Bridges in the Desert by Jonathan Partridge Photography by Barry Rodriguez
10 PRISM Magazine
All images courtesy of Barry Rodriguez, WorldNextDoor.org
Musalaha helps Christians in the Holy Land tread the road to reconciliation Crammed into the murky interior of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, thousands of pilgrims gather each year to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection in the place where Christians traditionally believe he emerged from the tomb. As fingers of “holy fire” protrude from the edicule—the ornate chamber believed to be the place where Christ was buried—priests from various Orthodox Christian groups practically wrestle to get their candles lit first, thrusting their fists into the air if their wicks are ignited before those of their “brothers” from other denominations. Jesus’ declaration that the last shall be first and the first last appears lost amidst the temporary chaos. Yet by the end of the ceremony, believers in Christ from across the planet will raise their candles in unity, illuminating the church in a moving reminder that the Light of the World has come to earth. Like an animated icon, the annual event portrays the church in all its splendor and shame in a land known both for sacred beauty and brutal warfare. The strife inside the building also hints at the ongoing tensions between ethnic Palestinian Arab and Jewish Christ-followers outside the church’s walls. Despite the unity of faith in Jesus as Lord and Messiah shared by these believers, they are often sharply divided by ethnicity, politics, and scriptural interpretation regarding the modern nation of Israel. Both Palestinian Chris-
Despite the unity of faith in Jesus as Lord and Messiah shared by the Palestinian and Israeli believers, they are often sharply divided by ethnicity, politics, and scriptural interpretation regarding the modern nation of Israel.
tians and Messianic Jews suffer persecution in the Holy Land; however, Jews who believe in Jesus tend to believe that all of the Holy Land, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, should be part of the modern nation of Israel, while Palestinian Arabs tend to favor Palestinian self-determination. Most Jewish believers also contend that biblical prophecies support the creation of the modern nation of Israel, while most Palestinian Christians believe the church has replaced political Israel as the recipient of God’s promises. The decades-long debate over who should control the Holy Land has received more international attention lately as the Palestinian Authority has sought statehood recognition from the United Nations, but not much has changed on the ground. The daily realities of military incursions, land confiscation, and sometimes indiscriminate jailing and assaults associated with military occupation continue, only exacerbating the tension for Palestinian believers, while missile strikes, bus bombings, and the fear of another Holocaust have the same effect on Israeli Jews. Christians in Western countries often make matters worse by taking sides and claiming that the Bible supports their position. Yet amidst the turbulence, a homegrown movement is afoot to bridge the divide among Christ’s followers in the Middle East. Among a handful of reconciliation efforts, including day camps, schools, and church gatherings, Jerusalem-based Musalaha has made the most waves over the past two decades, bridging the gap among Palestinian Christians and Israeli Messianic Jews through desert encounters and other ventures that foster understanding and build trust. Named after the Arabic word for
reconciliation, Musalaha is directed by Palestinian Christian and Israeli citizen Salim Munayer and is staffed by Jewish, Palestinian Arab, and international believers in Christ. Advocates say participants have experienced the miracle of unity with their Palestinian and Israeli brothers and sisters in Christ and have gained a better understanding of their commonalities. In time, they hope to see even greater changes from such efforts, such as deeper dialogue about theology. “There are always strains, always tensions,” says Evan Thomas, a Messianic pastor who serves as Musalaha’s chairman. “There are always those who are reluctant to let go of their pet theology or those who have a very strong right-wing, politically oriented theology who feel that they would be so threatened to think that Israel could do any wrong or, on the other side, those who would not be able to cope with any challenges to Palestinians’ political aspirations. But there is a large mainstream from both communities that are looking for the Father’s heart and actually desire to have fellowship with one another.”
Sojourning in the wilderness
No one can deny that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a complex matter, and followers of Christ who live in the Middle East are entangled in the quagmire. To get a grasp of the tension that divides Jewish and Palestinian Arab Christians, one need look no further than an organized encounter between the two groups in the summer of 1989. Munayer, who was on hand to participate and translate at the event, recalls how a “disaster” ensued after a huge political argument broke out.
“People approached each other not as brothers and sisters in the Lord; they approached each other as a theological sword,” Munayer recalls. With hindsight, organizers should have focused on building relations and trust between participants before delving into political topics, Munayer says. The experience, which helped him and others realize how much reconciliation was needed, prompted the creation of Musalaha. The group aims to give Palestinian and Jewish Christ-followers a deeper understanding of the unity found in Christ promised in Scripture as they get to know and worship with their natural enemies. Musalaha officially got underway when Munayer and Evan Thomas, who pastors a Messianic congregation in Israel and now serves as the group’s chairman, decided to promote unity among local Christians by taking Jewish and Palestinian believers outside of their comfort zones on a desert venture. “In the desert everyone is equal,” Munayer explained. “There is a balance of power. In the desert everyone struggles with the conditions of the desert, and people work together to get through it.” Participants were forced to lean on each other for basic necessities such as food and water in that harsh environment, and neither group had a natural advantage, Thomas says. Bonds began to form despite the surrounding conflict, and participants were able to honestly address the reasons for tension, including differences in theology and animosity related to the Israeli-Palestinian fracas itself. The vision they shared with other local Christian leaders has expanded in the past two decades to include such programs as sports camps and women’s and youth ministries. There have been plenty of challenges along the way. Relations among some program participants have cooled during periods when political tensions became strong, according to Musalaha’s leaders. Over time, participants on both sides have needed to deal with longstanding racial sentiments and mutual demonization.
