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Miracles and myths

On the eve of Israel’s 70th anniversary, there is much to celebrate and plenty to set straight

Miracles and myths

Jerusalem’s Old City, seen through adoor with a hole in the shape of the star of David (Oded Balilty/AP)

Each year, millions of pilgrims descend upon Israel with hopes and expectations: a sign from God, an answered prayer, or a spiritual awakening after walking the path God incarnate once walked.

Or a World Cup win.

That’s what the Argentinian national soccer team is hoping for after its Holy Land trip and friendly match against Israel one week before its first World Cup game in Russia on June 16. Common sense (and the team’s manager) would say going to a training camp in Barcelona, Spain, would have been better. But most team members are Catholics who believe there’s something significant about this sacred place.

“I really want to visit the Holy Land and for Argentina this will be an important professional and spiritual journey, and I’m convinced that coming to Israel before the World Cup will do us good,” team captain Lionel Messi told The Jewish Chronicle.

The Christian love affair with Israel has deep roots in Biblical texts, historical realities, and eschatological expectations. If God once dwelled on the massive 2,000-year-old stone structure in Jerusalem’s Old City, many wonder, could He still be more attuned to the prayers of faithful pilgrims who go there?

The American evangelical connection goes one step further: Polls show around 80 percent believe God promised the land of Israel to the Jewish people and the country’s rebirth in 1948 is fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. Many believe God will bless those who bless Israel.

With all of Israel’s mysterious wonder, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. This small piece of real estate (about the size of New Jersey) is plagued with political strife, creating a cauldron of competing claims, both political and spiritual. Some Christians believe “God’s chosen” can do no wrong in their messy quest to keep democracy alive in a Jewish state. Liberal evangelicals often take the opposite stance, accusing Israel of oppressing Palestinians, or worse: apartheid.

As Israel steps into the spotlight on May 14 to celebrate 70 years of survival and success in a hostile and unstable region, here are four myths about the people and politics of this region for both fans and critics of this unique nation to consider.

Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP

Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint between Jerusalem and the West Bank (Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP)

Myth #1: Israel is a religious country

Some Christians assume religion figures predominantly in the lives of Israelis, and in some ways this is true: On the Sabbath, buses come to a halt and restaurants and malls shut down. Rabbinical courts govern matters of marriage and divorce, and the Jewish Law of Return includes conversion as one way to become an Israeli citizen. Yet most Israelis are secular.

Middle East expert Thomas Friedman realized just how secular when he was invited to speak to a group of Israeli army officers preparing to study in the United States. The lecture following his own was titled “How to Behave in a Synagogue.”

When he asked why Israelis would need this information, he discovered that many officers had never been in a synagogue before. In America, Jewish life revolves around the synagogue, but in Israel, “the vast majority are non-observant Jews. They don’t need to join a synagogue in order to avoid assimilation,” Friedman explained in his 1989 book From Beirut to Jerusalem.

A large number of Israel’s founders were socialists who eschewed religious identity. Zionism was a return to their historical homeland, not a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. Today, most Israeli Jews (62 percent) keep kosher in their homes, but only 30 percent say religion is very important to them (compared with 68 percent of Muslims and 57 percent of Christians in Israel).

Myth #2: Israelis are the oppressors;  Palestinians are the victims   

Like most nations, Israel could do more to improve inequities among minorities. But reports that overemphasize gun-wielding Israeli soldiers beating rock-throwing Palestinians miss the mark.

Recent polls show that 77 percent of Israeli Arabs would rather live in Israel than any other country and would not move to a Palestinian state. The reason: Life in Israel is pretty good. Israeli Arabs have a higher life expectancy than their kin in Arab countries, and Arab women have equal rights with men. Israel’s democratic structure means corruption is usually punished and excess force is investigated.

An official church pamphlet of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) describes Zionism as a “struggle for colonial and racist supremacist privilege,” conjuring up images of pre-1994 South Africa where blacks had few rights, couldn’t vote, and were subjected to racial segregation.

