Saturday and Sunday in the Holy Land

by NR Interview
Israel, Christianity, and peace

‘With one voice, the massive crowd responded, Alithos Anesti! Risen Indeed!”

In her book, Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner, American writer Lela Gilbert writes of the miracle of the calming of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Easter, a reflection of the peace she’s found living in the Holy Land. She talked about the land, the people, and the peace she’s found, as well as the challenges, with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Aren’t Christians leaving the Holy Land? Why would you do the reverse?

LELA GILBERT: Actually, Israel is the only country in the Middle East where the Christian population is growing. This doesn’t include the Muslim-majority territories under the Palestinian Authority where — as in the rest of the Middle East — Christians are leaving. I am not, of course, part of Israel’s indigenous Christian population, which is comprised primarily of Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Arabs (there are a few Evangelicals but not many). That comprises an entirely different group of believers than the various Western Catholic and Protestant individuals who live and work in Israel for various reasons and for a limited time. As for me, I’ve made many remarkable friendsand it is going to be painfully hard to leave them.

LOPEZ: To what extent do you find the Holy Land holy?

GILBERT: There are guns and land mines, missiles, barbed wire, checkpoints, and an ominous wall dividing Bethlehem from Jerusalem. That’s a depiction of Israel I sometimes heard from people who warned me not to go! In actual fact, most all the places I’ve visited (and, most notably my Jerusalem neighborhood — although it’s not what’d I’d call “holy”) always somehow embody traces of the sacred. There always seems to be a breath of holiness in the Jerusalem air — something energetic, inspiring, and immediate. A presence, perhaps? Maybe — I’m not sure. But on a more mundane level, like much of Israel, Jerusalem is picturesque, quiet, friendly, and populated by peace-loving Israeli families.

Perhaps it’s a little-known fact, but Israelis want peace more than anyone. Why? Because everyone who has lived there for any amount of time has been wounded by the Holocaust, terrorism, and the brutalities of several wars — wars launched by Israel’s neighbors. I don’t know anyone who is untouched by these things. Security issues have cost Israel thousands of lives over the country’s 65-year history, not to mention innumerable horrific injuries. The reason for checkpoints and the security fence lies in these dangers, which continue to be exposed and defused on a daily basis. So the Holy Land is far from holy in its earthly history. It is bloodstained — and whatever holiness may endure exists despite several thousand years of conflict. Yet there’s still something wonderful there. I wish I knew precisely what to call it.

LOPEZ: Is it important for Christians to be there?

GILBERT: I think it’s important for Christians to be everywhere. We are called to reflect God’s light into the world wherever we go. And that’s why, of all people, Christians shouldn’t be driven from the Middle East. Their communities have been around since the first century, and their ancestors were among the first followers of Jesus. These old churches preceded the Muslims by hundreds of years. It’s impossible to overstate their importance.LOPEZ: Most Christians there don’t seem to be as sympathetic to the plight of Jews there as you are. Is that a fair assessment?

GILBERT: I suppose it depends on which Christians you mean. There is a great deal of support for Israel in America and in the developing nations where Christianity is spreading like wildfire. There is less support in some other parts of the world, where anti-Semitism runs deep and, at times, is not corrected because of some problematic theological interpretations, such as replacement theology — the belief that the Christian Church replaced the Jews in God’s sight as His chosen people, so that the Jews are now under an eternal curse. That teaching continues to do great harm to Christian-Jewish relations.

LOPEZ: Is there solidarity in the Holy Land around this time of year?

GILBERT: Passover and Easter fall at around the same time every year, and they are profoundly meaningful and awe-inspiring holidays for Jews and Christians. I’ve attended several seders during my years in Israel, and the miraculous story of the Exodus — so carefully retold and depicted with symbolic foods and described in the Haggadah — still touches my heart with amazement: Here are Jewish people, sitting around this table with me, after centuries of saying “Next year in Jerusalem.” Now they are home at last! Meanwhile, thousands of Christians gather to celebrate ancient Easter liturgies. God’s power is revealed to his people year after year during these sacred holidays. These two faith traditions come together in the seder because, according to the New Testament, the “Last Supper” Jesus shared with His disciples was in fact a seder. Biblical Christians believe that Jesus became the final sacrifice for the sins of the world. His blessing on the meal, particularly on the bread and wine, foretold His death, His resurrection, and our eventual meeting with Him in the next world.

LOPEZ: Who are “the forgotten refugees” and why are they important to talk about?

Gilbert: Between 1948 and 1978 around 850,000 Jews were expelled from Muslim countries. In most of those countries only handfuls of Jews remain today. It is important to talk about this for several reasons — one is that the stories of these people, who were driven out of their ancient homelands with nothing but the shirts on their backs, a single suitcase, and no passport or rights to their property, are indeed forgotten. Another reason to remember them is that they comprise a parallel story to the 650,000 Palestinian Arabs who fled their homes during Israel’s War of Independence, who continue to plead for “right of return” to their homes. There is no similar claim in place for the Jewish refugees. They, instead, have built new lives for themselves and are woven into the fabric of Israeli life. A third reason, of great significance to today’s Christians, is that those same Muslim countries that expelled their Jewish populations are now ferociously persecuting Christians. In several countries, Christians are fleeing for their lives by the thousands; in others there is a silent exodus — they depart in secret to protect those they leave behind. There is a jihadi slogan, “First the Saturday People, then the Sunday People,” used to incite religious cleansing in Muslim lands. In my book, there’s an image of a flag confiscated during an anti-Israel demonstration in the 1980s, bearing the words in Arabic: “On Saturday we kill the Jews, on Sunday we kill the Christians.”