should possess the Holy Land. Like other Christian Zionists, most Messianic believers who are interested in peace and reconciliation believe God is restoring the Jewish people to the land of Israel as their biblical inheritance, though some also question military policies. Thomas not only sees his longing for Israel as part of his Jewish heritage; it’s also part of his Christian journey. He grew up as a secular Jew in New Zealand and developed a yearning for his Jewish roots after coming to faith in Christ in 1978. That prompted him to move to Israel in 1983. “Coming to know Y’shua, the Hebrew name for Jesus, also entailed coming to know my Jewishness,” he says. “Without inside influences, I also felt a deep calling toward the land and my birthright.” Thomas noted that most Messianic believers like himself are opposed to a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, while most Palestinians favor such a solution. He made it clear that he believed Palestinians need to "In the desert, everyone is equal."
Perspectives in contrast
Much of the tension among Jewish and Palestinian Arab believers in Christ these days stems from political differences and theological disputes regarding who
be treated with dignity, but he hoped that would happen within a single state of Israel. The Messianic pastor believes that many biblical prophecies point to a regathering of the Jewish people in biblical Israel. For example, he cited prophecies in Jeremiah 31 that state that God will gather the remnant of Israel from the north and from the ends of the earth and bring them back to biblical Israel and in Ezekiel 36 where the prophet says that Israel’s towns will be rebuilt and that God will put his spirit in the hearts of the people. Thomas says his understanding of the Bible has impacted his understanding of the political situation in the Holy Land, though he and Munayer have come to contrasting conclusions.
Munayer believes that although the promises of the New Testament have not taken away the importance of the Holy Land, those promises have expanded to cover the whole earth. While some Messianic believers say they strive to take an apolitical stance—even as they support Israel as a fulfillment of prophecy—Munayer takes issue with the view that one must avoid politics when delving into theological issues. When it comes to theological views about biblical lands, politics are unavoidable, he says. “Everything in this country is politics,” he says. “The theological views of the end time and justice are political. “I think many times the dominant group wants to define what is theological and what is political,” he adds.
SEEKING UNITY IN Musalaha (Musalaha.org) may be the most prominent Christian group that is intentionally bringing together Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East; however, the vision for reconciliation takes many shapes and forms in the land of the Holy One. Here are some other groups that are working in the name of Christ either to unite fellow believers or to promote love of one’s neighbor in Israel and the Palestinian territories. House of Light (HouseofLight.net) is a Christian ministry based in the Arab village of Shefa-Amer in Israel’s Galilee region that includes a ministry to prisoners, Bible studies, worship gatherings, and a renowned youth program. Its year-round King’s Kids program brings together Arab Christian and Messianic Jewish children and teens for worship, Bible studies, and games and provides an opportunity to learn dances and pantomimes with Christian music. Participants then perform these routines as a means of sharing
“If you have a basic theology of restoration of the Jewish people to the land, it’s obviously going to affect your political perspective as well,” he says. On the other hand, Palestinians and supporters of a two-state solution often take issue with predominate Zionist perspectives in evangelical churches. Palestinian Arabs—including Palestinian Christians—typically agree that they were unfairly driven from their land in 1948, and they oppose Israeli policies both in Israel and the Palestinian territories that treat Palestinian Arabs unjustly. In the West Bank, they note that there are separate roads for Palestinians and for Israeli settlers, while land confiscation abounds and military checkpoints impede daily life.
their faith. House of Light also is involved in a monthly prayer meeting run by Arab and Jewish ministers that aims to strengthen the body of Christ. HOPE (House of Prayer and Exploits; Hope-Nazareth. org) is a Nazareth-based Christian ministry and training center that aims to raise up prayer warriors in the Nazareth and Galilee regions with a special focus on equipping Arab women for ministry. The organization co-hosts the annual Global Day of Prayer, an event that includes Messianic Jewish and Palestinian Christian congregations in Israel. Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary (NazarethSeminary.org), an independent, interdenominational evangelical seminary affiliated with the Association of Baptist Churches in Israel, has made reconciliation between Palestinian and Messianic Jewish believers in Christ one of its core values. Its department of intercultural studies has a
“That doesn’t work.”
