Why I Don’t Like Writing About Israel

israel vs the muslim worldLast week I wrote an impassioned post about the decision of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from three companies (Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett-Packard) that this Church believes are profiting from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. In this post, I addressed separate messages to Jews (let’s try to hear the Presbyterian action as a call for peace and an offer to help) and to Christians (divestment is a sure avenue for Jewish-Christian misunderstanding). I received mostly polite praise from my readers. Elsewhere, my effort to state my point of view did not go as well. I should know better. Israel is a difficult topic for Jewish-Christian dialogue.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, I remember my Aunt telling us about how her some of her Christian friends had visited Israel, and came back with glowing descriptions of their visit to the “Holy Land.” “You mean, you visited Israel,” my Aunt would reply testily. “Yes,” her Christian friends would gush, “the Holy Land!” The talk of “Holy Land” was like fingernails down a blackboard for my Aunt. “Why can’t they call it ‘Israel’?” she’d ask. Even today, when I hear someone use the expression “Holy Land,” I assume either that they are Christians, or that they’re Jews who think they’re talking to Christians, and I’m never sure that they’re talking about the same place I call “Israel.”

Israel is territory, both actual and figurative, that Jews and Christians share with each other (and with Islam), but we don’t see it in close to the same way. One reason for this is that there is something unique about the Jewish relationship to Israel. Judaism can be said to begin there: before there was an altar to G-d, or a promise to make Abram’s descendants as numerous as the stars, or a covenant, or a circumcision, or Torah from Sinai, there was the land. The relationship between Judaism and the land is multi-faceted and complex. Outside the land, we Jews live in galut, meaning “exile,” and Israel becomes something of an ideal, the direction we face when we pray, and the object of many of our prayers. Inside the land, it is more than an ideal. Israel is where we live – 43% of us, by best estimates, a larger percentage than in any other country in the world (the United States is a close second). If we look at percentages of overall population, it’s not even close: we are 74% of Israel’s population, and less than two percent of the population of any other country you can name. The percentage disparity remains the same even if we look at smaller areas outside of Israel that are thought to be Jewish enclaves. For example, there is a significantly higher percentage of Christians in the overall Egyptian population (15-20%) than Jews in the population of metropolitan New York City (9.6%).

There is simply no way that Israel can be as important to Christian participants in dialogue as it is to most Jews. This is where we are, and to a large extent, this is who we are. I hear some Christians say that they can be opposed to Israel without being opposed to Judaism, without being anti-Semitic, but for many Jews this can be true only in a limited technical sense. Of course it is possible to oppose Israeli policy without being anti-Semitic — after all, I oppose Israeli policy all the time, and so do many other Jews. But I find myself at times arguing against positions taken by Christians on Israel that are essentially the same as my own. This is not (just) because I’m naturally contrary. Israel is something like family, figuratively and literally (like many American Jews, I have family living in Israel). There are certain unflattering things you’re willing to say about your family within the family that sound objectionable when said by someone outside the family. And I think nearly all Jews see Christians (even those Christians who express the greatest love for Israel, even those who express unwavering support for hard-line Israeli policies that make me blanch) as people outside of this particular family.

It would be easier if support of or opposition to Israel was merely a question of Jewish pride. It is more than that. It is impossible for most Jews to separate Israel from the question of Jewish survival. The thousands-year old Jewish struggle to survive has left us feeling vulnerable; if we are safe now (the most famous of famous Jewish last words), we have spent too much historical time worrying about survival to give up this feeling any time soon. It would be one thing if the Palestinians had pursued self-determination with a Gandhi-like devotion to nonviolence and a Mandela-like devotion to reconciliation. They did not. Israel has agreed to grant political independence to a neighbor that has historically vowed to destroy us, and has worked to carry out that threat. I do not know of a historical precedent for this – except in those cases where the neighbor won its independence politically, or else convincingly renounced the threat. The fact that Israel withdrew from Gaza and has granted the Palestinian Authority limited autonomy in portions of the West Bank, deserves more positive comment than it has received.

