October 23, 2021

Israel-Palestinian debate in Minnesota

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by Geraid McDermott


Alan Rubenstein is a new friend of mine. He was the chair of an international Jewish-evangelical dialogue I joined earlier this year. Alan lives in Northfield, Minnesota. This is the fascinating story of how he tried to mediate conflict among his neighbors over Israel and Palestine by showing them a new movie about the conflict and inviting them to his home for discussion. Forty neighbors showed up.

As rockets flew this past spring, my small Minnesota town found itself divided, which set me on a mission: to convene my neighbors face to face. A new film helped me set the stage.

I reside in Northfield, Minnesota, a town of roughly 20,000 people in the southern part of the state. We have the distinction of being the town whose citizens, in 1876, rose up to oppose the gang of murderous bank robbers that included Jesse James. Since then, the famous line of the town’s vigilantes has become a sort of town slogan: “Get your guns, boys, they’re robbing the bank!” We also have the distinction of being home to two liberal-arts colleges, Carleton and St. Olaf. In addition to my day job at the Tikvah Fund, the philanthropic organization dedicated to Jewish education that is also Mosaic’s publisher, I teach at one of these schools, Carleton. Largely because of the colleges, the political commitments of the town’s citizens make it a politically blue island in a sea of red.
Northfield has no synagogue and, not including the population of the two colleges, only a handful of Jews. Thus, as I have written about before in Mosaic, I have over the years taken on the role of unelected and unsupervised ambassador of the Jewish people in town. Mostly this means hosting Gentile neighbors for Shabbat, Sukkot, and other holidays. But it has always included being an advocate for Israel. The colleges supply a fair amount of ardent Israel-bashers, of course—St. Olaf has a particularly bad record of hosting hostile speakers—but there are also townies who make Israel the target of their activism. We have a cell of activists who take to the local newspapers to detail Israel’s crimes, who organize protests and marches in solidarity with the Palestinians, and who make sure that the mainstream Protestant churches in town are hosting speakers who tell the story of Israel and its Palestinian neighbors in a damning way.

One illustrative incident: for some years I wrote a column for the tiny local paper that explained Jewish observances. One year, after returning from a family trip to Israel to celebrate Passover with friends, I wrote about how joyful it was to spend the holiday in a land where Jews no longer needed to tearfully refuse to sing their songs of Zion and where the Hebrew tongue lived both on and off the pages of the Haggadah. For the next month, the paper’s letters section was full of passionate and very personal denouncements from members of the anti-Israel group. I doubt that any political issue with so little direct effect on the lives of these people has motivated such sustained vitriol.

Thankfully, there is another side to the Israel concern in my town. My public role as an outspoken Jew has also drawn to me many friends from the evangelical side of the Christian divide. They are a tremendous comfort to me and my family. One example: I discovered that there is a prayer group in Northfield that for many years has been meeting on the first Friday night of each month to pray for Israel. Their meetings include reading detailed news reports about what is going on in the country and the region. This is an important point to emphasize: the friends of Israel that I know are not only focused on the symbol—on the Israel of their Bibles and on the prophesies that they see fulfilled by the return of the Jews to the land. These are a crucial part of the picture for them, but the caricature that presents evangelical friends of Israel as ill-informed or fanatical, as people who read ancient texts as if they were modern newspapers or tweets, is simply false. Israel’s Christian friends are very often quite well informed about the political realities of the Middle East, the dilemmas of holding power, and other mundane matters. And still they love Israel.

So now we come to the question that began this reflection: how do my neighbors in Northfield—Israel’s critics and friends alike—react to the Jewish state at war? As rockets flew into Israel from Gaza this past spring, and worrisome street violence broke out in Arab Israeli towns, a new film about Israel and the Palestinians was released. Hope in the Holy Land was produced by the Philos Project, a nonprofit dedicated to Christian engagement in the Middle East. (Its founder and director, Robert Nicholson, has also contributed to Mosaic.) This film was many years in the making but it happened to be released at a moment when Americans were paying especially close attention. With some trepidation, my wife and I organized a showing of the film in our backyard and invited some 100 neighbors to join us for a viewing. Those invited, and the roughly 40 who came, were a diverse group. There were outspoken pro-Israel people and outspoken anti-Israel people. There were Catholics, evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and secularists. There were students and there were professors but there were also people with no academic attachments. And there were many children.