The bumpy road to reconciliation
So how can two groups divided by both theology and politics find common ground? The answer is found in Christ’s work of reconciliation on the cross, according to Christians involved in bridge-building efforts. “Justification is not merely an event for the individual but rather a radically social and relational one,” Munayer says. Like the cross itself, the path to reconciliation comes at a personal cost and is painful, participants say. And while Scripture proclaims that Christ has removed the barrier between Jews and Gentiles, it takes time for traditional
political enemies to experience that reality first hand. “People don’t want to embrace the other side,” Munayer says. “It’s like the stage that boys go through when they don’t want to play with girls.” Initially, Israeli Jewish and Palestinian Arab believers may need encouragement to connect, but when they finally do, they enjoy getting to know one another and learning about each other, Munayer says. Israeli Jews are often surprised by Palestinian grievances and charges against the Israelis and by their political and theological opinions. This can lead Israelis to withdraw and state their own accusations against the Palestinians. People on both sides accuse the other of ignoring reality and biblical truths, Munayer says.
Pathways to peace
Though there are certainly trends among those who dedicate themselves to reconciliation efforts, everyone’s journey is ultimately as unique as their reasons for wanting to get involved. Thomas’ quest for reconciliation came after his military experience in the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the First Intifada prompted him to rethink some Israeli military policies. He came to grapple with biblical passages such as 1 John 4:20, which states that anyone who claims to love God and yet hates his brother is deemed a liar, and Ephesians 2, which states that Christ has destroyed the barrier between Jews and Gentiles. Now, he says his theology is informed by a biblical Zionism that seeks the good of all who dwell in the Holy Land.
A TROUBLED LAND Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice (PCPJ.org) has sent delegations to the Holy Land to meet with Palestinians, Messianic Jews, and Jewish settlers alike. The group of Pentecostals and charismatic Christians seeks a just peace for all who live in Israel and the Palestinian territories and engages in dialogue with other evangelicals in Israel about the theology of the land. Most denominations to which PCPJ members belong hold a predominately pro-Zionist dispensational view regarding the modern nation of Israel, seeing it as the modern fulfillment of biblical prophecy. PCPJ founder (and ESA public policy director) Paul Alexander says he grew up with a very one-sided proZionist perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, and he and others hope these trips will provide a more balanced view. (See Alexander’s article on page 28.)
Shevet Achim (Shevet.org) employs healthcare as a bridge between Jews, Muslims, and Christians since its inception, using Israeli doctors to conduct heart operations on children from predominately Muslim areas such as the Gaza Strip, Jordan, and Iraq. The name of the organization means unity between brothers and is derived from Psalm 133:1, which states, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity.” Shevet Achim applies this passage to the fractured relationship between Isaac and Ishmael (representing Jews and Muslims) in the Middle East. With the help of Israeli hospitals and international donors, Shevet Achim has sponsored operations on many Arab youths over the years with the aim of building bridges while saving children’s lives. “I’d like to think what we’re doing is a small act of a prophetic sign of people crossing barriers, with borders coming down and hearts ccoming together,” says the group’s international coordinator, Jonathan Miles.
But those who reach maturity begin to understand that both sides have genuine grievances and both sides contribute to the conflict, he says. They come to recognize that they must restore the relationships between the two peoples and work to do so. They experience personal and spiritual growth by learning about one another’s different histories and theological perspectives. When it comes to the work of bringing together Palestinian and Jewish followers of Christ, it’s often three steps forward and two steps back, Thomas says. He notes that there are some believers who are opposed to such efforts, but he believes Christians with such extreme positions are in the minority.
For Munayer, who grew up as a Greek Orthodox Christian, the cross’ role in reconciliation became apparent during a Bible study led by his uncle that contained Messianic Jewish and Palestinian believers. That same study not only led him into his life’s calling of working to bridge the gap with Jewish believers in Christ, it also became the place where he developed a personal relationship with Jesus, he says. In more recent years, many people have begun that journey through more organized efforts. Shadia Qubti, who now serves as a camp director for Musalaha, had never even heard of Jews who believed in Jesus before attending a young adult desert trip in Jordan at age 19.
focus on reconciliation ministry in addition to other subjects such as Holy Land studies, Islam, and Judaism.
“If the gospel is not able to overcome the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then it is not the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”
“I did not meet Messianic Jews at any other event before, although I live in Israel,” Qubti says. “This is partly due to the separated nature of the communities here—Palestinians and Jews in Israel as a whole, and as a church.” Though she says she felt threatened at first by the Israeli Jews who participated in that trip, perceiving them as her enemy, she found a deep connection with a Messianic believer during her final day in the desert. The trip has led her on a lifetime journey of reconciliation as a staff member of Musalaha. Today she says she no longer feels threatened by Jewish followers of Christ, as she perceives them as her brothers and sisters, first and foremost, despite disputes about some theological and political issues. “It no longer is an issue what nationality they are, because the church of God is one that embraces everyone,” she says. “Just like in any other family, siblings disagree, but we are still a family. This is what helps me in times where there are issues of disagreement with Messianic believers.”
