Middle East
War & peace
8 min read

Israel-Hamas war: the courageous leadership that might solve this most intractable of problems

Amidst the horror of the Israel-Hamas war Graham Tomlin recalls the revolutionary leaders who were prepared to take the bold path away from violence and bloodshed.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

People walk across the rubble beside a recently bombed building.
Residents of Gaza City walk past a recently bombed building.

How can you say something sensible about the horror that has unfolded in Gaza and southern Israel? The actions of Hamas on October 7th were deplorable. Whatever the perceived justice of a cause, using rape as a weapon of war, kidnapping and killing babies and children, parading terrified kids as trophies of war in a pre-meditated campaign is abhorrent and indefensible. However sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, surely no-one who can imagine the terror felt by teenagers taken hostage, parents fearing what is happening to their children, or the notion of cutting the head off a fellow-human being can celebrate the actions taken by Hamas. The irony of western liberals expressing loud support for Hamas, an Islamist group that is fundamentally opposed to all the ideals of western liberalism is a strange quirk of our confused contemporary moral life. 

Of course, these developments need to be seen in the light of the long-running hostility between Palestinians and Israelis, and their supporters elsewhere in the world. The issue cuts right along the already existing fissure of the culture wars, with those on the left generally supporting the Palestinians, sometimes veering into outright anti-Semitism, as the Labour party has discovered, and those on the right supporting Israel, sometimes veering into uncritical support of any action by the current Israeli government – a concession few would offer to any other national government worldwide. 

The result is a depressingly familiar pattern. Since then, Gaza has endured constant bombardment, food and power shortages, death, destruction and huge suffering. The infrastructure of the enclave has been destroyed yet again, although more severely this time, leaving the problem of rebuilding hospitals, schools, houses, sewage systems that take years to construct. The people who suffer, like the Israelis who have had loved ones cruelly taken from them, are the ordinary people of Gaza. It may lead to the satisfaction of having punished the perpetrators, but will leave behind a legacy of continued hatred and resentment of Israel that will only erupt again in a decade or so’s time. 

The idea that Nelson Mandela would one day wear a Springbok rugby shirt, the symbol of the oppressor, was unthinkable for the young ANC activist – as unthinkable as an Israeli Prime Minister wearing an Arab keffiyeh, or an Arab leader waving an Israeli flag.

Successive world leaders, American Presidents and international commissions have tried to solve this most intractable of global problems. And failed.  

Yet other seemingly intractable problems have managed to find a way forward. Tensions between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland haven’t gone away but the violence that accompanied them has largely ceased. Racial inequalities in South Africa remain, but apartheid as a policy is discredited, and again, the threat of violence has diminished.  

The common denominator in these places where deep divisions have found some resolution, is a new, re-imagined and bold leadership - on both sides of each dispute. It required a willingness to think the unthinkable and do the undoable. In South Africa it was the courageous and mould-breaking leadership offered by both Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk. Both did things unimaginable in their respective camps beforehand. The idea that Nelson Mandela would one day wear a Springbok rugby shirt, the symbol of the oppressor, was unthinkable for the young ANC activist – as unthinkable as an Israeli Prime Minister wearing an Arab keffiyeh, or an Arab leader waving an Israeli flag. The idea that FW de Klerk would dismantle apartheid, free Mandela and fully back an election that he was likely to lose to the ANC was again inconceivable when he took power as Prime Minister in 1989. 

Similarly in Northern Ireland, the idea of Ian Paisley the embodiment of Protestant ‘No Surrender’ and Martin McGuiness, second in command of the IRA in Derry at the time of Bloody Sunday in 1972, shaking hands and sharing power was literally unimaginable when the troubles were at their height. These were all flawed men, each with some measure of blame for the suffering involved in their countries, yet who saw a better way and had the courage to take it.

Israeli soldiers console each other while searching a home attacked by Hamas.

Two soliders console each other as they search a house that has been ransacked.
Israeli soldiers console each other while searching a house attacked by Hamas.

