Bad Times in Nazareth

By Deal W. Hudson

The angel Gabriel announced the birth of Christ at a town called Nazareth. Most people know that—it could be a $4,000 question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

What most people don’t know is that the largest church in the Middle East stands at the site: the Basilica of the Annunciation. Within a few feet of that sacred site, Islamic extremists are trying to build a mosque with the support of the Israeli government.

Nazareth is an epicenter of Arab power in Israel: 20 percent of Israel’s population is Arab and mostly Muslim. An extremist Muslim party called the Islamic Movement began controlling the city council in 1999. That’s when the trouble started.

In preparation for the thousands of millennium pilgrims, the Christian mayor of Nazareth, Ramez Jerayseh, began building a plaza in front of the basilica. To create more open space, a small and unused Muslim school was knocked down, which led to an Islamic backlash and a movement to build a large mosque next to the basilica.

There is no religious justification for this structure a mosque already exists at the site along with several others throughout the small city. The attempt to build this one amounts to nothing less than an act of religious intimidation against Christians.

Astoundingly enough, the Israeli government gave permission for the cornerstone to be laid in November 1999. Exactly why is something of a mystery. Some have suggested that the Israelis are cynically manufacturing a conflict between Christians and Muslims (a conflict that would tip the Christian West more favorably toward Israel). Whatever the reason, the construction was moving forward until international pressure brought it to a halt on January 10.

Pope John Paul II almost canceled his 2000 visit in protest. President George W. Bush put the Nazareth mosque on the table during his March 2001 meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Dozens of religious leaders—including Yasser Arafat and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith—have issued protests against the building, and an International Coalition for Nazareth has been formed.

Israel’s political leaders are obviously pondering the cost of all this. On the one hand, they want to appease the Arab electorate by supporting the Nazareth mosque. On the other, they know the possible fallout among Christians in the United States—especially evangelicals. Visits to the Holy Land have enormous significance for all Christians, but for evangelical Protestants, who have no other pilgrimage sites, the Holy Land is it.

Tourism to Israel was down 55 percent in 2001 due to the fear of terrorism. Anger over the Nazareth mosque will not help. Perhaps the Israeli cabinet will wisely follow through with plans to find an alternate site for the new mosque. Moshe Fox, the minister of Public and Interreligious Affairs of the Israeli Embassy, told me that a committee assigned to look for an alternate site has not yet found one.

Meanwhile, the government is reaching out directly to its evangelical tourist base. On January 26, the Washington Post published an article describing how Israel’s U.S. embassy is promoting tourism to the Holy Land. They’re willing to pay for 30 top evangelicals to visit Israel and endorse tourism there. On the list are Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, John Hagee, Tim LaHaye, and Janet Parshall.

In addition, there’ll be “Israel Solidarity Days” in 100 cities from February to March where evangelical leaders will urge their brethren to visit Israel for a “solidarity visit.”

It would be an awkward situation, at best, for Americans to enjoy the Holy Land on Israel’s dime when the government is allowing (or possibly encouraging) extremist Muslims to intimidate Christians and create hostility and division in a historically peaceful city.

In the meantime, Israel will be sending a letter to the 100,000 largest evangelical churches and a postcard to 350,000 others urging their members to visit Israel.

It would be nice if the Israeli government received 450,000 letters saying, “Our deepest wish is to visit the land where our Lord Jesus was born, lived, died, and was resurrected. And when we visit the sacred city of Nazareth, where Mary heard the voice of the angel Gabriel, please make sure we can do so without hostility or hindrance. A place of worship and prayer should not be transformed into a political weapon.”

Imagine the response to that.

Published in Crisis Magazine, March 1, 2002

A City Divided: How Israel’s Wall Is Splitting the Holy Land

By Deal W. Hudson

I met my guide, Helmut Konitzer, at the airport. A German who visits the West Bank to assist the sisters, monks, and priests living there, Helmut had the look of a well-cut drifter. I wasn’t surprised when he told me his preferred mode of transportation was his motorcycle, especially when medicines have to be delivered quickly to the sisters for their work. Cars are always delayed by the roadblocks. “On my motorcycle, I can just go around, as you will see,” he said.

