Alright, so it’s been a little more than a month now since I arrived in Israel. Like I said in Part 1, this is the land of encounters. I’ve met people ranging from the common resident or local restaurant owner to the former CEO of my favorite brand of shampoo or the founder of a ministry that is building schools and wells in South Sudan.
Traveling itself is also an encounter; with nature, history, and beliefs. I’ve been to more than 12 different cities so far, all of which had their own “flavor.” Some were very religious, some were very secular. Some were filled with tall skyscrapers, some were a few houses and then dirt, sand, or trees for miles. Some had 100 residents, some had more than 800,000. I’ve even seen two cities right next to each other be the complete opposite in everyway (economically, touristically, religiously, residentially, historically), and yet the only thing that divided them was a little empty land and a small 30 foot wide short hill of vegitation and dirt. On one side there are very misunderstood people and on the other are people who could afford to forget their problems.
In any case, I have learned and seen a lot already of the different situations here in Israel. There’s too many to talk about in one post, so here’s the select experiences I’ve had in the past month that either have left an impression on me or I think are good to share with the Western world.
The Israel Defense Forces and Orthodox Jews
Here in Israel, once citizens enter legal adulthood they are required to serve a minimum number of years in the military. Men have to serve three years and woman serve two. These are 18-21 year old individuals training for several months to serve either in safe areas like bases or unsafe areas like borders. And when you wander around the streets of a city in Israel, you won’t be surprised to see these 18-21 year olds walking around with a fully automatic rifle hanging off their shoulders. In the streets, on a bus, in a mall, at a restaurant, literally anywhere.
I’m not one to be afraid of weapons, and in Colombia I’ve been used to seeing soldiers in public with similar guns all the time, but for most Westerners this is new. For Israelis it’s the reality they live in constantly when they receive threats from certain groups of people in regions surrounding them that are taught to hate Jewish people. They have to be alert and ready at all times, even within their own country.
On the same but other side of the spectrum, in the religious cities (like Jerusalem) you won’t be surprised either to see boys and men dressed in business suits with big hats, large beards, untrimmed sideburn hair, and white string looking things hanging from their waist called Tzitzits. Women wear at least shin-length dresses with modest attire and a headscarf.
This group of people are known as the Orthodox Jews that claim to strictly observe the religious texts of Judaism such as the Tanakh, which is composed of the Torah (Teachings in the Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im (Prophets like Isaiah and Daniel), and the Ketuvim (Writings such as Psalms and Proverbs). There is also the Talmud, which is a collection of the oral teachings and commentaries that have been written down over the centuries by respected rabbis. Because this group claims strict religious observance, they are exempt from serving in the IDF.
Although its farfetched to say this group represents Israel and true Judaism (as an example, their attire stems from practices of Eastern European Jews from the 1800s), it’s interesting to see such a demonstration of piety in public Israeli society in comparison to the public presence of the IDF. Both show their love of country yet in different ways.
The West Bank and Gaza (sort of)
“You have 15 seconds.”
“If you hear the city wide alarm, you have 15 seconds to run into that small white bunker over there.”
“So what happens if I’m sleeping or don’t make it?”
“Well, pray that your time to go is not today”
This is what I was told when I stayed in a city called Sderot; which is close enough to the Gaza Strip that you can see one of their cities from the highway nearby. This particular city and its residents have endured over 6000 rockets that have been fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel since 2001. It’s sometimes referred to as “The bomb shelter capital of the world.”
While I was there, volunteering to support a ministry called Hands of Mercy, I learned a lot about the psychological and physical state of the people there. I can only imagine how it would be for the residents of Gaza just a mile away who don’t have any place to run away to when terrorist attacks occur, or when revenge attacks come.
When I was visiting sick kids in one of the local hospitals, I met a woman from Gaza and her grandson who were able to cross the border and receive medical attention for a dire lung disease. Though I could tell there was a sense of alienation that she felt around Israelis, people who suffer through similar circumstances tend to put aside their differences and understand each other. I had asked at one point if I could go into Gaza and visit the people, but I was told that not only is it extremely dangerous due to terrorist groups like Hamas, who are constantly building underground tunnels into Sderot, but that only people with a certain type of clearance can enter. So that’s all I can say for now about Gaza and being next door.
Now we move to the other country, or occupied territory as its referred to, within Israel’s borders known as the West Bank. Unlike Gaza, in which there are zero Israeli’s or Jews living there due to military extraction years ago, the West Bank hosts both Palestinians and Israelis. There are so many years of complicated political issues serving as context to what has resulted into the three zones (A,B, and C) that make up the West Bank today that I can’t write about it briefly here, but if you’d like a short history lesson here is a great video you can watch.
When I was there, I saw the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank, which is governed by the Palestinian National Authority. I experienced the process of crossing the border back into Israel in which all the Palestinians on the bus must get off, show their IDs, and re-enter the bus (traveling foreigners could stay on the bus and show their passports and visas to two armed men from the IDF). I also walked through the local markets, made good friends with a local taxi driver and two youngsters working in a coffee shop, and saw the famous graffiti of the IDF soldier being patted down by a little girl; created by the famed artist known as Banksy.
