This past January I traveled to Israel with a group of 20 clergy. Our group included four rabbis, two imams, two Roman Catholics, and a diverse range of Protestant pastors. I know it sounds like the beginning of a joke, but there was a lot of joy and camaraderie shared between us. The trip was sponsored by the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, whose mission is in part to promote understanding and appreciation of the modern state of Israel.
I have to praise the organizers of our trip, who did not turn the trip into a publicity tour but instead gave us access to a diversity of voices. Among others, we heard from a former member of the Knesset who is an orthodox rabbi and peace advocate, a secular Jewish farmer in the Negev, and a Palestinian developer in the West Bank trying to empower and dignify Palestinian life in the occupied territory. While the trip was in part a pilgrimage — we visited the holy sites of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity — yet what made the trip so memorable is what we learned. The following are some of the major points that struck me:
The security of Israel. As with any trip to the Middle East, there were many questions and concerns about safety. One of the daughters of a Christian pastor who traveled with us came to an orientation meeting prior to the trip just to investigate the risks involved in traveling to Israel. We heard the assertion often that Israel is safer than many cities in the United States, and this largely seemed accurate, although the experience of seeing young Israeli soldiers carrying assault rifles was novel to some, including me, and for a few I suspect it was uncomfortable. While the construction of the security barrier in the West Bank might give the impression that it is difficult or unsafe to travel back and forth between Israel and the West Bank, as tourists we experienced relatively free movement. A taxi ride from Israeli-controlled Jerusalem to Bethlehem, in the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, took all of 20 minutes with no security stops in either direction. This is not to say there is no threat or danger in Israel, but to suggest that American media coverage of Israel may skew our perspective. I’m struck by the comparison with tornadoes in my former state of Oklahoma: it is certainly possible to be hit by one, but statistically unlikely.
Names are a powerful rhetorical tool. We all know that terms like pro-choice and pro-life are names with rhetorical weight. When you are visiting a foreign place, the use of names is even more apparent. As we listened to different speakers on our trip, we soon learned that each group or faction has a narrative and a language to support that narrative. Depending on the speaker, you either have a security wall or an apartheid wall. Some would call the area behind the United Nations’ Green Line the West Bank while others referred to it as Judea and Samaria, the latter of course being the names for that area in the Bible and buttressing the argument that it is a historically Jewish area. The dean of St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem identified as a Christian Arab Palestinian Israeli. He was born in Nazareth and has Israeli citizenship, though his wife who was born in the West Bank city of Nablus does not. I was particularly struck by the claim of some Palestinians to be Canaanites, the people who occupied the Promised Land prior to Joshua and the entrance of the Hebrews. I’ll admit I am dubious about ethnic claims that stretch back millennia, and they can be heard from all ends of the spectrum. Rhetorical names like these foster agreement where it already exists — one can picture lots of heads nodding when in use — but such names seem unlikely to unite disparate people. There is value for all who find themselves in polarized divides to understand how they might be using names rhetorically and, more importantly, to make an effort to understand the narrative of the other.
The gift of secularism. As a traditionalist Christian in the United States, I find myself and like-minded people bewailing the onslaught of secularism. There is no doubt that secularism can be narcissistic and nihilistic, but away from my familiar environment, I could appreciate the ways in which secularism has been a blessing to the modern state of Israel. The early Zionists who came to settle in Palestine were largely secular Jews who wanted to live in communities of like-minded people. Many were socialists or politically progressive, and this legacy can still be seen today. A city like Tel Aviv has a modern, Western feel similar to New York or a European city. It is secular Jews (and to a certain extent secular Palestinians) who seem to be in the middle politically, and thus perhaps the most willing to compromise and make peace. In addition, Israel has long been a leader in agricultural development and water desalination, but in the past few decades there has been tremendous expansion into other medical and digital technologies. Some are even comparing the number and quality of start-ups in Israel with Silicon Valley. I suspect most Americans think of modern Israel in religious terms, and clearly, orthodox Judaism is a significant minority in Israel, but secularism, while it may not deal directly with the highest goods of human life, contributes to a great extent to the commonwealth in Israel and elsewhere.
The use of archeology for political ends. While in Israel we visited a couple of archeological sites, including the town of Shilo in the West Bank, thought to be the location of the ancient town of the same name. In the Bible’s telling, the Tabernacle made its home there before David moved it to Jerusalem. Today, it is the location of a Jewish settlement. Settlements are places in the West Bank where Israelis, sometimes legally, sometimes illegally, build homes and communities that would likely be part of the Palestinian State if it comes to full autonomy. In the presentation given to our group, the archeologist at Shilo claimed that the outlines of a tabernacle like the one described in the Bible have been found, and then we were shown a video that, in my opinion, simplistically conflated the biblical texts with current archeology. In contrast, an earlier archeologist at Shilo said with more nuance, “Biblical traditions should be read on the background of their time of composition, the ideology of the authors, etc. One cannot approach them in a simplistic manner.” It seemed fairly obvious that current archeological explorations there are used as part of the argument for why Israeli settlement of the West Bank is acceptable: The Jewish tabernacle was here and so Jews should again inhabit this biblical site. One sign we saw our tour of the archeological site and which overlooked the modern settlement read, “In the month of Shevat 5738 (January 1978) the Jewish community of Shilo rose again.” This is a reminder that science and scientific endeavors can also be used to promote social or political causes. The perception common that science is objective and faith subjective is misleading — both are capable of being tools in a bigger endeavor.
The complex texture of Israel and Palestine. As our group traveled around Israel, Galilee, and the West Bank, we sounded a refrain again and again as we discussed the social, religious, and political issues in Israel: “It’s complicated.” Without firsthand experience, we tend to reduce a complex world of people and politics into a simplistic view of friends and enemies, right and wrong. Those who know the complex nature of Christianity and religion in America will appreciate the texture in the religious makeup of our group: there were two Orthodox rabbis, one female Conservative rabbi, and one progressive Reformed rabbi. Among the Christian pastors, there was an even wider range: a Baptist evangelical, a Roman Catholic priest, a pre-millennialist Pentecostal pastor, and a young African-American AME Zion pastor, along with several mainline Protestant pastors. Most of us know these dynamics and can predict the breadth of social and political views held by these clerics. In contrast, Israel and Palestine are a world away. We get small amounts of information through old and new media, but not much texture. In a way it is understandable if we give in to reductionism regarding Israel. My plea would be twofold.
First, as you have opportunity, try to learn about the complex nature of the social and political situation in Israel. There is some excellent literature out there. Before the trip, I really enjoyed reading Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land, Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem, and Elias Chacour’s We Belong to the Land. As clergy we made some small steps toward appreciating the complexity of the issues in Israel, but I would urge one and all to exercise humility about our limited perspective. We must resist the inclination to make snap judgments and glib criticisms about issues that are far more complicated than slogans can capture or sweeping pronouncements can resolve.