The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is often seen as a conflict between Jews and Muslims. But there are also minority communities of evangelical and other Christians who are caught up in the conflict. This includes Jewish followers of Jesus in Israel who call themselves Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians in the West Bank. Sadly, the chasm between Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians is deep. The end-times theology espoused by Messianic Jews can be interpreted in a way that supports the state of Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. At the same time, Palestinian Christians can become so focused on the hardship of living under oppressive military occupation that they forget the justifiable fear of violence that haunts Jewish residents as well.
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International Christians, even those who try to honor the dignity of both Israelis and Palestinians, tend to be labeled as siding with one or the other—either with Jews as God’s chosen people or with Palestinians as victims of injustice. In recent years I have been judged by some as leaning too far toward the latter perspective.
In fact, I was severely criticized for speaking at the March 2012 “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference in Bethlehem. Because it was sponsored by Palestinian Christians, some people assumed it was anti-Israel. Prior to the conference, a writer for The Jerusalem Post called me a threat to the state of Israel; and some American Messianic Jews called me a heretic and an anti-Semite.
To be honest, as the conference approached I regretted having agreed to participate. Was it worth the controversy? And what if the conference inadvertently fueled hostility and division? Rarely have I gone into an event so fearful of outcomes and so earnest in praying for God’s intervention.
Six hundred people from 20 nations attended the five-day conference. More than 30 Palestinian, Israeli, and international speakers presented Bible studies, academic lectures, panel discussions, workshops, and personal testimonials. Teachers as diverse as John Ortberg, Tony Campolo, Chris Wright, Shane Claiborne, Sami Awad, Bob Roberts, Ron Sider, and Joel Hunter taught on forgiveness, reconciliation, nonviolence, and peacemaking.
As I had anticipated, the division between Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians was woven throughout the sessions, but—thankfully—it was no accident. Several keynote sessions were presented by Messianic leaders. “I’m here to ask you to help me make the journey to reconciliation and discover what it means for us to be united,” said Richard Harvey, a Messianic Jewish theologian, church planter, and evangelist. Wayne Hilsden, senior pastor of King of Kings Community, a Messianic congregation in Jerusalem, engaged in a public dialogue with Wheaton College professor Gary Burge about their theological differences. Messianic pastor Evan Thomas and Palestinian Christian Salim Munayer gave a joint presentation about their ongoing work to bring Jewish and Arab Christians together for reconciliation and peacemaking.
In the weeks after the conference, I entered a time of fasting and prayer, pondering the truths of the conference presentations as I listened to them again on Vimeo. As I listened and prayed, I recalled an informal conversation I had during the conference.
After I gave a talk about what I’d learned in Israel and the West Bank in recent years, a man said to me, “I’m a Messianic Jewish theologian from Jerusalem. I believe the Jews have a unique role to play in God’s purposes, and I support the state of Israel. But the kind of injustice you described tonight is unconscionable. We Jews don’t realize what is happening to the Palestinians. Maybe sometime you can come and tell our Messianic congregations what you’ve seen.” I am still stunned that an Israeli Jew suggested that I speak to his friends and colleagues about the daily suffering of Palestinians. Stunned and hopeful.
Few people I know believe peace in the Holy Land is really possible—unless it begins with Israeli and Palestinian Christians. As conference speaker Sami Awad said: “Is peace impossible? Of course! But Jesus is about making the impossible possible.”
Lynne Hybels, co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, is author of Nice Girls Don’t Change the World.