Mustard seed movements
Critics of dialogue efforts carried out by groups such as Musalaha often say those efforts fail to produce any tangible or meaningful results, and some Messianic believers have criticized the group for having a hidden “pro-Palestinian” agenda. But advocates for reconciliation say they have witnessed powerful impacts among Jewish and Palestinian
believers that often can be an example to others as well. Thomas fondly recalls a time when people who had watched him and Munayer give a joint presentation in Basil, Switzerland, told the two men that if Israeli Jews and Palestinians could be reconciled, then they could put aside disputes in their own lives. He also recalls a time when some Muslim girls who tagged along with a Palestinian Christian gave their heart to Christ after seeing the Arab and Jewish believers come together. Today Musalaha is expanding its vision to include Muslims and Jews who do not worship Christ. Although there is a unique aspect of reconciliation among fellow Christians, it is also important to seek peace with people
of other faiths inasmuch as it is possible, Munayer says. So far, Musalaha’s work in that regard has entailed sports camps with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish youths as well as a Muslim-Christian desert encounter experience. “There’s a growing tension among Christians and Muslims worldwide,” Munayer says. “We realize that we have to address it.” Other Christians worldwide have taken note of such peacemaking work. The Lausanne Movement missions conference in Cape Town, South Africa, in December 2010 featured a huge emphasis on reconciliation, including work between Jews and Palestinians. During one occasion, Qubti and Messianic believer Dan Sered of Jews for Jesus talked and prayed together in front of hundreds of attendees. David Brickner, executive director of Jews for Jesus, recalled another night at the event when some attendees prepared to gather in a room to pray for Israel and others to pray for Palestine. Upon seeing one another, the believers decided to assemble for a joint time of prayer. Brickner described the event as a beautiful image of what can happen in Christ. He expressed
The two sets of believers have far more in common than not, Brickner says. As a result, he says he is willing to set aside theological differences about eschatology when dialoguing with Palestinian Christians. Likewise, Munayer has taken risks for the sake of reconciliation by saying positive things about Israelis, Brickner says. “We recognize within the church in general that there are both essential and secondary and denominational issues,” he says. “We don’t have to agree on nonessentials in order to break bread, and we’re willing to worship together.”
While Scripture proclaims that Christ has removed the barrier between Jews and Gentiles, it takes time for traditional political enemies to experience that reality first hand. hope that such expressions of love can ultimately attract people to Jesus. “I can’t imagine why people don’t see that reconciliation is the theme of the gospel itself,” Brickner says. “If the gospel is not able to overcome any matter including the IsraeliPalestinian conflict, then it is not the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Arab and Messianic believers in Christ have a shared legacy as minorities within their communities, Brickner says. Though he did not want to compare suffering between the two groups, he recounted how Messianic Jews are denied citizenship and persecuted while Palestinian Christians in Israel at times suffer from Palestinian Muslims as a minority among minorities and also from Israeli Jews because of anti-Arab sentiments.
For those who are in Christ, reconciliation is not just a feel-good activity, it’s a biblical mandate. It’s the reason that Spirit-filled believers in the Holy Land continue to work diligently toward bridging the gap between Jews and Palestinians, particularly within the church. "I'm a bit of a pragmatist," Thomas says, "but I think we have to be pursuers of peace." Jonathan Partridge developed a love for the Middle Eastern church while serving as a volunteer communications assistant for the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem in 2002 and 2003. He has returned to the Holy Land several times since then with groups, including Holy Land Trust and Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace and Justice. Partridge serves as a volunteer web assistant for Abrahamic Alliance International, a group dedicated to building bridges among Muslims, Jews, and Christians through education, dialogue, and service activities. He is also editor of the Patterson Irrigator, the weekly newspaper in Patterson, Calif. He blogs at MiddleEastMusings.Wordpress.com.
Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Shutterstock.com
Muscular Love: Yohanna Katanacho Interviewed by Paul Alexander and Robert K. Welsh A Palestinian evangelical, Rev. Dr. Yohanna Katanacho serves as the Academic Dean of Bethlehem Bible College. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming The Land of Christ: A Palestinian Cry! (Bethlehem Bible College, 2012). I was born in Jerusalem in 1967 during the Arab-Israeli War.
