A Common Friend to Arabs and Jews
Recent news articles have noted my ministry engagement in Israel and Palestine; some have questioned my support for the State of Israel because I don’t espouse the theological position called Christian Zionism. It is true: I am not a Christian Zionist. Nor am I a Christian Palestinianist (though that term has recently been used by journalists to describe me). I am, simply, a Christian, a follower of Jesus. I believe that in Jesus there is neither “male nor female, Greek nor Jew, slave nor free.” I believe that God has granted all human beings the same degree of dignity and that at the foot of the cross we are all equals. I believe we are called to worship God in spirit and in truth, and that when we do, wherever we are becomes sacred space.
I do not hold to a theology asserting that the modern State of Israel represents a divinely mandated return of ancient Israel to the Promised Land, but I do wholeheartedly support its existence as a place where Jews can live in freedom and security. I cannot listen to the deep and legitimate fears of Israeli Jews—as I did just last week in Israel—without joining them in celebrating the existence of the State of Israel. I cannot walk quietly through the halls of Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Memorial) in Jerusalem—as I also did last week—without being horrified by what the Jews experienced in Europe in the 1930s and 40s. I earnestly long for the day when Jews can live in Israel—and anywhere—in security. I believe followers of Jesus ought be outspoken in their support of peace and safety for all Jews, and the right of Israeli civilians to live without being subjected to rocket fire and suicide attacks.
At the same time, I wholeheartedly support justice for the Palestinians. In 2008, at a conference in Amman, Jordan, Arab Christians challenged me to broaden my understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict, to listen to the stories of Palestinian Arabs forced from their homes and villages during the founding of the State of Israel, and to see for myself the current plight of Palestinian Christians and Muslims living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank. Since then, I have made repeated trips to Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
I was shocked to see the reality of daily life under military occupation. A shattered economy, land seizures and house demolitions, settlement expansion, Israeli-only roads networking through Palestinian land, and hundreds of military checkpoints on Palestinian roads—all these make daily life difficult and frustrating for Palestinians. Because of delays at checkpoints, produce rots in the back of pickup trucks before farmers can get it to market. Other farmers are permanently separated from their land by the path of the Israeli-built security wall; while the wall was created to protect Israelis from terrorists, in many places it is built not on the internationally recognized border between Israel and Palestine, but deep inside Palestinian territory.
I’ve heard stories of Palestinian women giving birth in their cars because of lengthy checkpoint delays, and of critically sick children being denied health care because they can’t get Israeli-issued permits to travel to the hospital in Jerusalem. I’ve learned that the best and brightest of Palestinian Christians are leaving the Holy Land, not because of tension with Muslims, but because energetic, educated young people see no future for themselves under ongoing military occupation.
I know there are religious Jews and Christians who do not consider Israeli presence in the West Bank as “occupation.” They believe God gave the land to the Jews centuries ago, so the Palestinians are actually the “occupiers.” They feel completely justified in building Jewish “settlements”—or cities—on Palestinian land because, they believe, the land is not really Palestinian land anyway. Though the international community considers the settlements illegal—as do many Israelis I spoke with—the settlers and some Israeli leaders believe they are legal. Some extremist settlers even believe they are justified in using violence to move the Palestinians off the land. Sadly, there has been an upsurge of such violence in recent months.
I respect the perspective of these religious Jews and Christians, but I do not agree with the actions that flow from their theology. I denounce the violence of the extremist settlers, just as I denounce the violence used by Palestinian extremists. I believe the Holy Land can and should be a place where Jews and Arabs can live as neighbors. I’ve talked with Israelis and Palestinians who are committed to mutual understanding and reconciliation. These Christians, Muslims and Jews have begged me “not to take sides.” They have said, “Please, be a common friend to all of us. Either we will learn to live together or we will die together.” I have become convinced that the best way to be a friend to Israel is to also be a friend to the Palestinians, and the best way to be a friend to the Palestinians is to also be a friend to Israel.
Some people have recently accused me of moving from an accurate “Zionist theology” which supports the State of Israel, to a dangerous “Palestinian theology” that delegitimizes Israel. That is not true. I hold the same theology regarding Israel, the land, the church and Jesus that I have held for thirty years. What has changed is my personal engagement with the living people of the Holy Land—both Israelis and Palestinians—who have suffered from the ongoing conflict.
Many people ask why I continue to travel to the Holy Land. I always explain that I go to listen and to learn. I’m a beginner on a journey of understanding what it means to be “a common friend” to Jews and Arabs. What better way to learn than to listen to a wide range of experiences? As I listen to these diverse voices, I pray for discernment. I pray to be able to hear the fear or the longing behind the words. I pray that my heart will break like I believe the heart of God breaks over the pain of all his children.
Most peacemakers on both sides are discouraged as they watch the inability of Israeli, Palestinian and American politicians to move toward peace. I share their sadness about the present and their fears for the future. But I find a call to action in Psalm 34:14 that challenges us to “seek peace and pursue it.” I’ve discovered people on both sides of this conflict who are committed to that calling, and I am committed to partnering with them and lifting up their voices.
I invite all people of faith to join me in praying that the acts of violent people will be thwarted, that people committed to nonviolence will be protected, that reconcilers will be sustained as they seek mutual understanding and friendship, and that politicians will have the maturity and grace to become true moral leaders.
I think of the children I saw last week in Tel Aviv, in Haifa, in Jerusalem, in Ramallah, in Hebron, in Bethlehem—and I am reminded of Jesus’ tenderness toward them. May the good tidings of his love surround them today.