There was still a little sunlight left in our day, and Helmut thought it important to introduce me to one reality of life in the Holy Land—the checkpoint. He took me to the most dangerous checkpoint on the West Bank, the one that blocks the road leading into and out of Ramallah, home to the headquarters of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

AII the roads in and out of the West Bank have checkpoints. Cities and suburbs that used to be minutes apart are almost totally separated by the time and trouble it takes to traverse these roadblocks. A simple car trip from Ramallah to East Jerusalem or from Jerusalem to Bethlehem—which normally takes only a few minutes—can now take an hour or more. That is, unless you have the yellow license plate of an Israeli citizen.

I realized I would be thankful for Helmut’s motorcycle.

Once we were through the checkpoint, we still had time to look at the Mount of Olives as the sun was setting. I was about to see the most sacred ground in the world. I stepped from the car and looked down upon the place where Jesus was arrested, crucified, and resurrected. The late afternoon sunlight was almost blinding and extremely hot as I tried to take it all in.

And that’s when I saw it. Looking north, I could see clearly in the distance a towering concrete wall that wound its way to the spot where I stood. This was the reason I had come. It is being built by Israel to help prevent suicide bombers and other terrorists from entering the country. Thus far, it has met with success. But for Christians, that success has come at a price.

A Briefing in Rome

Before I arrived in Jerusalem, I made a point to meet with Rev. David Jaeger in Rome. A convert born both Jewish and Israeli, he’s the kind of priest who should be the protagonist in a series of detective novels. He has the size of a man who spends too much time at the table in conversation, but once he speaks, I’m grateful that such a Chestertonian character still exists. Given his intelligence and encyclopedic memory, I could see why he occupies such an important position in the Vatican. Father Jaeger is officially in charge of all the diplomatic negotiations between the Holy See and the nation of Israel.

When we sat down in a hotel adjacent to the airport, he thought it important that I first understand the history and status of negotiations between the Holy See and Israel—the purpose of which was to finalize what is called the “fundamental agreement” between the two nations, formalizing their legal and diplomatic relationships. (Catholics sometimes forget that the Holy See is also a political, governmental entity in the eyes of other nations.)

Unfortunately, for reasons unknown, the Israeli government had canceled the most recent negotiations just as the

Previous pages: Two views of the wall in Jerusalem two sides seemed on the verge of settling many of the legal and financial issues left unresolved by previous talks.

Shortly following my return to the United States, Israel returned to the talks but disappointed Jaeger by saying they had no authority to actually negotiate. This prompted a letter from Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) asking Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to continue the negotiations with an Israeli delegation with real authority. The letter worked. As I write, the two nations are back at the table making progress.

Unfortunately, the fundamental charter—the fruit of earlier negotiations that was signed in 1993—was never added to Israeli law, which means it is unenforceable. And thus, Church property disputes cannot be resolved in the court because there’s no legal relationship between the Church and the Israeli government. There are many cases of confiscation of Church property by Israel that have never been resolved or even litigated.

The Wall

There’s something shocking about seeing the wall for the first time, large and imposing as it is. When you stand next to a concrete section, it seems like overkill—its dwarfing presence signifies a resolute intent. But there are good reasons why it was conceived and built. Israel has been plagued for years by suicide bombers, young Palestinians who strap explosives to their bodies and blow themselves up in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Since September 2000, 921 people have been killed by these attacks, including many non-Israelis and several American citizens. The rationale for the proposed 400-mile wall (estimates vary between 372 and 466 miles)—officially called a “fence”—is to provide a buffer zone against terrorism. As of September 2004, more than 125 miles have been built. Fifteen miles consist of a 28-foot-tall concrete wall surrounded by security fences; the remainder is made up of chain-link fences, barbed wire, trenches, and land mines.

There is evidence that, at least in the short term, the wall has made Israel more secure. A spokesman for Sharon estimates that the structure has reduced attacks by 50 percent. Others argue that the barrier has been even more effective than that.