LOPEZ: What is the controversy over the Temple Mount, and why is it important?

GILBERT: The Temple Mount is the site where two ancient Jewish Temples stood, the last of which was destroyed by the Romans in a.d. 70. This site is sacred to Jews and Christians alike, because many stories of Jesus recorded in the New Testament took place in that same temple — Jesus even prophesied its destruction. In recent years an effort to “de-Judaize” the Temple Mount (along with the rest of Israel) has been taking place. This became notable when, during the 2000 Camp David Accords, Yasser Arafat declared that there was never a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount. This launched a “cultural Intifada” intended to erase Jewish history from a site that is now only open for Muslim worship.

Because of agreements made after the 1967 War, Jews and Christians are not permitted to openly pray, sing, or read the Bible on the Temple Mount, and archeological exploration on the Temple Mount is forbidden. It has never been excavated. However, the Islamic Waqf, the Jordanian entity which serves as the custodian of the area, illicitly dug out enormous amounts of soil from beneath the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the 1990s and dumped it, by night, into scattered landfills. Archeologist Gabrielle Barkay has been sifting through this soil in recent years, and has found artifacts from as far back as the First Temple period. This is important to Jews and Christians alike, because the Jewish Temple is interwoven throughout both of our Biblical histories.

LOPEZ: Do you have any hope for peace in the Middle East? What might it look like?

GILBERT: I once asked an Israeli taxi driver — who had been ranting about politicians and Arabs and whatever else came to mind — what he thought the answer to Israel’s troubles might be. He paused, studied me in his rear-view mirror for a moment and said, “Do you know about the Messiah?” I laughed and said, “Yes, actually I do . . .” I suppose, as all human solutions seem increasingly futile, that ancient hope really does sum up my hope — and the hope of millions of Christians and Jews — for peace in the Middle East and the world.

LOPEZ: As someone who writes about religious persecution, what would you like to share with Americans about religious freedom?

GILBERT: I have co-authored a book titled “Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians” with Paul Marshall and Nina Shea, my colleagues at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. The book was just released this week, and it couldn’t be more timely. As we Americans experience assaults on our own religious freedoms, it is essential for us to look beyond ourselves and see the horrendous abuses suffered by millions of Christian believers all across the world. They have much to teach us about faithfulness, perseverance and courage under fire — literally under fire. We need to pray for them as we pray for ourselves. Whatever our complaints, we bear the awesome responsibility of being a voice for those whose cries cannot be heard. We ought to keep informed, not only about threats to our own freedoms, but about the life-or-death issues that increasingly confront Christians all around the world. Our Center has just launched a website,, which will aggregate the top stories of religious persecution around the globe to provide updated information about persecuted Christians, as well as other religious minority groups.

LOPEZ: You find Jerusalem peaceful?

GILBERT: Jerusalem remains in the eye of the storm of Arab uprisings, which have swirled around dangerously but, thus far, have done little physical damage within Israel’s borders. What damage has been done to the political and diplomatic situation of the State of Israel remains to be seen. But yes, as the surrounding nations explode, peace continues in much of Israel, most of the time. Meanwhile, Iran’s repeated threats to “wipe Israel off the map” have been heard and understood by most Israelis as an existential threat. But yes, today, there is peace. Tomorrow, God only knows . . . 

LOPEZ: What have been some of the “spiritual” “road signs and revelations” you’ve found there?

GILBERT: My lifelong delight in the story and message of Jesus has been increased, particularly when visiting the Sea of Galilee, where it all began. I find that reflecting on His words, spoken as a first-century rabbi to His own people about everyday life, and the promise of redemption and freedom, is increasingly meaningful to me as when living among His people, His kindred.

LOPEZ: How could “Christianity benefit by sitting at the feet of the Jewish faithful”?

GILBERT: Christians love to visit the lands of the Bible, and to find the historical links to the Gospel. But there are other resources as well, and they are also faith-building. I think we have much to learn from generations of indefatigable Jewish scholars who have analyzed Scripture for centuries, discovering deep meanings and subtleties within the Hebrew language, and offering insights from oral traditions about which many Christians remain unaware. We can agree to disagree about messianic issues and still find common ground in the Word of God.

LOPEZ: What have you learned about fasting and feasting in Israel?

Gilbert: The Jewish holidays are sometimes summed up this way: “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat!” This is shorthand for the fasting that takes place on holy days, while terrifying stories are retold, scriptures are reflected upon, and prayers are recited. As a new day begins at sunset, the focal point changes from sorrow to rejoicing and a feast ensues. Fasting and feasting go hand in hand in remembrance of historic troubles, and in celebrating the human heroes and divine intervention that have turned them into victories.

LOPEZ: What have you learned about prayer?

GILBERT: I suppose my idea of prayer is one of a never-ending conversation with my Maker. He’s a better listener than I, He can make a way where there’s no way, and He has never yet failed me. That has not changed during my years in Jerusalem.

LOPEZ: What have you learned about what brings us together?

GILBERT: We should start with a clear-eyed understanding about the things that tear us apart. Over the centuries, plenty of atrocities have taken place — many in the name of Jesus. Christians sometimes fail to understand that there are real obstacles in the past blocking the way to future friendship and partnership. Although we can’t undo the wrongs of other generations, we can model a kind of unconditional love that refutes them.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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