been barred from entering Jerusalem, were allowed to return. The empires the Muslims defeated, such as the Byzantine and Persian empires, were exhausted from perpetual wars. Their populations, too, were tired of their old masters, and for the most part welcomed the fledgling Islamic empire (Ralph, 382). The new subjects of the Islamic empire, despite their religion, were treated with a fair amount of tolerance, especially compared to the way they were treated by their former masters. Accusations that the Muslim conquerors forced conversions are simply false; for the most part, many subjects converted voluntarily, but Islam was also a religion held dear to the Arab people, who were not eager to share it with non-Arabs. Other issues, such as taxation and local infrastructure, were favored by the subjects who felt overburdened by previous conquerors (Cleveland, 15). It would not be until 1453, when the Ottoman Empire captured the Byzantine capital Constantinople and renamed it Istanbul, that the Islamic empire would be recognized as a world power. The span of Islamic control over the Palestine lasted from 638 until 1922 (with exception to the brief period of time the Crusaders controlled Jerusalem from 1099-1187) (Ralph, 457). In short, the Arabs could also claim that they had long, historical ties to the land of Palestine.
World War 1 saw the end of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Arab nationalism in Palestine. The Ottoman Empire spanned three continents at the height of its power and it succeeded in advancing civilization for hundreds of years. However, the decline of the Ottomans represented the culmination of European economic dominance and control over the Ottoman raw materials and markets, which undermined their economy and military strength (Cleveland, 49). However, external influences were not entirely to blame: the Ottoman’s had suffered under incompetent leadership for quite some time, which left them unable to fend off European influence in their markets (Cleveland, 58). They also lost their ability to maintain a military advantage in technology over their opponents, but the most damaging loss was the insubordination and self-interest of the Janissaries, the Ottoman army (Cleveland, 57). That the Ottomans were able to fight throughout the war came as a surprise to European powers, however, their demise was all but certain, which is evidenced by the Sykes-Picot agreement made between 1915 and 1916. Britain and France planned to divide up the Middle-East, but they did not expect to encounter the passions of Arab nationalism, nor pressure from Zionists looking to re-establish themselves in Palestine.
Ever since the Jews left Palestine, following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, the Jewish people maintained the desire to return to their “Promised Land”. Theodore Herzl, with his publication of The Jewish State in 1896, launched the creation of political Zionism, which had the stated goal of creating a wholly distinct Jewish state. Herzl argued, quite forcefully, that anti-Semitism was so ingrained throughout the world that no law could undo the discrimination of governments and people against the Jewish people. So, Herzl demanded that “sovereignty be granted us over a portion of the globe large enough to satisfy the rightful requirements of a nation; the rest we shall manage for ourselves.” (Laqueur, 9) His zeal and passion galvanized the Jewish people in support of Zionism, which led to the first Zionist Congress in Basel (1897) where they adopted the goal of creating “a home in Palestine secured by public law.” (Laqueur, 10) However, Herzl died in 1904. His cause was continued by Chaim Weizmann, however, who was able to persuade many in the British government that a Jewish state in the Middle-East would benefit their long-term strategic interests in the region (Cleveland, 244). In 1917, Lord Rothschild received a letter from Arthur Balfour (Britain’s foreign secretary) which declared that the British government was in favor of the “establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people.” (Laqueur, 16) However, this pledge contained one caveat: that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” (Laqueur, 16) This mixed message was but the first in a series of confused policies that would lead to conflict between the Jewish settlers and the native Arab population in Palestine.
During World War 1, Britain and France (vis-à-vis a correspondence between Sir Mark Sykes and Charles Georges-Picot) planned to divide the Middle-East, while Britain was in simultaneous contact with Sherif Hussein (the Amir of Mecca) to allow the Arabs an independent state in exchange for their military support against the Ottoman Turks. Sherif Hussein, in a letter dated July 14, 1915, expressed the desire of Arabs to exercise their right to self-governance and independence, and he laid out several propositions, including: a proclamation from Great Britain acknowledging the creation of an Arab state, the right of Britain to have preference in economic enterprises, a military alliance, and a sunset provision for the agreement. While McMahon’s initial response was tepid, due to ongoing negotiations with the French, in a subsequent letter McMahon did promise to support the “independence of the Arabs in all regions within the limits demanded by the Sherif of Mecca [Hussein].” (Laqueur, 22) Without question, the boundaries for the promised Arab state included Palestine. McMahon also promised in the letter to support the Arab state militarily and to “recognize their inviolability.” (Laqueur, 22) The British government clearly supported the rights of the Arab people to construct their own state, but, as aforementioned, within two years of that promise they also recognized the right of Zionists to create a Jewish state. Unfortunately, both the Arabs and the Zionists wanted the same land to be the site of their future state, and both had been guaranteed statehood on that land by the British government. It should be mentioned that the promise was first given to Hussein, on behalf of the Arab people living in Palestine.
