Israeli-Palestinian Reconciliation: Does Politics Trump Unity?
Several issues ago in Havurah we addressed the topic of unity within the Messianic movement, namely reconciliation between Jewish believers in Jesus who are pursuing God in various ways from different corners of the Messianic community.
The pursuit of Messianic unity and reconciliation resonates with our hearts and brings to mind the Jewish folk song taken directly from Psalm 133, "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!" Our reconciliation doesn’t necessitate conformity, but it must embrace diversity and a commitment to maintaining relationships with those we disagree with. The driving force of this reconciliation unto unity is rooted in scripture:
- Jesus’ command to his disciples to love each other (John 15:12);
- Paul’s instruction to the church in Ephesus regarding unity (Ephesians 4:1-6);
- Peter’s exhortation to the scattered Jewish believers to maintain unity (1 Peter 3:8).
The command for unity in the church is not bound by racial, socio-economic, or political borders. But how do we have unity with those whose ideologies are seemingly irreconcilable with our own? How can we be obedient to scripture’s instruction to "keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:3)?
This is a hard question to answer in light of the two competing political nationalisms that hit close to home for many Jewish believers around the world, as well as for many Arab Christians throughout the Middle East: Zionism and Palestinian Nationalism.
I’ve wrestled long and hard with this topic. While I don’t claim to have the answers, I do trust that the path I’ve walked has brought me to solid footing. Let me begin by telling my story.
Volunteering in Israel
Growing up in Sacramento, I attended the private Jewish school in town for several formative years. During that time I learned many things, not the least of which was to have a deep love and longing for Israel, even into adulthood. In 2006, amidst the war between Israel and Lebanon, I finally had the opportunity to go there.
Sar-El is the national project for volunteers for Israel. In the summer of 2006 they were putting out a desperate plea for overseas volunteers to serve in Israel on the army bases. They needed help to pack rations, cook and clean, and support the logistics teams so that more soldiers could be sent to the front lines to fight Hezbollah in Lebanon.
I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and my best friend and I flew to Israel on just a few days’ notice to serve. I was living my Zionist dream, serving alongside Israeli soldiers in an un-air-conditioned warehouse working non-stop fourteen-hour days.
As reports from the front lines filtered in, some of the other American volunteers reacted strongly. Once, one of the men in our group yelled in response to the news, "Why doesn’t Israel just nuke Lebanon? If you got rid of the Arabs, Israel wouldn’t have all these problems!" The commanding officer in the room shook his head in disgust and replied, "Don’t ever say that! The people of Lebanon are victims of Hezbollah. We don’t want to kill Arabs, we just want peace." As I listened to this dialogue I felt ashamed because up until that moment I had made no differentiation between the Lebanese people and the Hezbollah agents.
The ceasefire was signed a few days later and we were moved to another army base to help with cleanup. At this new base we met several Bedouin and Druze soldiers serving in the Israeli army. My curiosity was piqued; I didn’t know that Arabs could do that! I flew home from Israel a few days later with my assumptions unmoored. Maybe my view of Israel was too simplistic.
A few years later I was back in Israel again, this time serving as a leader on the Jews for Jesus’ Massah program, which is our short-term evangelism and discipleship missions program for college-age Jewish believers. And I had my assumptions challenged even further.
We took the Massah team to meet with Salim Munayer, an Arab believer who runs a reconciliation ministry called Musalaha, and in this meeting Salim shared his family narrative. The story Salim told was one I had heard from other Palestinian Arabs before, but which I had always dismissed up until that moment.
His story went back several generations as he told of his family’s property and business that flourished long before Jews began returning to the area to reclaim the land. He spoke of his own childhood, growing up hearing conflicting narratives of recent history at home and at school. He told of his journey to faith in Jesus and his change of heart from resentment toward Jewish people to a passion for reconciliation.
Salim’s stories stood in contrast to what I had been taught about the history of the modern state of Israel. But I couldn’t simply dismiss them this time, because I was hearing them from a fellow believer and Christian leader. My heart wrestled with the idea that the history I had been taught wasn’t necessarily 100% accurate, and I realized that my conclusions were based on very limited information.
In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the discomfort that a person experiences when holding two or more apparently conflicting ideas, beliefs, or values simultaneously. Cognitive dissonance is generated when information is received that conflicts with what someone has believed up until that time. People are motivated to reduce their resulting mental discomfort by reconciling their opposing ideas, beliefs, or values. This is the natural human response to paradox, and it can take at least four forms:
- when our behavior doesn’t match our standards, we rationalize;
- when our experience doesn’t match our expectations, we find someone to blame;
- when our minds can’t grasp the complexity of a difficult situation, we use reductionistic thinking to validate our own perspectives;
- or we attempt to reconcile the internal conflict in a healthy way
We see examples in history of how certain events generated cognitive dissonance in those involved. In the slaughter of men, women, and children during the Crusades, the claim to be following Jesus conflicted with the behavior of massacring other people, leading to reductionist thinking and rationalizing behavior. The forced conversions and torture during the Spanish Inquisition conflicted with the right goal of guaranteeing orthodoxy in the church. We can even see how cognitive dissonance was generated in Hitler’s "Final Solution." Cognitive dissonance often leads people to devalue and even demonize others.