As is often observed, if the Palestinians had had wiser leaders, there might have been an independent Palestinian state years ago.

Of course, these very public gestures of reconciliation took years of careful negotiation and sensitive diplomacy to achieve. Yet they happened. And they happened because these leaders gradually recognised that the path they were walking down would only lead to ongoing mutual destruction, continued conflict and suffering. As the saying goes, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.  

This is what has been lacking in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian people have been badly let down by the ineffectiveness and corruption of Fatah, and the senseless Islamist terror of Hamas, exploiting the understandable sense of injustice in Gaza in particular for violent ends. Hindsight is a great thing, but if the Palestinians had had wiser leaders, there might have been an independent Palestinian state years ago, whether through the UN Partition Plan in 1947, which offered 46 per cent of the land to an Arab state, in the 1990s through the Oslo Accords or other opportunities in between.  

On the Israeli side in recent years, Prime Ministers like Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu have played on the (to be fair, often justified) fear of Israelis, to offer themselves as the security candidates who can keep Israel safe by building a wall or enact tight border controls around Palestinian communities, restricting their movement, as if long-standing Palestinian resentment at the loss of their land will just go away one day if you keep the pressure on long enough. 

If his vision of Zionism had won out over the more aggressive version of David Ben Gurion, might this long history of conflict have been avoided? 

There have been glimmers of hope. In the lead up to the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, the Zionist philosopher and politician Martin Buber argued for the right of Jews for a homeland, yet also believed the moral test of that homeland was going to be the way they would treat their Arab neighbours. For him, the call on the new Jewish state was bigger than just to provide a safe place for Jews to live, but, in alignment with the Old Testament call on the people of Israel, was to be a blessing to the nations. As he wrote in his visionary book A Land of Two Peoples:  

“A true Zionist wants not to rule over his Arab brothers but to serve together with them.”  

If his vision of Zionism had won out over the more aggressive version of David Ben Gurion, might this long history of conflict have been avoided? 

In the 1980s, Anwar Sadat moved from being the leader of Egypt’s attack on Israel in the Yom Kippur war of 1973 to the architect of a ground-breaking peace treaty with Menachem Begin, Israel’s Prime Minister at the time. Later still, the Oslo Accords of the 1990s offered the possibility of a resolution – land for peace. Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat shook hands on the White House Lawn, as hopes began to rise of a new dawn for the Middle East.  

Yet in both cases it cost these leaders their lives. Sadat’s assassination by an Islamic extremist in 1981, Rabin’s assassination by a Jewish militant in 1995 and the subsequent refusal of both sides to build on these delicate beginnings effectively put an end to the fragile hopes for peace. 

Over many visits to that extraordinary land, I have experienced two communities with much in common, living alongside one another, yet with little direct interaction, and often living in fear of the other. Many Jews believe all Arabs want to kill them. Many Gazans think all Israelis want them dead. Of course, some do on both sides, but most people simply want to live in peace without the threat of explosions or being killed, or home demolitions and feeling like second class citizens. 

If I have a prayer for the land of Israel/Palestine, it is for bold, imaginative leaders. There was once such a Jewish leader in Israel. There were at the time, as now, fights over who really owned the land - the Jewish people with their roots in the story of Abraham, Moses and King David or the Gentile Roman empire, with might on their side. The question of how should you deal with your enemy was a live one. Different Jewish groups argued that you should hate the Gentile enemy and kill them (the Zealots), blend in with them (the Herodians), avoid any contact with them (the Pharisees), or feel superior to them (the Sadducees). Jesus of Nazareth came up with the crazy idea that you should love them and pray for them, and thus be true children of the God who made both you and your enemy. 

Unrealistic? Maybe. And also today, perhaps much too early to talk about such a thing when emotions are so raw. Such a call doesn't deny Israel’s right to reasonable self-defence and the Palestinian right to legitimate protest. But this was the basic idea that lay behind the revolutionary leadership of Nelson Mandela, FW de Klerk, Martin McGuiness and Ian Paisley. Here were leaders who were prepared to take the bold path away from violence and bloodshed.  

