Religion & Beliefs

Christians (and Controversy) Descend on Israel for Sukkot

Jerusalem was busy last week as thousands descended on the city for Sukkot and the annual Jerusalem March. This year’s march drew around 70,000 people, up from the 35,000 who participated in 2008. 20,000 police stood by on Tuesday to … Read More

By / October 15, 2009

Jerusalem was busy last week as thousands descended on the city for Sukkot and the annual Jerusalem March. This year’s march drew around 70,000 people, up from the 35,000 who participated in 2008. 20,000 police stood by on Tuesday to oversee the controversial event, after what has already been a tense week in Jerusalem. Thousands of Christians also took part in the march, attending as part of a Feast of Tabernacles celebration hosted by the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem (ICEJ).

Christian presence is a by now a familiar part of the Sukkot milieu, but Israelis have yet to decide what to make of these "friends of Israel." Rabbi Tovia Singer has warned that the Christian congregants want to "prey on" rather than "pray for" Israel, and in 2007 the Chief Rabbinate forbade Jews from taking part in the march and other events with ICEJ presence. Minister of Tourism Stash Misezhnikov, however, has justified the event, stating that the Feast of Tabernacles is the largest annual tourist event in Israel, and is expected to generate between $16 and 18 million in revenue. Who are these "Christian Zionists," and should they be welcomed by Israelis? These questions return each year, and have also surfaced occasionally during events like the death of Christian fundamentalist Jerry Falwall in 2007. Israeli journalist Evan Goldstein at the time pointed out that "philo-Semites, like Falwell, seem to relate to Jews more as mythical figures from the Bible than as real living, breathing people." His analysis was based on the thoughts of German philosopher Ernst Bloch, who wrote that a "philo-Semite is an anti-Semite that loves Jews." As an American Christian who has lived and worked in Israel, I think Goldstein’s diagnosis strikes at the heart of the problem. For many Christians the term "Jews" is understood to denote a homogenous group, often conceptualized as characters in a modern retelling of the Biblical narrative. To visit Israel is to enter into that narrative, as is reflected in the names of Christian Zionist tours: Bridges for Peace offers "Land of the Bible" experiences, the ICEJ gives "Grafted In" tours, CFOIC runs tours of "Judea and Samaria," and the Christian Friends of Israel lead a "Meet the People" tour. With the ICEJ you can even "adopt a holocaust survivor" for $250 a month.The problem of "meeting the people" is that in these discourses, the people are the tourist attraction, living figurines in a life-size diorama of Biblical past and prophecy. When I moved to Israel in 2005, I came equipped with this American Christian picture of Israelis as "Biblical," religious, and European. What I found was a diverse and modern nation of secular, traditional, and religious Jews. Some were of European descent, but there were also Russian, Ethiopian, Iraqi, Yemeni, and many other ethnicities. Among Israeli society I also found a broad variety of opinions on the conflict, and a greater freedom of dialogue than exists in American politics (where the conflict is reduced to a choice between being "pro-Israel" and being labeled an "anti-Semite" or "self-hating Jew").

My "philo-Semitic" understanding of Jews changed quickly, because it was shallowly grounded in media and assumption. However, many Christians who visit Israel leave with their construction of Israel and the Jews intact. Misezhnikov’s comments offer a clue as to why: accepting this discourse is lucrative, and challenging it could hurt tourism. However, perpetuating this discourse keeps Christian-Jewish relations frozen at a choice between "overzealous affection or disinterest" on the Christian side, and "distrust" and even "disgust" on the other. The Sukkot celebrations this week are yet another indication that the relationship between Christians and Jews must change. The view of Jews as "objects" or passive players in prophecy is dangerously dehumanizing. Furthermore, the radical political support Christian Zionism offers Israel is no blessing. It empowers Palestinian, Israeli, and American religious fundamentalists and impedes progress toward peace. Christians and Jews must work together to encourage a more complex understanding of Israel and of the Jewish people. Additionally, Israelis must find new ways to engage with Christians, especially in the area of tourism. Any relationship that emerges is bound to be more complicated, but ultimately it will better benefit both sides. Sociologist Johan Galtung has said that "Every religion contains, in varying degrees, elements of the soft and the hard. For the sake of world peace, dialogue within religions and among them must strengthen the softer aspects." In this way, Israelis can interact with Christians on a more honest level, and forge a better future for Christian-Jewish relations.