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My friend Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff had a distinguished career as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy and beyond.

His experience in active duty – and most especially ministering to the victims of the bombing of Marine barracks in 1983 in Beirut – made him deeply devoted to interfaith work during and after his service.

He taught me what he considers to be the biggest impediment to genuine understanding: we all have the tendency to compare the best of who we believe ourselves to be with the worst of what we believe others to be.

The lesson is applicable in all things, I think, especially when people of deep concern and profound commitments look to justify a particular perspective on the crossroads of Abrahamic traditions, historically called Canaan, Israel/Judea, Palestine and the modern State of Israel.

Here is what I believe to be a truth. There are no innocent parties in the Middle East. All of the players begin with a love for the land and a presumption of ownership.

In ancient times, that ownership often shifted among local tribes and foreign invaders. In the history of faith traditions, that ownership is based on religious claims recognized only by the adherents of a particular faith.

In modern times, ownership is claimed by a shifting set of data points, including international recognition, longevity of presence, moral standing and contemporary politics (which are heavily influenced by national identity and amoral strategic interests).

It may shock the reader when I say that none of those claims is determinative.

Partisans of one or another have become adept at illustrating Captain Resnicoff’s caution: we, the righteous and innocent, have been and continue to be violated by the sinful and arrogant.

Allow me to caution you against any assessment that rejects nuance and complexity, especially when the result is the demonization of those who disagree or uncritical support of those with whom we agree.

Here is an example: Partisans of the Israeli perspective like to claim that the Holy Land was abandoned and sparsely populated when Jewish immigrants arrived to drain the swamps, build the land and make the desert bloom.

While the notion is romantic, it is inaccurate. Indigenous people, especially Palestinians (who are Muslims, Christians and Jews) lived in diverse urban and rural areas, with agriculture and business endeavors and a rich cultural life.

Compared to the cosmopolitan centers of Europe, the land lacked a Western sophistication, but it was coveted by the empires that governed it through the mid-20th century for more than its location.

Here is another example: Partisans of the Palestinian perspective like to claim that the State of Israel was established primarily as a place to send the surviving remnant of European Jews after the Holocaust.

While that claim serves the dual purpose of indicting European nations and defining Jews as interlopers, it is inaccurate. For generations before the Second World War, Jews had emigrated from around the world to the Holy Land seeking a return to their ancestral homeland.

The United Nations’ establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, alongside the never-realized State of Palestine, had as much to do with the frantic dissolution of the British Empire as anything else.

These and other narratives serve their purposes for the people who make them, but in the end, they are dishonest.

As has been the case from biblical times, the population of the region is religiously, ethnically and politically diverse.

Any estimation of the circumstances that does not acknowledge the competing interests and histories at play and the truths within them is both futile and doomed to promote, rather than resolve, conflict.

That is especially true of the hyperbole deployed by ultra-nationalist interests.

Consider: every innocent death is a tragedy, and no death is a cause for celebratory gloating. If underlying the name-calling and justification is the ultimate motivation of “expelling the Zionist usurpers” or “punishing a community of terrorists and murderers,” then we will be condemned to an endless cycle.

It is at about this point that you hope I will offer some guidance on what is genuinely right and wrong in this conflict. At the risk of being accused of moral relativism, I will not.

That’s not to say I do not have my own strong opinions. I most certainly do. I will also own my biases without pretending they are reasonable while those who disagree are mere bigots.

Instead, I commend a clear set of values by which to come to your own conclusions and an awareness of the natural proclivity to seek justification for your own pre-existing biases.

The values should be consistent in evaluating all of the parties involved – not merely the best of who agrees with me and the worst of what I believe others to be.

There are, however, two things I will suggest.

The first is not to engage in a “suffering Olympics” based on who has been aggrieved the longest or, conversely, most recently. The goal should be to prevent future suffering, not to exploit the suffering of the past, immediate or otherwise.

The second is to relinquish a sense of theological rectitude, whether you are Jewish, Christian or Muslim. But more on that later.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part three is available here.

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