But I’m drifting off-point.

Israel is difficult for Jews to discuss with Christians, because we have more at stake in this discussion than Christians do. Yes, there are a host of other reasons why the discussion is difficult: the long history of Jewish-Christian mistrust, the initial Christian opposition to Zionism, and a Jewish attitude of support for Israel “right or wrong” (an attitude I know well, as it can be directed with considerable vehemence against Jews who oppose Israeli policy) that has been adopted by many on the American Christian right wing. Also, the discussion would be difficult under any circumstances: the question of peace is tied to that of security, the question of self-determination tied to that of self-defense. Everyone has rights, and everyone has been wronged. No one can take anyone else’s word at face value. It is easy to conclude that because the discussion feels impossible, it should not happen. It is easy to conclude that because Israel is a Jewish State, its state should be left to the Jews. It is easy to conclude that good intentions don’t matter, that it’s impossible to strike the right note.

I think the right note is this: people of good will everywhere want peace, left-wing or right, Jew or Christian. If peace is difficult, all the more reason to work together at it. Of all the things Jews might say about peace, one thing is easy to say: help us find peace, and achieve it. We need not argue whether the help is necessary; we can simply ask for it. Then, the Christian response can be, what can we do? We can move from there.

No blame games. No unilateral action. No hand washing. No flag-waving. No recounting of the sins of the fathers. No games of ping-pong, with Bible verses used in place of the ball. Of course, the conversation won’t be easy, but it stands a chance if we repeat the mantra: peace … help. Peace … help. Yes, this may leave on the sidelines those Jews who want peace but aren’t willing to ask for help. Yes, this may leave on the sidelines those Christians who want peace and are determined to do whatever they are going to do (divestment, or something else), regardless of what the rest of us (Jews and Christians) think will be helpful.

I hate talking about Israel, because the required conversation is that easy to get started, and yet we cannot manage to get it started.

  • Thanks again for a great note and an impassioned plea. There are certainly difficult roads here. I did spend 21 days in Israel with my wife in 2010 – it was a formative trip as are all trips in the ancient near east I have found. (My photos are here if you are interested.)

    I note I did not use Holy Land in my opening title, but the Land of the Holy One. Well, what do I know!

    Your article stimulated some notes as I read it. Let’s see if they can stand an editing process:

    the land, the people, the clan, the promises, the potential for exclusion, the invitation to include, the ingathering of the gentiles to the worship of the G-d of Israel. This last is unfortunately not an option that can be ignored – hence the other side of the promises, the obligations – the stranger in the land – even one who does not practice the required hospitality. I have such a stranger in my family – damaged, but requiring from me a response I would rather not have to give. The calling of HaShem is not removed from us and it carries a considerable burden.

    As for Christians in Egypt or even in America – percentages don’t tell the story. I know the one is Coptic and probably others, but my connection with them is slight. I ‘know’ the Americans – more denominations than I can count. Christians as a tribe represent to the Jew / Israelite a fragmented iceberg. How can we all respond to each other in the way that HaShem wishes to respond to us? With promise, redemption, the land that we are made of, our humanity, a family that is whole and while hard and demanding, also forgiving – like G-d. Who is outside this family? Are Abraham’s descendants only those of Isaac and Jacob and Judah? Are the hard-right Americans the only representatives of North American Christians?

    You are passionate all right – and so be it. (Psalm 18:1). Don’t give it up for a minute. I think you should read a psalm a day – and note how often someone ‘outside’ the family, plays a role ‘in the family’. Psalm 106:4 is a prayer I take to heart – yet it introduces the body of a psalm that is all about Israel.

    remember me יהוה
    in the acceptance of your people
    visit me in your salvation
    to see the good of your chosen
    to be glad in the gladness of your nation
    to praise with your inheritance

    • Bob, just reading through the bullet points of your pictorial index has left me exhausted. My itinerary usually looks like, spent two days recovering from jet lag, explored hotel breakfast buffet, walked around block to see what was there, nap, afternoon to a museum, look at art for 30 minutes, cafe and cake at museum restaurant, another 15 minutes at cafe, study map to figure out how to get back to hotel, get lost anyway, dinner someplace with a bar or good wine list, fall asleep before dessert.

