Home inFocus Israel: Refuge and Renaissance (Spring 2018) My Sojourn Among the Saturday People

My Sojourn Among the Saturday People

Lela Gilbert Spring 2018
A man in the Judean Desert.

In January 2006, I was standing on a beach at a Sinai resort called Nuweiba. It was a gorgeous sun-drenched day, crisp and cool. I watched as a white camel and his rider splashed through the surf, with the mountains of Saudi Arabia forming a backdrop behind them. We were only about 40 miles from the Egyptian-Israeli border — it was visible on the horizon just ahead. 

As I stood there, a kind of excitement stirred in me, something that I can only describe as a personal epiphany. I knew in an instant that I was going to Israel; that somehow I needed get myself there. And the sooner the better.

And so it was, just half a year later, that I flew from Los Angeles to Israel’s Ben Gurion airport for the first time in my life. I managed to arrive in the midst of the Second Lebanon War, with more than 4000 Hezbollah rockets raining down on northern Israeli cities – more than 100 a day – while air and ground battles raged inside Lebanon.

Night and day, tens of thousands of Israelis were rushing in and out of bomb shelters. Thousands more had fled the North altogether and were sleeping on relatives’ couches, or glued to TV sets in hotels, or camped out in a sprawling tent village along the coast.

My family and friends quietly agreed that I was insane for going to Israel at such a time. But war or no war, I had no intention of changing my plans. I intended to stay in Jerusalem for four months. I had rented a little Jerusalem apartment online, and once the war was over, I hoped to settle down and absorb my new surroundings.

Arriving in Jerusalem

That initial journey was primarily one of curiosity. I’d heard about Israel from my father, who loved the stories of the Jews’ regathering in their ancient homeland and their ensuing against-all-odds military victories. In his view, those were stories were all about miracles.

Like me, my father was a Christian believer, but his interest in Israel was not altogether religious.  I think, most of all, it was the unlikely success story of Israel’s founding, the glory of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and the “desert blossoming like a rose” that intrigued him most.

By 2006, my own interests about Israel had to do with history and archeology, including the locales surrounding various Biblical stories. I also sought to better understand Jewish beliefs and religious traditions; to see how modern Israel manages to flourish in the shadow of such hateful neighbors.

Most of all I wanted to become acquainted with Israeli people – to live among them and not just catch a glimpse of them through a blurry tour bus window.

I didn’t know a soul in Israel when I arrived, but it didn’t take long to meet some remarkable new friends. At the same time, unusual opportunities materialized, and I even found myself writing my first impressions of Israel for The Jerusalem Post.

And as it turned out, that opened up one door after another for interviews with experts, moving conversations with wounded warriors, and discoveries about what truths lay behind an array of ridiculous news media fictions.

Before boarding the plane, I had devoured numerous books. I read everything I could lay my hands on about Jewish and Israeli history, Zionism, Christian-Jewish relations, and current events.

I quickly discovered, however, that I had a whole lot more to learn.

The Lies Around Me

Clearly, there were continuous lies being told about Israel on a regular basis in the international media. Perhaps the most startling of all was Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat’s declaration to President Bill Clinton that there had never been a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount.

Fortunately, living in a geographically small country like Israel, it’s relatively easy to find experts who actually know what they are talking about. A few phone calls led me to famed archeologist Gabriel Barkay, who has spent many years sifting through tons and more tons of dumped soil from the Temple Mount, removed illegally during an expansion of the al-Aqsa Mosque.

I met with Barkay for several hours at his home in a conversation which led to another article for The Jerusalem Post. That was later expanded into a chapter of my book Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner.

Another false statement – one I’d barely heard about when I arrived in Israel – was immortalized by Jimmy Carter’s book title Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.  One of my new friends in Israel was a South African Christian pastor, Malcolm Hedding, who was by then the Executive Director of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ).

It didn’t take long to discover that Hedding himself – a white man – had been forced to flee South Africa because of his fiery anti-apartheid sermons, preached at his racially integrated church. He was outraged with apartheid accusations against Israel. He knew better – he himself had found refuge in the Jewish State.

Meanwhile, a lunch date at Jerusalem’s Mamilla Mall made the same point. A friend and I were waiting to be seated on a terrace, where tables overlooking the Old City were in great demand. All at once the spot we had our eye on was snapped up by two chic young Arab women. Their heads were covered in designer scarves and their well-fitted jeans and sunglasses were upscale. They sat at table next to an “ultra-Orthodox” Jewish family in their own distinctive attire. And next to them was a table full of middle-aged American tourists in cargo shorts, souvenir T-shirts, and a clutter of cameras, GPS gadgets and fanny-packs.

No, Israel is not an apartheid state.

Another discovery – BBC, CNN, Al- Jazeera and other dishonest news sources to the contrary – was that Israelis, not Gazans, were the long-suffering victims of endless rocket launches into civilian neighborhoods. Thousands of Israelis of all ages living in the “Gaza envelope” were unable to sleep through the night for weeks at a time due to “Red Alert” air raid alarms; every adult I spoke to was taking anxiety medications. Most of their children were bed-wetters.

It was also eye-opening to become acquainted with people who lived “beyond the Green Line” in Judea and Samaria, better known as the West Bank. No, they weren’t religious Zionist fanatics. In fact, the patriarch of the first family I met there was a world-weary soul who quickly informed me that he remains a devout atheist after losing his faith, along with more than 40 family members, in the Holocaust. He and innumerable other “settlers” live in those disputed territories for one simple reason: they’ve been able to afford homes there. 

Of course, all these new insights didn’t all happen during the four months I’d initially intended to spend in Israel. I extended my visa, three months at a time, again and again. By the end of my sojourn, I had lived in Israel for ten and a half years. And happily, throughout that time, my lessons weren’t entirely focused on controversies.

