There were about thirty of us, split evenly between Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians, gathered on Cyprus at an idyllic location on the Mediterranean Sea. In fact, had the weather been warmer, we probably wouldn’t have gotten anything done. We were invited to participate in a discussion about building bridges between the two communities. In an ideal world, this would seem like a collegial group, but the Israeli/Palestinian crisis deeply affects how each side perceives and relates to the other.
I actually knew very few people, although I had heard of some. The one exception was a good friend of ours, who kept saying he was neither a pastor nor theologian but who contributed a lot. The groups also were almost evenly split between young people, dubbed the new generation, and the oldies but goldies, dubbed pastors and theologians. In fact, I may have been the oldest person there. I wanted to add in rabbis, but that would have further complicated an already very complicated situation and meeting. The meeting was sponsored by the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. Apparently, the Lausanne Congress has been involved in numerous reconciliation efforts around the world. This was the second meeting of its kind, the first being held last year that had also included a number of those in attendance.
The goal of the conference was to hear the issues and narratives of each side and to attempt at some point to build what’s called a bridging narrative that reflects the situation in Israel from both perspectives. Ultimately, the goal is to build relationships with the hope that the terrible divide between Jews and Arabs in the land can be bridged.
Prior to the conference, we’d been tasked to read numerous papers about reconciliation and the perspectives of each side. Some of the authors made presentations at the conference to which we were expected to respond. The Arabs were comprised of Christian leaders and pastors from both Israel and the territories. The Jews included many who had served in the Israeli military, which is seen as an occupying force by the Arabs located in the West Bank. The actual sessions were led by two British theologians, both from Northern Ireland, who had participated in reconciliation efforts between Catholics and Protestants in that country. The specific goal of the conference was to issue a paper agreed to by both sides.
The days consisted of huge meals in the hotel dining room, where we all sat together, interspersed with a series of meetings. One afternoon we took a break and went to Larnaca, one of Cyprus’ main cities, toured part of the city and ate dinner at a local restaurant – more of that later. Each morning we had a time of worship and prayer, followed by a short message from the Bible. They were led alternately by Jews and Arabs. The room was divided into four tables where we had assigned seats. After each message, our individual groups were to respond to the message and pray for one another. Interspersed were times where each member of the group shared his/her personal journey or story. Often, the messages were quite challenging and moving.
Following the Bible discussion time, a Jew and an Arab would summarize a paper he/she had prepared for the readings. We were then given the ability to ask questions and make comments. It was during these times that things got challenging. Perspectives on the Bible, the land of Israel, the place of Jewish people in God’s economy, the treatment of the Arabs in both Israel and the territories and views on Israel’s control of the territories were shared from both sides, leading to lively and sometimes heated discussions. Despite the differences, everyone spoke with a lot of grace and compassion – something that Donald Trump could learn.
Personally, I had earlier come to the conclusion that the West Bank situation was intolerable. I have for many years believed in some type of two-state solution. So, hearing the Arabs explain their daily experiences with what they call the occupation was sad but not new information for me. What I found most challenging was the very Christian atmosphere of the entire event. The terminology, the style, the atmosphere and the content lacked anything Jewish, despite the fact that half of the participants were Jews. Sadly, in Israel most Messianic Jews are simply Christians who speak Hebrew. Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing bad about being Christian, but I expect when Jews participate in an event, they bring to the table their unique Jewishness, even if they share in the belief that Yeshua is the Messiah. From the get-go, I felt uncomfortable, and after a while, began to voice my discomfort. Some of my most intense conversations were with other Messianic Jews, as I attempted to explain Messianic Jewish theology. For some, including some of the leaders, it seemed like it was the first time they had ever heard of such a thing. In fact, the most explosive confrontation occurred when one of the younger Messianic Jews called Judaism a false religion. My more observantly Jewish friend almost blew a gasket, and severely challenged that statement. The moderator even said that it was out of bounds, and the guy apologized. Later, he individually apologized to each person, a very menschy thing to do.
Notwithstanding the above, the Arab positions also were very challenging. From my perspective, the most disturbing presentation was from an Arab theologian, who not only challenged our perspective that the Bible promises the land of Israel to the Jewish people, but said that he, as a spiritual heir of Abraham, by virtue of his faith in the Messiah, is thus also entitled to the land. For me, that was over the top, and I said so. I said that as a matter of ethics I understand, sympathize and want to assist the Palestinian Arabs in self-identity, but his interpretation of certain New Testament passages sounded like those of the Church Fathers, which led to the 1800 years of Christian anti-Semitism. Of course, he vehemently disagreed.
Fortunately, the group was open to my wife, Stacy, accompanying me to this conference – I only had to pay her way. I didn’t really want her to stay alone in Israel. Besides, she is more interested in the Arab situation than I am. The only problem was they wouldn’t allow her to attend the sessions, even as a silent observer. I wasn’t too excited about that, but as it turned out, it was probably better for the both of us. There were numerous coffee breaks in the meetings, so it gave me a chance to run up to our room and debrief with her. She, of course, joined us for all meals and fellowship times and got to know the people well. In light of our personalities, it was probably best for both of us, and it certainly helped me process the difficult interactions.
As the days progressed, relationships definitely were forged between the two sides. I came to really appreciate these Arab leaders. As I mentioned, on Wednesday we took a break and visited the city of Larnaca, where our hotel was located. Unfortunately, it was bitter cold, and apparently, without our knowledge, the government had just passed an ordinance shutting down all shops on Wednesday afternoons – not sure why. I guess Israel is not the only country with strange laws. We still walked the streets. We viewed an old Ottoman fort and then visited the outside of the church of St. Lazarus. I was curious about this church and St. Lazarus. Of course, Lazarus is the man whose death is recorded in the New Testament, and whom Yeshua raised from the dead. I wondered if this was the same guy, and, if so, what was he doing in Cyprus? As it turns out, according to tradition, he fled Israel during persecution in the middle of the First Century, and later became a bishop of the church in Cyprus. I always think it curious how a normal Jewish guy becomes a saint, has an icon made of him that looks like a washed out monk from the Middle Ages and then has a massive church built on his remains. But there you have it. The church was built in 890.
We still had a lot of time before dinner, so a group of us made our way to a pub, and I had a tequila mockingbird (a great play on words and actually an excellent drink). From there we went to a fish restaurant and had a wonderful time together. During the last two days we started working on a joint statement. It was challenging. Again, it was a very Christian statement, and I felt uncomfortable with the knowledge that the sponsors wanted us to sign it. I and my observant Jewish friend kept recommending changes – many of which were accepted. The statement is quite long. Generally, it affirms our unity as followers of Yeshua. It demands us to attempt to maintain unity even during times of conflict. It acknowledges our differences in perspectives. It commits us to treat the other with honor and respect. It recognizes our differences in how we understand ourselves, our histories and our theologies. It calls us to seek a bridging understanding, and then from the younger generation it commits all of us to work together for God’s purposes. In the end it was an impressive statement to which I will sign. It’s amazing and, honestly, miraculous that we achieved the final product.
I’m not sure what my involvement will be in the future. I certainly support this and similar efforts. For the time being, it was a time well spent.