A month before the second anniversary of the intifada uprising, the US Catholic bishops for the first time called on Israel to relinquish its grip on the occupied territories and to grant the Palestinians a homeland.
"The intifada is a cry for justice," the bishops declared. "A cry for personal and political identity; it is an expression of the personal and political rights which Palestinians have as human beings worthy of being respected as individuals and as a people."
Coming from religious leaders in the nation that has been Israel's top economic, military, and moral supporter since 1948, the declaration raised new hopes that Israel could be pressured into ending its 22-year rule over the Palestinian people.
But in the months since the statement's release, debate within Catholic circles has pointed up key deficiencies in the document, casting doubts on whether it will lead "Toward Peace in the Middle East" as its title suggests, or merely preserve the status quo in that troubled region.
The bishops who drafted the statement -- Archbishops Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles and William Keeler of Baltimore, and Cardinal John O'Connor of New York -- put a premium on "process," holding highly publicized consultations with Arab and Jewish community leaders in the US and visiting the Holy Land twice. Critics within the church say the resulting statement is, nevertheless, slanted in favor of Israel's perspectives and priorities.
This is seen most clearly in the bishops' refusal to acknowledge the representative role of the PLO, and their call for a Palestinian "homeland" and not a "Palestinian state." Moreover, the bishops did not protest Israeli human rights abuses directly, and declined to link future US aid to human rights reforms and Israel's acceptance of Palestinian sovereignty.
The Land and the People
In a speech at the Catholic College of St. Rose in Albany, NY, Msgr. Robert L. Stern, who was a key advisor to the bishops, stated, "The dilemma for Israel is that it wants the land but does not want the people" of the West Bank and Gaza.
Because the 1.7 million Palestinians living there have a birth rate that is more than twice that of Israelis, for Israel "to annex these territories means incorporating an Arab population which ultimately will become a majority population," he said.
Fearing that annexation would undermine "the Jewish state," Israel has been "schizophrenic," according to Msgr. Stern. For Jews the country is "free and democratic," but Palestinians live under "martial law" without "civil rights or a voice in the government that controls them."
This view of the situation reveals that the bishops and their advisors "still don't understand the state of Israel," according to Marc Ellis, a Jewish American who trains Catholic missionaries at New York's Maryknoll School of Theology.
The bishops did not consult Dr. Ellis even though he teaches at an important Catholic institution and is well known for his criticism of Israel and his controversial book on Israel's use of post-Holocaust Jewish theology to legitimate its political and military aims.
"Israel is an expansionistic settler state and the bishops refuse to recognize this," Dr. Ellis charges. "The occupation has nothing to do with the survival of Israel; it has to do with land, water and markets."
To some extent the bishops do justify Israeli expansionism, describing the "sense of political and psychological vulnerability" that has led it to amass a great army and to occupy territory in order to "offset the threat" of hostile Arab nations.
At the same time the bishops, while not criticizing Israel directly, noted that Israel's response to the intifada has "produced the strongest human rights criticism...of Israel in the 22 years of occupation. …