As I wrestled with Salim’s story, I realized that my perspective on the Israel/Palestine issue was driven by cognitive dissonance. While as a believer, I was taught to love all people, at the same time I had allowed my heart to fill with distrust for Arabs in general, and even hatred for anyone claiming the Palestinian label. I’m happy to say that I repented of my distrust and hatred before the Lord as soon as the error of my way was made known to me.
But my repentance didn’t resolve my cognitive dissonance regarding the Israel/Palestine issue. I now believe we must accept the inevitability of cognitive dissonance, yet hold firmly to love for the body of Messiah. This is the very thing that Jesus said would cause the world to know that we are his disciples! Love for one another: across racial, socio-economic, and political divides! Messiah’s command to unity is not optional; we must be obedient to the command to unity: even unity between Jewish and Palestinian Christians.
If we are convinced that Jesus’s call to love his church extends across the Israeli/Palestinian divide, where do we begin? Here are a few thoughts I hope you’ll find helpful.
Affirm the Right to Self-Identify
Self-identification has always been important to me, as it has for every Jew for Jesus who has struggled for the right to identify as a Jewish person. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met a Messianic Jew who hasn’t had to fight for his or her identity! The labels we claim are important to our identity. Even though Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 ("there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Messiah Jesus") is often quoted to undermine personal identity, Paul’s intent was to root our identity first and foremost in Messiah, not to erase racial, gender, national, or socio-economic distinctions. Hence, we are free to maintain our Jewish identity and culture as long as our identification doesn’t interfere with our unity with the body of Messiah.
Because of my background, it hurts my heart when people undermine the personal identity of others—even if I don’t like the way people choose to self-identify. History only moves forward: as culture develops and changes we must face these changes with honest reflection. The past cannot be undone! There are Arabs (both Christian and non-Christian) who choose to self-identify as Palestinians, just as there are Christians of Jewish origin who choose to self-identify as Messianic Jews. As a member of one minority group whose self-label is challenged by the majority, I choose to affirm the self-identification of individuals in other minority groups even when (or perhaps especially when) I don’t understand the emotional weight that their identity holds in their hearts.
You might ask, "Doesn’t affirmation of Palestinian identity promote the cause of Palestinian nationalism?" I’m not sure if it does or not! My rationale is based on principle, not on pragmatics. How can I affirm Palestinian identity while also believing in the future restoration of national Israel under the Messiah? By refusing to allow personal cognitive dissonance on this issue of the land of Israel, the Jewish people, and the Palestinian people to fuel any reductionist thinking. I hold firm to Jesus himself, knowing that he will make all things new and will reconcile all things to himself when he comes again. Until then I know that I don’t know, and that’s okay.
Affirm Israel’s Existence and God’s Heart for Justice Simultaneously
The nation of Israel never existed in a vacuum of ethnic uniformity: even when Moses led the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt they were accompanied by God-fearing gentiles. We see God’s heart for all mankind in his command to the leaders of Israel regarding how foreigners and sojourners were to be treated: "Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt" (Exodus 22:21). We also see God’s heart for all mankind in the construction of the temple. Solomon grasped the greater vision and even exclaimed when the temple was dedicated:
As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel … when he comes and prays toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place … (2 Chronicles 6:32-33)
We should care about the Palestinians living as neighbors to Israeli Jews because God cares about them. We should be concerned for their well-being because God cares. Let our love for Israel never cause us to slip into reductionist thinking! Israel has a right to exist: as a people and as a sovereign nation, but Israel will be held accountable before God for her treatment of Palestinians. We must develop thinking that affirms Israel’s existence while affirming the need for justice and equality for Palestinians
Pray for the Church in the Middle East
Never has the Biblical command of Psalm 122:6 been more relevant: "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem." We’ve probably heard this passage quoted so many times that it might seem trite for me to bring it up here. But I think it is very appropriate since we must pray not only that Jerusalem would have peace from her enemies, but that Jerusalem would have peace from within. Jerusalem is a city of diversity but the diversity is so fragmented that even the Old City is broken into quarters!
It is a dishonor to the name of Messiah that this secular division across racial and geopolitical boundaries also occurs within the body of Messiah in that region. If our hearts harbor hate, then I pray for conviction. If our hearts have already been seeded with love, then I pray that those seeds will sprout.
Let me leave you with this thought. If the apostle Paul were alive today and he were writing to the churches in the Middle East, I think he would reiterate his words given to us in Ephesians 4:3-6:
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Aaron Trank is minister-at-large and director of recruiting at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. He was working as a software engineer in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory before he was called into ministry. He and his wife, Rachelle, have three children, Rina, Rafi and Rocco.