As I sit here on my Jerusalem rooftop, my gaze is drawn to the east.
Barely visible in the haze, the mountains of Moab rise over the deep rift of the Jordan Valley. Along the sharp edge of the descent to the Dead Sea on the Israeli side, the skyline rises to Mount Zion and the golden walls of the Old City.
To a Jew like me, the view evokes the ancient stories of my people– Abraham binding Isaac on Moriah, David building his city, the Maccabees taking back the Temple.
But these tales do not speak only to Jews, and stories of other faiths are told about these same hills. One of these faiths, of course, is Christianity. Above the stones and the cypress trees rise the spires of venerable churches – the Benedictine Dormition Abbey, the Presbyterian St. Andrew’s Church, the Church of the Ascension on the crest of the Mount of Olives. Below, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the golden domes of the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Mary Magdalene glint in the sun. To the south along the same ridge, toward Bethlehem, the Greek Orthodox Mar Elias Monastery marks the spot where Elijah is believed to have rested as he fled Queen Jezebel.
Christianity is an intrinsic part of the landscape in Jerusalem, and across Israel. A diverse range of major -and some smaller- denominations maintain property holdings and important shrines.
But it’s not only houses of worship. Ancient communities co-exist in Jerusalem alongside their Jewish and Muslims neighbors. Arab Christian Israelis live and work in the Galilee, and increasingly choose service in the IDF and the police force. Because of the importance of the Holy Land, their properties and communities in Israel, and the prominent role Jews play in their theology, Christians pay close attention to developments here.
Jews in Israel have responded in a variety of ways to the Christian presence and interest in Israel. Many largely ignore the churches and clergy they pass as they go about their business, content to let other communities live unmolested in Israel as long as they afford Jews the same. Some have taken an active interest in the Christian communities around them, participating in interfaith dialogue and protesting when Christians are targeted or neglected.
Unfortunately, a small but vocal—sometimes violent—group of Israeli Jews actively opposes the Christian presence in Israel. They accuse Christians of proselytizing to Jews, attempt to disrupt prayer, and even vandalize churches and assault priests. In June, for example, dozens of Jews shouted epithets at Greek Orthodox worshipers taking part in a Pentecost procession on Mount Zion, calling them “evil” and an “abomination.”
Obviously, the vast majority of Jews do not protest against or harass Christians, but that does not mean all is well. In general, an ignorance about, and distrust of, Christians is widespread among Israeli Jews. Christians are often seen as inherently hostile to Israel or even Jews, and the enthusiastic Zionism of many Christians is dismissed as a transparent ploy to bring about the end times. Even quite liberal and mainstream Jews regularly describe Christianity as idolatry.
Some mistrust is to be expected. Many Israelis had fled Europe at a time when churches were leading proponents of anti-Semitism, and had been for centuries. Important mainstream Protestant churches have displayed an obsession with Israel, and their one-sided declarations raise questions about their real motivations. Some local Christian groups have also thrown their lot in with Arab hostility to Israel, and some Palestinian churches still espouse anti-Jewish teachings that most Western churches have rejected.
But that is no excuse for ignorance and silence.
For many decades now, the Catholic Church has devoted great effort and attention to their relationship with Jews, and their initiatives—earnest yet sometimes poorly expressed—deserve thoughtful and honest response. Other Protestant churches pray passionately for Israel, and visit to show solidarity even in the worst of times, when Diaspora Jews care cancelling their trips. Some Israeli Christians are moving away from a pan-Arab identity, and are looking for ways to throw in their lot with Israel as Arameans.
Jews should care. Christianity is the only other faith that considers all of the Tanakh as the unchanged word of God. Israel’s closest allies are majority Christian countries—many of them with an established national church—and millions of Jews grow up among Christians and count them among their friends and colleagues.
Sure, some Jews will say that because of the centuries of persecution, the weight of history is too great for them to enter into a new relationship with Christians. That is a legitimate position, but it should not be assumed out of ignorance and stereotyping of who contemporary Christians are in all their variety, and what they are working for in their communities, in the world, and in Israel.
Others, hopefully, will recognize the opportunity that dialogue and cooperation with Christians presents. They can work together to build trust and heal old wounds, to ensure Israel’s safety and future, and to make the world and place that is holier and more just.
At this Times of Israel blog, “The Truth Between Us,” Dr. Murray Watson and I will be exploring a wide range of issues surrounding Christianity, Jewish-Christian relations, and the Christian communities here in Israel. The goal is to reach greater knowledge and understanding about issues that lie where Christians and Jews meet. My hope is that this series will be of particular interest to Jews with a desire to understand their Christian neighbors more fully, yet struggle with unresolved questions about Christian religious beliefs and political stances they have encountered.
This is not a space for platitudes or shallow declarations of brotherhood between faiths. Complex subjects will be tackled head-on, challenging questions will be raised, and – God willing- respectful and honest conversation will ensue. Many pieces in the series will involve a conversation with Christian scholars, clergy, and community leaders, as well as Jews – especially in Israel – who have led the crucial and difficult dialogue process with churches and Christian groups.
Good luck to us all as we embark on this journey!