The Middle East hasn’t given the Jewish people many friendly neighbors. But in the name of democracy, Israel absorbed its Arab residents (now 20 percent of the population) and gave them citizenship, voting rights, seats in the Knesset, and the right to decline mandatory military service so they don’t have to fight against other Arabs. They attend the same universities and go to the same hospitals.

Crippling poverty and failing infrastructure have made life miserable in Gaza and parts of the West Bank, but the creation of a border wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories has nothing to do with racial segregation. For decades, Palestinian leaders have vowed to wipe Israel off the map, fired rockets from Gaza into Israel, and sent suicide bombers into nightclubs.

In the years following the completion of the border wall’s crucial sections, suicide attacks, which claimed more than 1,000 Israeli lives between 2000 and 2004, decreased by 84 percent. Egypt followed suit and began constructing a 6-mile-long steel barrier on its border with Palestinian-governed Gaza to prevent Islamic militants from infiltrating Egypt.

Oded Balilty/AP

Ultra-Orthodox Jews take part in a protest against conscription into the Israeli army in Jerusalem (Oded Balilty/AP)

Myth #3: Israel welcomes Christians 

Israel relies heavily on its Christian friends across the Atlantic. American evangelicals have planted trees in Israel and pushed for pro-Israel policies (such as moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem). In turn, Israelis have set aside concerns about past persecution in Christian lands and put out the welcome mat.

But Israel hasn’t always extended that same courtesy to its Messianic Jewish and Christian Arab population. Israel’s Law of Return prevents most Messianic Jews from immigrating to Israel, and even if the law is in their favor, the Interior Ministry works hard to prevent them from becoming Israeli citizens.

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox are a growing minority that now constitute 12 percent of the population, and they’ve become a powerful force in the Interior Ministry.

The ultra-Orthodox group Yad L’Achim has stirred up trouble at the local level, harassing both Arab Christians and Messianic Jews who live in isolated communities. One example: In the southern town of Arad, Lura and Eddie Beckford weathered decades of harassment. The group torched their chess club and Bible center—a popular gathering spot for Russian immigrants—and intimidated their American guests (see “Men in black,” April 5, 2008).

Myth #4: Palestinian demands are simple: land for peace

 This may be true for many of the 700,000 Palestinians whose olive groves were lost when Israeli and Arab forces collided in 1948. But Arab and Palestinian leaders have consistently turned down opportunities to exchange land for peace and rarely promoted Israel’s right to exist.

Israel’s Arab neighbors rejected both the 1937 Peel Commission (which gave Arabs three times more land than the Jews) and the 1947 Partition Plan. Despite the United Nations’ vote in favor of Jewish statehood in 1948, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq launched the region into full-scale war.

When Israel tripled its size after the 1967 Six-Day War (uniting Jews with the Western Wall after 19 years of Jordanian restrictions), Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected pre-1967 borders and any Jewish presence in Palestine. In 1973, Arab nations attacked again.

The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 didn’t bring about peace. Instead, Palestinians voted Hamas into power and fired rockets at Jewish civilians. Israelis are the first to admit they could do more to promote peace, but Palestinian leaders have failed to implement simple demands: put an end to martyr money payments, rewrite textbooks that promote violence, and remove charters that call for Israel’s destruction.

Most Israelis would like to end the occupation policies, but few are willing to gamble away Israel’s security.

ISRAEL’S EXTRAORDINARY SUCCESS against great odds is one reason why it has ample fans, critics, and myths. Out of the ashes of the Holocaust, the Jewish people did the seemingly impossible: survived multiple attacks by Arab forces three times as strong, absorbed millions of immigrants (including nearly 700,000 expelled from Muslim countries), made the desert bloom, and developed a technology industry that earned it the title of 10th most innovative country in the world (ahead of the United States) by U.S. News & World Report in 2018.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir shed some light on these feats: “The Jews have a secret weapon: we have nowhere else to go.”

