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November 5, 2014 1:24 am

Why Israel Matters to Me, Even if I’m Not Jewish

avatar by Gabriel Rochelle /

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A poster for the 1960 movie "Exodus." Photo: Courtesy of Ivan/

I was thrilled as a young boy to watch the rebirth of Israel. I knew of the Holocaust; pictures of people suffering and dead in the camps sent shivers up my spine. I celebrated with Jewish friends in Philadelphia when Israeli independence was declared in 1948. But it wasn’t the same, really, because I’m not Jewish. For Jews, supporting Israel was choosing life over death, but I did not feel that. I did not have that personal stake.

My grandparents did not come to the U.S. because of repression or persecution. They came for economic advantage. My people did not suffer the consequences of a holocaust. Centuries ago some of my people suffered repression, but when they had enough, they moved across the English Channel to better their lot, and later across the Atlantic Ocean for the same reason.

In 1960, I went with millions to see Paul Newman and Sal Mineo as heroes in the film version of Leon Uris’s novel Exodus. Mineo played a young survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, a symbol of heroism and cunning in the midst of passivity and slaughter. Newman played a native Israeli, that new breed born of the kibbutz who was carving out a new land and a vibrant approach to being Jewish.

I was barely beyond youthful naivete when the movie came out, and it made a huge unfiltered impression on me. The key figures looked strangely like Americans transported into an Israeli context, but they were heroic as Jews. I realize that the casting was deliberate to garner support through identification, and the film’s caricature of Palestinians is in retrospect embarrassing. Yet overall Exodus was impressive, because it showed Jews no longer as victims, but as actors on the world stage.

I am aware that, in the wake of that movie, some American Jews made aliyah (immigration to Israel), and many friends made summer pilgrimages to this new homeland when they were teenagers. “Exodus” was panned by critics, but loved by millions. I loved it because it showed values I believed in, like the move from passivity to action and the struggle for rights amid opposition.

Today, I love Israel—with its warts and its beauty marks. But there is a clear difference between my love for Israel and the love my Jewish friends have for this small nation. I can love it from a distance. I can love it critically. I can love it without going there. All of this is true for American Jews, with one exception. I’m not Jewish and they are, and that makes all the difference, because for them Israel matters in ways that it may never matter for me. It may matter as a source of pride; it may matter as a source of pain. Whatever the reason, it’s different for them.

I identify with the attempt to build a democracy on a precipice faced by Arab countries to the north, east, and south, and the ocean on the west. I identify with the technological advances made by this little country. But would it matter to me if Israel eventually fails as an experiment of modern rebirth? On one level I say yes, but on another level I cannot answer fully, because I am not tied to Israel in the same way as my Jewish friends.

As the years go by and the critique against Israel rises around the globe, and within so much of liberal American Christianity, I go deeper into my own psyche to understand the dynamic that draws me ever onward in Jewish-Christian relations. When I do, I see that my investment in Jewish-Christian relations has paid off in the form of a connection to Israel that is closer than that of many, if not most, other Christians.

I have a personal stake in Israel. I inhabit what Paul van Buren called “the Jewish-Christian reality,” a mental territory that will not allow for being Christian without a relationship with Judaism. Since all contemporary expressions of Judaism include a connection to Israel, I too am connected. Israel matters to me, even if I’m not Jewish.

I have visceral reactions when I hear the relentless criticisms. I wince at what I think are unfair assessments of the country, just as I wince when I encounter anti-Semitism. Many of my peers, frankly, either could not care about Israel’s fate or may even express their negativity through BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movements or hostile criticism of a society now facing great difficulty. It’s frustrating and often painful. Yet there remain others who continue to support Israel in a critical way, yearning for the country to overcome policies that do not ring true to its ideals. They also care about Israel, though it is not their homeland.

Israel is no longer the land of Paul Newman and Sal Mineo. Israel is different from the Exodus depiction, both geographically and existentially, as it approaches maturity and seeks to solve the nagging problems that keep it locked in internal strife and external trials.

I care about Israel. It has fallen on hard times, with some of its previous supporters turning sour, the intractable problem of West Bank settlements grinding on, and terrorism within and without threatening the country. But Israel can affirm its values and find a way to include its entire people in the experiment. Israel can find a way to become contextualized in its environment. I live with these hopes, too, even if I’m not Jewish.

Father Gabriel Rochelle, Ph.D., is Pastor of St. Anthony of the Desert Orthodox Mission in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and a member of the Steering Committee of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s New Paths: Christians Engaging Israel Project (

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  • I believe Israel has more Jewish friends than are recognized. The case outlined by Father Rochelle might describe many of my generation. Today the new anti-Semitism is masked partly as criticism of Israel. The policies of the Jewish state should be commented on dispassionately, as the culture of all states when it impacts on others. Here it is worth noticing that the Israeli Goliath of eight million is opposed by the Islamic David of one billion.

    The slide over the past 20 or 30 years against Israel is beginning to retreat in the face of fear of the jihadi fundamentalists and attacks, not on Jews but non-Islamin believers as seen in Canada recently, is forcing passive public opinion back to support Israel. Realpolitik is or can be in this case a wonder to behold!

