By Jason Schifo, Pastor at Community Evangelical Free Church
I am fresh off of leading my sixth trip to Israel with a group of 31 pilgrims, and as always, I am excited about all that God continues to do through these trips!
When I say that I am excited though, it is not just about the ways God continues to grow and stretch people through the Biblical sites and teaching we experience in the Holy Land, but also through the conversations that happen on each trip between Christians, Arabs, Muslims and Jews. The ways God continues to open our eyes as we get nearer to that moment where the Bible says that, “every tribe nation and tongue will worship on the mountain of the Lord” (Revelation 7:9).
I don’t know if you know this, but Israel is one of the most contested and talked about places on the planet. There is not a news cycle where something is not reported about Israel and the surrounding region.
One thing that always strikes me when I travel into places like Israel and Palestine is the real disparity between the truth as it is reported and the truth of what is really happening. On a number of trips there has been a reported incident in Israel that was twisted and inflated by the news media that I was witness to, and can testify it just didn’t happen the way it was told. The problem with this comes when we accept the truth we are told rather than to seek the real truth through the people living it out.
Recently, after returning from Israel, I was sharing some reflections from the trip and someone told me that they would never travel to Israel because: “they won’t get a cent of my money”, this comment most likely fueled by the ongoing tension between the Palestinians and Israelis regarding land occupation rights.
At first, I let this statement, like many statements I hear, roll off my back, but the more I thought about it the more I was bothered by it because it doesn’t take into account the full truth. What truth?
That currently over 48,000 Palestinians legally work in Israel, and that another 30,000 work illegally in Israel on a daily basis. In addition to that, of the 8 million people who live in Israel 25%, or 2 million people are of Arab and another 4% are of various other nationalities. That means that every dollar (or shekel), spent in Israel doesn’t just benefit one group, but a host of ethnically and diverse people that call land of Israel home.
Also, one needs to note that in 2018 there was a 57.8% rise in tourism to Israel, and the projections show that this will continue to rise in 2019 and 2020.
Because of this sites in Palestine like Bethlehem, the Shepherds Fields, the Church of the Nativity, the Franciscan Gardens, Jericho, and the Samaritan Inn are seeing well over 3,500 visitors a day. And because of this restaurants, souvenir shops and street vendors in Palestine are seeing a record economic revival.
On our trip, we ate at a local restaurant near the fields that Boaz owned and David tended sheep. I must admit that I loved that the owners name was Ruth. When I asked her how business was she got excited and said, “So many come now, and it is so good for all of us!” Certainly, this Palestinian Christian is reaping the benefits of the increase in tourism across the board.
That same radical growth of incoming pilgrims is happening across the board with very positive effects not just those in Palestine, but also the almost 100,000 Palestinians that work legally and illegally in Israel. In addition Arabs, Muslims, Druze and Christians from all over the world are benefiting from the rise in Israeli tourism.
So to say that I will not travel to Israel, “because they wouldn’t get a cent of my money”, effects a diversity of people, not just the Jewish people.
One of my favorite stops on every trip is when I get to visit with my friend, Moshe Kempenski, an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi who has a small shop on Rabam’s Square, in the Old City of Jerusalem. Moshe is invested in having conversations that build bridges and knock down the walls that we have built up between us.
One of the things he says every time we meet is, “Jason, we have gotten so good at talking at each other, instead of to each other, that we miss one another in every conversation, and in missing one another we jump to conclusions and misunderstand one another.” And whether you are a Christian, a Muslim, an Arab, or a Jew this is so true.
During this last trip, we visited a shop specializing in olive wood carvings in Bethlehem, in the Palestinian territory, where I had an opportunity to have a frank conversation with a Palestinian Christian. He told me that they feel that the way their situation is being portrayed by the world is actually increasing the tensions that already exist between Jews and Palestinians.
This person who, unlike us, lives there everyday, admits that is that the current leadership of Palestinian has much to gain in continuing to perpetuate a hostility between Jews and Palestinians. And that in many ways the reactions by the Jews to the terror attacks is justified.
This perspective comes not from an American tourist, but from a Palestinian Christian who wakes up everyday living in the true truth, not the truth as reported. Someone who wants nothing more than what we all want – to work hard, to live happily and to love their family.
If the only truth you believe is what you receive, you are going to be living out a very small life based on someone else’s truth. And in increasing ways you will find yourself talking at people instead of too them and missing them all along the way.
This is why we need is to seek out the truth, whether we have to walk across the street, or fly across the ocean to get it. It is this that draws us closer and closer to that moment where, “every tribe nation and tongue will worship on the mountain of the Lord” (Revelation 7:9)