Peter A. Pettit

A Christian’s love and fear for Israel

The country has been a light for me, but I fear this coalition will narrow Israel’s vision of itself to a parochial ghetto

For nearly four decades as a Lutheran minister, I have been committed to overcoming the anti-Judaism that is endemic to my religious heritage. I have devoted a good deal of my life and professional work to understanding Israel and helping other Christians to do the same. As a people and a state, Israel bears a significance that extends beyond its own interests. 

It matters greatly to the world whether the Netanyahu coalition will succeed in narrowing Israel’s vision of itself to a parochial ghetto. From a dangerous judicial revolution that would destroy Israel’s delicate checks and balances to massive settlement in the West Bank that would destroy chances for a two-state solution, this government is on a collision course with the highest values of the Jewish tradition and Israel itself. 

Like many Christians in the United States, I first encountered the State of Israel as “the Holy Land.” As a teenager, I accompanied my grandparents on a pilgrimage that was organized by their pastor. Israel was exotic, intoxicating, and simple. Or so I thought.

Double my age from that first visit, and I was back as a graduate student in biblical studies, awed by the scholarship I encountered and challenged with the daily reality my family and I were suddenly living. At the Hebrew University, the Shalom Hartman Institute, and Neve Schechter, I was tutored in depths of Judaism that I had never known. I developed friendships with both Israelis and Palestinians and sought to understand more fully the various cultures I encountered. This was before the First Intifada of the late 1980s, but even then it was clear that there was nothing simple at all about “hamatzav” – the situation.

Double my age again from that second visit, and today I am hearing what I thought I would never hear from Jews: it’s simple. It’s simple: just define Judaism one way and ignore the last three centuries of growing Jewish diversity. It’s simple: just give the government the unrestrained power to do what it thinks right and be done with it. It’s simple: just declare victory and annex the West Bank. It’s simple: just blame the Palestinian Authority  and Hamas and the Arab states for Palestinian suffering and move on. It’s simple: just plant our flag and let the world deal with it. 

These claims of “it’s simple” betray three gifts of Jewish culture to the world and to my own spiritual development.

The first is complexity. There are few lessons in the fluidity and complexity of human thought that rival the Talmud. Turn it and turn it, and still not all that is in it becomes apparent, since the world will turn again and a new perspective may open up. The counter opinion is routinely retained in the text and given respect, awaiting the day when it is the necessary word for a new circumstance. That’s not simple.

The second lesson is humaneness. We Christians like to associate compassion with our tradition. Yet it was at the Seder table that I found the most profound expression of compassion when ten drops of wine were dipped out of the cup to remember the suffering of the Egyptians. Far from being an antiquarian memory, the experience of suffering in Egypt – in this case, Hebrew suffering – continues to shape among Jews care for the stranger and those who suffer, “because we were slaves in Egypt.” Humaneness is built into the law so that virtually all halakhic responsibilities defer to the sanctity of human life. That sets compassion for the common stock of humanity, the image of God in every person, at the pinnacle of ethical judgment. That’s not simple.

Finally, sekhel – intellectual nimbleness to navigate competing values in conflicted situations – has characterized the geopolitical path that Israeli leadership has charted since the days when the state was only a glimmer in some dreamers’ eyes. Remaining on a knife-edge readiness for war, even sustaining sub rosa contacts with potential enemies, while building a thriving economy, cultivating international partnerships, and becoming the start-up nation has protected Israel’s existence while keeping it open to more and better possibilities for the future. That’s not simple.

Complexity, humaneness, and sekhel. Each of these virtues, of course, has counterexamples in the record. Individuals and communities have suffered tragically when Israel has failed to live up to its aspirations, with consequences that demand their own reckoning. 

What makes me ache at this time is that some, claiming that “it’s simple,” would willingly abandon  moral and intellectual aspirations in the interests of power and short-term comfort.

As a Christian living outside of Israel, I do not have the association of peoplehood, the knowledge of a resident, or the expertise in judicial and political matters to prescribe for the present moment in Israel’s life. But I deeply believe that the aspirations I have learned from the people and state of Israel are worthy of global application. One need only note how closely they align with the aspirations of those in the 18th and 19th centuries who threw off the “simpler” rule of monarchies and tyrannies to establish democratic states.

As one Christian for whom Israel has indeed been a light, I fear that the dimming of that light behind walls built on simplistic claims and antidemocratic values would darken the world in painful, tragic ways. It is the pain I am feeling now when I see the place and people I have come to love being torn apart and perhaps, God forbid, torn away from me.

About the Author
The Reverend Peter A. Pettit, Ph.D. is teaching pastor at Saint Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa.