Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas at the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem

Fr. Elias is the Benedictine Monk responsible for the Church at the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion.  On the first Saturday of Advent, he shared his thoughts about how his community is preparing for the coming feast of the Nativity of Christ.

“During Advent, we light four candles on the Advent crown, symbolizing the four weeks before Christmas.  Every week, we light one more candle.  We have special songs, special prayers, and special readings, especially from the prophet Isaiah because he expresses a message of comfort and hope.”

Fr. Elias explains that the Benedictine community cherishes a particular German tradition: a special liturgy, every Friday evening of Advent, when they use no electric lights but only candle light to experience the darkness characteristic of the longing for the Messiah.

“Advent is not Christmas” says the Benedictine monk, “it’s a time of longing, of hope, of expectation, of desire.”  For this reason, the community doesn’t sing Christmas songs until Christmas itself.  Before that, only Advent songs are sung.”

“Then, on Christmas Eve, we have a party with all our volunteers and all our guests.  At midnight we have our solemn liturgy with Christmas decorations and typical German songs such as “Silent Night, Holy Night.”

After the liturgy, at about 2:30am, the whole community, including the volunteers and students, walk to Bethlehem.

“So I guess you don’t sleep much that night?” I ask him.

Fr. Elias smiles: “We sleep in the morning.  We go to the grotto in Bethlehem to pray there, then we go home, sleep a bit, and then we have the solemn Mass at 11 am on Christmas day.”

The Dormition Abbey is known to attract hundreds of curious Israeli visitors every year on Christmas Eve, so I asked Fr. Elias about them.  His first comment was that they have so many visitors that they really need a bigger church on that evening, as space is very limited.

But why so many Israeli guests, especially considering that the liturgy is celebrated in German? Why is it so attractive to them?

Fr. Elias shrugs with a smile:

“Don’t ask me. It’s the same thing in the Lutheran church.  We have the same liturgy in this form every day throughout the year, but this night is really a particular night because we sing the typical Christmas songs that everyone knows and loves.  People like our style of liturgy, and we have an organ, a choir, singers.  We also speak a bit in Hebrew, but the people really want to see and experience how we celebrate a German Christmas.”

The Benedictine monk then underlines the universal attraction of Christmas:

“Also in Germany the Masses are full, because there is a special atmosphere during this period.  Christmas time is touching: it’s a time of longing, a time for the family, with deep, universal symbols that everyone can understand.  The story of Mary and Joseph finding no room at the inn, giving birth to a baby in poverty… this is a touching story that speaks to everyone.

Fr. Elias has been 13 years in the Holy Land.  Has he seen any change in the celebration of Christmas over the years?

“It’s more or less the same.  In the last years it has become more commercial.  People have started to come with red and white caps, but this is not German: it comes from the United States and from Coca Cola.  We try to preserve the Christmas traditions and focus on the real story of the Bible, and not what is done with Santa Claus, or in advertizing and commercials. People here in Israel have some ideas of Christmas that they get from TV, but it’s not the true picture of Christmas.”

I asked Fr. Elias whether Israelis might be more open to the Gospel on Christmas or whether they just come out of curiosity.

“It’s mostly curiosity,” he replies.  “We also, our volunteers and students, are also interested in how Jews celebrate.  Sometimes we go to the synagogue, we pray the psalms every day, and we try to understand their customs.  We welcome the people, but we know that they are not Christians, and some things in our liturgy are only for Christians.  We don’t have papers where they can apply for baptism, and they are free to come and go without any obligations.”

Because of the wide cultural differences between Jewish and Christian forms of worship, between the Synagogue and the Church, the Benedictines need to instruct their Israeli guests on the basics of church etiquette:

“At the beginning of the celebration, we have to explain to them how to behave, because many people don’t know what to do in this setting.  And so we have to tell them: ‘please do this, and do this…’ Usually it works.  We have a different style of prayer, yet our liturgy is very close to the Jewish liturgy.”

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Advent: Preparing for Christmas in Bethlehem and Jerusalem

Advent is upon us!  Even though the days are getting shorter, the atmosphere is becoming more festive in Jerusalem as both Jews and Christians get ready to celebrate their respective festival of lights.  This year, Hanukkah and Christmas coincide, with the celebration of the birth of Christ falling right in the middle of the week of the Jewish holiday.

Soon Jews will be lighting their hanukkiah while recalling God's Providence and faithfulness (then as now!) at a time of great need in the history of the Jewish nation.  At the same time, Christians will commemorate and celebrate the moment when "the true Light which gives light to every man" came into the world (John 1:9).

