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Across the Israel Divide

A Christian Perspective on the Holy Land

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Mon, 09/19/2016 (All day)
Across the Israel Divide

Israel is one of the most complex issues today. It divides countries, governments, and academic institutions, along with theological communities. The issues at play are historical, theological, and political. They are also personal and, often, emotional for those directly affected. Therefore, a thoughtful Christian perspective must be one based on concern and care for all the peoples involved, and most importantly, on an honest assessment of the facts.

A striking biblical analogy highlighting the sensitivity of this issue is the reference to the Jewish people as the apple of God’s eye, a very vulnerable part of the body (Deuteronomy 32:10; Zechariah 2:8). When handling this subject we are touching upon something that is not just sensitive to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but to God Himself.

It is made abundantly clear in scripture that God will bless or judge people based on how they treat His people Israel (Genesis 12:3, Isaiah 60:12, Zechariah 2:8-9, Joel 3:1-3). Jesus seems to confirm this in Matthew 25:31-46 where He explains that upon His return He will divide the nations for blessing or judgment based on their treatment of “His brethren.” 

Another metaphor used in scripture is likening Israel to a pregnant woman (Revelation 12:1-6) because of her role in birthing the “male Child who would rule all nations.” This unusual image helps to explain the special treatment and care she requires. It does not mean that she is loved more than any other of God’s children, but that she has a unique role, given only to her, to birth God’s plan to redeem fallen mankind. That role means that she will be vulnerable and in need of assistance.

The God of Israel takes the treatment of His people very seriously. Therefore, we should proceed in this discussion with great caution and care.
 

 

God’s Banner to the Nations

 

The divisiveness of the Israel issue should be our first indication that something far greater is at stake here. This tiny state of 8 million people, the size of New Jersey, is at the center of the world’s attention. Isaiah 11:11-12 says that in “that day” when the Lord gathers His people back to the land “a second time,” that He will raise a banner  to the nations. Indeed, the attention of all nations has been turned to Israel today.

After some 2,000 years of exile, the Jewish people have returned to their land a second time.  This is a historic phenomenon with no parallel. It is nothing less than a miracle that this small people group survived two exiles, maintained themselves as a nation, and have now re-established Jewish sovereignty in their ancient homeland. Isaiah says that in this second regathering God is raising a banner, or message, to the world. I believe the message of this banner is twofold based on which side of the divide one stands.

The first message is exciting and jubilant: God is faithful to keep His covenants. He never forgot His ancient people; He remembers the covenant that He made with Abraham and his descendants, and is fulfilling His promises to them. The appointed time to favor Zion has come (Psalm 102:13), and whereas, He may have dealt with them in judgment; despite their imperfections and failures it is now a new season, a season of favor and restoration. We Christians can rejoice: we serve a merciful and covenant-keeping God!

The second message is a warning of impending judgment to those on the other side of the divide. The flip side of the faithfulness of God to His Word is that He also promises a day of reckoning. As mentioned earlier, scripture is very clear that God will judge the nations based on their treatment of Israel (Zephaniah 3:19-20). Israel is the fault line, and which side of that line one stands is critical.
 

Understanding the Challenge Israel Presents to the World

 

Some theologians disregard the biblical principal of judgment because it does not fit into their concept of a “God of love.” However, if He really loves His children, He will protect them and deal with those who seek their destruction. There are consequences for opposing this loving God, His choice of people, and His plan.

God has lovingly given us free will, and we have the freedom to choose on which side of this divide we wish to stand. While He knows us better than we know ourselves, He allows us to encounter certain decision points whereby our decisions determine where we stand. One of those tests is Israel. God uses Israel to test the hearts of the nations, thereby exposing either their goodness, which leads to blessing, or their hatred and evil intent, which leads to judgment. In other words, Israel exposes what is in the heart of people.

George Gilder, a venture-capitalist businessman, proposes in his book The Israel Test that Israel presents a moral and ethical challenge to the world and therefore has become the ultimate fault line. At the root of the Israel Test for the world today is the knowledge that Israel is contributing more to humanity through its scientific, technological and economic achievements than nearly any other country in the world.

According to Gilder, Israel presents the following test to the world: What is your attitude towards people who surpass you in creating wealth or in other accomplishments? Do you aspire to their excellence, or do you seethe at it? Do you admire and celebrate exceptional achievement, or do you impugn it and seek to tear it down? God is using Israel to test the hearts of the nations. Their future will be determined by how they respond.
 