But while the number of suicide bombers has measurably decreased, they’re still active. In one case, terrorists resorted to firing rockets over the wall into Jewish neighborhoods. Thus far these attacks have been largely symbolic—no one has been killed by them and little damage has resulted. Nevertheless, with each terrorist strike the rationale for the wall gains strength, and debate about specific problems with the structure recedes from public view.

This is a shame, since I’m concerned that there’s a larger, long-term price to pay here. And those footing the bill are too often the few remaining Christians left in the Holy Land—most of whom are Palestinian—and by the Christian apostolates who minister to the West Bank communities.

Unfortunately, even the mildest criticism of the wall is considered by some to be an outrageous breach of support for Israel. Shortly before I left for Jerusalem, Congressman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) took this risk by writing an open letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell protesting the construction of the barrier, the confiscation of Church property, and the breakdown in negotiations between Israel and the Holy See. Like Congressman Hyde, I do not question Israel’s right to exist or its absolute obligation to defend its citizenry against heinous acts of terrorism. Nevertheless, I do fear that this structure has actually deepened the hatred between the two neighbors. Given how bad the blood has been between them, this is a tragic achievement.

According to the Israeli government, when completed, over 95 percent of the wall will be made up of a “chain-link fence system,” utilizing 60 to 100 yard-wide cleared areas with ditches, roads, razor wire, watchtowers, cameras, and electronic sensors.

The walls and fences follow, roughly, the boundaries of what is termed the “Green Line,” or the truce lines of the 1948 war of independence. However, in several significant places the wall juts out into the West Bank to surround various Jewish settlements. In doing so, it often separates Palestinian farmers from their fields or convents from the schools they run.

The structure was politically controversial from the beginning. President Bush, Israel’s most important political ally, said on July 23, 2003, “I think the wall is a problem. And I discussed this with Ariel Sharon. It is very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and Israel with a wall snaking through the West Bank. And I will continue to discuss this issue very clearly with the prime minister.”

A month later it was reported that the Bush administration was actually threatening to withhold billions of dollars in loan guarantees from Israel if the Sharon government continued to build the wall through the West Bank. Yet the Israelis, led by a determined Sharon, never halted the construction. And two months later, after some alterations in the wall route made at the request of the White House, the administration ended its public opposition.

But the story doesn’t end there. It can’t. Too many have been harmed by the wall and its winding route. It was time for me to meet them.

The Daughters of Charity

The Daughters of Charity have ministered to the people of the West Bank for centuries. At present they offer services to both Palestinian and Israeli foster children. On the second day of my trip, I was welcomed by Mother Josephine and Sister Lodi. They are a study in contrasts: Josephine tall and reserved; Lodi short, talkative, and ready to show me exactly where the Israeli government stole their land.

Apparently, in early April 2003, Mother Josephine was approached by a group of Israeli military officers who told her that a wall was to be built “very close” to their property: Did they prefer to be on the Israeli or the Palestinian side? This was a tremendous dilemma: The sisters had served this community of East Jerusalem for hundreds of years and were now being asked which neighbors—those to the east or those to the west—to cut off. After much deliberation, they felt constrained to choose the Israeli side because it would interfere less with their staff and the children they house.

The nuns were soon shown a map of the area and were assured that the wall wouldn’t touch their property. But later that month, Sister Lodi heard a loud noise at the back of the monastery property. She went to investigate and found a bulldozer breaking through their stone fence. When she asked one of the soldiers accompanying the construction crew just what they were doing, he pointed a gun at her chest and said, “Sister, go back to your house. We are not to talk to you we are ordered to come here to do what we are ordered to do.”

The men used the bulldozers to prepare the area for construction, destroying the nuns’ orchard of olive and lemon trees. Since it was nearly time for the olive harvest, the sisters asked if they could at least pick the olives before the trees were bulldozed. They were refused.

Split in Two

But the Daughters of Charity isn’t the only religious community to suffer. Not far away, Russian Orthodox Mother Agapia—the sister of former Clinton-adviser-turned-media-star George Stephanopoulos—runs the Bethany School, owned by the Orthodox convent of St. Mary Magdalen.