My mom was at the hospital, and my dad was not able to come because of the curfew outside. The next day he had to endanger his life to come pay the hospital in order to release me and my mom. That was the first day of my life. We lived on Via Delarosa—the Way of the Cross, Station 8—and I grew up in the old city of Jerusalem. I used to see people carrying crosses and singing, but God was so far from my heart and my mind. When I grew up as a young person there were a lot of things that tempted me—drugs, gambling, alcohol—and my life was so far from God. But God still had mercy on me, even though I didn’t have a relationship with him. I come from a Roman Catholic family, but my family only visited church once in a while. When I grew up I joined the university and became an atheist. Eventually I became one of the leaders there who advocated atheism. My undergrad degree is in chemistry. This somehow fit with the scientific approach, and the one reinforced the other. Then around 1986 I had a very strange experience. I was sleeping at my home on Via Delarosa, and at about 3:00 a.m. I heard the bells of the churches ringing, and I opened my eyes. Then I felt some kind of air going through my body. I was not able to move my hands or feet and not to able to shout. It was not a nightmare—I was awake—but I didn’t know what was going on. My mind was really crashing. I wondered, “What in the world is happening? Why can’t I move? Am I paralyzed? Am I dead?” I tried to free myself, but I was not able to get up. After about two hours of struggling I said, “God, if this is from you, free me and I promise to look for you.” The moment I said that I was able to move again. I was terrified. My whole worldview collapsed in one night. What could I do? I was one of the leaders at the university advocating atheism. I was confused. As a result of this experience, every time I walked in a dark place I had fear in my heart and mind, a continual reminder of what had happened to me. I went to the university and told them I wouldn’t be active in the atheism group anymore, but I didn’t explain why. I started looking for an answer. For almost a year I searched. And as I was look-
ing, someone started interacting with me who was a Christian. I thought maybe I need to read the Bible. I thought, “Jesus is a cute guy; he’s meek; he never hurt anyone; he’s a good person, I’m willing to know more about this man.” So I started reading, but I was not convinced. I was invited to a church, and the presence of God was really strong there, and I felt God speaking to me, telling me, “Yohanna, you are a sinner.” I had no problem confessing that I am a sinner. So I closed my eyes and said, “Lord, I give you my heart, but I can’t give you my mind. I know that I am a sinner, and I can see that you are the Savior and that you love me, so I’m giving you my heart, but I’m really not convinced, and I cannot follow you with my mind.” God in his mercy chose to speak to me that week in dreams. I’m a very intellectual person, and yet God saw that this was the more effective way to deal with me rather than giving me arguments. These dreams were really a turning point in my life. God whispered in my ear, “If you want to follow me with your effort you will lose me, but if you are in Christ, then I will carry you, and this is grace.” For some reason when I heard that the barrier in my mind just fell. And I said, “Lord, I want now to give you my heart and mind. I want to give you my whole life.” It was said easily, but obedience is the real test of whether it’s true or not. The first thing God put on my mind was, “You have to start a Bible study at the same university where you were advocating atheism.” I said, “NO WAY. No way. Forget it.” I struggled. But the struggle went through stages. One of the first stages was something very important that God wanted to prepare me for. He wanted to take away the hatred I had toward the Jews. How could I relate to the Jews? I read my Bible, and Matthew says to love your enemies. It wasn’t like multiple choice— Who is my enemy?—the answer was clear for me. But I didn’t know what to do. In the streets Israeli soldiers would stop me and ask for my ID card. I would pull out my ID card, and many times they would ask me to stand in a corner for one or two hours; it was humiliating. They provoked my anger, and all the time it was nourishing my hatred. I went to the Bible and read again, and the spirit of God whispered in my ear one time after another, “Love your enemies. Love your enemies.” Eventually I said, “Lord, I can’t. I don’t know what to do. How can I love
my enemy when I’m living in a context that is so horrible?” God again whispered in my ear, “Witness to them. This is the way you love them. Witness to them.” So I thought, “Okay, I don’t know where God is leading me, but I’ll take a small step of obedience.” I went to a restaurant where they had a flyer called “Real Love,” and on it was a quotation from Isaiah 53, written in Hebrew as well as in English. So I decided to take that flyer, put it in my ID card, and when the soldiers asked me for my ID card, I would pull it out and give it to them. In this way I would obey my Lord. When the soldiers opened my card, they would say, “What is this?” And I would say, “This is how God wants me to relate to you.” I didn’t want to lie, I didn’t want to tell them how I felt about them, because I really didn’t feel any love in my heart, but I also wanted to obey the Lord. They would look at it and say, “Ah, this is from the Hebrew Bible,” and they would read it, and we’d have a discussion, and they would let me go. Sometimes they asked me more questions. I did that so many times that, without even noticing, my heart and mind and emotions started changing. God was shaping my heart. I would walk in the same streets, see the same soldiers, and now I would pray in my heart, “Lord, please let them stop me. Because when they stop me I can share your love with them.” One night I was photocopying the church bulletin, which is in Arabic, and the photocopier was stubborn that night. I don’t know if the evil one or God himself was involved in this—I’ll discover in heaven—but the photocopier was not working well, and it took me so long to photocopy a few bulletins that it was about midnight. During that time some Palestinians were writing graffiti on the wall, political things, and distributing political flyers against the Israeli government. The Israeli government wanted to stop that, so they said, “If you call a Palestinian who looks suspicious, and he doesn’t stop, you can