In each case, it took leaders on both sides to find a way forward. A commitment to such a path on one side alone is not enough. If that is all you have then you get killed, just as Jesus did. And of course, such a path does not avoid the possibility of suffering and even death, as both Sadat and Rabin found out. Yet, in the strange mystery of God’s working, even that - especially that - was the path to peace.  

In the depressing cycle of hatred and death, the grieving families of Israel and Gaza, the weeping sons and daughters of Isaac and Ishmael, we can only pray for new leaders who will walk the difficult yet fruitful path of making enemies into friends. 


7 min read

What’s the point of purpose?

We need a wider understanding of our purpose – grand or small.

Emerson writes on geopolitics. He is also a business executive and holds a doctorate in theology.

A white arrow on tarmac points towards a setting sun and people walking by a silhouetted lamp post.
Chris Loh on Unsplash.

In his 2009 book Start With Why, the leadership speaker and consultant Simon Sinek encourages leaders and businesses to think about their purpose. He encourages them to answer the question ‘Why?’ before moving to ‘How?’ Sinek’s book is part of an industry, with no shortage of self-help books, executive coaches and university programmes assisting individuals in finding purpose. Surely Sinek is right that a sense of mission (the ‘Why?’) needs to come before the development of a strategy (the ‘How?’ as well as ‘Who?’ ‘What?’ ‘When?’ and ‘Where?’). Yet working out our purpose is not easy. It takes time, effort, listening and crucially, an open mind.  

In a ‘purpose economy’ (to use the term coined by writer Aaron Hurst), we risk arriving at fast, superficial, or inflated purposes disconnected from the unique vocations to which we are actually called. Several years ago, I undertook a project, of which elements were shared in the Harvard Business Review. One interviewee stated ‘We are a generation that is ruthlessly comparing ourselves with those around us and our role models at the same time. And if we are not doing something exceptional or don’t feel important and fulfilled for what we are doing, we have a hard time.’ In an age dominated by social media and its emphasis on presentation of superficial images inviting us to compare ourselves with others, these are words worth dwelling on. 

This reflection struck me at the time, implying that many people believe that their purposes must be significant. Without grand purposes, we tend to struggle. That interviewee was right. Many of us value purposes involving high levels of excellence if not notoriety, whether pursuing elected political office, climbing the ranks in prestigious industries such as finance or consulting, or entering professions that are well-known and whose value can be readily explained to others (such as medicine, law or accounting).  

The problem with an idea of purpose focused on excellence is that only some people will be seen to have worthy purposes. The consequence is more ‘ruthless comparison, in which we all look over our shoulders to what our peers are doing, wondering whether their respective purposes measure up or not. Of course, this issue could be dismissed as little more than a case of early-career angst, in which ambitious self-starters seek to outdo their peers in climbing the career ladder, but I doubt this is a good explanation.  

Her calling is not as impressive in the world as the more publicly recognised calling of a profession, but surely the calling is of equal value. 

After all, modern workplaces are full of people, across all generations, searching for purpose. More generally, rapid industrial transition over recent decades – whether the loss of the shipbuilding or coal mines (not to mention important parts of the steel industry in recent months) in the UK, or the recent loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States – and waves of technological change leave countless thousands of people feeling lost at sea. A sense of aimlessness is amplified when personal dignity is connected to work rooted in local communities. When this industrial work vanishes seemingly overnight amid shifts in government policy and technological change.  

These examples suggest the need for a wider understanding of purpose, which makes room for many kinds of excellence, whether grand or small. Consider the example of a single mother. In comparison to the high-flying politician, business executive or university administrator, her purpose is anonymous. A paid job in the workplace is unlikely to be the source of the single mum’s purpose. Rather, the raising of a family is almost certainly the driving purpose in her life, a purpose which is nevertheless no less significant than those occupying more esteemed, high-status roles.  

