Saturday and Sunday in the Holy Land
Israel, Christianity, and peace

Lela Gilbert, author of Saturday People, Sunday People


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.