This is a reflection on Israel from a different angle, not normally discussed in the Jewish community and that’s Christians in the Holyland and the Palestinian territories. And why do I care? Well, for all sorts of reasons, starting with the fact that I’m the Director of the Council of Christians and Jews in the UK, so it’s essential that I’m aware of and sensitive to issues that affect both the Christian and Jewish communities.
I’m often naively asked by members of the Jewish community: Why do Christians care so much about what happens in Israel/Palestine?
The question is normally presented on a spectrum of slightly negative to suspicion, with an inference of ‘what’s it got to do with them?’
The answer is very simple.
Christians care about other Christians, and even more so in the place where Christianity began and where Jesus was born and resurrected. And how much more so, when one reflects that the majority of tourists to Israel each year are Christian pilgrims, in a country where there remains only a tiny Christian community.
This in itself is an important fact to reflect on.
Arab citizens of Israel account for approximately 20% of the Israeli population with Christians less than 2% of that number. Arab Christians number some 135,000, although in recent decades the number of Christians in the Holyland has almost doubled due to foreign workers and asylum seekers.
And why do I care personally? That’s also simple.
I’m part of a Jewish minority community in the UK that is almost exactly the size of the Christian community in Israel, so I’m uniquely sensitive to what it means to be a minority: to want to be relevant and heard despite being numerically challenged!
This past week I set out to learn as much as possible about the unique situation of Arab Christians in Israel and the West Bank as a guest of the International Council of Christians and Jews.
Christians in Israel are connected to Christians in the West Bank, through religious, family and national ties. This is also something sometimes not understood well by Jewish communities.
In order to full immerse ourselves within the Christian community, we were based at Ecce Homo convent in the Old City of Jerusalem that gave us a very unique perspective on Christian life there.
I’ll be honest. I lived in Jerusalem for 23 years. I arrived before the first Intifaada, and I left after the evacuation from the Gaza strip and while I did and still do work and engage widely with the Arab community, most of my encounter has been with Muslims in Israel.
I didn’t seek out the Christian community and I wasn’t familiar with their lives and the challenges they face.
When I first received the invitation to spend a week in the Christian quarter in Jerusalem I was anxious.
I didn’t know my way around and I was worried about getting in and out late at night.
These fears are legitimate since terror attacks do and have taken place in the Old city, particularly around the Damascus gate.
But equally I wanted to challenge myself to experience a different reality in my home city.
I knew instinctively it was a chance I couldn’t pass up. During the week I was there, I had an in-depth introduction to all the different Christian denominations, visited their Churches and met with their leaders. The incredible diversity of Churches from every corner of the world represented in that small area is also important.
Aside from the United States, Israel has more Christian denominations than anywhere else in the world. It was also wonderful to catch up with our Anglican colleagues in the Anglican Cathedral established in 1899 and the seat of the Bishop of Jerusalem in East Jerusalem.
If you’ve never been its well worth a visit, both for its beauty, but also for the story that it tells of a struggling Christian community, where the Church school now only serves a handful of Christian students.
Importantly, because the Christian community is small and vulnerable they are often caught between different narratives: the narrative of Arab citizens of Israel, of Palestinians and the narrative of the modern Jewish state of Israel.
In particular I was very moved by a meeting with an Evangelical Lutheran Pastor in Ramallah, who when I asked him what message he would like me to take back to the UK, said: ‘Don’t be more Israeli than the Israelis and don’t be more Palestinian than the Palestinians. Don’t import the conflict’.
I thought this was incredibly brave for someone coming from such a small and vulnerable Christian community.
Christians in the Holyland are a minority within a minority. I came away from the trip moved by the Christians I had met; the communities they serve, the contribution they make to wider society, their unique history in the Holyland and the daily challenges they face.