The world cries out for a solution to the conflict that threatens to tear apart the Middle East. Political solutions have come and gone, leaving many feeling that the rocky road to peace will ultimately lead nowhere. But behind the doomsday headlines and beyond the violent images broadcast from the volatile region, several Israelis and Palestinians have achieved a true and lasting peace.
A Casualty of Conflict
A few years ago, Lisa’s son Asaf began his service with the IDF. One day he caught a lift from his base with a civilian. Moments later, as Asaf and his companion approached the Ayosh junction, a group of protesting Palestinian students descended upon the car in a rage. The driver managed to escape, but Asaf was trapped in the car. He suffered a blow to the head, which knocked him out cold. As Asaf regained consciousness, he was dragged from the car and beaten. A few seconds’ pause allowed him just enough time to escape.
After the incident, Asaf retreated to his room and Lisa was left wondering how she could possibly cope with what had happened to her son and how she should deal with the rage toward her son’s assailants that boiled inside her: I [was filled] with this bitterness and this wrath and this anger and this rage, and this hate,” she said.
A Soldier’s Story
When Moran emigrated from Israel to the United States, he felt hopeless about the situation in the Middle East: “People were dying from the right and from the left; no one is doing anything, and I decided to move on.”
The violence in Israel had struck Moran personally, as a Palestinian suicide bomber had taken the lives of seven of his friends in his IDF unit. So he came to the U.S., seeking a “different reality.”
Little did this ex-soldier realize that his reality would change so drastically as to include two people formerly forbidden to him.
In 1998, Moran found himself in Los Angeles, going to a church service a friend had invited him to. Moran left the service agitated, filled with questions about God. He wanted answers and was challenged to read the Bible, both the Tanakh and the New Testament.
“Throughout the whole Scriptures, you find that God loved his people, Israel. He loved them so much that even when we continued to sin against him and reject him…he [is] still faithful to us and he gave us the promised Messiah…to save us from all of our iniquities. God opened my eyes to the truth…,” said Moran.
What Moran read in the Bible convinced him that Yeshua (Jesus) was Messiah, and Moran committed his life to one whom he’d always assumed wasn’t for him.
But though his newfound faith gave him a love and a peace that he’d not known before, the question was, would it be enough to quell the bitterness towards Arabs that still lingered in his heart? Could that love and peace truly displace decades of anger?
The Scriptures and Jewish tradition have much to say about forgiveness, in terms of seeking forgiveness both from God and from each other for our wrongdoing. We are also told that in addition to seeking forgiveness, that forgiving is itself a blessing.
Writing for Aish HaTorah, Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir comments:
A careful study of Jewish sources reveals that forgiveness fulfills two distinct roles—one religious, and one personal.
The religious role of forgiveness is that it enables the wrongdoer to achieve atonement for his act. It is a firm doctrine of Jewish belief that God doesn’t grant full forgiveness for our sins against our fellow man until we obtain forgiveness directly from the wronged individual.
The personal role of forgiveness is that apology and forgiveness enable the two sides to put the incident behind them, and to restore harmonious relations.…This personal aspect of forgiveness is perhaps even more important than the religious one.1
There is much human logic in these words, however another Jewish perspective, the messianic Jewish perspective, holds that forgiveness from God is actually the precursor to reconciliation between people. That is, having a right relationship with God—one in which people know they have been forgiven by their Creator for their wrongdoing—will cause people to be forgiving towards one another.
How can we attain God’s forgiveness? It’s a timely question, considering we have just commemorated Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and asked God for forgiveness for all manner of sins. Yet, the Day of Atonement was originally instituted because humans cannot attain God’s forgiveness, not without a sacrifice.
For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.
God never changed his requirements for atonement. When Jesus died, it was as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of all who trust in him. Like the sacrifices in days of old, through Jesus’ blood, humanity can be reconciled to God, and then to each other.
The assumption here is, as it says in the Tanakh, that vengeance and justice belong to God, not to us. The wrongs that we commit against one another are ultimately wrongs committed against our Creator. This is why when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he responded, “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” He knew that the second couldn’t happen without the first.
It’s a radical concept, especially in the Middle East, and a tall order for anyone to follow.
Yet, these were all things that Lisa, the Jewish woman at the beginning of this article, believed as she tried to nurse her son Asaf back to health. Jesus’ teachings of love and forgiveness were not easy to apply in her life. Her spirit had become a casualty of the Middle East conflict. So she did the only thing she knew to do—she prayed.
“I said, ‘Lord, what do you want from me, don’t you know how hard it is?'”
Then Lisa remembered that when Jesus died on a cross as a sacrifice for humanity’s sins, he was recorded as saying, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”
She realized then that God was intimately acquainted with suffering and pain, as he’d borne it in his own son, Jesus.
So Lisa continued praying, “Abba [Father], please give me your ability [to forgive]…I can’t do it. It’s too big for me, too enormous…give me your compassion.…”
Then, she says, “Something just broke in me, just broke, like you just break a dam, and…it just went.…But then I thought, supposing it’s just words, supposing it really isn’t there…supposing there’s no connection between my mouth and my heart. That I was tested on, a couple of years later.”
