A Messianic Jewish Approach to the Middle East Conflict
The signs said, Stop Zionist slaughter of Palestinians.”
Sure, I’d seen signs like those before. But in the hands of ultra-Orthodox Jews? Yet there they were—dozens of them— shoulder to shoulder in their black coats, alongside others holding Palestinian flags in front of the Israeli embassy. More signs read, “Judaism rejects Zionism and the state of Israel.” Some had a crudely drawn Israeli flag linked to a swastika by an equal sign. Jews were cursing Jews, the riot police were trying to keep peace, and people from all sides were gawking. “Great,” I thought. “As if Israel doesn’t have enough problems.”
We Jews argue about almost everything— you’ve heard it said, “Two Jews—three opinions.” But disagreements over Israel are particularly heated. The disengagement from settlements in the Gaza region divided Israelis and demonstrated the volatile nature of this debate. Many were angry at settlers and saw them as the cause of trouble, while others were angry with Sharon and pointed to his deteriorating health as God’s judgment for negotiating land. Some see civil war on Israel’s horizon.
How does this debate affect Jewish believers in Jesus? And how do we affect the debate—if at all? As one who has lived and served in Israel, I am still working through some of these questions and I do not think I am the only Jewish believer who has needed to do so.
I was seriously challenged a few years back by an Israeli-Palestinian debate at All Nations Christian College in Hertfordshire, England. Dr. Colin Chapman launched his segment by pronouncing, “The modern state of Israel has absolutely no theological relevance for us today.” He then described Israel’s “Zionist” policies as unjust and utterly immoral. The strength of his conviction and the force of his arguments were hard to dispute. He had done plenty of research. Afterwards, students turned to me for insight. I felt inadequate. Like them, I was a student. My own views regarding Israel were not as fully developed as Dr. Chapman’s and I could not document or articulate them as well as he did.
Don’t get me wrong. As an Israeli Jewish believer, I could express my loyalty and my own ideas about Israel in the big faith picture fairly adequately. But I lacked the confidence to address this man’s passionate, articulate and seemingly authoritative anti- Israel assertions.
I realized three things.
First, as Jewish believers, we have a personal stake in working through the controversies associated with Israel.
Second, Christians are highly sensitive to questions of justice vis-a-vis the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
And third, Jewish believers are expected to be able to discuss these things intelligently, no matter how inadequate we may feel.
The media constantly bombards us with images of bombed buses, bulldozed homes, gun-toting children, tanks and death tolls. Popular books by Jimmy Carter and Noam Chomsky line the shelves of Barnes and Noble. Post-Zionist writers such as Ilan Papp? have gained popularity in Israel and abroad, as people look for the roots of this conflict and seek solutions. These writers are extremely critical of Israel’s role in the conflict and of Zionism historically.1
Further, this debate is the bread and butter of certain Christian writers whose books are popular among those who are asking questions like, “How do we know there is continuity between today’s Israel and the Israel in the Bible?” People also want answers to political questions such as, “Why does America always support Israel?” or “How will western leadership (e.g., U.S. President, British Prime Minister, etc.) help facilitate peace in the Middle East?” And there are ethical questions such as, “Who is to blame for the suffering of innocent people caught in the midst of this conflict?”
Confident, zealous writers like Gary Burge, Stephen Sizer, and Colin Chapman oppose “Christian Zionism” and insist that Christians should not support the state of Israel for theological, as well as moral, reasons. Equally confident, zealous writers like John Hagee, the late Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, have urged Christians to support Israel as God’s chosen people.
It helps to understand some of the conflicts within the church that affect the debate over Israel. Some believe God’s promises to Israel as His people have been transferred to the universal Church. They do not see Israel as particularly significant in God’s future plans and they oppose what they see as an overly literal “dispensational” approach to Scripture. They wield a sharp anti-Israel attitude like a sword to hack away at a particular biblical worldview promoted by books such as the “Left Behind” series. Their reaction to a very black and white pro-Israel approach tends to paint all pro-Israel evangelicals with the same brush stroke—as though none are capable of recognizing the complexity of the problems and responsibilities Israel faces.
Equally passionate is the fight for the preservation of biblical inerrancy. Some see eschatology as the battlefield on which those with proper hermeneutics will stand with Israel while all others embrace a non-literal (and in some people’s opinion, lower) view of Scripture. Israel is seen both as God’s chosen vessel, and the key to ushering in the millennial kingdom. Some who hold this view react to all who disagree, seeing them as a threat to the integrity of Scripture. They use a broad brush to paint them as “liberals,” as though everyone with a high view of Scripture sees Israel in exactly the same light. They, too, make assumptions about those who hold opposing views.
