At this time of year in 2007 I was invited to give a sermon in Hebrew at a central synagogue in Jerusalem. During the week the synagogue was a school filled with pets, but on weekends one of the school rooms was transformed into a shul. This shul was attended by doctors, lawyers, professors, teachers, architects and economists, as well as my good friend, Gillian, originally from Greater Manchester, who had encouraged the Shul President to extend an invitation, even though I lived up north in Haifa.
In those days it wasn't too common for women to give sermons in Jerusalem shuls, but this aspect didn't worry me, nor did the 5-minute limit for talking. What was of concern, however, is that I would be addressing a learned congregation in the heart of Jerusalem in what was then my fourth language of Hebrew. I simply didn't want to let Gillian down with poor language skills, especially as I intended to pun in Hebrew – always a risk when a language isn't native to you.
But there were positive omens: the coach journey down the Carmel mountains to the sea coast and then the uphill rise into Jerusalem on a beautiful June day were stunning – I felt incredibly honoured to be one of the first women to give a sermon in Israel and also to be lucky enough to be appreciated for my knowledge of Judaism in Jerusalem, the very heart of the Jewish people.
In the event, not only did the sermon go down OK, but at the end I was actually applauded. The sermon was subsequently posted on my blog, attentively followed by the British Embassy, British Council and other British institutions in Israel, as well as by friends in England, including those in the Church.
I was reminded of my June 2007 sermon this week as we have just contemplated the same Torah reading, the famous case of the 12 spies who are told to 'tour' the land. Ten of these men unfortunately regarded touring as spying and ended up slandering the Land of Israel. These ten leaders demonstrated that they didn't actually understand what they were supposed to do in the place that was destined to become the Jewish home. They mistook the verb 'tour' (related to the modern word 'tourist') for the verb 'spy'. This is because their approach to the entire enterprise was negative rather than positive.
Ten men, leaders of their people, had been asked by Moses to acclimatize themselves to the Promised Land, but in the event, their slanderous behavior on return led to a further forty years of wandering around the wilderness, until the children of Israel really were ready to enter the Land.
Had the ten leaders gone in and come out as pilgrims rather than as spies, all would have been alright. And it takes only one Hebrew letter to change a pilgrim into a spy. A pilgrim is someone who goes on foot – regel - but by adding the letter mem at the beginning of the word, regel turns into meragel, a person who betrays the pilgrim's vocation, and morphs instead into a spy.
My sermon, which is sadly as relevant in June 2020 as it was in June 2007, teaches us that attitude is as important as behaviour. And when the pilgrim becomes the spy, language lashon itself is affected and becomes malshin, slander.
An English version of my sermon, taken from the story in Numbers 13-15 is entitled 'Let Slanderers become Pilgrims' and can be read here.
Unfortunately, things haven't changed much since then. Those who should really be pilgrims to Israel have never stopped slandering her. Slander arises from those who don't understand why pilgrimage is necessary, i.e. those who still don't see how and why global Jewish identity is bound up with the land.
This fact was acknowledged by the Dalai Lama when he came to Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral in 2004, where his response to questions critical of Israeli political policy was that Israel was the best country in the world, and that Christians could actually learn from the Jewish community worldwide. He added that the answer to the slanders heaped upon Israel by the Churches in this country was to embark on pilgrimages to the Jewish State. He told us that he himself had recently returned from one of many such pilgrimages to Jerusalem in the company of Jewish, Christian and Buddhist friends, and felt much refreshed.
Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is one figure to have said that Church hatred of Israel is simply yet another mutation in their 2,000-year history of Jew hatred. Hard words for some Christians to digest, I'm sure.
For many Christians, it does seem that Israel is damned if she does and also damned if she doesn't. Anything she does is seen as detrimental rather than helpful to the world. Even during our current Covid crisis, when everyone is suffering together, even though Israel has worked hard to cure all afflicted populations in her neighbourhood, as well as the rest of the world, non-Jewish religious leaders and politicians have recently united in criticizing a proposal which in the eyes of those advancing it is designed to take forward a process of stablilisation and dialogue.
Israel has always been the spiritual home of the Jewish people, and Jerusalem itself has a very special place in our hearts. I have already written about Jerusalem and its significance on this website.
So the Land of Israel is the very core of the Jewish religion and aspiration, part of her very identity and being. And this right was also enshrined in law at the 1920 San Remo International Conference, chaired by the then President of the USA, Woodrow Wilson, as you will see from this recent Youtube presentation, marking the 100th anniversary of this international peace conference, which took place in northern Italy.
And very important for present Christian critics of the proposal is that San Remo adopted the Balfour Declaration of 1917 in full, which stated that the rights of the existing Arab population were also to be enshrined in law – and that is what Israel has always done.