Moran had gone from questioning whether or not there was a God to believing wholeheartedly in God and in Jesus’ claims to be the Son of God and his (Moran’s) personal savior from sin. Yet, in his heart, he still distrusted Arab people.
One day in March, 2001, Moran was invited to share his story at a conference attended by Jewish and Arab believers in Jesus. At the podium, he spoke about how his friends were killed by a suicide bomber and about how he had come to believe that Jesus was who he claimed to be.
When he was finished, Moran joined a group of his friends. He was talking with them when he saw an Arab man approaching. The Arab man stood in front of Moran and said, “My name is Tass Abu Saada.” Moran greeted him nicely enough, but inwardly wondered, “What does he want from me?” Then Tass said, “I was a Fatah fighter.” When Moran heard that this man had been with the PLO, he stepped back in shock.
But Tass continued: “But I want to tell you something.”
“Yes?” Moran inquired.
Tass replied, “I want you to know that I love you.” Moran could not believe his ears.
Years earlier, Tass had experienced a radical shift in his feelings towards Jewish people. As a young man who’d been born in Gaza, he’d felt nothing but malice for Jews: “I believed they were the ones who took my land, who stole it from me, so I hated them with a passion.”
His anger drove him to fight with Yasir Arafat’s forces. Years later, when he left for the U.S. and became a successful restauranteur, he brought his hatred with him. He admits to having dreamt of poisoning his Jewish customers.
Eventually, Tass befriended Charlie, a customer who had impressed him with his kindness. Charlie told Tass, a Muslim, that Jesus was God. Tass believed that Jesus was a prophet, but nothing more. So he vehemently disagreed with his new friend. “No way!” said Tass.
But Charlie persisted and went and retrieved his Bible, and set it on the table between himself and Tass. Tass jumped back. “I can’t touch that,” he exclaimed. When his friend asked why, Tass stammered that he had the distinct impression that what lay before them was the word of God. This revelation surprised even Tass, who had never considered the Bible valid. But as Charlie began to read what the Bible says about Jesus, Tass felt a burden lift from him. He experienced an instant peace and joy within himself and began to believe that what the Bible said was true. As days passed and he began to read this book for himself, he was prompted to pray. And what he prayed surprised him:
“Suddenly I heard myself praying for the Jewish people.…I heard myself praying, ‘Lord, bless your chosen ones and take them back to the promised land.’…I started wanting to shut my mouth with my hand…but I couldn’t because it was bubbling inside of me.”
Tass discovered a deep desire to unload the hatred towards Jews that he’d carried for so long. As he remembered Jesus’ words of forgiveness, Tass concluded: “Now that is the model for me. If he can forgive so much, I can forgive so little.”
Tass was invited to share his story at an Arab-Jewish conference, where he saw Moran sharing about his own journey. Tass was compelled to approach Moran and introduce himself as a former Fatah fighter and believer in Jesus.
He told Moran that he loved him and then he asked him for forgiveness in the name of his people for what had happened to Moran’s friends. In that moment, Moran felt his hardness towards Arabs melt and he in turn asked Tass to forgive him for not being able to trust or love Arabs.
Says Moran, “What God has done at that moment…he has lifted that burden away from my shoulders and he gave me love. He gave me so much love.”
Today, these former enemies are best of friends. According to Tass, “When Jews and Palestinians come together in the name of God, the true God…then there is true peace.…If God can do this change in a reckless person’s heart like myself, I believe there is hope for anyone…and it’s not just the conflict in the Middle East; it’s the conflict in their own life.”
Putting Peace to the Test
Lisa felt that God had eased the conflict in her heart and that he had helped her forgive her son’s assailants. But this resolution was tested when one of Asaf’s assailants was apprehended. Asaf was asked to testify against him in court, but as he was still traumatized by what had happened to him, Lisa went to the courthouse in his stead. During a recess, Lisa found herself alone in the courtroom with three security guards and one of the men who had tried to kill her son.
Shaking, she walked over to the man and said, “In the name of Yeshua the Messiah, I forgive you. I forgive you. And I can only do it because my sins have been forgiven me. He’s forgiven me my sins and in his name, I come to you and I forgive your sins.”
That day, Lisa describes herself as being free from the bondage of hatred that is dividing her homeland. Asaf continues to recover and Lisa is planning to visit his attacker in prison, to talk more of a peace long thought forbidden.
Conclusion: No longer forbidden
It might seem impossible that Jews and Arabs—people with such a long history of conflict—could reach peace with one another through Jesus. After all, both Jesus and the book that contains the accounts of his life are usually considered forbidden to both groups of people. In order to achieve this peace, Lisa, Tass, Moran and other Israelis and Palestinians like them have risked many relationships with their respective people.
And yet, where else should we look for a peace that lasts? We’ve seen that humanity’s best efforts to attain peace have been temporary fixes at best. Could it be that our conflicts and problems are not primarily political or social or economical, but spiritual? Is it just possible that if people—Jewish, Arab or other—become reconciled to God, they can truly be reconciled to each other? And if so, is that kind of peace not worth it, even if we have to turn to subjects considered forbidden?