shoot him.” So it was a really tense, dangerous time, and most people wouldn’t go out at night. I was going down the stairs from Damascus Gate, and, lo and behold, there were three soldiers sitting at the gate. When I saw them, my heart went faster and faster, and I said, “Lord, I have all these Arabic bulletins in my jacket pocket, and these soldiers don’t read Arabic. If they see them they will think these are political flyers, and I will probably be detained for the night, and I really don’t want to do that, Lord. I was doing your work, and now you’re gonna do this to me? That’s not fair. So please, Lord, do your work. You know I don’t want any of this to happen.” One of the soldiers pointed at me with his finger, which basically means “Come here.” And if I didn’t respond to his finger I might be shot. I approached the three soldiers without thinking, and I don’t know why, but I opened the zipper of my jacket very quickly and the zipper made a sound and these three poor soldiers were terrified. They thought I was going to attack them and kill them. So they put their hands on their machine guns and pointed them at my face. I put my hand on my heart, and I said, “I love you.” There was a moment of
silence. I don’t know how long it lasted, but it felt like eternity for me because the guns were pointing at my face. And then the soldiers put their guns down. The words of love were stronger than their machine guns. And I started talking to them about Jesus Christ, who changed my heart and really helped me to understand that I love them. They said to me, “We wish that all Palestinians were like you.” I said, “No, I wish that you were like me—I wish that Jesus was in your heart.” And we had about a 20-minute discussion. It was like a sermon after midnight. Praise the Lord. The soldiers didn’t accept the Lord that night, but they really had something to think about. And I will not be surprised if I see them in heaven. God taught me that love is not a feeling but a command, that love is a commitment to advocate Jesus Christ to the other. Only when we advocate Jesus do we truly love. Only
God was shaping my heart. I would walk in the same streets, see the same soldiers, and now I would pray in my heart, “Lord, please let them stop me. Because when they stop me I can share your love with them.” when we help people to be transformed into the image of Jesus are we ourselves transformed into the image of Jesus whom we love. Since that day I learned that my love muscles are too weak. During the process of witnessing, God helped my love muscles grow stronger and stronger. Today I know I need to practice love so that my love muscles will grow stronger. We Palestinians have a great opportunity to be so muscular in our love. Later, after God worked in my heart like this, God also opened an opportunity for me to start a Bible study at Bethlehem University, where I had once advocated atheism. That was the first Bible study ever in any of the Palestinian universities. We started with three students, and each semester the number grew. Then we had a conference and moved to other universities, and God in his mercy reached out to so many students. I thank God for that privilege. Without his interference I would have been lost. The grace and mercy of God came to an atheist Palestinian in the middle of the night and transformed me into a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. God works on the Via Delarosa in this century. God works in Bethlehem, in Jerusalem, in Nazareth, in the Palestinian territories, in Israel today. It’s amazing what God can do. All we need to do is be willing to walk with the Lord and to follow him whether he leads us to the checkpoint where I witness to soldiers or to the church where I kneel down in prayer. God is there—at the mount of transfiguration as well as in the valley of the shadow of death. God is here when I meet an Israeli soldier and when I meet a Muslim. God is here among the Palestinian people and in Palestinian churches. S
Interviewed by Paul Alexander and Robert K. Welsh A Messianic Jew, Elisheva Korytowski was born and raised in the United States before immigrating to Israel in 2006 at the age of 20. After completing her military service, she joined the team at Musalaha and began studying Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. My first year in Israel, I worked at a restaurant where all the staff was Arab except for me. They were all Muslim, from East Jerusalem. I went to government-sponsored Hebrew class in the beginning, too, and probably half the class was Arab teenagers who needed to improve their Hebrew before getting into college. I wouldn’t have called any of these people my friends, but we got along fine. I don’t know exactly how to put it, but I thought I was being this amazingly tolerant individual just because I could be polite to them. It wasn’t really conscious, but when I look back I see that I thought so highly of myself at that point just because I wasn’t saying hateful things about Arabs. Just because I wasn’t being a complete jerk, I felt I was the pinnacle of tolerance. But it’s not about being able to have a business transaction without stabbing somebody. The fact that these people weren’t believers made a huge difference, because I didn’t have to really incorporate them into my life. I had this fatalistic attitude of “Maybe we’re polite on the surface, but there’s a conflict going on and we are on different sides.” This is why I didn’t put forth a lot of effort into understanding. Then, about six months after I came to Israel, I went on a trip to the Jordanian desert with an organization I’d heard about called Musalaha, which means reconciliation in Arabic, an organization that seeks to reconcile Israelis and Palestinians, starting with believers on both sides. I went because I was curious—I’d never met Palestinian Christians before, and subconsciously I was trying to fill this role of being the tolerant, Western, forward-thinking Messianic Jew, proving through my participation that I didn’t hate Arabs. When I got there, it suddenly hit me: These people aren’t the kind of people I’ve been interacting with every day; these are my brothers and sisters in the Messiah, and just a smile