Shortly after the end of World War 1, Amir Feisal met with Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann to “(work) out the consummation of their national aspirations.” (Laqueur, 17) They agreed that the boundaries of an eventual Arab and Jewish state would be worked out by a Commission, and they also agreed that Jewish immigration into Palestine ought to be continued “on a large scale”, so long as it did not have a negative impact on the indigent Arab population. Religious freedom was another point of agreement between the two parties. In the event that they could not work out an agreement, they did, however, agree to refer the problem to Great Britain (Laqueur, 18). Amir Feisal concluded that the Zionists did not have designs on taking the whole of Palestine, and he reiterated that the Arabs and the Jews were “cousins in race” and as such they ought to be able to live as neighbors in “mutual goodwill.” (Laqueur, 19) Likewise, Felix Frankfurter, on behalf of the Zionists, acknowledged that the aspirations of the Arab people and the Jewish people “were parallel” and he welcomed the support of the Arab people. He also made a point of mentioning the great difficulty represented by their aspirations, but conceded that they could not “but live side by side as friends.” (Laqueur, 20) Though these words seem to convey optimism and partnership between the two communities, they were in for a reality check.
As Jewish immigration into Palestine increased, the Arab population grew increasingly hostile to their presence and feared that they would lose their right to establish an Arab state in Palestine. Their concerns were based on the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which the Zionists pointed to as evidence that the British government supported turning all of Palestine into a Jewish state. To allay those concerns, Winston Churchill issued the 1922 White Paper, which rejected the notion that the British government intended to make “Palestine… ‘as Jewish as England is English’”. (Laqueur, 46) Churchill argued that all of Palestine should not belong to the Zionists, only that their national homeland should “be in Palestine” and that all the people in Palestine would share citizenship as Palestinians (Laqueur, 46). The Jewish people, he argued, already constituted a nation and as such had a right to exist in the land that they were historically bound to. Therefore, the immigration of Jews into Palestine ought to continue unfettered, in his view. Churchill went on, to the dismay of the Arabs, to deny that the Arabs were ever promised an independent Palestinian state, which is nothing short of a lie, since it is clear in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence that the military efforts of the Arabs would be exchanged for a guarantee of gradual statehood. In the final analysis, the White Paper was a confusing and convoluted document that attempted to sort out the various promises made to both the Arabs and Zionists, but it only succeeded in adding to the confusion.
In 1920, the League of Nations assigned Britain control over Palestine through a Mandate, despite protests from the General Syrian Congress. The Mandate, which went into effect in September of 1923, outlined the rights of the British government in the administration of Palestine, while guiding the eventual self-determination of the Jewish people in Palestine. Article 11 outlined the rights of the Jews and the British government to “develop any of the natural resources of the country” for the benefit of the community (Laqueur, 33). It never mentioned that the Arabs should have an independent state, but it did lay out protections for freedom of religious exercise and from ethnic discrimination (Laqueur, 34). The General Syrian Congress in Damascus argued, before the Mandate was created, that they were ready for statehood, and therefore rejected the notion that they should exist under a mandatory power. This did not suit the imperialistic greed of the victorious nations following the war, so their complaint fell on deaf ears. They also, for the first time, rejected the ambitions of the Zionists, who clearly had every intention of creating a “commonwealth… (in) Palestine” and represented a “grave peril to (their) people from the national, economical, and political points of view.” (Laqueur, 29) From this Congress, the Arabs, who “shed so much blood in the cause of… liberty and independence,” posed a challenge to democratic nations to prove “their sincerity and noble sympathy with the aspiration of the weaker nations in general and (the) Arab people in particular.” (Laqueur, 29) This opposition should not have come as a surprise to Britain since the King-Crane Commission, which was established by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919, reported these sentiments of opposition and hostility to the Zionist movement and to Jewish immigration. The commission, upon meeting with Zionist leaders, discovered that the Jewish immigrants looked forward to “complete dispossession of the present non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. (Laqueur, 26) This admission, coupled with the near unanimous opposition to Jewish immigration among the Arabs, lead the commission to conclude that the goal of creating a Jewish commonwealth “should be given up” and that to create such a commonwealth would require a “force of arms… of not less than fifty thousand soldiers.” (Laqueur, 26-27) The commission also rejected the claim that the Jews had a “‘right’ to Palestine based on an occupation two thousand years ago.” (Laqueur, 27) Irregardless of the warnings, Britain went ahead with its Mandate to create a Jewish National Homeland.