If Advent is a non-event in Jewish Western Jerusalem, it is unmistakable in the Old City, where shops of Christmas decorations and artifacts have opened and are already in full swing. Every day, coming out of my home in the Christian Quarter, I am “greeted” by several life-sized Santa Clauses, including a large inflatable one standing alongside another one playing Christmas carols on the saxophone.

Beyond the inevitable Christmas commercialism, the Christian communities are also in full gear in preparing the various Christmas events and celebrations.

As always, the world’s focus of attention will be on Bethlehem.  On Christmas Eve, at 2:30 pm, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Fouad Twal, will arrive at Manger Square and make his solemn entry into the Basilica of the Nativity.  There will be effervescence and excitement throughout the afternoon and evening in anticipation of the festive Midnight Mass that will take place in St. Catherine’s Church (the Catholic part of the Basilica).

At the same time, low Masses in various languages will take place throughout the night in the tiny Manger Grotto, believed to be the actual spot where Jesus was born.

Pilgrims are advised that access to these events will not be easy: tickets are required and there will be tight security (Midnight Mass is usually attended by top Palestinian dignitaries and politicians).

For those looking for a more accessible, somewhat calmer and more charming alternative to the frenzy in Bethlehem, celebrating the night of Christmas at Shepherd’s Field in nearby Beit Sahour is highly recommended.  This site is believed to be the place where, according to the Gospel of Luke (2:8-15), the angel appeared to the shepherds and announced to them the birth of the Savior in the City of David.

Holy Masses will be celebrated there in all languages throughout the night, in the various grottoes and chapels lying under the same open sky from which the angel appeared to the shepherds more than 2,000 years ago.

Those staying in Jerusalem will also have plenty of options as to where to go – though for many their choice will be determined by the language they speak.

For English speakers, the Notre Dame Center, located just outside of the Old City’s New Gate, is a popular destination.  As is the tradition, Midnight Mass will be preceded by a half hour of Christmas carols (beginning at 11:30), sung by various groups and choirs from their community.  The event will take place in their conference auditorium because the regular chapel is not large enough to accommodate all the pilgrims, local Christians, and many Israeli visitors who will also want to share in a taste of the Christmas celebrations.

Another popular destination is the Dormition Abbey, rising majestically on Mount Zion on the southwestern corner of the Old City.  The fact that the Midnight Mass there is always packed with curious Israelis is particularly remarkable considering the fact that the liturgy is almost entirely celebrated in German.  The Benedictine Monks have gotten so used to their faithful Israeli visitors that they now integrate into the evening a good number of explanations in Hebrew for them.

On the northern side of the Old City, near Damascus Gate, St. Stephen’s Basilica (on the premises of the École Biblique) is the rallying point for the French Speakers.  Here, Christmas Eve Mass is anticipated at 9:30 pm, celebrated with great dignity and beauty by the French Dominicans.

On the Protestant side, at Christ Church, near Jaffa Gate, visitors can look forward to warm hospitality beginning already at 6 pm in the courtyard with coffee, refreshments and biscuits, along with some carol singing and time for fellowship and discussion.  This will last until the Christmas service at 10:30 in the church, expected to last until well after midnight.

These options are only a small sample of the many celebrations that will take place on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem and Jerusalem (click here for the full schedule of events).  With Masses, services and celebrations occurring at all times throughout the evening and night, those armed with enough strength and courage to face the crowds might want to try some “Christmas Service hopping,” going from place to place to experience as many facets as possible of Christmas in the Holy Land.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas 2011: Main Catholic Celebrations in Bethlehem
Christmas 2011: Full Schedule of Catholic Celebrations in Bethlehem and Jerusalem

Monday, November 14, 2011

Palestinian Christians: Cutting the Branch on which They are Sitting?

Recently I stumbled upon a Facebook page called "Palestinian Christians." It drew my attention because it posted a shocking eulogy glorifying arch-terrorist Yasser Arafat. Arafat is considered by many to be the father of modern terrorism. The legacy he left behind at the time of his death in 2004 was decades of brutal terror attacks against innocent civilians. As CAMERA reports:
groups under Arafat's direct or indirect command – including Fatah, Black September, Tanzim and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade – were responsible for hundreds of bombings, hijackings, assassinations and other attacks, including the 1972 murder of 11 of Israel's Olympic athletes in Munich, the 1973 murder of the American ambassador to Sudan, Cleo Noel, and the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruiseship (resulting in the murder of wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer).
For a complete overview of Arafat's bloody legacy, see CAMERA's compilation of Yasir Arafat's Timeline of Terror.