The Appeal of Israel

For one thing, I was stunned by the beauty and variety of the tiny country’s landscapes and vistas. From deserts to farmlands to golden, sunlit cities; from tidy farms to rugged cliffs to bird sanctuaries and waterfalls, from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea to snow-capped Mt. Hermon, it is a land unmatched in its photogenic appeal.

And I was impressed (and a bit intimidated) by the intellectual quality of even the most casual conversations with friends. And this extended well beyond my circle:  I heard about the devoted persistence of Israeli medical researchers, the genius of hi-tech innovators, and the richness of Israel’s world-class music, theater and film production. Israel absolutely throbs with intelligence, imagination and curiosity.

Later in my stay, after the so-called Arab Spring began in 2010, and the subsequent launch of the horrific Syrian war, I was surprised to find out about the emergency medical treatment that Israel has provided for years, offering expert medical care to wounded Syrians who arrive at the border. No matter who they are, or how they sustained their injuries, they are treated and then discreetly returned to their homeland.

Similarly, Israeli field hospitals, which even the United Nations admits are the best in the world, are urgently flown to sites of earthquakes, hurricanes and other emergencies. They are set up and running within 24-hours, delivering sophisticated, life-saving treatment.

As holidays came and went, I was touched by the sight of pilgrims, who arrived in colorful attire from every corner of the world to pray at the Western Wall or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, to walk alongside the Sea of Galilee, and to explore ancient landmarks in what is to many, quite literally, the “Holy Land.”

However, as months turned into years, the most stunning discovery I made about Israel occurred seemingly by chance. During an international conference, I happened upon a workshop about “The Forgotten Refugees.” A film of that title was being introduced, focusing on the expulsion of some 850,000 Jews from Muslim lands between the mid-1940s until around 1970.

Jews from Muslim Lands

I sat transfixed as I heard women and men relate story after story – some spoke tearfully, some with deep anger – about their parents and grandparents, brother and sisters and more, who had fled for their lives, often with only the shirts on their backs and perhaps a single suitcase.

From Iraq and Egypt, from Syria and Morocco and Libya, Tunisia and beyond, nearly a million Jews were driven out of ancestral homelands where they had lived in for centuries, some even for millennia. Their businesses and lands were confiscated. Their synagogues and educational institutions were shuttered or torn down.  Their friends and loved ones disappeared without a trace, never to be found.

More than 600,000 made their way to Israel.

It was not a happy ending for a while. In those days Israel was a poor country, and the new arrivals were hurriedly settled in primitive tent cities, with poor sanitation and little food. They were safe, but it was a devastating transition. Many spoke only Arabic; few spoke Hebrew apart from their formal prayers.

Of course, I’d heard a great deal about the deprivation of Palestinian refugees, who had fled Israel during the 1948 War of Independence. But now it was abundantly clear that there may have been more Jewish refugees than Arabs. Why wasn’t this a well-known story?

Still, those Jewish immigrants did not present themselves to the world as victims or refugees. Instead, they and their children found a way – through sheer determination and exhausting effort – to start over. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t easy. But today more than 50 percent of Israel’s population is comprised of those Jews who found their way across North Africa and the Middle East to their new homeland.

For me, this discovery was a turning point. I started seeking out people who had made that terrible journey. I listened to their stories, visited their homes and sampled their exotic foods.

And I started writing about them.

First Saturday, Then Sunday

Meanwhile, a friend told me about some cryptic graffiti that had been painted on a wall in Bethlehem. It said in Arabic, “First comes Saturday, then comes Sunday.”

I couldn’t grasp the meaning, even after it was explained to me that Christians were at risk of violence, too. Months later, I saw a far clearer and more ominous version of that same sentiment. It was embossed on a Palestinian flag which had been confiscated during the First Intifada.

In Arabic it announced, “On Saturday we kill the Jews; on Sunday we kill the Christians.”

In fact, one of the Egyptian Jewish women I interviewed told me that when she and her family were about to flee their home, a Coptic Christian neighbor brought food to them. As she offered her tearful goodbyes, she also said, “We know very well that after you Jews are gone, they’ll come after us next.”

Before long, the reality was all too evident. In 2014, I flew to Iraq and visited the thousands of Christian refugees in Erbil. I saw before my eyes the same kind of heartbreaking losses I’d been hearing about from Israelis who had fled Muslim lands.

By the time I left Israel permanently in early 2017, the Islamic State’s murder of thousands of Christians in Iraq and Syria was officially designated genocide. At the same time, Islamist attacks on Egyptian churches had also increased exponentially.

It should not go unnoticed that less than a dozen elderly Jews remain in each of those countries: Iraq, Syria or Egypt. And they aren’t the only places in which the Saturday people have moved away, and the Sunday people are now at risk.

Historically, the Jews endured centuries of abuse and violence at the hand of hostile, ignorant Christians. Today, fortunately, an increasing number of Jews have found their way into genuine friendships with some of us.

We actually have a lot in common.

As for me, more than a decade after the decision I made on that Nuweiba beach, I’m grateful beyond measure for all I’ve learned from my Israeli friends: lessons of life and death, fear and courage, truth and lies, faith and scripture, as well as the deeper wisdom offered by centuries of Jewish writers, historians, translators and commentators.

I believe a common hope for both Christians and Jews is crystallized in a few words from the Book of Lamentations. Their message is recalled year after year at Tisha b’Av – the day of fasting that memorializes the destruction of the ancient Jewish Temples. In our increasingly turbulent world, where dangers abound for us all, may they remain an affirmation of hope and faith.

It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning:

Great is Thy faithfulness.

Lela Gilbert is editor of Newsmax’s weekly Faith and Freedom column, an adjunct fellow at Hudson Institute, and the award-winning author of Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner.