A holy conundrum

What I learned with 80 Jews and Christians in the Holy Land

“It’s complicated.”

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That’s the phrase that stuck in all of our minds during a remarkable 10-day interfaith trip to Israel and Palestine last month. Eighty hearty souls traveled to the Holy Land — about half associated with Temple Emanu-El and half with Wilshire Baptist Church. Rabbis David Stern and Nancy Kasten (David’s wife) joined me as religious docents, complementing our two Israel-based travel guides.

The two congregations have nurtured a growing relationship for more than 20 years. We have worshipped together many times at temple and church. Rabbi Stern and I have spoken together at high schools, colleges and civic organizations. We long ago left behind the uneasy cordiality of initial probing conversations for the hard work of reckoning respectfully with our real religious differences. Those differences define our theology more than our faith and work.

“It’s complicated” is a phrase that describes so much of what we have discovered with and about one another over time and during our time in the Holy Land. Why do Jews practice the faith of Jesus without putting their faith in Jesus? Why do Christians put their faith in Jesus without practicing the faith of Jesus? In short, there is no short answer to these questions; there is only a long listening to each other about our histories as people of God. And we do have history, Jews and Christians — some of it growing from the common root of Jesse, some of it branching out so far we aren’t always sure we can rediscover that common ground. What’s clear is that it’s complicated and that we should seek simplicity only on the other side of complexity.

The lands of Israel and Palestine are complicated, too. For many Jews and Zionist Christians, the entire land belongs to the Jews because it was promised to Abraham and his seed in Genesis. Forget the borders of the British Mandate, United Nations resolutions, or peace treaties with the Palestinians: the Bible is all the deed they need. Most Jews, however, and Christians like me claim something else. God’s promise of the land, like God’s covenant with Israel, always required that the people of God act justly toward one another and toward their neighbors. Injustice invalidates any claim of God’s provision and protection. The security of the State of Israel can never last if it comes at the expense of justice for those who have been denied freedom and rights to live in the land with them. Peace has to be made before it can be kept. The military can’t make peace.

Likewise, Palestinians want a homeland in the land they called home before 1948. The Arab population poses a great challenge to Israel as a state. For one thing, the Arabs constitute 20 percent of the citizenry of the State of Israel, even though they are treated like second-class citizens because of the dual nature of Israel as a Jewish state and a democracy. The Palestinians who live in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza are divided Muslim and Christian, the former representing about a 98 percent majority. Native Christians — whose holy sites in the Holy Land such as Bethlehem (West Bank), Jerusalem and Nazareth (Israel) — are a small double minority as Arabs among Jews and as Arab Christians among Arab Muslims. They are tragically disappearing from the land Jesus called home.

Palestinians will never prevail against Israel as long as they continue to employ violence as a means of achieving their ends. Radical Muslim terrorism is no more effective politically than the Israeli military defense in securing a robust and hopeful future.

Eighty Jews and Christians have learned the path to peace. Trust and respect lead to friendship and even love.

It’s complicated, but it’s not impossible. With God nothing is impossible.