Unfortunately, the wall has actually separated the school from the convent itself. The sisters now must go around the winding wall and through the numerous checkpoints to get to their school. The Christian children on the other side will soon be unable to attend at all. Mother’s first concern, though, was that the 80 or so Christian families who still remain in the Bethany area will leave. For centuries Bethany, like many cities around Jerusalem, was almost entirely Christian. Not so anymore.

“Out of 15,000 people living here, there are only 70 to 80 Christian families left,” she told me. “Most of them have Jerusalem IDs, and up to this point they’re educated people. They’ve had jobs, whether in tourism or accounting or working for the Franciscan Press, but their lives are on the other side of the wall. So if this wall becomes a case where the people are sealed off, it’s inevitable that they’re going to have to consider moving out of there.”

Mother looks at the future and sees only the physical remnants of Christianity. “We’ll still have the churches,” she said, sadly. “Lazarus’s tomb is down the road about one-half kilometer from the school here, and there’s a Greek convent across the street from us. So the churches themselves may stay, but there won’t be life—the living stones are going to be gone. And I think the situation is going to repeat itself in Bethlehem and within the center of Jerusalem, because the life for the normal people is being squeezed out. They see no hope for the future for their children, and even trying to conduct daily life is becoming increasingly impossible. The Holy Land is being mutilated.”

I asked her if being covered from head to toe in a black habit made it difficult to get through the checkpoints. She nodded. “There’s a route that we should be able to easily get from Bethlehem, and we can’t do it. I have sisters, nuns in our community, who during the nativity season, tried to enter Bethlehem to go to a church service and were turned away by the Israeli soldiers.”

This is the tale I heard again and again as I visited the religious communities of the Holy Land.

Before praying the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday in Old Jerusalem, I took one more look at the wall and the damage being done to Catholic property.

There was once a time when you could walk the path between the Franciscan and Greek Orthodox monasteries and see the beautiful panorama of the Mount of Olives going down and up the hill on the other side. Today, all one can see is a 28-foot wall of concrete. The structure behind the Franciscans hadn’t yet been finished, but that would soon change—the bulldozers and dump trucks don’t observe the holy day. Behind the monasteries—amid the roaring engines—construction workers were excavating the hill and clearing a 25-yard space on either side of the wall. The area was to be transformed into a militarized zone.

Walking up the hill from the Franciscan monastery toward the creek, flanked by a big earth-moving shovel truck, I looked at the freshly turned earth. It wasn’t hard to imagine that some relics from the time of Christ—Roman coins, maybe?—might still be in that dirt. We’ll never know, as the piles were later removed and discarded.

For a moment, I stood in the gap of an unfinished section of the wall and looked out over the beautiful sight of East Jerusalem stretching up to Lazarus’s Tomb. Will anyone ever see this view again?

A Meeting with the Nuncio

The papal nuncio of Jerusalem is Msgr. Pietro Sambi and he welcomed me in the manner of a natural diplomat: I felt immediately at ease, and he treated our meeting as if it were the most important event of his day (though it surely was not). Among his many responsibilities as nuncio is to, represent the political and legal concerns of the Holy See in Israel. This is no small task. When I met with him he was not only very concerned about the wall but also about the disturbing number of religious worker visas that were being turned down by the Israeli government.

When I asked him if he thought the construction of the security wall would backfire on Israel, he didn’t dodge the question. “The wall will damage the image of Israel in the sense that it contradicts the values of the Israeli people,” he explained.

That’s not to say that he doesn’t understand their reasons for building the structure. “It must be clear, terrorism has to be condemned, especially when it is against [a] civil and innocent person. Secondly, terrorism will never bring peace. There is a Chinese proverb that when the fish is swimming, it means that there is water. If you want the fish to stop swimming, you have to take away the water. And you have to take away the reasons for terrorism, by which those in this region justify themselves.”

Sambi felt that the “road map” formally proposed by Middle East negotiators in May 2003 was a good way to remove the conditions that promote terrorism—by creating a Palestinian state, most notably. The wall accomplishes just the opposite: “It is a monument to division and to a future of conflict. It’s separating students from the schools, sick people from the centers of health, people from their places of work, faithful from their places of prayer and what is extremely important in the Palestinian society is creating a belief in family relations…and this is disrupting the basis of Palestinian culture.”

