This Succot I found myself accompanying a busload of Christian pilgrims who had
come to Israel from many countries to participate in the annual Festival of
Tabernacles organized by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. I was
asked to serve as an educator and to coordinate a visit to the community of
Itamar and the recently upgraded Tel Shilo archeological site, both deep inside
About one-third of this entourage of 45 tourists was visiting
Israel for the first time. The rest, I learned, had been to Israel multiple
times, mostly to attend this festival that now regularly draws some 5,000
This Christian group was a change for me. Generally the
Christians with whom I meet in Efrat represent Protestant churches that reject
the legitimacy of Israel’s post-1967 administration of east Jerusalem, Judea and
These delegations typically spend most of their five- to 10-day
visits in the Palestinian Authority-administered areas. Following their
experiences there, they come to Efrat for approximately one hour to, in their
words, “learn about the conflict from both sides.”
Many in these “protest
tourism” groups identify with the 2009 Kairos Palestine document that states:
“We declare that any theology, seemingly based on the Bible or on faith or on
history, that legitimizes the occupation, is far from Christian teachings,
because it calls for violence and holy war in the name of God Almighty,
subordinating God to temporary human interests, and distorting the divine image
in the human beings living under both political and theological
But the Christians with whom I spent an inspiring day during
Succot maintain significantly different beliefs. I will not speculate here about
their supposed ulterior motives. If such motives were harbored by those with
whom I met, they did a remarkable job of hiding them.
Evangelical Christian Zionists. The next morning’s Jerusalem Post featured an
article about the festival, in which two pilgrims were quoted thusly: “Real
Christians know that this is the land God gave the Jewish people, and we know
they are God’s people,” and, “For me, it’s great to stand together with the
Jewish people and to proclaim that Jerusalem belongs to the Jewish people. It’s
the capital city of Israel and it belongs to them and no one else. As a
Christian, this is really in my heart.”
Comparing my experience over
Succot with the many liberal church groups with whom I parley in Efrat, I ask
myself: “Who is a Christian?” Unlike the fundamental theological differences
among Jewish denominations, most identifying as Christians, both the liberal
Protestants who populate the political Left and their more politically
conservative counterparts on the Right, affirm the divinity of their Bible. They
have faith in the Gospels and believe they directly impart God’s message to
But the Christian Bible has nothing to say about the
stewardship over the Land of Israel bestowed by God upon the People of Israel in
an eternal covenant. That covenant is strictly an “Old Testament,” or Hebrew
There it dominates no less than fully four-fifths of the
first five books, Exodus through Deuteronomy, and remains resonant throughout,
up to and including all the books of the Prophets.
it is not generally emphasized in Christian Bible classes, not only Jesus but
virtually all the figures in the Christian Bible, except for the Romans, are
Jews. And the entire account of Jesus’s activities is told against the
background of Jewish life in the Galilee and Judea, which is the Land of Israel.
(The name “Palestine” was only grafted onto the Land of Israel by the Roman
Emperor Hadrian around 135 CE.) While liberal Protestants tend to overlook this
information, their Evangelical co-religionists do not.
The former are
uncomfortable with the “dry legalisms” of the Hebrew Bible and its account of
Israel’s many bloody battles against the surrounding nations; they warm only to
the Prophets’ call for justice and visions of peace.
Protestant denominations minimize, if not deny, the connection between the
Hebrew Bible and their Testament. They subscribe to a “replacement theology”
that posits that the Christian church has replaced national Israel with respect
to the plan, purpose and promises of God and that the ritual laws prescribed in
the Hebrew Bible, the Halacha, are no longer relevant.
speaking before groups of liberal Christians I have been confronted with the
question: “Doesn’t the Hebrew Bible demand that you practice social justice and
that you welcome and comfort the stranger?” Or in other words, are not you Jews,
you Israelis, in violation of your own religious code through your mistreatment
of Palestinians? The tone in which this question is asked is often supercilious
CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIANS, I believe, are as equally
concerned about the practice of social justice.
On the bus last week I
was told by a member of the group that she prays for the peace and welfare of
both Israel and the Palestinians, and I am sure that this woman was sincere.
However, these Christians are far more fluent and interested in the text of the
Hebrew Bible than are most liberal Protestants I have encountered.
Evangelicals today, irrespective of their vision of the “End of Days,” are
theologically committed to the lasting authority of God’s covenant with the seed
of Abraham. And this covenant, they are certain, descends through Isaac and his
offspring, not through Ishmael as Muslims contend.
From such Christians I
am as likely to field a question about the significance of the tzitzit that I
wear and their single blue thread, or about some detail regarding the manner in
which Jews observe Shabbat, as about the rationale for Israel’s security
barrier. They don’t equivocate over the motivation for Palestinian terrorism;
they see it for what it is.
I don’t doubt the religious sincerity of
liberal Protestants. They wish to see the world made better and believe that
they possess the prescription to bring this about. But while their convictions
may be earnest, they fail to recognize the irony, in an era of regnant
pluralism, of their continuing struggle with Israel’s unique covenantal
relationship with God when at the same time their more conservative Christian
brethren have succeeded in weaving this relationship into their eschatological
In some Protestants, especially those involved with the
activities of Jerusalem’s Sabeel Center, the home of “Christian Liberation
Theology,” I have detected subdued anger and even hints of doctrinal
anti-Semitism when I have cited the Sinaitic Covenant as proof of Israel’s
eternal tie to the Land. Other liberal Protestants, I suspect, ignore this
covenant altogether as they have come to conflate humanist and universal values
with their Christian identity.
This results in a fuzzy theology in which
man is at the center and a less obvious God remains in the background. This is a
God who is there to make reference to when doing so is useful or necessary, but
what matters most to Christians of this stripe is for everyone to treat each
other with justice and compassion.
All effort to find instruction in the
biblical text beyond that one idea, be it the Hebrew or the Christian Bible, are
rendered moot, including Israel’s claim to the land.
through Samaria to Jerusalem on the bus as the sun was beginning to set I taught
the group a melody for the Hebrew words of the Psalms that are sung in the
synagogue during the holiday.
These praise the one God who blesses
Israel. And so did these pilgrims.The author is the director of iTalk-
Israel and lives in Efrat.
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