The Mandate period was marked by conflicting policies regarding Jewish immigration and spikes of violence, all of which forced the British to give up their interests in the region. Every policy change regarding Jewish immigration was met with Jewish disapproval, and was followed with British assurances that they did not intend to halt immigration, altogether. One of these assurances came from James Ramsay MacDonald, who wrote to Chaim Weizmann in order to “remove certain misconceptions and misunderstandings” about “his Majesty’s Government(‘s)” stance toward Palestine. MacDonald, a Zionist sympathizer, promised Weizmann that Jewish immigration and procurement of land should continue, so long as it did not create a burden for the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine, as stated in the Balfour Declaration (Laqueur, 54). By 1936, opposition to the Zionists had become so violent that the British government appointed a commission, headed by Lord Peel, to investigate the root causes of the violence. They found that the “forcible conversion of Palestine into a Jewish State against the will of the Arabs” was the underlying cause of the Arab riots. The Peel Commission, therefore, suggested a partition plan, since neither Jew nor Arab would have “any sense of service to a single state.” (Laqueur, 58) This conclusion received condemnations from the Arab and Jewish communities, as well as a subsequent commission set-up to determine the viability of a partition plan. This commission (created in 1938) found that it was “impractical” to determine boundaries for either an Arab or Jewish homeland, therefore, they argued, “the surest foundation for peace and progress in Palestine would be an understanding between the Arabs and the Jews,” which could be expedited by a meeting of Arab and Jews in London, where they could come to an agreement over future policies in Palestine (Laqueur, 63). Because these negotiations failed, and because the British government was more concerned with Nazi Germany, the White Paper of 1939 was issued. This White Paper conceded to the Arabs on a number of issues, such as immigration. The British government also conceded that much of the unrest in Palestine was a result of the ambiguities contained in previous policies and pronouncements (Laqueur, 65). The White Paper stated, unequivocally, that all of Palestine was not to be reserved for a Jewish Homeland; instead, that all of Palestine should be a state “in which the two peoples in Palestine, Arabs and Jews, share authority in government in such a way that the essential interests of each are secured.” (Laqueur, 68) This goal, they believed, could be met within ten years. The White Paper also contained provisions concerning religious freedom, protection of Holy sites, and it also restricted Jewish immigration to five years, allowing 15,000 Jews per year. This Paper met with fierce Jewish opposition and accusations that the British government had caved in to terrorism (Laqueur, 76). The Jewish agency threatened violence against “British policy” in defense of their “Jewish home and Jewish freedom.” (Laqueur, 77) This policy came at a time when Jews were fleeing Hitler’s grasp in Eastern Europe and were finding a safe haven in Palestine. Ben-Gurion famously declared, “We shall fight with Great Britain in this war as though there was no White Paper, and we shall fight the White Paper as though there was no war.” (Cleveland, 260) As Britain engaged itself in World War 2, the Middle-East conflict took a backseat to the Empire’s struggle to survive.
True to their word, the Jews in Palestine fought against the Axis powers, but many also began to undermine the British Mandate in Palestine through violence and by forming an alliance with another powerful nation. In 1942, the United States endorsed the Biltmore program, which called for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine and chastised the British government for limiting Jewish immigration, effectively rejecting the White Paper of 1939. This largely came about through the efforts of David Ben-Gurion, who was looking to the U.S. to fulfill their hopes of statehood. In Palestine, however, many Jewish volunteers were gaining invaluable military experience by fighting in Europe alongside British troops; the Haganah, Jewish paramilitary forces in Palestine, was gaining experience and arms as the British were preparing to use them in defense of Palestine in the event of an invasion (Cleveland, 262). The Irgun, right-wing militants lead by Menachim Begin, used terrorism against British forces in Palestine, most notably the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946, killing 91 people and injuring 46 others. The other group engaging in terrorism at the time was the Lehi, which was not as effective as the Irgun, but it was successful in assassinating the British minister of state for the Middle-East, Lord Moyne (Cleveland, 263). The Jewish community in Palestine was prepared, at the close of World War 2, to engage the British in open war in order to realize their dream of a Jewish Homeland. Fortunately, for them, the British government lost all interest in its Mandate and “referred the matter to the UN.” (Cleveland, 263)
The destruction of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem
Having been granted oversight of the Palestine Mandate, the UN immediately began to look for the underlying causes of the unrest. Its first step was to assign a commission, as though there had not been enough commissions and studies over the previous 30 years. They concluded that the best solution was to partition Palestine into an Arab state, a Jewish state, with an international zone in Jerusalem. Each state would have to have an approved constitution and declare that they would establish an “economic union of Palestine.” (Laqueur, 110) The UN General Assembly set a date for withdrawal of British forces—August 1, 1948—after which the Jews and Arabs would be able to proclaim their independence. The UN laid out, in great detail, the form of government that each state would be required to have, which included democratic provisions and rights for minorities. Also, as a subtext to the UN’s role, there was a tremendous amount of sympathy for the Jewish people, who had suffered horrendously during the Holocaust. In many ways, the powerful nations had feelings of guilt for either indifference or failing to understand the extent of Hitler’s destruction (Gendzier, 13). Nonetheless, the UN had done what the British Mandate had failed to do by creating conditions in which the Arab and Jewish communities could realize their aspirations for statehood. Unfortunately, the conflict was not over, by any means. By spring 1948, 400,000 Palestinians had fled the country after hearing news of the massacre of Dayr Yassin. The Irgun had massacred 250 Arab civilians (Cleveland, 266). This would trigger a series of retaliatory strikes, which would continue until present time.