Meeting with the Patriarch

I could not end my trip without a visit to Archbishop Michel Sabbah, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem. (I am privileged to be a knight in the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, and the patriarch was going to give me a palm for my pilgrimage to the Holy Land.) His reputation preceded him: Sabbah is considered the bête noir of the Catholic Church for the Israeli government—fiercely outspoken in his criticism of Israel for their treatment of Palestinians. He didn’t mince words with me either.

I first asked him about the dwindling presence of Christians in the Holy Land. According to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, 40 percent of all Christians have left Israel since 1967. There are now around 72,000 Latin-rite Catholics in the whole of Israel, Palestine, and Jordan combined. I wondered if he thought this was an intentional effort on the part of the Israeli government.

He shook his head. “It is not the intention of Israel. But the fact is, the government creates pressures—such as the visa question—which threaten the existence of the Christians in the Holy Land. The Holy Land Christians themselves are caught between the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis,” he explained. “You cannot distinguish Palestinian Christians…. Siege is imposed upon all villages and towns, whether they are Christian or whether they are Muslim…. Therefore, this situation of Christians depends absolutely on the general situation of peace and violence in this land.”

But given the spiritual importance of Israel, I asked, why haven’t Catholics in the United States responded more substantially to the crisis? Sabbah noted that it’s partly due to their ignorance of the full situation but also because Americans are far removed from the realities of the Holy Land. “Awareness is needed because Christians everywhere have an obligation towards the Holy Land, and not only towards the Christians, but towards Jews and Muslims, as well. The basic call of any Christian is reconciliation. Catholics, and all the faithful in all of the churches, should be made aware of what’s going on here, the truth of what’s happening, and be asked not to [take] sides but to help both the Israelis and Palestinians move towards reconciliation.”

The Only Catholic University in the Holy Land

If there is any Catholic institution in the Holy Land that inspires hope, it’s Bethlehem University. The complex sits on a hill close by the Church of the Holy Nativity. Since 1973 it has served thousands of Palestinian students, only a small percentage of whom are Catholic.

The entrance to the university was well-guarded by sturdy-looking security men with guns visibly displayed. But once inside, the atmosphere was that of any other college campus—filled with smiling and cheerful students studying, chatting, and laughing as they moved from class to class.

Brother Vincent Malham has been president of Bethlehem University, owned by the Christian Brothers, for more than eight years. As we sat and talked in the school cafeteria, he told me how much he worries that the wall will soon encircle all of Bethlehem. At present, 20 percent of the students—including many of the Christians—come from Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the placement of the wall may cause the already low number of Christian students to dwindle even further. It will also affect the ability to keep faculty and staff. Even today, the Palestinian faculty members who live in Jerusalem must park their cars at the checkpoint and walk to the university.

“It’s the systematic strangulation of Bethlehem,” Malham said. Indeed, he thinks the Israelis want to see the further deterioration of the Christian presence there. But if that’s true, why don’t the Evangelical Christians—frequent pilgrims to the Holy Land—see the same thing? “I don’t think they get it,” he answered. “I don’t think they’ve even been over to this side. It’s just like so many of our congressmen who are wined and dined on the other side. They’re met at the airport, they’re given red-carpet treatment, they’re given a very specialized, a very restrictive, a very wonderful visit in Israel itself. They’re told to avoid mixing with the Palestinians.”

After lunch he gave me a tour of the new library where a packed room was watching The Passion of the Christ with Arabic subtitles. I shook off the urge to hold an impromptu focus group and followed Malham up to the third floor, where he pointed to the spot Israeli rockets were fired into the building shortly after it opened during the riots of 2002. The Israeli commander claimed that a sniper was shooting at the soldiers from the library, even though eyewitnesses reported that the shots came from nowhere near the university.

We climbed up onto the roof of the chapel at Holy Family Hospital and stood alongside a statute of Mary that overlooks the town. The statue itself had just been restored from the damage it suffered when Israeli troops used it as target practice for their automatic weapons.

