I have a lot to process.
Today has been radically different from yesterday. In the ecumenical purpose of this trip, we won’t walk away pro-one side and anti-another; instead, we will be pro-both and pro-peace. The intention, I believe, is for us to learn how to love and honor the best in both groups while denouncing and working to end injustice wherever we see it. Sometimes, that injustice to call out might be within in our own hearts as Christians, largely outsiders in this conflict (aside from the small percentage of Christians living within the land; estimates around 1% in Palestinian Territories at this point), yet with hands that are stained with innocent blood. Soaked, even. Metaphorically, my hands, even.
It’s easy for me to look at the Israelis and the Palestinians and identify the groups’ respective flaws and traumas that have prevented peace thus far. But it’s a lot harder for me to look at myself in the mirror honestly and use the same fair(?) critique and (attempted) objectivity on myself. Do I give both groups equal respect, or do I favor one narrative more than the other? On my home court, do I give Republicans and conservative Christians their fair chance, or have I already written them off as totally useless to the reconciliation work that we will be doing in the United States for the foreseeable future – that I am the one with all the answers and they are the ones who bring all the problems, point blank, end of story?
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
– Matthew 7:3-5 (NIV)
I’ll write about what a talk from a self-described “left-wing, skeptical Orthodox Zionist Jew” (author and Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg), conversations with rabbinical students, and a visit to the Israeli Museum’s special exhibit on depictions of Jesus in Jewish art reminded or taught me about my own problematic understandings of Judaism through a Christian lens and the idea of a Jewish state. I need to continue to open my eyes more.
Some personal background: I grew up atheist in an immediate family of atheists and agnostics. I converted to Christianity at the age of 20 in the South, specifically Nashville, TN, the buckle of the Bible belt. This meant that most things that weren’t a particular flavor of evangelical Protestant were looked down on as being less Christian (or perhaps even not). This also meant that most of the people in my church hadn’t met or maintained meaningful friendships with many Jewish people. The question in the South is “What church do you go to?”, not “Do you go to church, synagogue, mosque, other, or none of the above?”. That means that it’s really easy for some bad at best and deadly at worst theology to slip into sermons: anti-Semitism, supersessionism and the kind of right-wing, extremist Zionism that can lead to dispensationalism. If you don’t know what these are, it’s time for you to look them up. It’s important, and I want you to have true spiritual, moral, and intellectual engagement with the topics, especially if you are a Christian and especially so if you are a Christian leader. Because until today, I wasn’t aware that any bits of these terrible theologies had slipped, even in tiny amounts, into my subconscious because of where and how I became a Christian.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
I barely paid attention to world history until I was about 16. This certainly didn’t help to prevent any parts of these bad theologies from creeping in. I cared about US history from the time of having a fantastic teacher in 8th grade, but world history, especially religious history (I was an atheist at the time, after all) went in one ear and out the other. I’m sure I knew the deeper religious undercurrents of major world events until the test I memorized them for was over, but the concepts never really stuck. This semester, in preparation for this trip, I took both an early church history class and a survey of Abrahamic religions, which included brief histories of interfaith relationships throughout time. Once I learned more about the incredibly negative history that Jews and Christians have shared practically from the beginning, I couldn’t help but raise my hand in class one day and ask, “If we’re really going to see the Jews as responsible for the crucifixion, shouldn’t we be thanking them…? In the awfulness of the crucifixion comes the unbreakable joy of the resurrection.” One of my professors for the course, who grew up Jewish and is now Christian (but of course, still clings tightly to her ethnic and cultural background), looked me right in the eyes and said, “I wish they had thought of that two thousand years ago.” Earlier on this trip, we saw a Greek icon of Jesus in the manger in burial garb – a representation that was supposed to calm Christian anti-Semitism by reminding people that Jesus was sent here for many things, including to die. Today, we went to the Israeli museum and they had a whole art exhibit about Jesus in Jewish art and it more was humbling, heart breaking, and convicting than I could possibly try to describe, and it got me to thinking about my own heart.
The cross is not a symbol of hope and redemption to Jewish people. It is a symbol that people killed behind the guise of. It is a symbol that was reappropriated after the Holocaust in some art pieces in order to show that the Jewish people, in losing 6 million of their own families, were just as unjustly and viciously harmed as Jesus – a Jew Himself. The cross is a sign of a people who called them blind and deaf to Jesus and told them that the promises of God were truly not for them in the first place. The cross is a reminder of people helped the Nazis rise to legitimacy. The cross is something that has fallen so far from its original purpose and message. The solidarity in Jewish art was with the suffering of Jesus the man rather than Jesus the Divine. But it was a solidarity that was deep. I saw art that put the cross in context from a different perspective today, and it made me want to weep. But, again, just as on other days, there were no tears that fell. Just a silent cry in my heart that said, I must do better. We must do better.
Where do I go from here? How do I continue to be passionate for ending human rights violations happening at the hands of the Israeli state while understanding that one of the main reasons for the extremist edges of Zionism we see here in the first place was the danger that Jews faced everywhere in the world, especially during the Holocaust? How do I put my own piece of Jewish history into my Christianity, as someone who has a maternal side of the family that largely became atheistic after the Holocaust, and I barely feel attached to the culture? How do I make sure that anti-Semitism isn’t slipping into my readings, sermons, and activism?
I am thankful for Israelis who are fighting to end the occupation. I am thankful for Gershom Gorenberg’s living example that one can be Zionist without being an extremist who doesn’t care about the plight of the Palestinian people. I am thankful for the rabbinical students that we met today at a local Conservative Judaism rabbinical institute, Schechter Institute, many of whom are from abroad and doing part of their training here before returning to their (other) home. They taught me the saying, “2 Jews, 13 opinions.” They’re helping me to remember things I forgot, or, to be honest, never fully learned in the first place. Though there are radical Israeli settlers who shamelessly take Palestinian land (not out of economic reasons such as cheap housing with higher educational opportunities for children, but simply out of a toxic ideology that they have a God-given right to 100% of the Land and the Palestinians don’t), there are also Israelis and Jews around the world fighting to end the occupation and find a solution. There are Israelis who are creating interfaith and intrafaith dialogues about how to move forward together. They sat with us, ate lunch, and encouraged us to be their colleagues once we’re all out of school, despite the terrible history that we have together. I owe others the same chance to hear their narratives from beginning to end.
Everyone deserves a home, a place where their holidays are celebrated, their mother tongue is spoken in the market, and the streets feel safe to walk, to exist, to flourish. May it come soon to both of these peoples and all others who are displaced and lost in this world. We all must remember what it looks and feels like to dream big in this mess.
“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? ‘I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.’ …Heal me, Lord, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise.”
– Jeremiah 17:9-10, 14 (NIV)