      But like you, I have an emotional response to everything in Israel. I tried to capture this in my multi-part series earlier this year.

      Your comment and Jade’s speak to each other. Yes, there is a dance in religious thought between inclusion and exclusion, but your comment about people outside of the family is very wise. Every family needs friends from outside of the family, and no family survives without new members and resources from the outside.

      • I do recall just how organized we were that trip. I still have the old camera and netbook computer we used every night to transfer our pictures and caption them and post the blog daily. Astonishing really now that I think about it.

        On the subject you have raised, I am just translating Genesis 24 – for fun! And the blessing of Laban’s household to their sister Rebekah is really quite telling. She could be writing your blog: may your seed possess even the gate of those who hate them. The object particle is given a reciting note of its own – so I translated it as ‘even’ for its emphasis. But this is a strange blessing. What a prayer we require!

  • Jade

    “Israel is something like family, figuratively and literally (like many
    American Jews, I have family living in Israel). There are certain
    unflattering things you’re willing to say about your family within the family that sound objectionable when said by someone outside
    the family. And I think nearly all Jews see Christians (even those
    Christians who express the greatest love for Israel, even those who
    express unwavering support for hard-line Israeli policies that make me
    blanch) as people outside of this particular family.”

    I think a lot of ethnic groups can relate to this feeling. I definitely KNOW I can. Honestly, I hate hearing people outside my race/ethnic group criticize my own EVEN when I would 100% agree with their opinion if it came from the mouths of my own. LOL! So I 100% see where you are coming from here. I must say, I sometimes chuckle when I hear European South Africans, Australians, New Zealanders, and European South Americans condemn Israelis for occupying “territory that is not their own.” But that’s a whole ‘nother discussion that I won’t go into.

    My question to you is this: How do Christians reconcile not speaking/involving themselves with an issue that may not have ANYTHING to do with us personally with certain Jewish organizations enjoining Christians ( well, Western/White Christians) to support Israel? Like how do Christians support peace between Israel and Palestine when many feel since many of us aren’t Israeli/Jewish nor Palestinian, it’s none of our business?

    • Jade, I’m glad you see something in my experience that is like your own. I’m also glad you see the irony in American Presbyterians standing on land conquered from American Indians, and criticizing Israel’s delay in returning land to Palestinians. Something about beams and splinters comes to mind, though it may not be politic for me to lecture any of my Christian friends from the New Testament!

      Can I respond to a question with a question? What Jewish organizations do you encounter that urge Christians to support Israel? I’m well aware of organizations like AIPAC that lobby for U.S. government support of Israel, but I’m not aware of Jewish groups that push for church support of Israel. Honestly, this is something I’ve never looked into. Can you tell me what you’ve seen?

      • Jade

        I’ve noticed a sharp increase in “pro-Israel” programming on Christian television and radio. I don’t know many specifically by name, by they are mainly interfaith organizations and groups like “International Fellowship of Christian and Jews.”

        • Jade, sorry for the delay here. The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews is an unusual and highly controversial group in the Jewish world. Its leader, Yechiel Eckstein, is also quite controversial. This organization works like you’ve said: they target evangelical Christians using ads on Christian television networks, portraying Jews as suffering from poverty and needing Christian help to survive.The organization raises a ton of money — over $100 million a year.

          Eckstein’s targeting of Christian evangelicals is not liked in many quarters of the Jewish world. There are many Jews in Israel who refuse his help, feeling that he intentionally or unintentionally encourages Christian efforts to convert Jews to Christianity. Other Jews are wary of how Eckstein courts the religious right. Many feel that he exaggerates Jewish poverty and need, making us look weak and unable to survive without Christian help. But his charity appears to be highly rated, and I think it would be in the top 10 of U.S. Jewish charities in terms of money raised, assuming that his charity would be counted as “Jewish.” But from what I’ve seen, American Jews contribute more than $1 billion a year to charitable efforts in Israel — so we can still say that we Jews are helping our own.

