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November 7, 2013 11:15 am

A Tale of Two Christians in the Holy Land

avatar by David Shayne

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A view of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Photo: Berthold Werner.

In early April of 2013, I visited the town of Eilat in southern Israel. I stayed at a field school belonging to the Society for the Protection of Nature. It was located across from the Coral Shore Nature Reserve, one of many national parks and reserves the Israeli government maintains for the enjoyment of all its citizens and visitors. The state of Israel devotes approximately 16 percent of its territory to public recreation and natural protection, one of the highest percentages in the world.

At the guest house, I encountered an American who introduced himself as “George” from Virginia.  As we tried to access the free wifi near the office, George said he was in Israel as part of a mission group that was observing what he claimed were rampant Israeli human rights abuses in the West Bank.  He later identified himself as an Elder of the Presbyterian Church (USA). He was intimately involved in the effort to get the church to divest from American companies that, as he put it, supply materials the IDF uses to perpetrate human rights abuses against the Palestinian people.

I asked George to explain what he meant by human rights abuses. He responded by claiming that the Israeli occupation itself was illegal and had lasted for 45 years, implying that the occupation itself was a human rights abuse per se. I pointed out that not only was the occupation not illegal per se, but it had in fact been sanctioned by the UN Security Council (Resolution 242, which called on Israel to withdraw from the territory in exchange for a peace treaty, which has yet to be signed).

George responded that he was relying on the more recent International Court of Justice (ICJ) opinion, but he later retracted that statement, acknowledging that the ICJ majority opinion did not say the occupation was illegal, but addressed the security barrier issue.

When I pressed George further to be specific as to what human rights abuses he observed, the only example he cited were the checkpoints. We entered into a lengthy conversation about the checkpoints. We both agreed that they do indeed constitute a severe inconvenience for the West Bank Palestinians who still travel via them (I learned from a local tourist guide in Jerusalem that in fact many avoid the checkpoints by taking Israeli public transportation). We also agreed that the security barrier and the checkpoints were both in response to the horrific wave of Palestinian-perpetuated terrorist attacks that murdered more than 1,00 Israeli civilians between 1999 and 2003.

At no time during our conversation did George claim to have witnessed any actual physical abuse or other form of inappropriate humiliation meted out by IDF soldiers.  It appeared he considered the lengthy wait and crowding to constitute the “human rights” abuses of which he complained.

I pointed out to George that on my way to Israel, which included a stay in Memphis and a layover in Amsterdam, I and my family were subjected to numerous lengthy waits, interrogations, and invasive personal searches by TSA and the Dutch authorities. But I do not blame the USA and Dutch governments for the extremely unpleasant and inconvenient predicament we travelers find ourselves in. The blame lies with Al Qaeda and other terrorists who have murdered thousands of people in the last few decades, and created this burden. So it is with Israeli checkpoints (which are now far fewer in number than they were a few a years ago, as the result of the reduction in terrorist attacks).  In my view, the fault lies with the Palestinian murderers who made these security measures necessary.

I then asked George  why, of all of the conflicts and occupations taking place anywhere in the world (e.g. The Chinese occupation of Tibet), did he feel this conflict required such intense scrutiny on his part? He responded by saying something to the effect that he had been asked by local Christians and also he felt called upon G-d to do so.

Finally, I asked him if he had given consideration to affect the Church’s singling Israel out for special condemnation would have on Jewish-Christian relations. He answered, somewhat derisively, that there are some Jewish organizations such as “Rabbis for Peace” (sic) that supported his viewpoint, implying that many or most Jews would not have a problem with his proposed resolution.

I informed him that such groups constitute a small minority of American Jews, and many if not most of us would be deeply offended and angered if any mainstream Christian church would single Israel out unfairly.

The day after this conversation took place, I met a young African man who worked at the guest house.  He identified himself as a Christian Eritrean refugee named Hagos. He told me his story: Like thousands of other Eritreans, he fled his country because of the general political oppression and human rights abuses carried out by the current Eritrean regime. He chose to enter  Israel illegally, even though there were any number of other countries, such as Egypt, that were closer and easier to get to, because he had heard that African Christians were poorly treated in predominantly Muslim countries.

Israel, on the other hand, had a reputation of treating them well, and, indeed, he lavished effusive praise on the treatment he had relieved in Israel. He went so far as to say, while he would prefer some day to be repatriated to Eritrea, if that it is not option, he would like to make Israel his permanent home. He informed me that there is a growing community of African Christians in Eilat, and they have a nascent church.

Later that morning, I saw George that was still was still at the guest house, so I arranged for George to meet with and speak to Hagos. The last I saw of them, they were talking. I have no idea what came of it.

I have no idea to what extent, if any, I influenced George’s thinking. Perhaps he took what I said to heart, perhaps he pretended to listen and ignored me, perhaps my criticisms just caused him to dig in to his views more stubbornly.

But, if George was indeed as fair-minded and sympathetic an individual as he presented himself, I believe he must have been influenced by Hagos’ moving story.

David Shayne is a native of Chicago.  He graduated from Tel Aviv University, served in the IDF, and obtained a JD from University of Oregon. He is a public sector attorney who lives in Seattle and continues to write and teach on topics relating to the Middle East.

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