St Peter's Church in Jaffa.
(photo credit: ARIEL COHEN)
Jews in Israel are aware of the presence of Christian tourists. Some are familiar with Christian citizens (mostly Arab) and Christian foreign workers, some of whom live in their homes providing essential services to members of their families. We understand the presence of these Christians in Israel. But there are other Christian groups and individuals who are here in the hope of learning about Judaism and supporting Israel, and those are the ones who make Israelis scratch their heads and ask: What are they doing here? What do they want from us?
In the last few months, members of the Franciscan order (two women and a man) have been attending Kabbalat Shabbat services at my synagogue in southern Jerusalem. We are a generally friendly community, and overall, members have made these guests welcome. People who saw me speaking with them then came to me to ask, “Who are these people?” “What are they doing here?” Our synagogue frequently sees Jewish, Christian, or Muslim tourists, but the Franciscans seem to be getting comfortable praying with us. What is that about? Why would Christians want to spend so much time in a synagogue?
On a larger and to some even more perplexing scale, the streets of Jerusalem will be filled with thousands of pilgrims, some of whom will march 15 kilometers on October 14, during Succot. The Jerusalem March originated in 1955 as a three-to-four day parade of IDF soldiers to Jerusalem, later to include civilians and some tourists. Today, the vast majority of the marchers are evangelical Christians, who have chosen this festival to fulfill the prophecy that, “the nations... shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the festival of booths” (Zechariah 14:16).
The march, sponsored by the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem, is a happy, colorful, celebratory event, and many Israeli Jews participate or cheer on the marchers, appreciating those who have come such a long way to support the sometimes beleaguered state and citizens of Israel. This year, the ICEJ is promoting the fact that its marchers will be the first international gathering in Jerusalem’s new 10,000-seat basketball arena, courtesy of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
Some Jews worry that the smiles and support mask the “true intentions” of these and other Christians who visit Israel, which is to missionize (Christians would use the term “evangelize”). There is no doubt that spreading the word about Christianity is an important aspect of evangelical Christianity, but the Christians who come to celebrate what they call “the Feast of the Tabernacles” are warned not to distribute Christian tracts, and most are respectful of Jewish sensitivities in this area. With this group, as well, many Jews wonder: what are they doing here?
Most Israelis understand the economic importance of tourism, but few Jews appreciate what it means for some Christians to connect to the land, the people, and to Judaism. Experiencing this Jewish festival with the Jewish people in Jerusalem is, for many Christians, a once-in-a-lifetime experience of the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. This is a deeply religious experience for them, even if many Israeli Jews already take for granted our ability to celebrate in our land.
While we Jews should appreciate and respect the Christian experience, it is equally fair to ask our Christian guests to appreciate and respect that most of us do not live in a prophetic experience. We may be the inhabitants of an ancient land, but our day-to-day lives are in the world of today. We Jews are blessed to live in this land, but we have not yet found the best ways to live peacefully with all of our neighbors.
Many of the Christians who will be celebrating the Feast of the Tabernacles will ignore the Palestinians, despite the fact that they have been here for hundreds of years, if not longer. Some may even demonize them as people who do not “belong” here and are the enemies of the country’s Jews. Unfortunately, Israeli political leaders who bask in the uncritical love of Israel they receive from evangelical Christians, some of whom likely will appear at the basketball stadium rally, do not wish to bring a nuanced view of modern Israel to these “hovevei Zion” (Lovers of Zion).
When our Christian guests pray for peace in the Holy Land, I hope they will pray for peace among all of the inhabitants of this land. We are fortunate to have their prayers and support, and I hope they can support all of us, including Jews and Palestinians.
As for the Franciscan brothers and sisters who pray with us, their presence gives us another opportunity to understand that Christians are no longer a threat to Jews. Since the Second Vatican Council, many Catholics have become comfortable learning about and even praying with people of other faiths. They understand that Christianity was born out of Judaism, and that they can learn from Jews and our practices and prayers. They have no desire or intention to threaten our identities as Jews. This land and what happens in it matters to many Christians. The time has come for us to open our hearts and minds, to be willing to teach and to learn from others without fear of losing ourselves along the way.
The author is director of Christian Leadership Programs at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.