 

Understanding the Challenge Israel Presents to the Church

 

 

The same test is being presented to the Church. In Romans 11, the Apostle Paul addresses the attitude of the Roman church towards the Jewish people. He warns believers to make sure that their attitude is humble and honors the Jewish people. He even cautions them about possible judgment by God if their attitude is not right: “…Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either” (Romans 11:20-21).

This is the test that Israel presents to the Church: Are we arrogant towards the Jews? Do we seek to replace them in advancing God’s will? Or do we rejoice in the faithfulness of God to them and that He is fulfilling the promises He made to their fathers? Do we despise their return to their homeland because it does not fit into our Replacement Theology? Or do we break into praise of God’s mighty ways as did the Apostle Paul when he completed his teaching about God’s enduring plans for Israel in Romans 9-11?

A church that honors its Hebraic roots, as wild branches that are grafted into the natural olive tree (Romans 11:17), receives great strength and nourishment. Separating ourselves from the very root that supports our Christian faith brings spiritual decline and even death. Christianity has no meaning when separated from its Jewish context. This may explain the decline in certain denominations that belittle the biblical and Hebraic foundation of our faith.
 

The Heart of the Divide: Replacement Theology

 

The heart of the divide in the Christian world towards Israel is therefore, Supersessionism or Replacement Theology. It may masquerade as a concern for the Palestinian people, or purport to be about political issues, but often the real issue lies in one’s view of the Jewish people’s calling and destiny.

Supersessionism is a centuries-old teaching that the Jewish people have been cursed and rejected by God because of their rejection of Jesus’ messianic credentials. As a result, they have been replaced by the Church; the Church is therefore the new Israel of God. While God’s curses may be upon the Jews, His blessings all reside on the Church!

This theology provided fertile ground for centuries of anti-Semitic teachings in the Church and sowed the seeds for the persecution of the Jewish people throughout Europe. Many scholars agree that the Holocaust could have never happened had it not been for the centuries of Christian anti-Semitism that was rooted in this theology.

Replacement Theology, in all of its variations, seems to imply that God’s Plan A failed, so He went to Plan B with a new people, the Christian Church. However, Ephesians 1:4-5 says that Plan A existed before the foundations of the world were laid, and always included the death of Christ Jesus, because that is how we are adopted as sons (vs.5). Could it be then, that God’s covenant with the Jewish people is indeed an everlasting covenant that was not abolished nor reconstructed to apply to some other people? In fact, speaking of Israel, Paul in Romans 11 affirms that God’s call over them as a nation is irrevocable (Romans 11:29). Plan A did not fail and was not annulled.

Genesis 17:8 confirms that Israel’s covenant is an everlasting covenant, therefore, the land of Canaan is their everlasting possession. The land is a necessary requirement for the formation of the nation which God sought to create out of Abraham’s descendants, and later for the great acts of God in the redemption of the world: the birth and death of Jesus, and the future establishment of the Messianic reign on earth.

While it was an everlasting covenant, and everlasting possession, their right to live on the land was also clearly made conditional. Deut. 28:63 says that if they did not obey the Lord their God they would be removed from the land. This principal explains the two exiles the Jewish people have suffered, but even exile came with the promise of return (Deuteronomy 30:1-3). The people of Israel are not exempt from judgment, but are promised it, because of God’s corrective love at work in His covenant with them.

The Abrahamic covenant also makes clear that the people of Israel will bless all the families of the earth by bringing to a fallen world the redemptive gifts through which man can be saved. The Apostle Paul listed those redemptive gifts in Romans 3:2 and Romans 9:4-5: the Word of God, the covenants, the law, the service of God, the promises and Christ Jesus. Their work is not yet complete, and God has brought them back to the land for what may now be the final chapter of history, which is a glorious one, when the knowledge of the Lord will fill the earth and nations will learn war no more (Isaiah 2, 11).
 