is not going to cut it here. For some reason I hadn’t thought about it before. I realized then that what I had thought was love was really only a kind of superficial niceness. There was tension throughout the trip. We were all very kind to each other, and we were sensitive and made sure not to talk about certain things, because the point of the trip is to have a forum where people can get to know each other just as people. So that’s what we did. We were each paired up with a person from the opposite side. We rode camels together on a journey through the desert and had to struggle together and make something work. And as a whole unit, we had to cross the desert as one. We did different team-building exercises, and we worshipped together, prayed together, and had Communion together. The most touching experience for me was at the end of the trip. Some of the tension had been released by that point, but it was still there. But at one point we entered into worship and I suddenly felt as if we had transcended all of our physical limitations, our ethnicity, all the things that define us as who we are on this earth. We just came together as children of God and worshipped; we were doing something towards God, together. Once we came down from that, it was as if we fell back into our bodies, into our male and female and Jew and Gentile bodies. Those are important on this earth; they bring blessing as well as conflict. But I had a kind of defeatist attitude, thinking, “Well that was nice. This was a taste of heaven, and we’ll be able to know that someday. But, for now, we’re here and it’s still hopeless.” I think, honestly, that a lot of that attitude came from what I believed then, which was that there will never be peace until Yeshua comes back, so there’s no use trying. In the back of my head, I thought, “We can enjoy these nice little sessions; we can be brothers and sisters, but really in the end they’ll probably all kill us and we’ll probably all kill them.” But at the same time, it was still really on my heart to bring these two communities together. The trip was a great experience, and I continued to partici-
David Levene, courtesy of Oxfam
“If We Could Be Where Peace Starts”: Elisheva Korytowski
pate in the organization in follow-ups and as a camp counselor, but soon after that I went into the Israeli army. So I kind of put all of that stuff on the table. My experience in the army didn’t really change how I feel about reconciliation, but it definitely changed how I feel about politics. I came to Israel with a vision, and the first thing I wanted to do was serve the country. I believe that Israel needs to be defended. Up to that time I was mostly friends with believers, but the army is a place where you have to interact and be a part of a team with people you wouldn’t otherwise hang out with—all different socioeconomic backgrounds, political views, ethnicities, races, religions—Orthodox Jews, secular Jews, Druze, Muslims, and Russian Christians. So, it was a really great exposure for me to the country. Most of the time, my unit was in the north guarding the Syrian border. We had guard posts and lookouts as well as a couple of jeeps constantly patrolling the area. During these patrols we would stop to make coffee under the trees, pick wild figs, or chat with Israeli tourists. It was not the hardest work a lot of the time. I felt good about guarding the borders, about being ready for legitimate warfare with, say, Syria or Lebanon. But at two points we were in the West Bank for a few months at a time, which was entirely different work. I can’t say that I felt as positively about this, but I’m really glad I got to see things for myself instead of just reading about them. We did all the missions that a regular combat unit would do in the West Bank—guarding, jeep patrols, raiding houses, arrests, random checkpoints. I was very conflicted, because on the one hand, I would hate a lot of what we were doing there, the things that were mainly for protecting settlers and the most intrusive on the lives of everyday people, and on the other hand, I’d think, “Somebody needs to be here to stop the real threats.” When I got out of the army I had time to process and research and really look into all these things for myself. But I didn’t tell a lot of my friends about it, because the Messianic movement, as a whole—it’s changing now with my generation—but as a whole, they’re very right-wing. And this is mainly because of their interpretation of the Bible, which was my interpretation as well at one point—that God gave this land to the Jewish people and we need to conquer it, period. But even when I still held to that theology, I wondered, “What about the Palestinians? Is what’s happening to them okay? And if not, if what we are doing is not something that looks like the love Yeshua talks about and commands us to show, then there’s a problem.” I no longer hold to the typical Messianic Jewish theology concerning these things, but I don’t think it’s an illegitimate view either. What’s important is to address these issues, no matter what theological framework you embrace. In general, I think it’s much more important to focus on what Yeshua commands us to do than anything else. Our role as believers is to do good and love our neighbor—then God will accomplish what he wants to accomplish through us. We need to act justly. And what’s happening is not just. In Israel, we Messianic Jews are fighting for our own rights
within society as Israeli citizens, and rightfully so. There are antimissionary organizations which persecute believers here, trying to shut down our businesses and deport us. There have been numerous protests outside of private homes and congregations, and even a few violent attacks including fires and bombs. These organizations are mostly backed by the ultra-Orthodox. This minority has a disproportionate amount of power in the government, so much that if they find out that a person is a believer they bar him from immigrating to Israel like any other Jew. But how can we demand justice for our own Messianic community while keeping quiet about the issues affecting the rights of those across the line, let alone those within our nation’s borders who are citizens of Israel just like we are? I have no doubt that most Messianics do care, that they don’t harbor hate towards Palestinians, especially not toward the Christians. But I also think that their love toward them is often manifested in politeness, as it was for me. I’m not saying that it’s not important to be civil, but love is much deeper. Yeshua commands us to love as he loved us, which is obviously sacrificial. It probably doesn’t take sacrifice for most people to smile or shake someone’s hand. Love is about giving something