A Terrible Mess

My time in Israel left me with one overriding conclusion: The few Christian institutions remaining in the Holy Land must be protected and supported. Where else in this area—except for Bethlehem University—are Palestinian students, Muslim and Christian alike, filling an auditorium to watch a screening of The Passion? What will happen when the remaining Christian children are walled-off from schools run by the likes of Sister Agapia? What will become of the elderly when they can no longer receive care from Sister Josephine?

Against Israel’s history of conflict and the layers of hatred on both sides, the Christian remnant is being crushed. Something must be done to protect what’s left of their presence in the Holy Land. And that’s why the wall deserves our attention. For it isn’t simply a barrier against terrorism, but yet another obstacle to those who persevere in the land where Jesus walked.

Published in Crisis Magazine, January 1, 2005.

Christian Zionism, Evangelicals, and Israel

Deal W. Hudson
Published April 30, 2009

Rev. Stephen Sizer probably knows more about Christian Zionism than anyone in the world. At least, it seemed that way as we sat in the coffee shop at a Border’s bookstore in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Reverend Sizer has been an Anglican priest for 30 years, serving a parish in the UK with the quaint name of Christ Church Virginia Water.

Two of Reverend Sizer’s books, Christian Zionism (2004) and Zion’s Christian Soldiers (2007) are considered indispensible for understanding the steadfast support of U.S. Evangelicals for Israel. On the last leg of a speaking tour, Reverend Sizer was gracious enough to speak with me about the reasons why Evangelicals have become such a strong political lobby for Israel.

Reverend Sizer started the story with the “Six-Day War” of 1967, when Israel took occupation of East Jerusalem, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza strip. “Many leading Evangelicals, such as L. Nelson Bell, the father-in-law of Billy Graham, welcomed that war as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy,” he said. In Christianity Today, Bell wrote, “That for the first time in more than 2,000 years Jerusalem is now completely in the hands of the Jews, gives the student of the Bible a thrill and a renewed faith in the accuracy and validity of the Bible.”

Israeli politicians, Reverend Sizer went on, seeing the opportunity for strengthening U.S. support, started courting leading Evangelicals like Jerry Falwell, Pat Boone, Anita Bryant, and Pat Robertson. Out of gratitude for his public support, the Israeli government gave Falwell the gift of a Lear jet for his personal travel. And with the election of the Evangelical Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Ronald Reagan in 1980, the strong pro-Israel stand found its way into the White House.

The 1967 war was followed in 1970 by Billy Graham’s feature-length film His Land and the publication of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, the best-known apologia of Christian Zionism. The following year, Dr. Carl F. H. Henry organized the Jerusalem Conference of Biblical Prophecy, attended by 1,500 delegates from 52 nations. Welcomed by Prime Minister Ben Gurion, many of the speakers proclaimed that Israeli control over Jerusalem was an irrefutable sign that God’s final “dispensation” had begun. For Reverend Sizer, the theology of “dispensationalism” among Evangelicals is what best explains the rise in Evangelical support for Israel since the 1967 war. (Dispensationalist theology is taught in the notes of the highly influential Scofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909.)

Dispensationalism comes in various forms, but the common thread is a division of biblical history into discreet “dispensations,” culminating in a final dispensation through which God will deal directly with the Jews when Israel has been reestablished. The Church, in other words, is distinguished from Israel, which is responding to a distinctive set of God’s promises. Reverend Sizer summarized it this way: “God has a separate plan for the Jews – there are two covenants, two people, and two faiths.”

Since Christ will not come to earth to establish His kingdom, and the Jews cannot be saved, Israel must be allowed to settle on the land given to the Jews by God. According to Reverend Sizer, this is the reason Evangelicals not only support the settlements on the West Bank but also help to finance them. Reverend Sizer thinks part of the reason President Carter lost the support of Evangelicals was because he began to vacillate on the settlements.

Reverend Sizer went on to explain that there were, of course, historical forces at work in forging the relationship between the United States and Israel. Until 1980, the world was split into two factions, communism and democracy, and “Israel was seen as the bastion of democracy in the Middle East, as our friend. As communism declined, Islam became the enemy, and the U.S. once again needed Israel on its side.”