Israel’s Calling is for the Blessing of the World

 

With acknowledgement that there is a special calling placed on the Jewish people, comes a belief that our conduct towards them should be based on appreciation, blessing, and honor. However, this does not mean that God loves them above all the other peoples of the world. John 3:16 declares God’s love for the world: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

God’s love for the world is why He brought into existence the nation of Israel through whom He would bring about His great plan of redemption. Their role in His plan would afford them a place of preservation and promised blessing. Unfortunately, their calling would also place them directly in the line of fire, and consequently, there would be much suffering throughout the centuries because of it. The story of the Jewish people is filled with exiles, persecutions, pogroms, expulsions and attempts at annihilation. There is no explanation for this history other than the biblical role bequeathed to them by God Himself.

Psalm 83:1-4 explains that they are in the line of fire in a war against God Himself. “O God… those who hate you…have said ‘Come, and let us cut them off from being a nation, That the name of Israel may be remembered no more.’” God knew that the people of Israel would pay a price and their history would be full of suffering. This could explain why He promised blessings on any who would bless and help them.
 

Christian Zionism

 

While there are political, moral and practical reasons why Christians support Israel, the biblical foundation of Christian Zionism is the belief that God bequeathed the land of Canaan to the Jewish people as an everlasting possession for the purposes of world redemption.  Israel’s detractors in the Christian world portray Christian Zionism as heresy, claiming that it politicizes the scriptures. However, as soon as the Bible was translated into vernacular languages some 500 years ago, which allowed Christians to read the scriptures for themselves, preachers began to teach that the Jews would one day return to their ancient homeland. They prayed for and supported this return to the land as an act of justice for a people who had suffered persecution for centuries.

Some of the greatest and most respected evangelicals in history were what we would call Christian Zionists today: John and Charles Wesley, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Bishop Ryle of Liverpool, Professor Jacob Janeway of the Scottish National Church and many others.  The only difference between them and today’s Christian Zionists is that they supported a future event, while today’s Christian Zionists have witnessed the return of the Jews to their homeland and actively support a current event.
 

Who are Really God’s People in the Middle East

 

One of the more vocal Christian theologians leading a campaign against Christian Zionism is Dr. Gary Burge, Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. His book, “Who are God’s people in the Middle East?,” laid out a form of Replacement Theology, which claimed that the Church had replaced the Jewish people as the people of God. He concluded that the Palestinian Christians are the real people of God in the Israeli-Arab conflict, arguing that Christians should support them, instead of the Jewish people.

We should indeed love and support our Christian brothers and sisters in the Palestinian territories. Yet, this does not require that we discard Israel and invalidate or discredit God’s covenant with her. Instead, it requires an honest assessment of the situation facing Palestinian Christians and who is really to blame for it. Burge and others who share his view prefer to simply blame Israel, especially when it validates their Replacement Theology.

Anyone concerned for the Christians of the Middle East, including Palestinian Christians, should be applauding Israel, the one country in the region where the Christian community is thriving and growing. Israel is the only safe haven in a region where the future of Christianity is questionable, including in the Palestinian territories where the numbers are dwindling rapidly.   This decline is indicative of a much larger problem addressed in the next section.

Our Christian compassion should not stop with Middle East Christians. It should include love and concern for all the peoples of the Middle East. Jesus died for the whole world, including Arab and Muslim peoples, who He loves just as much as anyone else. In fact, the many accounts of Jesus appearing to Muslims today in dreams and visions illustrate just how much God loves them and is revealing Himself to those who have a heart to receive Him.

The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem has a specific calling to connect the global church to Israel, demonstrating Christian love for the people of Israel. However, we make sure that a corresponding percentage of our humanitarian aid in Israel goes to its Arab minorities, both Muslims and Christians. We regularly take up the cause of the persecuted church in the Middle East in our publications, provide donations to support their care, and encourage our members to pray for them, along with the wider Muslim world, during our monthly Isaiah 62 global prayer initiative.
 

An Honest Assessment: Israel’s “Unjust” Treatment of the Palestinians

 

A true Christian perspective must not only be based on love, but also grounded in truth. This is challenging because of a prevalent Palestinian narrative that has little regard for historical fact.  While the constraints of space in this article do not allow us to discuss all of the political issues associated with the Arab-Israeli conflict,  it’s important to examine the issues of justice and claims

How does Israel treat the 1.8 million Arabs within its country? They enjoy citizenship, voting rights, freedom of speech, worship, and the press. Women enjoy the same freedoms as men. Arabs have their own political parties, serve in the Knesset, serve on the Supreme Court and have even been crowned “Miss Israel.” It’s clear that Israeli Arabs have found more justice in Israel than in any other Middle Eastern country.