You have to step back and question: Does it line up with what Yeshua teaches to have an entire population that doesn’t have the same rights as others? of ourselves, in this case at least putting in the effort to try to build relationships and understand the other side. To listen to the other side’s grief. To know their heart, because we are a part of each other. To treat them as my brothers and sisters, to love them as members of my own spiritual family, even when it’s not comfortable. Even when it might be a little scary. Some people think I’m crazy for going to Bethlehem to see friends. It’s against the law, and they think it’s dangerous. For a time I was scared, but I can’t live in fear and let the situation keep me from having relationships. If we don’t build these relationships, it just separates us more. So we have to fight against that—together. Jewish Israelis are not allowed to go into Palestine, and Palestinian Christians are only allowed to come to Israel at Christmas and Easter for a few weeks at a time. Last December, a few months after starting my work in Musalaha, I thought, “I have no excuse in the world for not inviting a Palestinian to my house. Really, it would be pathetic.” So I invited some Palestinians to a little get-together at my house with my Messianic Jewish Israeli roommate. Maybe they were scared. A lot of them didn’t come. But two girls did, and one of them said, “Wow, this is the first time I’ve been in a Jewish person’s house.” I realized it was a lot easier than I thought to break down
The Israeli separation wall provides the backdrop for this
all these little barriers. I guess want us dead no matter what. But Palestinian boy’s play in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Shutterstock.com) it’s not that significant that now I think if both the Israeli-Palestinshe’s been in a Jewish person’s ian population and the Palestinian house, but if you add up all population had more freedom, these things, they lead down a if they had a country and were certain road. I feel like I’m a lot treated as important, they might further down that road than I be more inclined to be a peaceful was a year ago. Of course, my partner. involvement in this organization So the issue is “Where do and my theological and political we put justice versus security?” I views have brought a bit of hope that we can aspire to both. controversy into my life. Some Take the security wall. My main of my friends think I’m disloyal. problem with the wall isn’t that I’ve been called anti-Israeli just it’s ugly and separates us. If there because I don’t feel the same were two different countries, a way about the situation they do. wall between them wouldn’t matter I’m indeed pro-Israel. I beas much. The real issue for me lieve in this country. I live here. is where the wall is built. They’re I believe in defending it, physibuilding it through people’s neighcally as well as ideologically. borhoods and not on the 1967 But I don’t agree with all of its border. They’re using the wall as policies, and if I’m going to truly a way of cutting into territory that love Israel, I will help hold it to doesn’t belong to us, because a high standard. I will speak up they’re trying to include the settlewhen I think there’s something ments. Also, logically you can’t wrong. If you love your friend, just build this wall saying that you will confront him when he’s you’re separating two entities and doing something you think is not acknowledge that there are wrong. It’s the same thing with two entities. If you’re separating your country. Israel from Palestine, you have to acknowledge Palestine. People think you have to be either radically pro-Israel or If there’s hope for anyone making a difference here, it lies uncompromisingly pro-Palestine, as if only one people can exist with the believers. It’s not just that we want to get along for and the other has to lose everything. But you can acknowledge the sake of politics, or security, or freedom. It’s that we have to that both Israel and Palestine should have the right to exist. Or, get along, because God commands us to. However much of a you could acknowledge that this should all be one state. Or hassle it might be, we have to do it. It would be wonderful if we you might have some other solution. The point is to acknowlcould be where peace starts. Believers on both sides are such a edge that God loves and has a plan for both peoples and that small portion of the population. While we have many differences, he wants to see both peoples prosper—and all of us should we have brothers and sisters on the other side who not only want the same. follow God as we do but also understand what it feels like to When I think of evangelicals in America I think of a blindly be a religious minority. It would be amazing if we could somepro-Israel population for the most part. I think it’s fantastic that day lead the way through our unity. The situation is complex, they care, but it becomes a problem when your love for one and the road ahead will be filled with difficulties, but the obviside blinds you from loving the other side, or from seeing the ous next step is that we get to know each other and that we greater reality of the situation. We need to filter our theology come together as one unit in some way. I mean, they’re right through Yeshua’s words and not the other way round. Those next door. It just seems so obvious to me now. S organizations whose whole idea is to build up settlements and support Israel without question are hurting the Palestinians and, in my opinion, ultimately hurting Israel as well. These interviews were made possible by a grant from the Flame You have to step back and question: Does it line up with of Love Project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Paul what Yeshua teaches to have an entire population that doesn’t Alexander is professor of Christian Ethics and Public Policy at have the same rights as others? If not, then you have to Palmer Theological Seminary as well as director of public policy change something. You can’t just ignore it. They say it’s because at the Sider Center on Ministry and Public Policy. He edited of terrorism, and I see there a legitimate point. I’m not saying Christ at the Checkpoint: Theology in the Service of Justice that if Israel gave up everything all of a sudden there wouldn’t and Peace (Pickwick Publications, 2012) and is producing a film be any threat—there will still be radical people and groups that about Palestinian Christians titled With Love from Palestine.
Published on Feb 23, 2012
Published on Feb 23, 2012
by Jonathan Partridge Photography by Barry Rodriguez 10 PRISM Magazine Despite the unity of faith in Jesus as Lord and Messiah shared by the...