Israel, or Palestine, is a land of contrasts and contradictions. The body of believers in Jesus reflects the complex nature of the country both in the way it functions and in the way it understands itself. From the time of the promise to Abraham, a Jewish presence has always been a part of the demographic landscape of Israel. Up to the fourth century CE there was, living in Israel/Palestine, a body of Jews who believed in the Messiah Jesus and who retained their ethno-religious identity as Jews. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, one would have been hard pressed to find that group represented among the multitudes of peoples who migrated through, conquered and inhabited the land.
When one speaks of Palestinian Christians living in Israel/Palestine the situation is markedly different than that of the Messianic Jewish believer. Palestinian Christians consider their presence in the land of Israel/Palestine to be a direct continuation from the times of the apostles to the present day. The historical facts concerning the identity of the Palestinian people remain a matter of much debate.
Historical Overview of Relationships
This is a time in history when, in spite of rampant nationalism and ethnic conflict, bridges of reconciliation and peace are being built between peoples. Materials written from within the community of faith in Messiah should recognise the existence, concerns and struggles of their spiritual brethren in the same geographical location. Unfortunately this is not the case in Israel/Palestine. The fact that the two groups have for so long perceived themselves as enemies on the political level has infected the mentality of both groups to the extent that it often difficult to recognise each other's viability.
Although the term Palestinian Christian includes Christian Arabs living within the borders of Israel, and the West Bank and Gaza, there are deep differences between the two groups. The parameters of relationship that exist between Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians living in Israel are quite different and considerably more well developed than the relationships between Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians living in the West Bank and Gaza.
Relationships between Palestinian Christians living in Israeland Messianic Jews
The history of relationship between Palestinian Evangelical Christians of Israel and Messianic Jews/ Hebrew Christians predates the foundation of the state of Israel. Since the body of Messianic believers changed radically during the war of 1948, real possibility for a relationship was not an option until the early 60's when the Messianic body of Jews believing in Jesus was again functional. Joseph Shulam relates that in the early 1960's he frequently travelled and taught in Arab congregations in the Galilee. This relationship continued in various forms until the time of the Intifada (1987) when, due to political reasons, it was terminated.
In the mid 1970's, a small group of Palestinian Christian and Messianic Jewish women began to gather monthly to meet for prayer. Today the meetings average 40 women and often include as many as 60 with a few more Arab than Jewish women attending. The area involves stretches from Haifa, Nahariya, Nazareth, Tiberias and Afula and includes a number of small Arab villages that have Evangelical churches. There is always a special speaker with a biblical focus and time set aside for prayer and sharing. These meetings rotate between Arab and Jewish venues according to the invitation given at the close of each meeting.
After seeing the women, their husbands were encouraged and they too began to gather monthly for prayer and fellowship in mixed Jewish and Arab meetings. After several years of meeting in this way an annual family picnic was established. These contacts have led to pulpit exchanges, joint attendance at conferences both in Israel and abroad, co-operation in evangelism, shared ministry tours of leaders, and growing development of personal relationships and trust between the Jewish and Palestinian Evangelical Christians in the north of Israel. Today there is an active Jewish/Arab joint prayer network in the north. Regretfully, this activity touches only a small number of local congregations, both Jewish and Arab.
The United Christian Council in Israel and Other Frameworks
From the mid 70's, the United Christian Council in Israel (established 1958) held conferences in Israel in which both Palestinian Christians and Messianic Jews participated. In 1981 they published a book entitled Let Jews and Arabs Hear His Voice which was a compilation of ten papers presented at UCCI conferences during the years 1976-1979. "Through this book the UCCI wants to share with a wider circle of readers papers that reflect the ongoing search within the Council for a genuine Christian life and ministry in today's Israel in the encounter with Jews and Arabs of this land." The papers were presented by Palestinian Christians, Messianic Jews and expatriate missionaries. The overwhelming majority of Jewish congregations does not participate in such activity.
Contacts between some Palestinian Evangelical Christians of Israel and Messianic Jews have taken place in a variety of frameworks over the past twenty years. Some of these include the work of the Student Movement (IVF) in Israeli Universities, evangelism campaigns sponsored by the National Evangelism Committee, the House of Victory drug rehabilitation centre in Haifa, and numerous personal contacts between members of various local congregations, both Jewish and Arab. For the past several years the King's Kids ministry arm of YWAM (Youth with a Mission) has sponsored joint summer camps/outreaches involving both Messianic Jewish and Palestinian youth in programs of music and dance. The teams travel and minister in various congregations and churches in Israel/Palestine. On a number of occasions Arab Christian churches in the Galilee have hosted Jewish congregations from as far away as Beersheva and Rehovot and vice versa.
Contacts between Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians living within Israel is that of fellowship between believers and co-operation in ministry and is based in the commonality of their faith in Jesus. Divisive issues are generally avoided. When, as in the case of Joseph Shulam, politicisation did occur, the result was to cut off the relationships and not to deal with the issues.