The film follows Todd Morehead, an American Christian who has been educated to see the return of Jews to the Land of Israel as providential and who has been inspired by God’s love of the Jewish people to love them as well. He is troubled, though, by what he has heard about the plight of the Palestinian people and worries that something of moral and religious importance has been withheld from him. And so he sets off to Israel and the West Bank to have candid discussions with historians, theologians, pastoral figures, and many men and women who simply live in the land and face the consequences of the ongoing violence there.

The film short-circuits any inclination you might have to see human beings as simple. Everyone on screen has an inner life, everyone has some human struggle that the viewer can empathize with and relate to. We hear from a Palestinian Christian activist in Bethlehem who advocates non-violent protest against Israel, who recalls a visit to Auschwitz that helped him understand Jewish pain and feelings of vulnerability, and who has a visceral sense of disgust at the mention of Christian Zionism. We hear from a proponent of Palestinian liberation theology who insists that God “is not a real-estate agent” and that the Bible’s report of promises to the Jews of the land can’t possibly be taken literally. We get explanations of Israel policies in the West Bank from sympathetic figures who live in the settlements and from Palestinians who see the West Bank settlements as foreclosing on their dream of a nation-state of their own. We get exposure to a Palestinian refugee camp and hear about how hard life is there and we hear from an Israeli woman whose friends—“all children,” she tells us—were blown up in front of her by a suicide bomber at a dance club.

The filmmakers have done the job of humanizing people in the region so well that you can’t help but call the effort a balanced one. And, in the discussion we had after the film, the guests at our showing expressed appreciation for this balance. At the same time the film took a different tone when it set forth the historical and geopolitical context of the violence. In this arena, one did not hear about competing narratives but rather about the truth of the matter—the hard realities of Arab rejectionism and bigoted miseducation regarding Jews and their connection to the land.

Along such lines, the film devotes significant time to addressing the question of how prepared each society is for a political arrangement that could, in time, foster coexistence. In a memorable sequence, several Palestinians are asked to give both their opinion of Israelis and their sense of how common that opinion is. The sense one gets is that they have been educated to hate and to see acts of violence against Israelis as cause for celebration. And then one is confronted with outrageous lies about Jews that are “common knowledge” on the Palestinian street (including such obvious calumnies as the Jews perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, that the Holocaust did not happen or is exaggerated by Jews to get world sympathy for Zionism, and so on). The filmmakers ask similar questions of Israelis—“what were you taught to think about Palestinians?”—and the overwhelming sense is that they were taught to think of them as human beings who should have the opportunity to live freely and pursue happiness.

Now, if you are starting to sense that the film is not balanced in the sense that it presents all actors as equally culpable for the ongoing conflict, you are right. In the end, this is a film that, in a delicate way, makes a strong case for Israel as a flawed but fundamentally moral country. In addition to conveying how much of a disservice the miseducation of Palestinians is to them, it highlights the corrupt and tyrannical nature of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. The suffering of Palestinians is made vivid, and the culpability for it is pretty squarely laid at the feet of their leaders and (in the longer term) the rulers of the Arab countries and the United Nations. Some of those in my Northfield audience complained that the “balance” was compromised by these tacit judgments. I kept my mouth shut but my thought was “Two subdued cheers for balance. Three hearty cheers for the truth.”

The movie, of course,has to move beyond humanizing portraits and hard truths about politics because they would lead down a one-way road to despair. At roughly the midpoint of the film, the main protagonist, Todd, seems nearly ready to give in to such feelings. But this movie is called Hope in the Holy Land. So where does hope come from? The answer is to be found not where Israelis and Palestinians are most set apart, but rather in those places where they are most intimately building together. We get to see a guest house in an Israeli Arab town that is co-owned by an Arab man and a Jewish woman and whose opening sparks an economic revival. We get to see a Texas-born Jewish settler with the build of a football lineman who has built a house in the Judean desert and chosen to invest in “trees instead of fences.” This man employs local Palestinians and expresses a deep respect for those who join him in the building of the synagogue. We get to see a confection factory in the West Bank that employs many Palestinians who labor and relax alongside their Jewish Israeli co-workers. (The latter story is told in the context of an unqualified assault on the BDS movement. If there are humane stories to tell about activists in this movement, the film is not interested in going there.)