Where do Jewish believers fit into this discussion? Everywhere we turn, Israel is either glamorized or demonized. Our Jewish background provides a bond with Israel that makes questions about these issues very personal for us. Why should we leave it to everyone else to think through and speak out about Israel? What can we, as Jewish believers, do to seek insight and, if possible, share that insight and help set the course for others to follow? We might not all share the same theological convictions regarding eschatology, but are there things we can agree upon?
Certainly one thing we can all affirm is that Jesus is the Prince of Peace, and the more Jews and Arabs hear and receive the gospel, the more God’s peace will be demonstrated in the Middle East. But perhaps we can also agree upon an approach to the controversies we face regarding Israel. Here are a few areas for consideration.
We Need To Exercise Two Things
It is important to realize that we fight an uphill battle here. After all, we’re part of the equation. Therefore, how much more important is it for us to exemplify a reasoned approach to this discussion? And, er . . . how do we do that? After all, we are Jewish.
We should never be uncomfortable about our loyalty to our people. One day at Speaker’s Corner in London, a Christian activist was surprised to learn that I did not consciously object to service in the Israeli military during reserve duties. I explained that I was proud to serve my country and while I do not justify all that Israel does, without military forces we would have been annihilated years ago. Being objective does not mean we cannot affirm the goodness and blessing Israel has been, and continues to be, to the world. It does mean that we do not conclude that something Israel does is right on the grounds that Israel is our people.
To be objective about what is right and wrong, we need more than our own particular perspective. While it helps to understand how Arabs view the Middle East situation, we will ultimately find ourselves frustrated and/or disillusioned if we leave it at that. I believe our success depends upon our willingness to see things from God’s perspective.
God’s perspective may be found in the most recited verse in the New Testament, “For God so loved the world . . .” Messiah came because God looked upon humanity—Jews, Arabs and others—and loved them. I know this sounds like fluffy Bible talk, and I almost laugh at myself for stating the obvious. Yet there is something healthy about something so basic to help us approach such a complex situation. We really do need to see the questions from God’s perspective on a gut level.
Most of us, as Jewish believers, have a passion to see our people saved. We understand better than anyone the obstacles that often prevent them from hearing the gospel. When we want so much to communicate to our own people, it is easy to hold on to some of the biases that are common in the Jewish community. Dropping those biases might seem like disloyalty to our people. To be truly objective, we should put our loyalty to God first. After all, He has more loyalty to our people than anyone else does, so our allegiance to Him will never leave us lacking in true loyalty to them.
We must ask God to give us His heart, His love for both Jewish and Arab people who both need the gospel as they struggle to cope with their problems and attitudes. In this way, we may avoid the prison of bitterness and help others out.
We must labor to listen and to recognize our own biases, not just those of other people. And overall, we must seek a God’s-eye perspective.
God commanded Israel to possess the land. That was part of His blessing and gift to Israel as His covenant people. God also expected His people to treat the strangers in the land as they would want to be treated. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I am commanding you to do this. When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien (or stranger, sojourner), the fatherless and the widow so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands” (Deuteronomy 24:18-19).
God wanted us to think how we would feel, by remembering how we felt in the past, being in the positions that others now face. Most of us empathize naturally with our own people, but it is difficult for us to feel what the “alien” or stranger feels. We can’t really put ourselves in their position without feeling vulnerable.
I grew up knowing the suffering of my people. In Israel we stand in silence for two minutes on Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) as the siren reminds us how our people were destroyed by those who hated us. I’ve walked through Yad Vashem, overwhelmed by grief and tears for more than one million children who died. I have genuinely mourned for families who lost their children in bus bombings. But it was only a few years ago that I allowed myself to feel the weight of a Palestinian family’s plight for the first time.
I read the account of a Palestinian Christian who left Israel to visit relatives living in Jordan. When he returned, he was flatly refused entry. He was told that his visa was not adequate and so he was cut off from his friends, job, his home, his finances and his family. Instead of trying to work out who was to blame and what has brought Israeli officials to the point where such things happen, I looked at it from this man’s point of view. His pain and frustration could not be lessened, nor could his real need or his family’s need be met by any kind of explanation. My heart went out to him. It’s important for our hearts to be tender towards people in these situations.