Nevertheless, this horrific murderous legacy did not prevent our group of Palestinian Christians from eulogizing Arafat as the true hero of the Palestinian people in the following words:

Palestinian Christians: Yasser Arafat 1929 – 2004, the Freedom Fighter, the Man, the Father, the Hero, the Legend, the Nobel Peace Prize Winner, RIP. We Miss You! We Love You! We Need You! God Bless Your Soul!

The following conversation ensued in the comment thread of that initial post, which we thought was interesting enough to reprint here. At this time you may find the original thread here, though there is no guarantee that the group will not delete part or all of it at some point.

Catholics for Israel: Why do you honor the father of modern terrorism, a man with so much blood on his hands? It is hard to understand how Christians can praise a man with such a tainted legacy. You bring shame on the Palestinian Christians. If you want God to bless and keep the Palestinians Christians, you should dissociate yourself from such terrorists, not praise them. It's really sad to see how Palestinian Christians, despite all their hardships, have lost their moral compass and integrity and stooped down to honoring one of the greatest instigators of violence of the past generation.

Jacko: why do you honor the state of terrorism that was founded over the blood of my Christian family and people? a state that ethnic cleansed more than 750,000 innocent civilians thousands of them were Christians and Catholics... a state that bombed and destroyed dozens of Christian and catholic churches... a state that stole and confiscated our land and is right now stealing and confiscating more land from Christian and Catholic families in Beit Jala including a Catholic monastery and winery... a state that has murdered, inured and jailed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians including thousands of Christians and Catholics including many clergy and nuns... a state that is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gods name?

How dare you to call urself Catholics or even Christians when you go against the teaching of the Catholic church that recognize Zionism is an anti-Christ heresy.

You have lost all you immorality [sic] and you are no better than any other terrorists and terrorists sympathizers who murder others in God's name and claiming to be doing God a favor and helping Him reaching Hid plans, as if He is unable to do it Himself!

You need also to take some classes in humanity and history to learn to distinguish between terrorism and the right to defend and protect your family and your nation. Yasser Arafat is a Freedom Fighter and he, just like all of us, has every single right to resist the zionist satanic occupation of Jesus Land!

it's our duty as Palestinians to defend and protect ourselves and our families, and our duty as Christians to resist the evil

Palestinian Christians: Catholics for Israel: you are a shame on Christians in general and especially on Catholics. You are not real Catholics or even Christians anyways.

What's your position on stealing and confiscation Christian properties and Catholic monastery in Beit Jala to build a new Zionist colony for the newly non-Semite Zionists?

Catholics for Israel: wow, so many cliches, lies, distortions and exaggerations. Jacko, would you be so kind to list precisely the names and locations of the "dozens of Christian and catholic churches" that Israel has bombed? The tragedy of the Palestinian Christians is undeniable, and Israel is certainly not always without fault, but to ignore or whitewash the constant Arab aggression and denial of Israel's right to exist, to support the falsification of history, conveniently rewriting it by erasing the Jewish connection to the land and inventing a mythical "Palestinian narrative", to glorify Arafat the father of modern terrorism, responsible for the death of not only thousands of Jews but also tens of thousands of Arabs - those things are certainly not "Christian".

We are certainly against Israel's confiscation of Christian properties in Beit Jalla if this is truly happening (unfortunately, very often Palestinian claims tend to be false or largely exaggerated). For example, the claim that the Catholic Church teaches that Zionism is an "anti-christ heresy" is of course completely false. See the statement of Cardinal Schoenborn for example.

And by the way, we are "for Israel" but we are also "for" the Palestinians. We pray for God's blessing and peace upon you and wish you well. We know you have suffered much from the conflict. But we wish to encourage you to stop committing spiritual suicide with your anti-Israel attitude. Israel is the root and foundation of our faith. Do you not read the Bible? Israel appears nearly 3,000 times in the Holy Scriptures, and "Palestine" does not appear even once.

Look at what Muslims are doing to Christians all over the Middle East. Christians are being massacred all over the Muslim countries, yet you persist in blaming the only country in the Middle East where Christians have full freedom of religion and where the number of Christians are growing! (we know, we are Christians living in Israel).

Dear Palestinian Christians, stop bringing this curse upon yourselves by praising terrorists and blaming Israel. Remember that the Word of God itself says "Blessed is he who blesses you [Israel], and cursed is he who curses you" (Gen 12:3, Num 24:9). Remember that St. Paul said "as regards election [the Jews] are beloved for the sake of their forefathers, for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable" (Rom 11:28-29). And the most important of these irrevocable gifts to the Jewish people is the land of Israel.