In talking with the new friends about the Israel-Palestine situation, the impression I got was “We’re not looking for war. We just want our government, our land, our jobs, our families, our homes, our children, and our schools to exist peacefully so that we can go on with our lives. Why would we hate our own neighbors? Sure they’ve done us some wrong, but there are people here who are not innocent either and are interested in war.” This is similar to the rhetoric I hear from the younger generation of Israelis as well. But as with any country that has effects of the military industrial complex present, conflict means political influence and money for those in positions of leadership. All while the young and innocent suffer.
Jews respond to “Repent and believe in Jesus” street preaching
In continuing the conversation regarding conflict, it doesn’t just exist between Jews and Arabs. Even though it makes sense, especially after considering the history of Israel and its people, I was caught off guard by how aggressive some Jews respond to the message of Jesus and repentance.
During the first few days of being in Israel, specifically in Jerusalem, I witnessed a woman standing on a concrete bench in the middle of a busy sidewalk market intersection loudly proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah and that people were called to repent and believe. One would say “Oh well of course Jews would be angry, that’s completely offensive to them.” Sure, being offended is one thing. Releasing that offense in a physically and verbally aggressive manner towards another person is another.
While I stood there and observed, I saw a group of young Jewish men walk up to her and start yelling at her telling her to shut the **** up, shouting profanities, calling her a liar and a female dog. They would even rile up the crowd and shout in unison in order to drown out her voice (and she had a loud voice). When they saw that this didn’t work, two guys got up on the bench next to her and commanded her to get down and go home. When she refused, they started shoving her around and towards the edge. At this point I walked up and told them to protest how they wish but not to hurt her. They responded saying it was illegal what she was doing, which is actually a common but false misconception that other Israelis in the crowd called out as well.
When the woman said that she loves the Jewish people just as Jesus did in declaring the Word to them first as their Messiah, one of the young men spit on the ground next to her feet and said “Jesus is a motherf—-er and a liar. If he was alive today I would kill him myself.” He then turned around to the crowd and yelled “the Christians tried to kill us in Germany and have hated us for centuries, but history shows we are a strong people and one day Israel will be rid of both the Christians and the Muslims!” Then they chanted the Israeli national anthem with pride.
To wrap this long story up, I was both surprised and sad that the Holocaust is equated to the doings of Christianity. I’ve known for years that Hitler claimed to be a Catholic, but I didn’t realize that this was the image that some devout Jews had of Christians. I saw it first hand that day. While I can’t say for certain that my presence that night protected that woman’s safety, I had several locals and one of the young Jewish guys come up to me during the commotion to ask “are you the police?” It could be because I was dressed in dark clothing, wore boots, said nothing and stood calm with my arms crossed the whole time, but even so I find it hard to confuse me with the police. In the end, two hours later, the woman was escorted away from the area by the actual police. Some people clapped for her bravery (including Jews), and some who were making fun of her before even went up to hug her before she was escorted away.
People should know that in Judaism both study and debate of the Scriptures is encouraged. Faith is approached from an academic perspective as well as a spiritual one, which is why a lot of Jews in Israel are normally not opposed to hearing the Gospel (i.e., another teaching to be debated). If it is taught in correlation with the Old Testament Scriptures like Jesus and the apostles did, Jews are actually intrigued and end up having a lot of questions. It’s because their idea of Christianity is Catholic, and they don’t understand how the Gospel connects to the very paganistic ritualistic practices that exist in Catholicism (it doesn’t connect, but that’s a whole other conversation).
Arabs, Christians, and Jews do and can live in peace
As a final note here, I want to speak to the fact that regardless of what is shown in the media; Jews, Christians and Muslims do live together in peace in Israel. They walk, talk, dine, and celebrate together in each others midst. Not only in Jerusalem, but throughout the country as well. In the words of a Jewish woman who lives and works in a 100% Muslim city teaching kids English and leadership skills: “It’s not co-existence, which denotes that we live as separate entities next to each other. It’s living as one unit that embraces our differences and can work through disagreements. We are all of one ancestor and father.” The men and women in that city respect and honor her efforts as well as of those she works with.
Of course it’s not perfect and there are cities that are 100% Arabic Muslim and others that are 100% Israeli Jewish which avoid each other, but the bus drivers, store owners, and common people of the streets say hi to each other and serve the other regardless of their faith or background. You can hear the call to prayer coming from the minaret of a local mosque, and Jewish people walk around nearby thinking nothing bad of it. Likewise, you can see that when Jews celebrate the Sabbath, Muslims are happy to serve them through their businesses and or modes of transportation.
As a Christian, I’ve visited the homes of Jewish families to deliver blankets, food, and radiators, and while I was there I offered to pray for physical and emotional healing. I haven’t had the chance to do the same in a fully Muslim town yet, but I have been able to walk around and love people in the streets. Even though I have a cross hanging around my neck when I do so and I mention Yeshua in my prayers, they do not oppose.
And the best part? They receive healing in their back, chest, hands, knees, and joints; and tears of joy on their faces and hearts. I’ve been told, by a wonderful woman that I was visiting the Jewish families with in one particular city, that they have asked about me and want me to come back. People hear about what I’m trying to accomplish here in the Middle East and they express their appreciation for my sincerity (and for my age). They also admire my knowledge of many different topics relevant to faith, organized religion, politics, history, and business.
The glory is not for me, as honestly I don’t look forward to the attention and scrutiny that comes with it, but the glory is for the God of Abraham that desires the world to know Him intimately through the only person who knows Him that way and followed all His commandments: His Son. The Prince of Peace.