Reverend Sizer disagrees with the dispensationalist view of Biblical history, as you discover in Zion’s Christian Soldiers, but he is not interested in waging a theological war with America’s Evangelical community. A gentle man with a ready smile, he wants to meet with Evangelical leaders, so that “we can all be made more aware of our working assumptions.” When I got together with him, Reverend Sizer had just spoken with a group of several hundred Evangelicals in South Carolina. “It was a delightful meeting, no one got exercised – it was a constructive conversation.”

Most Catholics live in a world well apart from discussions of dispensationalism, the Second Coming, and the role of Israel in the final days. But, as I learned from Reverend Sizer, these are not merely in-house theological concerns belonging to our Evangelical brethren; they are assumptions that have had – and will have – a powerful influence on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and especially in negotiations between Israel and Palestine.

A two-state solution means, from the dispensationalist viewpoint, that Israel would be denied its existence on all the land bestowed by God. That’s why Pat Robertson protested so strongly against Ariel Sharon’s removal of the settlements from the Gaza strip, and later said Sharon’s subsequent coma and death were the result of God’s wrath. Robertson’s outburst was unseemly and disturbed the Israelis, but it was evidence of the deeply held convictions in the Evangelical community that Israel must never give up any of the land gained in the 1967 war.

Remember the Palestinians

Deal W. Hudson
Published May 3, 2010

The Holy Land is a place of stories. Everyone has a story about Israel and the occupied territory called Palestine by those who live there. Many of the events are drenched in blood – often that of relatives present or past – which is why, when story is pitted against story, death against death, little progress is ever made.

Even visitors have their stories – not about death but about their encounters with Palestinians and Israelis, who sadly become the occupied and the occupier when you arrive there. For the past 43 years, Israel has exercised a military occupation over much of what we call the Holy Land. When visitors take the time to learn about the lives on both sides of the walls, barriers, fences, roads, and settlements that now separate the peoples, their stories will change – just as mine did.

Like most Americans, when I went to the Holy Land for the first time in 2004, I considered Israel our best friend, ally, and the only democratic nation in the Middle East. And, as a Christian, I’ve always felt a special affinity with the Jews; the horrors of the Holocaust were enough for me to justify the re-founding of the nation of Israel after World War II.

I still believe all these things, but without the naïveté that tells the story as if it were the ‘good guys versus bad guys.’ There are no white hats here, except for those mostly unknown individuals on both sides who refuse to yield to the hate that pits “Arab” vs. “Jew.”

I’ve been to the Holy Land four times in the past six years. I’m certainly no expert, though much of my time there was spent talking to those who were, including Israeli generals, journalists, rabbis, activists, and members of the government. On the Palestinian side, I’ve met with the present president and prime minister, members of the Palestinian administration, mayors of towns on the West Bank, priests, and activists. I’ve also had the privilege each visit of meeting with the patriarch, the papal nuncio, and the head of the Franciscan Custos. (On two of my trips, I was also blessed to have the late Robert Novak and his wife Geraldine in my small group.)

Most Americans know very little about Israel, apart from the typical boosterism they read and hear in the media, and those who go on tours are usually kept away from the occupied territory. Thus, the average American knows even less about life among the Christians and Muslims in the occupied territory called Palestine, a land encompassing places like West Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, Hebron, Nablus, Ramallah, and, of course, the rubble-strewn Gaza strip.

Israel has occupied this territory since the Six-Day War in 1967. It withdrew from the Sinai in 1982 as part of the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt, and technically withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but it remains the de facto occupying power by virtue of its military lockdown of Gaza’s borders. A limited degree of rule was granted to the Palestinian National Authority over the occupied territories in 1994 by the Oslo Accords.

As I consider how my attitude toward the Israel-Palestine conflict changed, the reasons all arise from the fact that Palestinian lives and property are completely subject to the designs of the Israeli government and the force of the Israeli military. There is no rule of law in the occupied territory – men and women are taken into custody in the middle of the night, houses and land are confiscated, centuries-old olive groves are cut to the ground.

