A week in Israel does not make one an expert on the Middle East. Nonetheless, it is eye opening and life changing experience. There were fourteen Christian leaders from the Midwest, mostly strangers, who became lifelong friends courtesy of the American Israeli Education Foundation just before Christmas 2018. Our common bonds were Christ, conservatism, and curiosity. (To be clear, AIEF is a non-partisan, educational organization that reaches out to both sides of the aisle. We encountered our progressive counterparts at Masada. For the record, both sides survived 😉 )
The big takeaways from the week could be discovered in the people, places, politics, and perspectives. All of these are inseparable. You cannot comprehend one without the others. We traveled from the Gaza Strip to the Golan Heights. We visited the Syrian and Lebanese borders. We dined with difference makers, walked the streets of Jerusalem, haggled in the market and prayed at the Western Wall. After all of that, none of us entertains the delusion that we will ever be the same.
Much of what I took in during this visit remains to be digested and further developed. So the following is merely a sketch of my immediate takeaways from the people I met.
The Jewish people are the most precious commodity of the Holy Land. Yet I was surprised that they do not label themselves as either exceptional or chosen. As I told them, I grew up in Sunday School with Jews as my heroes. We learned about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We sat thrill bound by the stories of David and Goliath, Daniel and the Lion’s Den, and Gideon. Jesus is Jewish as were all twelve apostles. I have always believed that God placed a special calling on Jewish people in his plan for this world. (See Genesis 12:1-3.)
While the Jewish people are as happy as any nation to advocate for themselves and their accomplishments, they appear to reject the idea of chosenness or Israeli exceptionalism as an ideology that they believe may be perceived as arrogant and ultimately hurts their cause. What’s more, they never spoke in hateful terms towards their neighbors. Their goal is simply peaceful coexistence.
While they may decline to call themselves exceptional, when we visited the places I personally met some people that are nothing less than exceptional. We walked the streets of a kibbutz merely a mile from the Gaza strip. There I met Chen. She told us of her former friends and neighbors who were Palestinians. They peacefully coexisted and engaged with one another. But in today’s world, they live on the other side of a wall from which balloons will float on the desert air into their neighborhood.
Who wants to teach their children to fear colorful balloons? But in this world where children are required to play just ten seconds from a bomb shelter, they must also be warned not to touch toys that have been converted into incendiary devices. This is the world where there may be an attack at 7:00 am and children are in school by 8:00 am.
Chen misses the days when she was friends and neighbors with those on the other side of the boundary. She longs for the day when they can live peacefully as neighbors once again. But after these attacks, the hurt in her eyes suggests that the word friends might be expecting too much.
Traveling to the northern edge of Israel, Sarit spoke to us at the border of Lebanon. Her children sent a message to us. Everyone wants to know what the children think of the conflict. Are they fearful? Are they angry? Do they harbor hatred? Their message to us? “When they ask you what we think about it, tell them that we do not think about it.”
They wanted us to see them as normal, everyday children. Yet at the same time, Hezbollah is digging tunnels under their borders and into their neighborhoods. While Palestinian children are being taught to hate the Jews, Jewish children are taught no malice or hatred towards their neighbors. Their only goal is peaceful coexistence. They have learned this from the example of their parents.
In the Golan Heights, we enjoyed lunch with the young soldiers in the IDF. I sat with this young man. His life’s ambition isn’t any different than our kids. When I asked what he wanted to do with his life, his answer was simple. “Play basketball.”
“Are you good?” I asked. He grinned. He didn’t want to boast but it was obvious that this point guard was confident in his skills.
“Who is your favorite player?” I asked.
“I don’t want to say Lebron James. That is too easy. Everyone likes him,” he replied with a thick Jewish accent. “Maybe Stephen Curry. He is very good.”
“Yeah, my boys like him too,” I said with a smile.
While every soul that I touched, touched me back, there was one heart whose wound was so fresh and so real that its impact can never be forgotten.
Mary’s personal story melted all of our hearts. She was not a planned contributor. She came to listen to her son, Hillel. He is a self-described tech evangelist, an entrepreneur, journalist, blogger and startup adviser. I think everyone succumbed to his charm, wit, and knowledge of his industry. But we were not prepared for what his mother had to say.
Though she definitely took motherly pride in Hillel, she chose to speak to us of her pride in her other son, Ari. Rather than retell the entire story, I will summarize and provide links.
A young Palestinian was looking for someone who spoke English, whose life he could claim in a terrorist attack. His first target was a young lady working the falafel stand. But then he heard Ari speak in English and stabbed him in in the back, severing a major artery.
Rather than succumb to the fatal injury, Ari pursued and eliminated the terrorist threat, protecting the young lady and preventing further terror. However, his injury was more than he could overcome and he died a hero. His name, Ari, means lion and he has since been hailed as the Lion of Zion.
Listen to Hillel as he commemorates the memory of his brother.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has already begun paying the family of the terrorist as a part of their “pay to slay” program.
While I was incredibly moved by so many personal stories in Israel, I believe this one shook me the most. Before I ever arrived in Israel, I was intent on returning with a shofar from the Holy Land. They come in many sizes and shapes with various types of ornamentation. Because of Ari, I chose one with a lion to commemorate his selfless sacrifice.
I wasn’t sure what words of comfort I could offer to Mary but I remembered the Scripture, “He being dead, yet speaketh.” Ari’s example lives on.
As we watch the news we learn how complicated the geopolitics of the region can be. This was certainly brought home on our trip. But beyond the politics, the perspectives, and the places, there are real people. These are just a few of the ones that touched me but there are many more. So the next time you hear about rockets, terrorists, and tunnels, please remember my friends in Israel. Their hopes, dreams, and love for one another is just like yours and mine. Only their world is a little more complicated than most.