But what is really central to the film, and what sets it apart from the many other documentaries about Israel and the Palestinians, is its focus on Christianity and what a Christian can learn about his own religious calling from a deep exposure to the land and its people. The producers have created this movie for an American audience, and in particular for those Americans who, whether they are inclined to love or loathe Israel, will never be able to ignore it. Todd speaks with several pastors and other Christian leaders who speak of a Christianity that clearly sees the ongoing vitality of the Jewish people as part of God’s plan. Toward the end of the film, one such pastor, Gerald McDermott, is asked to comment on an oft-heard explanation for Christian support for Israel: namely, that Christians are motivated by the hope that Jewish return to the land will usher in the end of days, when faithful Christians will receive their eschatological reward. (It is a motivation that many Jews in my experience consider to be the sole reason for Christians to profess love for Israel. As I’ve said, this not at all true.) Looking pained by the idea, McDermott makes a simple and unforgettable comment: “It’s selfish. Which is the opposite of the Christian ethic of love.”

I take away from the experience of showing this film to my neighbors the conviction that in America, at least, Israel is not likely to be seen as a “normal” country any time soon. A normal country would not capture the imagination of people living so far away, inspiring such potent hate in some and such elevating love in others. Israel’s exceptional role in the American imagination continues to draw on a still-dominant Christian sensibility that defines our national character, which is Christian whether the sensibility is consciously articulated or not. We Jews live in a country where the majority population cares passionately about what happens in the Jewish homeland largely because the inner logic of Christianity—whether remembered or forgotten—forces our fellow citizens to reckon with who “Israel” is and what it means to their own relationship to God. Perhaps you will say that America is not so very religious anymore and thus these considerations are of marginal importance. It can certainly seem this way if your view of America is limited to the skyscraping cities on the coasts. But even there, I would guess that the Christian debate about Israel is more lively than you think, and that the insertion of a self-confident Jewish voice into the conversation would be welcomed. This is the sense I get in my little town in the upper Midwest.

Moreover, I think that the theological underpinnings of American attitudes toward Israel is a very good thing. A Jew who is learned about his own tradition and its texts will find many points of contact with Christians. When I introduced the film, I told the audience the story of Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah. I told them how the author of the poem, Naftali Herz Imber, drew on Ezekiel 37, which speaks of the valley of the dry bones. I pointed out that he reversed the meaning of the Biblical line “our hope is lost” to say “Our hope is not yet lost.” Because the audience was largely Christian—some drawing on that background to criticize Israel and others to love Israel—I could lay this meaningful connection between the Bible and the Zionist story before them and let them to draw their own conclusions.

Showing this film to my relatively small crowd is not going to make a large impact on American public opinion. Even as we watched, there were attempts afoot in this quiet town to spread untruths about Israel and make Americans question their support for it. The Democratic Socialist club at Carleton was publishing libelous op-eds in the school paper, The Carletonian, and attacking the one lonely student who asked for more measured treatment (and who, tellingly, felt that he or she had to publish anonymously). The town square where roughly 150 years ago the townsfolk had stood up to the James-Younger gang of outlaws saw a rally against Israel organized by “Northfielders for Justice in Palestine.” In short, the impression given by this town resembled what one has seen in many larger communities: antipathy toward Israel has become more entrenched on the left and with it greater pressure even for those not on the left to go along with a false account of the conflict.

Nevertheless, I emerged from the event with a new way of thinking about my own Jewish-American identity. I’ve always thought of myself as both an avid supporter of Jewish nationalism and a patriotic American. What my experience gave me was a new way to relate these loyalties to one another: could my calling be to serve as a sort of ambassador from the Jewish people, not just to my own small town, but more generally to Christian America? Just as an ambassador from the United States would do well to study and reflect on American history and the American constitution, so, I realized, I should see myself as one called to know the Jewish story and to understand deeply the points of connections with the religious outlook of the American mainstream.

And this is a calling I hope that other Jewish Americans will heed. To set oneself this ambassadorial task requires abstaining from Twitter and the other machines generating so much anonymous outrage. An ambassador can’t indulge the thrill of being outraged. He must meet people face-to-face and seek out points of connection. Wherever we live we can find neighbors whose convictions and very lives intersect with the Jewish people and the miraculous rebirth of our sovereignty in the Land of Israel. The makers of Hope in the Holy Land have created a film for the America’s great Christian majority, and I hope that American Jews will see it as an invitation to strengthen the bonds of neighborly devotion and Jewish pride, two callings that in this exceptional country chime in harmony.

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