Slowly, little by little, the fabric of life – knit over centuries in these cities and villages – is being torn apart. When they’re old enough, the children leave for other parts of the world, and their parents don’t blame them. Business and agriculture suffer, especially as the water resources are gobbled up by the burgeoning Israeli settlements, and the freedom of movement is increasingly restricted.

During Holy Week in 2004, I saw how the Israeli tractors dug huge trenches along the Mount of Olives to build their “safety fence.” The fact that this property belonged to convents, monasteries, and Catholic schools didn’t matter – one sister who objected to the unannounced early morning digging on convent property was told to “get back inside” with a gun pointed in her face.

If any kind of solution is to be found, Israel must respect all people’s rights, including Christians, Muslims, and Jews. This is no zero-sum game; there will be two winners or two losers.

The respect for rights needs to be observed even in the face of danger, such as the rocket bombings of Sderot that led to Israel launching daily bombing attacks on Gaza from December 27, 2009, to January 18. Yes, the citizens of Sderot had every right to be protected, but at the cost of 762 Palestinian non-combatants’ lives, including over 300 children? This was the nadir of the United States’ hands-off attitude toward Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Israel has legitimate security interests – the wave of suicide bombings that led to the 2002 Intifada fundamentally changed the relationship with Palestine. But some of Israel’s “security” initiatives – like the barrier around Bethlehem – seem to be more about stealing land for settlements.

The fact is, there will be no peace in the Holy Land until the occupation ends. The chances of this have gotten worse rather than better since my first visit. Not only are Israel and Palestine at an impasse, they are approaching another boiling point.

Many Israelis believe it’s in their best interest to seek a two-state solution and end the occupation, and many Palestinians know that further radicalization of Islam will only ensure the occupation will last for years to come. Therein lies the only hope the region really has – that new leadership will emerge on both sides, tired of the conflict and ready to put aside old stories of violence and loss in favor of something new.

A Common Friend to Both – A Visit with Archbishop Chacour

Deal W. Hudson
Published August 3, 2010

Archbishop Elias Chacour of the Melkite Church in Israel is a remarkable man. Nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, the author of three books on religion, and now in his early 70s, he’s an internationally recognized leader in the effort to find a peaceful solution to the hostilities between Jews and Arabs.

“We don’t need anyone else to become the enemy of the Jews or the Arabs,” he told us. “We need people to become the common friend of both.”

He kindly received our small group at his residence in Haifa and spoke with us for well over an hour. “Why are you here?” he asked with a smile. By the time we’d left, we all had a better idea of how to answer that question.

Chacour was eight years old when the Israeli soldiers entered his Palestinian village in 1948, the year of Israel’s founding. The village of Biram is in the region of Galilee near Nazareth. His father had prepared a banquet for the soldiers – he fed them and they slept in the family’s beds. After enjoying the hospitality, the soldiers ordered everyone to leave the village; their land and homes were being “annexed.”

The residents fled up into the adjacent hills and lived for several weeks until a group of the village fathers ventured back to ask if they could return. The men wouldn’t return for months. Eventually the fathers, including Chacour’s, found their way back to the families living in the hills near their confiscated village. The men had been put into trucks and taken to the other side of the West Bank, dropped off, and told never to return. They walked through Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon to rejoin their families.

The Palestinians took their case to the Israeli Supreme Court, which ruled three times in their favor… only to have the military continue to block their homecoming. Finally, in 1952, they descended the hills to return to their houses, only to watch Israeli bombers level the town in front of their eyes.

“My father told all his children never to hate, never to seek retribution,” the archbishop said, choking back the strong emotions he obviously still felt from that experience so many years ago.

Chacour was the only one of the four sons to become a priest, thus fulfilling his father’s fervent wish. He studied in Paris for six years, returned to Galilee, and became a parish priest in a small village much like the one he was born in. His book Blood Brothers, first published in 1984, brought Chacour into the public eye leading to his appointment as archbishop (archimandrite) in 2001.

Before we left, I asked “Abuna,” as he is also called, if he had a personal message I could record for Catholics in the United States. You will find it here.