Before writing this article, I consulted widely in the Jewish and Church communities. There were wildly differing attitudes among my Christian friends and acquaintances as to the importance for them of the birthplace of Jesus the Jew. But one thing is clear and was expressed with stark honesty by one of my oldest friends in the Church, now retired, who probably has more understanding of all these issues than many.
This retired Bishop remarked to me that the Church appears to have antisemitism built into its DNA – by this he meant that it is simply impossible for Church people to change their mindset on the issue first of Jews, and then of the Jewish State – Israel.
He also acknowledged that tragic though it was that so many Christians are now leaving the area due to Muslim violence (Bethlehem having been for many years under the aeigis of the Palestinian Authority, and not under direct Israeli sovereignty, as it had been in the past), it is Jews who are still blamed for violence and border controls.
Well, if your family was being attacked all the time, wouldn't you try to prevent it? That is the situation for Israel today. I wonder, in addition, if Christians are aware that under the PA authority, Jews are simply forbidden to visit Bethlehem, home to the ancestor of the Messiah, King David. Bethlehem has always been of great importance to Jews. It features in our key festival of Shavuot (Pentecost), which we have recently celebrated with the reading of the story of Ruth.
Most Christians seem to be unaware of this fact – that we are not even allowed a day visit to that essential part of our history, the little town of Bethlehem (house of bread), which is so essential to our history and self-understanding, enshrined in the major festival when we also commemorate the receiving of the Torah from G-d on Mount Sinai.
I have worked with countless Christians in Israel, have taught them Hebrew, educated their children in their schools, and been a frequent guest at St George's Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem. During my first visit to St George's Anglican Cathedral in 2007, the Bishop asked me to arrange a meeting between the Israeli government and Hamas. The relevant Government Minister took these suggestions very seriously and asked me to obtain some names from the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, and they would gladly contact the Hamas officials he might recommend to them. When I went back to St George's with this response from the Israeli government, no names were forthcoming, unfortunately.
We now have a proposal for Israel to legally extend her sovereignty. This proposal reflects the longing for coherent and settled boundaries, in accord with the St Remo principles of 1920, enshrining within them the rights of all the existing peoples, Jews, Christians, Muslims and others. The aim of this proposal is to further the cause of peace.
There are apparently some issues for critics of the proposal around the position of the Jordan Valley, for instance. But the Jordan Valley is simply 'the valley of the River Jordan'. It is not owned by the country of Jordan. The Jordan valley is indisputably part of the State of Israel and always been. No less a figure than Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, that great peace-maker and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, made this a core part of his Knesset Speech of 1995. For Rabin, Israeli ownership of the Jordan Valley and the peace process went together – they were not a contradiction in terms.
This proposal, which is only a starting point, not a fait accompli, is designed to get people around the table for the first time. It is emphatically not a land-grab, and it is unfair in the extreme to designate it as such. The proposal is simply a suggestion to legally extend Israeli sovereignty over an area to which it is already entitled, in order to bring peace to the entire area. This peace will embrace everyone living there, including Christians, according to the principles of the San Remo agreement.
In any case, this proposal is being much debated both in Israel herself, as well as in the diaspora. Responding to questions on this issue, the outgoing Israeli Ambassador to the UK recently responded that all countries argue – only North Korea, he added, forbids honest debate. A diverse society, as Israel certainly is, cherishes argument and polemic. Israel is blessed with one of the freest presses in the world, as well as an independent judiciary, in which all citizens, including Christians, play their part and are enabled to reach the highest echelons of society, with full representation at every level.
So why are foreign and non-Jewish voices raised so much against this proposal, before it has even got started properly? Why not trust the political sense of the people on the ground – all the people that is: Jews, Christians, Muslim, Druze and Bahai – all equal citizens of the State of Israel.
And please bear in mind that whenever Church leaders in this country attack the State of Israel, or any of her policies, they lay themselves open to the charge of arrogance, ignorance and even an anti-Semitic agenda, G-d forbid. They also run the risk of encouraging attacks on the tiny diaspora Jewish communities where the Church wields a great deal of power, not least in this country, the United Kingdom.
And so, to return to my Jerusalem sermon of some years ago, why not try and change our mind sets and think positive thoughts for once. Wouldn't it be amazing if slanderers really did become pilgrims and allow all Israeli citizens, whatever their colour, creed, religion or ethnicity, to work together for peace and prosperity in the only Jewish country on earth, the one that all Jews regard as their home.
Because for those who believe, the land is not a barrier – it is actually bountiful – if only people would give it a chance, and I am sure that Jesus who said (quoting the Mishna, Pirke Avot), 'Blessed be the peace-makers', would be in full agreement with all of the above.
Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.
Views and opinions published in Christian Today are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.