Israel’s detractors therefore ignore this fact and focus on the supposed injustices facing the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank instead. So let’s look at the Palestinians. A recent Palestinian poll found that more than 40% of Arabs in East Jerusalem would prefer to live under Israeli sovereignty than in a future Palestinian State. They would move to a different neighborhood to stay under Israeli jurisdiction if a Palestinian State was formed. If Israel is so repressive and unjust, why would these Palestinians prefer to live under Israeli rather than Palestinian rule?

A brief review of some other statistics also shed light on the issue. When Israel first captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 the conditions were quite dire. After 20 years of Jordanian rule, life expectancy was low; malnutrition, infectious diseases and child mortality were rife; levels of educational attainment very low; and fewer than 60% of all male adults were employed.

During the 1970s, under Israeli rule, the West Bank and Gaza constituted the fourth fastest-growing economy in the world. Mortality rates fell by more than two-thirds; life expectancy rose from 48 years in 1967 to 72 in 2000, compared with an average of 68 years for all countries in the Middle East; and childhood diseases like polio, whooping cough, tetanus, and measles were eradicated.

By 1986, more than 100,000 Palestinians worked in Israel, and many more worked in the 2,000 industrial plants that had been built in the territories; 92.8% of the population had electricity
around the clock as compared to 20.5% in 1967; 85% had running water as compared to 16% in
1967; 83.5% had electric or gas ranges for cooking as compared to 4% in 1967. Most dramatic was the progress in higher education. In 1967, not a single university existed in the territories. By the early 1990s, there were seven institutions of higher education boasting 16,500 students. Illiteracy rates dropped to 14% of adults compared to 61% in Egypt and 44% in Syria.

Is this the unjust and repressive Israel that the Palestinians decry?

Israel developed the West Bank and Gaza, but never annexed them. In the late 1970s, Anwar Sadat invited the Palestinians to be a part of the Camp David Accords to negotiate their own arrangements, but they refused. Israel made peace with Egypt and Jordan. It sought to broker peace with the Palestinians through a plan that was presented to the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, which laid the groundwork for the Oslo Peace Process.

Israel sought a two-state solution with the Palestinians even though they can claim legal ownership of the West Bank according to the San Remo Conference and the League of Nations vote in 1922. The UN validated these previous conferences in the 1947 Partition Plan but proposed that the West Bank be for an Arab state. However, the Arabs rejected the plan. Thus, the West Bank is not “occupied territory” but at most “disputed territory” under international law, and Israel has repeatedly been willing to concede this area for a Palestinian State in exchange for a durable peace.

Many ask why this peace process is now stagnant. Let’s review the last decade. Israel withdrew from Lebanon, Gaza and most of the West Bank, and in return found the Hezbollah terrorist organization on its northern border, armed with more than 100,000 missiles; the Hamas terrorist organization on its southern border, which has fired more 5,000 missiles at Israeli civilians; and the Palestinian Authority on its eastern border, which continues to foster incitement in schools and media, glorifying suicide bombers and knife-wielding youth.

Like all governments, Israel’s primary responsibility is to protect its citizens from these threats, which is why it built the security fence and has checkpoints in the West Bank. The New Testament explicitly allows governments to use “the sword” to carry out this responsibility (Romans 13:1-7; I Peter 2:13-14). It is interesting to note that Israeli security is also credited with maintaining the Palestinian Authority government by keeping Hamas  out of the West Bank.

In 1999, Israel turned over control of the major areas populated by Palestinians to the PA in accordance with the Oslo Peace Accords so that 99% Palestinians are ruled by their own government. Israel does maintain border control and check-points within the West Bank,
and we recognize that these security measures produce difficulties for the Palestinian people, who do not have the freedom of movement necessary to develop businesses, find jobs, and, in some cases, access hospitals in a timely manner.

However, the real cause for this suffering is not Israel’s security measures, but the culture of terrorism, and the corruption of the Palestinian leadership, many of whom benefit from the continuing conflict. As a result, these leaders refuse to sit down at the negotiating table with Israel to secure a better future for their people.

The Palestinian people have suffered grave injustices, but primarily at the hands of their own leaders. While there are Palestinians who lost their lives and homes in the 1948 War of Independence, the continuing oppression of the Palestinian people by their own Arab leaders is a travesty.