          In any event … I’m not here to give Eckstein an endorsement, or to criticize him. I’m here to say that he’s not typical. From my standpoint, he may be doing great work, but he’s doing it largely on his own. He’s a Jewish voice but I would not regard him as speaking for me or for most American Jews. There is, to my knowledge, no mainstream consensus Jewish effort aimed at telling Christians that they should offer private financial support to Israel. Of course, American Jews ARE widely active in convincing all Americans that Israel is a good friend to the United States and deserves U.S. support.

          Does this answer your question? I’m not sure it does.

          Below are some links to Eckstein and one about Jewish charitable giving.

          http://jewishisrael.ning.com/profiles/blogs/eckstein-s-ifcj-continues-to-be-a-source-of-controversy-for-jewis

          http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/israel-s-money-man-gets-funds-for-holy-land-from-evangelical-christians.premium-1.481652

          http://forward.com/articles/194978/-billion-bucks-the-jewish-charity-industry-unco/?p=all

          There is a bigger question, if we put Eckstein to one side: should American Christians as Christians be interested in peace in Israel?

          • Jade

            “should American Christians as Christians be interested in peace in Israel?”

            This is what I’m asking you. You never really answered my second question:
            “How do Christians support peace between Israel and Palestine when
            many feel since many of us aren’t Israeli/Jewish nor Palestinian, it’s
            none of our business?” which was in response to your comment:

            “Of all the things Jews might say about peace, one thing is easy to say:
            help us find peace, and achieve it. We need not argue whether the help
            is necessary; we can simply ask for it.”

            I mean you said “the initial Christian opposition to Zionism…” as something that was problematic. Why would Christians support Zionism if they shouldn’t have any “dog in the fight” in discussing the issue? What if achieving peace meant sometimes being critical to Israel along with Palestine?

            • Jade, you’re right, I did not answer all of your questions. I think I’ll tackle them in the reverse order you asked them in your latest comment.

              Achieving peace DOES mean sometimes being critical of Israel. Absolutely. I’m hoping that this criticism comes as part of Jewish-Christian friendship, and that the criticism is constructive. But if the choice is between peace and unconditional praise, let’s choose peace.

              Why should Christians support Zionism if they don’t have a “dog in the fight”? This is a complicated question. I raised the matter of “the initial Christian opposition to Zionism” because it colors actions such as the Presbyterian divestment, and is part of what makes talking about Israel so difficult. As to whether Christians SHOULD support Zionism … well, in a vacuum, I could not argue against a neutral position, or an apathetic position. I mean, I don’t have a strong view on the right of the Chinese to live in China, or the French to live in France, so why must every Christian have an opinion on the right of Jews to live in Israel?

              There might be a Christian response to this question that says Israel is important to Christians as Christians. Israel was important to Jesus. Romans 11 pictures Christian justification using the metaphor of wild branches being grafted onto the root of Israel. Israel is an important theme throughout the Bible, and modern scholars like N.T. Wright see the story of Christianity as a continuation (indeed, the fulfillment) of Israel’s story. Of course, it’s possible to see the Biblical Israel as separate from the modern Jewish State of Israel, and indeed, the modern State of Israel is either something different or something more than the Christian idea of Israel. This difference is what I tried to describe above; it is part of what makes it hard for us to discuss Israel.

              The question gets more complicated if we shift our focus to particular groups of Christians (such as the White European Christians you’ve mentioned) at particular times in history (such as in the aftermath of the Holocaust), or if we look at Christianity in general. The reason that the largest population of Jews in the world is located today in Israel has everything to do with the actions of some Christians and much of organized institutional Christianity. The reason that Jews are surrounded by hostile Arab neighbors, and that there’s no widely accepted political solution to the troubles in Israel and Palestine, has everything to do with the careless way the Christian West set up Israel as a state and then (certainly for the first 20 years of its existence) adopted positions wavering between neutrality towards the region and support of the Arab states that sought Israel’s destruction. It’s a more complicated matter for a person or organization to deny interest in the problems of a region of the world, when that person or organization is in part responsible for those problems.