"The fact is that since 1976 there has been an awakened consciousness among the Arabs in Israel. This can be called their 'Palestinianization'. They have rediscovered and revivified their root. This new conscientization of the Israeli Arabs steadily increased in the 1980's." The Intifada intensified this process and contributed to a conflict with and reversal of the previous Israelisation of the Arabs living in Israel. The Intifada strained the tenuous fabric of the relationships between Palestinian Christians and Messianic Jews. Suddenly there was an atmosphere of conflict and violence that required a response. Should Jewish believers serve in the military in the West Bank and Gaza? How does the Palestinian Christian relate to an occupying presence? In the main, these and other questions were not answered in a context of the true spiritual brotherhood. The relationships were not well enough developed to support such discussions. Both sides experienced rejection and were wounded by the severed relationships.
At the same time as Israeli Arabs (including the Christians) began feeling solidarity with their Arab brothers in the West Bank, many Messianic Jews were being drawn to the political right, this because of the dominant understanding of Messianic Jews in regards to eschatology and the divine promise of Israel's place in the land of Israel. All too often the nationalistic aspirations of both parties in the Arab Israeli conflict have sabotaged God's grand design of a reconciled community of believers living in harmony.
Those Jewish and Palestinian believers who did remain involved with each other unanimously testify to the mutual benefit that their contacts have been to them personally and for their two communities. A telling comment made by a Jewish believer after one of the women's meetings in the North was "You made me love Arabs."
Relationships between Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and Gaza and Messianic Jews
As has been previously noted, relationships between Messianic Jews and Arab believers from the West Bank are very unlike the relationships that exist between the communities of believers who live within Israel. The openness and freedom of contact and fellowship between the believers in Israel are not enjoyed by the Palestinian Christians who live in the West Bank and Gaza.
Bishara Awad of the Bethlehem Bible College recalls that for years there were contacts between Palestinian Christians from Jerusalem and the West Bank that took place on an intimate level with visits in each other's homes and an occasional joint meeting. The outbreak of the Intifada in December 1987 changed the situation dramatically. For a time contacts continued on the leadership level but these too stopped as the Intifada gained momentum.
Musalaha (Arabic for reconciliation) was founded in 1990 as a vehicle to bring about reconciliation between Arabs and Jews. Since its inception, Musalaha has focused on bringing together mixed groups of Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians, with an emphasis on the inclusion of West Bank Palestinian Christians. Musalaha also sponsors teaching seminars on subjects such as peace, conflict resolution and aspects of Palestinian and Jewish culture and mentality. Other activities include women's conferences, youth activities, and theological conferences.
There are efforts being made by other groups and individuals to bridge the gaps between the two communities. The House of Prayer, located on the Mount of Olives, focuses on intercession and brings Arab and Jewish leaders together in a framework devoted to prayer and intercession. Most of the work of the House of Prayer has been in a broader framework which includes Arab Christians from the Middle East and North Africa. Palestinian Christians and Messianic Jews also participate in these larger frameworks.
The Bethlehem Bible College has had a Messianic Jewish believer on the teaching staff for nine years. David Loden from Netanya travels weekly to Bethlehem to teach music. This contact has led to opportunities for the Bible College Choir to sing in the Jewish sector both within the Messianic community and the Israeli secular community.
Since 1995, The Arab Evangelical Alliance has sponsored a conference that draws together Arab pastors and leaders from Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and the West Bank. Messianic Jews who have connections with the West Bank Palestinian Christian community have attended. They have spoken in the meetings and together with Arab Christians have served communion to the conference guests. Although the numbers involved are not large, the significance is great.
Some of the things that have been achieved by the contacts between the two communities are: an accelerated willingness to build relationship, a growing acceptance of the differences and tensions involved, a commitment to mutual pain bearing, knowledge of one another's concerns that is translated into prayer, a recognition of the spiritual viability of the other's community, and the possibility of impacting the secular community by a demonstration of the peace that is possible in the Messiah.
Still lacking in the relationships between Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians is the ability to discuss difficult issues and to be freely challenged in their respective theological positions. Questions of eschatology, land and promise, justice and peace need to be addressed in a non-threatening atmosphere of mutual respect and trust. Beyond fellowship and discussion of differences is a longing for joint worship.
There are issues that have potential to perpetuate the long divide between the two peoples but the steps that are being taken are encouraging. Areas of cultural, theological, and political difference stand as obstacles to real relationship. Commonalties between the two groups are also sources of problem and pain. These can be briefly identified as their shared minority role identification, the results of war and survivor mentality, marginalisation from their respective societies on account of their faith and the common tendency to dehumanise and demons the other side.
Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians living in Israel/Palestine need each other. They are blood brothers in a double sense, having come from the loins of Abraham and having been bought by the blood of the Messiah. There is a need to recognise that the Messiah has only one body and that as Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians both are equal and integral parts of that body.
The question remains as to whether the Messianic Jews and the Palestinian Christians will rise to the spiritual challenge of right relationship and begin to live out the reality of the reconciliation for which our Lord gave His life.
Written by Lisa Loden