  • It was very nice reading about Pastor Rochelle’s heartfelt love for Israel, with some exceptions. The Pastor’s veiled lines about “policies that do not ring true to their ideals” and West Bank settlements being an “intractable problem” reveal that some of the Pastor’s views have fallen victim to the same anti-Israel propaganda that he winces at and objects to. The only thing that is “intractable” or a policy to be criticized is the the Arab “Palestinians” refusal to make peace with Israel in any shape or form. To forbid Jews from living in the “West Bank” – a confusing name for what is better known as the ancient Jewish homelands of Judea and Samaria – would be discrimination of the worst kind. The Jewish claim to the area is far greater that any “Palestinian” Arab one – there was never a Palestinian Arab nation, and most Arabs only immigrated into these areas during the last 180 years, whereas there was a Jewish presence there throughout the millennia (with the exception of 1948-1967, when Jordan illegally occupied the “West Bank” – and no claim was made then for a “Palestinian State”). Jews were also the largest religious group in Jerusalem since the 1840s. The Jewish “settlements” (really towns and villages) only comprise a tiny percentage of this area, and are also absolutely necessary for Israel’s security. As Arafat’s statement on Jordanian television the same day he signed the Oslo accords openly spelled out, the Arab demands for Jerusalem and the whole West Bank – and that Judea and Samara must be “judenrein” – that all Jews be eliminated from the area – is only one stage in the Arab “Palestinian” plan to destroy all of Israel. I hope that the good Pastor will take the time to learn more about these issues.

  • Michael Garfinkel

    Thank you Father Rochelle, for your kind words and support.

  • I liked it too much ! And those who are against I will never accept ! God safe Israel ! We will be never beaten !

  • This was written with a beautiful and empathic honestly. It is very very much appreciated, as is your connection to Israel (my home).

  • josef zuares

    If you look at the Israelo-Palestinian conflict from the Arab world angle view,and of that of the biased media,you’d feel that a strong nation,Israel, is occupying a tiny people,Palestinians, preventing freedom from reaching their lives.
    But if you know of the magic of movie,you may consider the possibility that in fact,the Arab world could be compared to the director of this movie we have been watching,and Israel and the Palestinians are just actors in this movie in which the Arab world,movie director and producer,is imposing on us its script.
    And it has been so for many years now.We have been watching a made up movie for such a long time,that we may think now that it is reality itself.The fact is that reality is quite the opposite.Tiny Israel has been fighting a world,Arab and Muslim,immense in size and financial means,and is succeeding in surviving and even flourish,against all odds.But Jews have been accustomed to success in the most difficult conditions,so Israel also is just the Jew within the nations,vilified,harassed,blamed,trashed and killed while the rest of the world watches and does nothing,passively ,just like a movie viewer,non participant but jugde .This,I believe,will have to change if the West still wants of its freedom.Because the Muslim world is waging this campaign not only to make the Jews look bad,but is unpercettibly making the viewer of this movie,slave to its narrative,thus slowly manipulating our culture and morals to match its own.

  • ashok Malhotra

    Most interesting ! Thank you Pastor Rochelle,
    Point by point starting with Exodus, I felt my feelings were being repeated, this is exactly how I feel and how I have felt.Last few weeks, I have thought of the film Exodus and how much I will like to see it again just to feel the difference of then (when I saw it as a school student in India ) and now after many many many and years later in Sweden !

  • Berta

    WOW! How articulate and moving(even if he’s not Jewish). It’s a wonderment to understand the shared values of standing for one’s belief and hopes. We share the earth and want to find peace and cooperation. Hurray for Father Gabriel with deepest gratitude for his critical thinking, inspiration, and love (even if he’s not Jewish).

    Even if I am

  • Ron

    Thank you, Father Rochelle, for this very warm and heart-felt column that should give considerable comfort to many Jews throughout the world. Feeling a rather strong undercurrent of Christian anti-Semitism throughout Europe and even in our own country is quite untenable for many of the Jewish faith, and knowing there are people like you who deeply care about the future of Israel and the Jewish People brings a spirit of deep friendship. But please don’t sell yourself short on not being Jewish. There are many, many Jews who have literally no concern whatsoever about Israel. Which tells me you’re more Jewish than many of those who claim to be members of the tribe. Unfortunate but true.

    As Cardinal Lustiger of Paris said, “I was born Jewish and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable for many. For me, the vocation of Israel is bringing light to the goyim. That is my hope and I believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it.” In that spirit, I welcome you as a Jew and a proud supporter of Eretz Yisrael.

  • Margaret Mildenhall

    Thank you Father Gabriel Rochelle,for your beautifully written support and identification with Israel and her people. I wholeheartedly endorse every word you wrote. I also listened with my family to the U.N. vote in1949,and shed tears of joy, although, like you I am not Jewish. We need to hear more voices like yours. P.T.L. and thank you again.Margaret Mildenhall.