If Palestinian leaders had partnered with Israel, they would have established an independent state that could be the most prosperous, free, and advanced Arab country in the region. However, under the Palestinian Authority, there is no freedom of speech or freedom of the press, children are taught to hate and murder Jews beginning in kindergarten, the unemployment rate remains exceedingly high, and impoverished refugees still live in camps. Year after year, billions of dollars in international aid earmarked for the Palestinian people are siphoned off by corrupt leaders.

This is the injustice inflicted upon the Palestinian people that Israel’s detractors will not acknowledge. Ascribing all blame to Israel and ignoring blatant injustices perpetrated by the Arab leaders, is not only dishonest – it is indicative of underlying anti-Semitic sentiment.
 

Guarding Against the New Anti-Semitism: Anti-Zionism

 

For centuries, anti-Semitism was based on Christian religious theories. Under the Nazis, it was based on racial theories. Neither of these belief systems are politically correct in today’s discourse. However, a new form of anti-Semitism has become acceptable: the demonization of the Jewish State.

The truth is, one cannot demonize Israel without demonizing the Israeli people, who are an integral part of the Jewish community at large. This is made clear when a Jewish person is attacked in the streets of France because Israel has taken military action in Gaza.

The crescendo of this hate-speech against Israel is building in the Muslim world, on university campuses and amongst the social elites of the West. It is trying to infiltrate the Christian world.  We need to do whatever we can to make sure that this modern form of anti-Semitism does not seep into our seminaries and churches. A true Christian perspective on the Holy Land – built on a genuine love for all the peoples caught in this conflict and based on an honest assessment of the facts – will do just that.
 


Footnotes:

[1] This scripture is often said to be about helping needy Christians, or all needy people, but we cannot ignore its original meaning. The Hebrew scriptures formed the context for all of Jesus’ teachings, and He was being consistent with many passages of scripture when He spoke here of judgment of the nations over their treatment of the Jewish people. He went further to say that He took their treatment very personal, “as you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Jesus was Jewish and an attack on His people was an attack on Him.

[2]See also Isaiah 22:22.

[3]The first exile was completed at the hands of the Babylonian Empire, the first return under the Persians, and the second exile was in 70AD at the hands of the Romans.

[4] For a full treatment of the theology of Christian Zionism see the ICEJ’s Biblical Zionism booklet series by Rev. Malcolm Hedding for sale at www.icejusa.org/basis-chrisitian-support-Israel-booklet. Also see “Christian Zionism in Balance “ by Rev. Hedding found at www.icejusa.org/christian-zionism-balanceor visit www.israelanswers.com

[5]For a history of Christian Zionism and quotes from some 50 Christian leaders over the last 500 years who supported the re-establishment of Israel based on their reading of scripture see: www.israelanswers.com/christian_zionism/a_history_of_christian_zionism

[6] See Father Gabriel Naddaf’s statement to the UN Human Rights Council: http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/lauretta-brown/priest-un-israel-only-safe-place-christians-middle-east

[7] Palestinian leaders perpetrate such lies as: the Holocaust never happened, the first and second temples never existed in Jerusalem, Al-Aksa Mosque is in danger of collapse due to Israel, and that Jesus was a Palestinian. Such blatant lies are found throughout their speeches as well as school textbooks and government supported media.

[8]Treatment of issues such as settlements, Jerusalem, borders, and etc. can be found at www.israelanswers.com

[9] Hamas is designated a terrorist organization by the international community that would like to rule the West Bank just as they have ruled the Gaza Strip since 2006.

[10]For statistics and photographs contrasting the Palestinian elite’s opulence with the abject poverty of refugees they refuse to absorb please see: http://jcpa.org/article/luxury-alongside-poverty-in-the-palestinian-authority/. For similar treatment of the Gaza Strip please see: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/gaza-middle-class-discovers-spin-classes-fine-dining-private-beaches/2015/08/23/7e23843c-45d5-11e5-9f53-d1e3ddfd0cda_story.html.

[11]Rev. Steven Sizer, Anglican vicar and one of the foremost Christian critics of Israel and Christian Zionism, was banned by the Anglican Church in 2015 from speaking, writing or teaching on the Middle East due to his dissemination of anti-Semitic and racist materials.


Susan M. Michael is US Director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.  Her writings can be found at www.icejusa.org/susans-blog

 

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