Reflections on the Land of Israel

Several years ago I had the privilege of taking a dozen Western Seminary students to Israel to participate in three-week study program at Jerusalem University College. We had a wonderful experience of touring the land, visiting the biblical sites, and learning about the geography, history, and culture of the biblical world. Having taking many students to Israel over the last ten years, I am convinced that a study program in Israel is one of the
best investments a Christian can make to prepare for studying and teaching the Bible.

 There were many special highlights during the trip–visiting Bethlehem two days after a 30-day siege at the Church of the Nativity; a hike into the wilderness of Judea; and an evening communion service on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. But one of the most educational and instructive experiences was an opportunity toward the end of our visit to discuss the controversy over the Holy Land with representatives of the people who live

there–a Jew, an Arab, and a Palestinian Christian.

Jonathon Kaplan is a Jew from the United States who immigrated to Israel as a young man, became an Israeli citizen and has served in the Israeli army.  Jon gave us a stirring lecture on the history of the Holy Land since the Roman period, highlighting Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. He took us to Castel, the site of fierce fighting between the Israelis and the Arabs as both groups sought to control the road leading from the coast to Jerusalem. John explained that the Jews who had survived the holocaust had established the State of Israel as a refuge for all Jewish people facing anti-Semitism and persecution throughout the world. He explained that much of the land now called Israel was purchased from absentee landlords for the purpose of establishing Israeli settlements in Israel. Other parts of the land were conquered by warfare. And parts were annexed to the State of Israel after Jordan abandoned any claim to the West Bank territory.

Jon, and many Jews like him, believe that the Jewish people have an absolute right to the land of Israel. These Israelis are prepared to fight and die for this land, for, as Jon said, “We have nowhere else to go.”

Issa Jaber is an Israeli Arab, a Moslem, who received his citizenship when he found himself living in Israel after the War of Independence in 1948. He resides in the city of Abu Gosh, a prosperous community which boasts a blended population of Jews, Arabs and Christians. Issa is involved community politics and gives leadership to an organization which works for tolerance and coexistence among Moslems, Jews, and Christians. He notes that in spite of Arab-Israeli conflict and violence in the surrounding
regions, there has been no such problems in Abu Gosh.

Living within the State of Israel has been good for Arabs who are fortunate enough to possess Israeli citizenship. They have freedom to travel, voting rights, and opportunities which are denied Arabs living in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. And the existence of a peaceful, Arab city very near Jerusalem has been good for Israeli Jews. On the day we visited Abu Gosh we saw Jews filling Arab restaurants for a Sabbath lunch. Arab food is delicious and the Arab waiters are the world’s leading experts in hospitality and food
service. Yes, the falafels–filled with lettuce, pickles and humus–were delicious!

Issa acknowledge the problem of extremists on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but he did not want to dwell on this subject long. The main point of his visit with us is that the community of Abu Gosh demonstrates that it is possible for Arabs and Jews to live together in peace and enjoy a mutual benefit from a multi-cultural co-existence.

Dr. Alex Awad is a Palestinian Christian, educated in the United States, who serves as a teacher and administrator at Bethlehem Bible College. Alex experienced the suffering and personal tragedy resulting from the Arab-Israeli conflict when his own father was killed in the fighting that followed Israel’s declaration of statehood in 1948. More recently, he has experienced the suffering of Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem when the Israeli Defense Force has entered the city, imposed curfews, and attacked  suspected terrorists.

Sadly, Christians are often caught in the middle of the Arab-Israeli conflict and suffer greatly. Many have lost their jobs and sources of income as violence has paralyzed the economy and frightened away tourists. One Palestinian Christian I met had fled from his home because of shelling and shooting between militant Palestinians and Israelis. I asked what hope he had for a better situation for his family. He replied, “There is no future here.
The only hope for my family is to immigrate to America.”

Alex places the blame for the current conflict squarely on the State of Israel. “Building Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories is the ultimate terrorism,” he says. He goes on to blame the U.S. for supporting Israel and for failing to solve the problems of the Palestinians.

It is easy to be an expert on the issues confronting the Jews, Arabs, and Palestinians in the Holy Land . . . until you meet them and hear their stories. The Jews suffered in Europe during the holocaust. The Arabs suffered the loss of homes and property when Israel became a State. Palestinians, both Christian and Moslem, continue to suffer due to oppressive and sometimes excessive measures taking by the Israelis in defense of Jewish
civilians and settlers.

I asked Rida Abdeen, a Moslem shop keeper in the Old City of Jerusalem, for his solution to the problem. He identified three issues that must be resolved before the Arabs will make peace with Israel.  First, Israel must stop building homes and settlements in Palestinian (West Bank) territories and give back the lands that have been taken. Second, Israel must grant Palestinians authority over the Old City of Jerusalem. Third, Israel must allow the refugees from the War of Independence and Six Day War the right
to return to their lands or be compensated for their losses.

What solution do the Jews suggest? They are desperate for an end to the bombings and violence.  A physical barrier–a fence–is currently being built to seal off Israel from Arab occupied regions and protect Israeli citizens from terrorists attacks. Should Israel give the West Bank to the Arabs? Jonathan Kaplan’s answer is a resounding, “No! They fought us
and lost the war.”  While some Israeli Jews are willing to give up “land for peace,” the recent years of suicide bombings have dampened the peace movement. Jewish settlers demand all of “Judea and Samaria” (the West Bank) as the land promised by God to His people. The Israeli Jews are united in their unwillingness to consider giving up the Old City of Jerusalem.

I asked a Palestinian Christian the same question, “What is the solution to the problem,” and he replied, “The Second Coming of Jesus.” I have to agree with him. The coming of the Lord is the ultimate solution to this problem. For when Jesus comes, he will inaugurate a kingdom which will protect the rights and interests of everyone. Yes, God promised the Holy Land to the people of Israel (Gen. 12:1. 13:15. 15:18). But they will receive that Land when they become a repentant, believing people (Ezek. 36:24-28, Jer.
31:31-40).  That hasn’t happened yet. And when God grants the Promised Land to Israel, He will do it with justice and fairness for all peoples, including the resident aliens who live among the people of Israel (Ezek. 47:22).

As visitors in the Holy Land, how should we relate to the Israelis and Arabs (both Moslem and Christian) who are engaged in this conflict?   First, recognize that there are two sides to every conflict. As visitors and observers, we need to keep our eyes and ears open and our mouth mostly shut. Try to learn from each person you speak with about this conflict.
Second, recognize that both the Arabs and the Jews have historic family roots in the land. Many Arabs and Jews can trace their family roots back hundreds of years. Third, recognize that both the Arabs (both Christian and Moslem) and the Jews have suffered considerably through this conflict. Many have lost family members. This is an emotional and personal issue, not just political or religious.  Fourth, remember that while God has
promised the land to Israel for duration of the Millennium, Israel today is a secular, unbelieving State. When God grants the Land to his believing people, it will be with justice and consideration for all the residents in the land, both Jewish and non-Jewish. We should be careful not to expect kingdom conditions to prevail in this present church age.  Fifth, appreciate the fact that there are no simple solutions to this issue. The problem is
unbelievably complex and intensely emotional. It will take strong and courageous leadership to bring about a peaceful resolution to this conflict in our day.  Finally, as the psalmist said, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6). And let’s especially remember to pray our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters who have suffered greatly as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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