'How can we not call for peace at Christmas?' (LATIFEH ABDELLATIF/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images)

December 25, 2023   4 mins

Our carol service this year was unusually sombre. We gathered to hear once again the message of the angels, of the cry for the redemption of Israel, of peace on earth and goodwill to all. And we sang:

“Beneath the angel-strain have rolled,
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song that they bring; –
Oh hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!”

No one was unaware that the place we were singing about is now a place of war — of white phosphorus instead of Christmas lights, of terrified hostages hidden in dark tunnels, of starving civilians, where evil emanates from Hamas not Herod. We sang also of a little town called Bethlehem, “how still we see thee lie”. It felt both thoroughly disconnected from reality — and yet also disturbingly relevant. How can we not call for peace at Christmas? Or for a ceasefire, at least.

Having family over there, I know Israel as a place of ordinary life, a place like other places, domestic and everyday: a place of shopping and traffic jams, of offices and factories, of children making their way to school and parents thinking about what to cook for tea. Occasionally, I am so immersed in ordinary domestic life that it is sometimes just possible to forget that the names on the road signs are names that occur in my Bible. As a priest, it took me quite a long time to disaggregate the ordinariness of Israel from the sense of religious romance that I inevitably carried with me and attached to all these place names.

On one occasion we were navigating the way to a McDonald’s via the 77 road to Nazareth — and there are a surprising number of McDonalds dotted around the Galilee these days as it happens. And many Christian pilgrims, there for the first time, and travelling around on their air-conditioned coaches, wince as they see them. They don’t fit with the picture they have built up of the place in their prayers. Jesus didn’t eat hamburgers; he travelled along this road on a donkey.

For many, Israel is the playground of their religious fantasies, a kind of theological Disneyland. And because of this fantasy, we ask Israel to play a role in our cultural imagination that we wouldn’t expect of any other country. Where are the protests for one side to lay down its arms in Ethiopia or the Myanmar? Attacked again and again by neighbours absolutely and expressly dedicated to its elimination, with constant rocket and murderous terrorist attacks, Israel is expected to play the role of the suffering servant, the passive victim, the Jew who turns the other cheek. Particularly after the Holocaust, no one can expect that of Jews.

Some years ago, I sat in a boat on the sea of Galilee and sang another favourite Christian hymn, “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, forgive our foolish ways.” It was a perfect summer’s day, the lake was calm, the sky was blue. The moment was beautiful, peaceful. The words “O calm of hills above” floated gently over the waters. That was when the disconnect between Israel as the religious fantasy and Israel the real place first struck me with force. In our minds, this was the place where Jesus was communing with the Almighty, the still small voice of calm.

But the “hills above” were the Golan Heights, lined with barbed wire and mine fields, littered with burnt-out Syrian tanks destroyed in 1967. The peace my congregation in the boat were singing about was more some inner sense of spiritual well-being, a warm feel-good glow of personal benevolence. And at no time is this sense of inner peace more powerful — and dangerous to real peace — than at Christmas. Real peace comes through a political process in which reality is faced head-on. There can be no peace in Israel and Palestine so long as Hamas exists. It is a part of the fantasy to think otherwise.

That is not to say that the current war is anything other than a tragedy — but the point about tragedy is that it is unavoidable. Cheap calls for peace can only perpetuate a conflict that will only ever be paused by a ceasefire, soon again to resurface once Hamas have regrouped. No good will come of the sort of ceasefire that is generated by the need for Christians and Christian society to sleep comfortably in their beds, content with their own sense of inner peace, awaiting the coming of the angels. To misquote the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who knew a thing or two about genocidal regimes, cheap peace is the deadly enemy of our church.

Traditionally, it is Easter that has been the greater threat to Jews. For it was the Jews who murdered Christ, it was said, and Easter was therefore the occasion for pogroms and revenge attacks upon them by Christians. And it was Christians (in this country) who invented the blood libel that Jews drank the blood of children with their Passover feast. A version of this calumny is now frequently proclaimed on protest banners alongside all that “from the river to the sea” garbage: Netanyahu with fangs, dripping blood. Of course, it was the Romans who murdered Christ but Christians of the early centuries were too busy cosying up to the Roman empire to admit that. The original sin of the church is its antisemitism — church-sponsored, theologically inspired.

But today, Christmas stands as another kind of threat. Just as the prophet Jeremiah warned, there is falsehood in crying for a quick and instant peace when there is no peace to be had. If Israel were to lay down its arms, there would be another massacre within hours. If Hamas were to surrender, the war would be over in days. This is the essential asymmetry of the situation.

Of course, we cry for peace. But when it comes, it will be because both sides will return to the kind of negotiation that came so close in the Nineties with the Oslo accords, a deal the Palestinians rejected. Sentimentally will have no place around this negotiating table. Peace will be made by the Kissingers of this world — hard people with a determination to withstand the avalanche of hostility with which both sides will inevitably respond.

The sort of hostility that got tough-guy-turned-peacemaker Yitzhak Rabin assassinated in 1995. No one will get what they want. No one will feel good about it. Peace feels terrible. As peace between Russia and Ukraine will do, one day. That’s not the sort of peace we imagine the angels to be singing about. But it will probably be the “men of strife” who bring it about in the end. And that’s what real peace looks like.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.