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What Niebuhr, Obama's Favorite Thinker, Would Have Done About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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Obama-watchers ought to spend some time studying the works of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, because the President-elect has said that Niebuhr has profoundly influenced him. Lately, I have been reading Niebuhr to discover what lessons he could offer to Obama on American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.

Andrew J. Bacevich noted in the Boston Globe, "Faced with difficult problems, conservative evangelicals ask: What would Jesus do? We are now entering an era in which the occupant of the Oval Office will consider a different question: What would Reinhold do?"

"...Obama has written that he took from reading Niebuhr `the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world' along with the conviction that evil's persistence should not be `an excuse for cynicism and inaction.' Yet Niebuhr also taught him that `we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things.'"

Niebuhr was a man who constantly balanced a passion for justice with an understanding of the power and prevalence of original sin, which limited the ability of individuals and societies to right wrongs. He wrote that, in the political arena, "a realist conception of human nature should be made the servant of an ethic of progressive justice."

So my question is: what would Reinhold do about the ongoing nightmare of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? If Obama does use Niebuhr as an intellectual touchstone, answering that might be more than an idle, speculative exercise.

One clue can be found in an aspect of Niebuhr's thought that has not gotten any attention of late: during World War II and afterwards, he was an unapologetic Zionist. We live in a time when the entire Zionist enterprise is being reduced by its detractors to a murderous, western colonialism whose main goal was to steal land, rather than to help a people survive. So it is instructive to remember that, especially during and soon after the Nazi reign of terror, many non-Jews of good conscience--including influential theologians like Niebuhr and Paul Tillich--believed that the Jews needed a homeland.

Niebuhr's essay, "Jews After the War" (Feb. 21, 1941) in The Nation was all about justice:

"The problem of what is to become of the Jews in the postwar world ought to engage all of us, not only because a suffering people has a claim upon our compassion but because the very quality of our civilization is involved in a solution. It is a scandal that the Jews have had so little effective aid from the rest of us in a situation in which they are the chief victims. The Nazis intended to decimate the Poles and to reduce other people to the state of helots, but they are bent on the extermination of the Jews.".


It is a complicated, nuanced essay and, like all of his work, can't be summed up easily. Briefly, his solution was to make it possible for the Jews to have a homeland while also insisting on vigorous efforts to protect the civil rights and liberties of Jews in other countries. Was there a concern about the Arabs of Palestine? Yes, up to a point. He noted that the Zionists were "unrealistic in expecting that their demands entailed no `injustice' to the Arab population... It is absurd to expect any people to regard the restriction of their sovereignty over a traditional possession as `just...' What is required is a policy that offers a just solution to an intricate problem faced by a whole civilization." He hoped that the aspirations and needs of Arabs after the war could be resolved in a confederation of Arab states.

So he lacked an understanding or appreciation of Palestinian nationalism, which was typical of Western intellectuals. But, based on what he did know, Niebuhr wanted the best solution possible in a morally corroded world:

The Jews require a homeland, if for no other reason, because even the most generous immigration laws of Western democracies will not permit all the dispossessed Jews of Europe to find a haven in which they may look forward to a tolerable future....It must be observed that the liberals of the western world maintain a conspiracy of silence on this point. They do not dare to work for immigration laws generous enough to cope with the magnitude of the problem the Jewish race faces.


My purpose isn't to open up familiar arguments about whether or not Israel should have been created. It's more important to take an educated guess about what Niebuhr would have done about the core conflict of the Middle East were he alive today, and to outline the lessons Obama should take from him.

I believe Niebuhr would have been appalled at the consequences of the Israeli occupation, by the degradation and humiliation of Palestinians at checkpoints and elsewhere, and by the refusal or inability of Israel's political system to stand up to West Bank settlers. He also would have been appalled at Palestinian terrorism, the incitement against Jews in the Palestinian media, the election of Hamas and other unfortunate choices made by Israel's neighbors. But since it was a passion for justice that energized him, his primary interest would have been to address the terrible problems of the Palestinian people, just as he was once interested in solving the terrible problems of a ravaged, dispersed Jewish people.

I believe that he would have seen that the only realistic way out is a viable two-state solution, even though he would have acknowledged that the time to make that happen is slipping away. And, just as he called for governmental activism on other issues -- including the civil rights of black Americans --, surely Niebuhr would have wanted the Obama administration to do something bold about the Israeli-Palestinian question, although he probably would have been skeptical of its ability to succeed.

Niebuhr was cautious about the grand designs of statesmen who wanted to "manage history." But when faced with enormous suffering or an obvious need for action, he sometimes opted for bold ideas -including the establishment of a Jewish state -- that were tempered with realistic expectations.

Let's hope that Obama takes that approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He will need to boldly stand up to the conventional Israel lobby, and to press both sides, rather than just one side, to make extremely difficult compromises. He will need to boldly insist that -- like Palestinian terrorism and incitement -- Israel's continuing occupation is against the interests of Palestinians, Israelis and Americans.

If he is guided by a Niebuhrian understanding of human nature, Obama will be realistic about the permanent rejectionism of some Palestinians, and will press for a solution that protects Israeli lives. And he will understand that scores of Middle East peace plans have been consigned to the graveyard. But if he takes Niebuhr seriously, a passion for justice will prompt him to ignore all of those failures, to ignore the lobbyists who want him to passively accept every Israeli action, and to try his best.

Originally posted, in a different form, on Realistic Dove.