David Ben-Gurion proclaims the state of Israel
On May 14, 1948, the state of Israel was proclaimed, and the next day they were invaded by neighboring Arab forces. That was also the day that the Arabs proclaimed their own independence, however, they also rejected the UN’s authority and they failed to recognize the right of Israel to exist. The Arab nations of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, and Iraq fought against the Jewish forces until December 1948. Not only did the Arab nations suffer a devastating defeat, but they watched as the new state of Israel expanded its boundaries (Cleveland, 266). The Arab invaders could not compete with the military superiority of Israel; the Israeli forces not only had military experience from their participation in the war, but they also continued to possess arms and technology they had stolen from British forces. By comparison, the Arabs were unorganized and their weaponry was primitive. Adding to that, Israel forces also seriously outnumbered the Arab forces, which were also under poor leadership. The facts of the war, often blurred by time and myth-building, do not support the claim that Israel was a David fighting the Arab Goliath; in reality, the opposite was true. By the end of the war, the Haganah began the process of forcibly removing Arabs from their villages, known as Plan D (Cleveland, 268). The massive flight of Arabs from Israel finally allowed for the existence of a Jewish majority, but it also created a burden on the neighboring Arab states who had taken in the Arab refugees. The Zionist dream had been realized, as the King-Crane commission predicted, through force of arms and at the expense of the Arabs’ dream of statehood. An article by Irene Gendzier quotes Yehoshofat Harkabi (former Israeli chief of military intelligence) as saying, in reference to the creation of the current strife between Israel and the Palestinians: “Because we took the land, this gives us the image of being bad, of being aggressive. The Jews always considered that the land belonged to them, but in fact it belonged to the Arabs. I would go farther: I would say the original source of this conflict lies with Israel, with the Jews—and you can quote me. But our attachment to this land is too powerful. The big problem, then, is not to start at the beginning but [to] find out ‘Where do we go from here?’.”
This is not an ancient conflict, but an all too modern conflict that is the direct result of the British government’s failure to bring a solution to the Palestine question. As detailed at the outset, both Jews and Arabs have historical ties to the land of Palestine; even more importantly, they share ethnic origins in Mesopotamia. However, while the Jewish people went into Diaspora, following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, the Arab people remained and eventually, under the fledgling Islamic empire and throughout the Ottoman Empire, controlled Palestine for nearly 1,400 years. As the Feisal-Weizmann agreement demonstrates, the Arabs were willing to live side-by-side with the Jewish settlers in “mutual goodwill”. However, it became increasingly apparent to the Arabs that the Jewish settlers intended to take all of Palestine and make it “as Jewish as England is English.” The Arabs were vocal and clear in their opposition to this ambition, while supporting their own ambitions for statehood. In the end, the inability of the British to uphold the will of the majority and the subsequent failure of the UN to help create an Arab state or to solve the refugee problem, resulted in a perpetual and violent struggle for Palestinians to realize self-determination. Now that the world is in a post-9/11 mindset, and we face Islamic extremists who cite the Arab struggle against Israel as their primary motivation for hatred against the U.S., it is even more urgent that this conflict be resolved, not only for our own security, but for the very fact that this conflict represents the failure of democratic societies to facilitate self-determination for all people who desire it. There is no reason why these two people cannot co-exist peaceably on the land they both consider home.
Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. 3rd ed. Boulder, 2004.
Gendzier, Irene. “Palestine and Israel: The Bi-National Idea.” Journal of Palestine Winter 1975: 12-35.
Jones, Alexander. The Jerusalem Bible: Reader’s Edition. New York: Doubleday, 1999.
Laqueur, Walter and Barry Rubin, eds. The Israel-Arab Reader. New York: Penguin Books, 1968.
Ralph, Phillip Lee, et al. World Civilizations. 9th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.