In the eyes of God, the single parent is called to the vocation of parent (I don’t think there is a difference here between a vocation or purpose), possibly through an unexpected event such as a divorce or passing of a spouse. Her calling is not as impressive in the world as the more publicly recognised calling of a profession, but surely the calling is of equal value. Indeed, from a Christian perspective, the lone parent fulfills a vital role of service in raising children who can help to approximate the Kingdom of God on Earth. Martin Luther pointed it out well: every person has a divine calling providing them with purpose, whether they are aware of this or not.  

The idea is that a sense of what we are becoming matters more than the circumstances we find ourselves in. 

How then can we define our purpose when elements of culture, technology and other forces tempt us to identify clear purposes as rapidly as possible? To start, it helps to resist the urge to form large and lengthy purposes. Our purposes are often revealed gradually. Even the most profound events altering the landscape of a person’s life must be digested slowly. Tom Wright, in his biography of Saint Paul, writes that after Paul’s encounter with Jesus while on the Road to Damascus, he returned to Tarsus for ten years to meditate on what he had learned. In all likelihood, Paul spent this time working as a tentmaker, working within a ‘small, cramped workshop,’ in which ‘he prayed, he studied, and he figured out all sorts of things.’  

It is only ‘by the end of the Tarsus decade [that] Saul had worked out in considerable detail what it meant that the One God had revealed himself in and as the crucified and risen Jesus.’ Paul’s purpose was formed over many years, ‘hammering away’ at what he learned on the Road to Damascus. Had Paul wanted to make sense of his encounter with Jesus in a single go, then his purpose would surely have been truncated, thereby limiting the fulfilment of his unique calling that transformed the world we live in today.  

Our circumstances may also limit the scope of our purposes. Our family, geography, gender, and socioeconomic situation all shape the people we become – at least in the short-term. The philosopher Robert Adams writes in Finite and Infinite Goods that ‘One’s actual circumstances condition and in various ways influence and limit one’s vocation. The vocation, however, is not the circumstances, but what one is called to do in them.’  

The idea is that a sense of what we are becoming matters more than the circumstances we find ourselves in. The question of who we wish to become is a crucial one, involving personal vision, and Adams sees this question as outweighing extensive consideration given to existing circumstances. Another idea of vocation, proposed by the theologian Oliver O’Donovan, is more gradual. He says that we come to be a certain person over time, without too much planning. Our purposes develop one day at a time. Specific events give us chances to put our purposes into action, but we do not know when these events will occur.  

With this approach, clear purposes are formed over time through constant practice, rather than revealed at the outset of an activity. 

How then can we find our purposes when they are often ambiguous, intertwined with our personal circumstances, and without too much recourse to self-help books, life coaches or university programmes recommending quick answers?  

Our purposes need to be worked out through consistent, small-scale practice of the things we enjoy. For some, this is the playing of a musical instrument, for instance the piano or guitar, two hours per day. For others, this is the constant practice of a given sport in the early hours of the morning. And for others, this is working away on a tricky mathematical problem that simply grips them.  

With this approach, clear purposes are formed over time through constant practice, rather than revealed at the outset of an activity. It is then unexpected events – as Harold MacMillan said ‘Events, dear boy, events’ – which shape us. These events may change us, setting us in entirely new directions much like Paul’s encounter on the Damascus Road, or the lone parent following a divorce or death of a spouse. But it is not only the events that create purpose. The seeds of purpose are planted well ahead of time, through practice in relation to the things that bring us joy.  

Our purposes, then, should be less a cause of anxiety requiring self-help industries – needing to figure everything out at once – than a reason for play, practice, and prayer, listening to the still small voice – perhaps the voice of God, gently leading us to a settled sense of purpose. This allows purposes we never imagined to reveal themselves to us over time, sometimes merging with – and sometimes out of – our circumstances and personal attributes that are more easily visible.  

Rather than search for fast answers to our purposes, we can take comfort knowing that we do not need to do all the work ourselves. We may begin to work out our purpose through action, but trust that our purposes will come to fruition when the time is right.