Empathy is important, and it ceases to be empathy if we try to qualify it. Yet empathy can be problematic if it is one-sided. Many who travel to Israel empathize only with one group of people or the other. Perhaps their main focus is on a Palestinian refugee camp, or else with an Israeli mother whose son was killed in a bombing. One-sided empathy in a conflict situation is not helpful. Our ability to empathize becomes a liability if it does no more than kindle anger and reinforce biases. We should be angry at sin and injustice, but we must also recognize that people living without a personal relationship with God are not able, and often not willing, to abide by His standards. We have the Holy Spirit to convict and to guide us and as believers we still miss the mark. Godly empathy recognizes that we live in a sinful world, and we should be all the more motivated to bring God’s righteous kingdom to this earth.
Jesus empathized with those around Him. He wept with those who wept. He pleaded with God to forgive His enemies. He also addressed sin and wrong attitudes in love. Empathy for Arabs does not mean we must agree with all that is said against Israel in the media and even, sadly, in some Christian circles. It does not mean we must give up our right to the land of Israel. It means we must seek to reach out in love to those around us in need, whether Jewish or Arab. When empathy is balanced with objectivity, we have both compassion and understanding.
And We Need To “Exorcise” Two Things
When differences become sharper and opposing views grow farther apart, feelings grow more extreme and a certain hardening occurs. People react rather than respond to new situations and new manifestations of the old problems. This is polarization. Polarization entails a loss of objectivity and furthers people’s inability to evaluate the issues.
How do you feel when someone says, “The present brutal, repressive racist policies of the state of Israel would suggest another exile on the horizon rather than a restoration.”2 I would be surprised and concerned if you could hear that with perfect equanimity. It is understandable that we, as Jewish people, would be upset by such attitudes. But if we allow ourselves to become polarized and merely react to those who are at the opposite “pole,” we become trapped.
Stephen Sizer tells how he “devoured” the eschatological teachings of Hal Lindsey and other pro-Israel writers as a young Christian. He goes on to explain that his “bubble burst” during a trip to Israel where he met Arab Christians, and learned of their struggles. That pivotal experience was the catalyst for his doctoral research. Sizer pushed away his former views with such force that he propelled himself to the extreme opposite pole. As a result, he created a huge distance between himself and those he may have been able to engage. I don’t know of one Jewish person who would not be offended by Sizer’s writings. If we allow ourselves to become polarized in our views as he did, we alienate and cut off people who may be trying to work though the issues.
The search for truth often raises more questions than we might choose to ask (let alone answer). Rather than face those questions, some people oversimplify the matter, taking a slipshod approach, making sweeping generalizations and emphasizing one biblical principle at the expense of others. For example, some who scream “injustice” while pointing a sharp finger at Israel have no sense of how Israel’s neighbors have hated, threatened and systematically planned to destroy her. Others, who point to the conquests of Joshua as an example of how the state of Israel should deal with Palestinians today, have no respect for the lives of many innocent people who had no choice about being caught in the middle of the conflict.
This is not a simple discussion with easy answers. The subject of Israel raises a myriad of questions about justice, judgment, righteousness, land possession, eschatology, how to deal with strangers and enemies in our land, etc. The Bible has much to teach us about these issues. We will also do well to read material about the recent history of the conflict and what is happening in Israel today. The political, sociological, historical and theological questions surrounding Israel require us to think and pray and learn if we want to approach the matter with anything like wisdom.
Regardless of where we were in 1948, Israel is facing a new set of challenges and much is at stake. If Jewish believers shy away from the hard questions, others will continue answering them for us in ways that often polarize and worsen tensions. But if we are not careful, background and biases (ours or other people’s) can fuel our own negative attitudes, and alienate those who might otherwise be positively affected for the Lord through our story.
What can we do? We can be honest while maintaining a love and respect for people caught on both sides of the conflict. We can confront negative stereotypes of Arabs as well as Jews. We can resist the temptation to whitewash everything our people say and do, while at the same time refusing to take a naive view of the very real threats to Israel’s survival. We can stand unashamed for Israel’s right to exist, while realizing the way forward must be rooted in a righteousness from God.
Aaron Abramson is the leader of the New York branch of Jews for Jesus. Aaron brings a global experience to us. He was born in the US but grew up in Israel. He has a bachelor of arts degree in Biblical and Intercultural Studies from All Nations Christian College in England. Aaron is currently in a graduate program at New York University. He is married and has three children.