I wrote recently about a major British historical denomination consulting the wider church on whether it should continue to boycott Israeli settlement produce, something it resolved to do in 2010.
Three days later I sat in a university lecture hall in London at a joint Christian/Jewish “Night to Honour Israel”, led by the Zionist Federation and Bridges for Peace, a Christian NGO working in Jerusalem. Israel’s achievements and progress as a nation in 65 years are applauded wildly at this even, crowned by the appearance by Claire Lomas, paralysed in a riding accident but now able to stand up and walk with the aid of an Israeli invention.
Two completely opposite mindsets on Israel. Am I interacting with the same church? There’s a discord, a mismatch here somewhere.
The church’s attitude towards Israel and the Jewish people has been the subject of centuries of theological debate. “Has God finished with the Jews or does He still have a plan for them?” “Has the Church replaced Israel in God’s plans” “Are the Jews still the ‘chosen people’?” The creation of the modern state of Israel brought a lot of the debate into sharper focus, with many Christians seeing this as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
The Palestinian BDS movement that launched itself onto the world in 2005, followed by the Palestinian church’s “Kairos Document” in 2009, led to an even sharper polarisation of attitudes, with some Christians joining the political anti-Israel cries to “end the occupation” and others decrying them for doing so.
One of the saddest consequences of adding political polarisation to an existing theological debate is that the ordinary people on both sides of the cultural divide have come not to be seen as individuals with their own stories, problems, and viewpoints but as “us” and “them”. Christians should be the last ones to stereotype anyone, since basic Christian theology teaches that God loves everyone he has created equally.
And one disturbing phenomenon is that, in general, those churches and Christians that consider themselves “pro-Palestinian” tend to take on the rhetoric and motifs of the secular anti-Israel groups: “apartheid state”, “ethnic cleansing”, and so on. Those who consider themselves “pro-Israel”, on the other hand, tend to adopt a more even-handed perspective. Bridges for Peace, Christian Friends of Israel, and The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (not the only ones), have wide-ranging humanitarian programmes that minister to the needs of both Jews and Arabs without political partisanship. They are also more active in encouraging Messianic (Israeli) and Arab Christians to dialogue together and even put them together on a shared platform.
The “pro-Palestinian” lobby only looks at things from a viewpoint East of the security barrier and restricts its dialogue to the churches in agreement with it – basically the Palestinian traditional denominations. Funny, that.
Additionally, an embarrassing feature of “new” evangelical Christian converts from Islam in the disputed territories is that they tend to a much more positive view of Israel and the Jewish people. Ex-muslim Walid Shoebat from Bethlehem, for example, pours his energy into speaking widely and loudly in support of Israel – now that’s conversion!
The world is full of injustices. Too much time, energy and resources are being expended on a situation where (relatively speaking) the degree of suffering by ordinary people does not compare with Syria, Northern Nigeria, Pakistan and a number of other current situations around the globe. Contrary to (some) popular opinion, the Israeli army is not continually looking for new ways to wipe out whole villages, gas innocent Palestinians or hold riots to destroy their mosques. The money being spent on vilifying Israel and examining every aspect of her policies and actions for faults should be going to help Christians rebuild their churches in Egypt or their houses in Syria.
The efforts being made by some Christian groups to boycott insignificant volumes of settlement produce should be spent on gathering aid for Syrian refugees or persecuted Pakistani Christians; or on confronting the Palestinian Authority for its corruption, persecution of its minorities and assorted human rights abuses.
The truth is, in British society, deep down and often well hidden, there is a historical latent antisemitism. It goes back centuries; back past the rejection of Jewish refugees in the thirties; back past the massacres of the crusades; right back to Norwich in the 12th Century.
My guess is that more Jews than Christians could tell me why. It’s because that was when the first blood libel was pronounced; the calumny that Jews kill Christian babies at Passover in order to mix their blood into their matzah bread. It was the Christian Church that started it and continued it through the years. Today it is still current and genuinely believed by many in the Muslim world.
Even worse is when modern versions of it are promulgated by the BDS movement as if such an incredible accusation was factual. And worse still, a few Christians are among those who believe it and help to share it around. When a Jewish friend of mine can go to a Christian meeting and be asked in all seriousness why Jews kill children, is it any wonder that Israel and the worldwide Jewish diaspora is still deeply suspicious of Christians?
It is not heresy to love Palestinians or Israelis or the Jewish people; it’s a good thing. It’s not heresy to have a negative view of the state of Israel. But to vilify one without understanding or seeking to understand their side of the story is distinctly un-Christian. My “neighbour” is not only Ahmed, he’s Yossi as well.
No-one ever changed the mindset of an opponent by shouting at them from a distance. Christians, it is time to sit down with the “other”, be he Palestinian or Israeli or your local synagogue members. It is time to try and understand each other’s stories, see through each other’s eyes, stand in each other’s shoes.
If only we took the time and trouble to do this, we would see how many ordinary people from both sides actually want peace.