Shifting tides in the Middle East have earned Israel a few new friends in the neighborhood (see sidebar), but its enemies remain intent upon Israel’s destruction. Enemy No. 1 (Iran) is seeking nuclear weapons capability. Hezbollah threatens the northern border, ISIS lurks in the southern Sinai, and anti-Semitism is growing in Europe. Meanwhile, the Argentina national soccer team faces pressure to abandon its Holy Land trip as BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) groups rally against “Israeli apartheid.”

The words of Psalm 122:6 are applicable today: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!”


Michael Brochstein/Sipa via AP

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (Michael Brochstein/Sipa via AP)

New alliances

Israel is accustomed to a sea of Arab enemies on its doorstep, but new realities in the Middle East are rocking old alliances. To the shock and anger of hard-line Palestinians, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in early April recognized Israel’s right to exist and expressed interest in future diplomacy.

The Saudis, it seems, have shifted their gaze away from the Palestinian cause and toward greater concerns: Iran and its regional ambitions. Decades of failed state-building in Iraq created a window for Iran to move in and eventually push westward into war-torn Syria, with sights set on the Mediterranean.

The Sunni countries of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates know they need Israeli intelligence and firepower to restrain their Shiite enemy, and Israelis have hinted at recent clandestine talks with the Saudi kingdom.

In addition to its regional and nuclear ambitions, Iran continues to back Houthi rebels in Yemen, support Hezbollah rocket fire into Israel, and mingle with both Russia and Turkey. The Sunni Arab axis is signaling to Turkey that it has chosen the wrong friends: Earlier this year, Egypt replaced Ottoman-era street names, and Saudi Arabia’s largest private media network canceled Turkish programming.

These aren’t the only shifting alliances. The U.S. decision to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem could nudge Jordan toward Turkey and away from the Saudi-Egypt-UAE axis. Saudi Arabia has trumpeted its role as custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities (Mecca and Medina) and the champion of Muslim rights to the third-holiest (Jerusalem), but Jordan is now repositioning itself as the true defender, claiming Saudi Arabia hasn’t done enough to protect the holy city. —J.N.

Tragedies and triumphs

1917: Balfour Declaration

1933-1945: Nazis murder one-third of the world’s Jewish population

May 14, 1948: Israel declares statehood and faces bankruptcy

1948-1949: War of Independence

1948-1949: Operation Magic Carpet secretly evacuates 49,000 Yemeni Jews

1961: El Al Israel Airlines sets a world record for the longest nonstop flight

1967: Six-Day War

1973: Yom Kippur War

1978: Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt

1988: Terrorist group Hamas is created

1991: Operation Solomon rescues 14,000 Ethiopian Jews from civil war

1994: Peace treaty with Jordan

2005: Israel withdraws from Gaza

2017: U.S. pledges to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

Jill Nelson

Jill Nelson

Jill is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas at Austin. Jill lives in Orange County, Calif., with her husband, two sons, and three daughters. Follow her on Twitter @WorldNels.


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  • Graced
    Posted: Tue, 05/08/2018 09:12 pm

    Good piece, and a topic I've wanted to see covered in World. I struggle with the uncritical support of evangelicals for Israel, almost (and some up to) the point of equating national Israel with spiritual Israel without a need for salvation included. I was so glad you included the treatment of Christians. So many won't even consider that. And it is so secular. I still struggle with how it lines up with prophecy or if it does, because so many of the prophecies refer to following the Lord.

  • RC
    Posted: Wed, 01/09/2019 03:10 pm

    The Palestinians lost the right to call any land theirs because they, and their Arab friends, lost the many wars they started.  If Israelis followed the teachings of the Koran, they would have wiped the Palestinians out by now.  I hope the Palestinians thank the God of the Jews they are still alive!