              But I think your focus is on today, on individual Christians, living outside of Europe, who had nothing to do with Western anti-Judaism or the failure to either co-exist with Jews or find them a safe and secure homeland. So no, there’s no reason for every Christian in the world to care passionately about Israel. I’m FINE with Christians not caring one way or the other, or with Christians deciding that Israel is none of their business. In any event, my experience tells me that Israel IS important to many Christians. But whether Israel should be important to ALL Christians is, to use your phrase, none of my business.

              This leaves us with your first question, the most difficult one. I think we’re all generally interested in peace everywhere. I think that Jesus’ message is commonly understood as a message of peace. Peacemakers are blessed in the Christian tradition. So it may sound strange to say so, but I can picture Christians being interested in peace in Israel, without being interested in Israel. Does this mean that every Christian has to help in the peace process? No, I don’t think so. There are many other Christian things for Christians to do. Moreover, a Christian might hope for peace AND decide to leave the peace process to the combatants.

              My posts have been written in response to Presbyterian divestment. My call for dialogue on peace was issued in this context, to Christians who have already decided to get involved. I said that Christians who want to get involved need to see the bigger historical context, and that they can most constructively get involved (in my humble opinion!) in the ways I suggested. Does this mean that every Christian should get involved? It’s not for me to say, but I think the answer is “no.” Neutrality is, I think, an acceptable option.

              But I’m here for dialogue, not to answer questions! I purposely did not answer all your questions the first time you asked them, so that we might have a little back and forth. I’d much appreciate any reaction you have to what I’ve written here. And thanks for participating.

              • Jade

                I really enjoyed your reply. I really appreciate this site for the insight that it brings.

  • Claire Gebben

    Intriguing post and discussion. You’re right, Larry, it’s incredibly hard to talk about Israel. The idea of the land <> as you phrased it, got me thinking in terms of Christians and territory. How do we view it? The Christian relationship is entirely different to the land, spiritually speaking, with the shift in thinking regarding the temple described in I Cor. 3:16-17 — that the temple is now within each of us, and among Christians wherever we gather as a congregation. So Christians just don’t realize, and therefore have difficulty appreciating, the importance of the concept of land in the Judaic ethos. You’ve put it in such a way that I feel much closer to understanding zionism than I ever have. Thank you.

    When it comes to the Presbyterian call for divestment, I see this action as an attempt to follow the legacy of Jesus (by some interpretations), the thinking that God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed. However, the action feels misguided for at least a couple of reasons. First, in regard to Israel and the West Bank, it seems to me Jews as well as the Palestinians are being oppressed. So how does it help to take sides? Second, while divestment may have influenced the dismantling of Apartheid, that was an entirely different set of circumstances. It feels a bit formulaic, not taking the complexities into account. Withholding our money isn’t entering into the discussion, isn’t seeking out ways to coexist with equanimity and respect. Not that I have any answers. I applaud your call for peace …. help. You’ve inspired me to enter the discussion.

    • Claire, thanks. I think you’ve understood what I tried to say.

      • Claire Gebben

        Oh, I should add that I’m not Presbyterian 🙂 which in an odd way figures into this whole thing. Taking sides has a track record of leading to divisiveness and aggression. And btw, I figured out how to remove those weird symbols — I thought it came from cutting and pasting, but it turns out it was caused by “<>” to demarcate a quote, so I’ve removed those.

  • Stephanie Barbé Hammer

    Thanks for this post and for the many wonderful comments and conversations that have emerged from it. I have to admit that for a very long time, I did not really understand what the big “deal” was about Israel. I remember having a very odd argument with a Jewish man I was seeing in the 70’s about Israel, because I couldn’t understand why the country was so important and why Jewish people felt so intensely about it. He couldn’t articulate it to me — at that time a non-Jew — in a way that I could understand. I think it was only recently when I talked with friends who are Israeli intellectuals, that I finally began to glimpse the history and interpretation that you outline here.