So let's pray together that peace, justice and blessing may come to you, the Palestinian Christians. But this blessing must begin with your own conversion from your anti-Israel hatred that is bringing a curse upon you according to the word of God. We know that Israel has made lots of mistakes and we pray also for their own conversion, and that God would give you the strength not only to forgive the Israelis but also to love them like Jesus loves His own people.

May the blessing of the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, come upon you dear Palestinian Christians.

Jacko: wow... so many lies, fabrications, hatred and ignorance in ur response which makes us real doubt ur loyalty and if u really a Catholic or even a Christian as most likely u r a mossad paid agent to spew Zionist propaganda to misinform and mislead naive catholic and to support the racist colonial secular Zionist terrorist anti-Christ state that was founded by terror and over the blood of my Christian family and my people.

as for a list of the churches bombed; it's a well known fact and proven by many international wel-known and credible historians including Jewish & Israeli ones that Israel has ethnic cleansed more than 2/3 of the Palestinian people in 1948, around 750,000 innocent civilians, dozens of thousands of them were Christians. Moreover, Israel has wiped off the map more 550 Palestinian villages and towns, and also many of them were purely Christians like Mujaidel, Ma'loula, Hasake, Iqreth, Ber'im... not to forget the burning and bombing of Christian churches such as the Annunciation Basilica in Nazareth, 2 Baptist Churches in Jerusalem, a Christian Alliance church in Jerusalem, the Nativity church, Saint Anthony Catholic church in Jaffa/Yaffa that was fire bombed and shooted at by a Zionist terrorist militant, Saint Barbara church, a 4th century church in the Christian village of Aboud near Ramallah... not to forget that in the last Zionist war and terror against Gaza in 2008-2009, Israel has murdered 3 innocent Christians, bombed and destroyed many Christian homes and businesses... and also all Gaza's Christians churches and schools were bombed by the Zionists

You also need to spend more time to read the Bible to know that the source of our faith was NEVER Israel... and also to learn the difference between Biblical/Spiritual Israel aka Jacob and Zionist Colonial anti-Christ Israel....Biblical Zion is NOT the same as political terrorist Zionism.

Here are just a small example of the Zionist terror against the Christians and Churches in Palestine:

Who is the Terrorist: Hamas or Israel?
Greek Orthodox Church in Lebanon bombed by Israel

Enjoy what ur Zionist masters are doing to ur "fellow" Christians & Catholics:

Catholics for Israel: It's sad to see that you prefer to continue in your anti-Israel hatred that is bringing a curse upon yourself and upon your people rather than choosing a better path. If you hate Israel so much and you think you will be much better off with the Muslims, why don't you go live in Gaza under Hamas? You know the Muslim saying "First Sabbath, then Sunday" - meaning that first the Muslims will kill the Jews, and then the Christians. What will you do then, still blame Israel?

You conveniently omit the fact that the ARABS launched the 1948 war and committed their own share of massacres (every day I go by the memorial stone of the Hadassah convoy massacre when 79 civilians, mostly doctors and nurses, were ruthlessly gunned down by Arabs). You also conveniently "forget" the 8,000 rockets launched by Hamas against Israeli cities that caused the tragic 2009 Gaza war.

I don't know why you see "hatred" in our response. We love the Palestinian people and wish them well. Everyone knows that there are Jewish extremists and some serious problems in Israeli society - and it's fine to condemn them. But to condemn the various *incidents* is not the same as just hating Israel like you do.

As for your rejection of Israel as the foundation of our faith, this is like cutting off the branch of the tree upon which you are sitting. Remember what St. Paul writes in the NEW Testament: "They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ." (Rom 9:4)

 What is "Christian" about your FB page? It's just a forum of anti-Israel hatred and venom. There is very little about it that is edifying or positive. Don't you see that you are cursing yourself and your own people by attacking and hating the Jews who are "beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:28-29)

As for the Israelis "denying access to the Holy Sepulchre" - this is a complete joke. I was there. The reason why they set up roadblocks is because there are so many people trying to get to the church that they would get crushed to death if there were no restrictions. If this farcical accusation is an indication of the other articles you cite, I would have a hard time believing any of them!

 You are very good at hurling insults, but not very good at replying to the facts. What exactly are the "lies" and "fabrications" or expressions of "hatred" in our previous posts? And how do you explain that the cardinal responsible for the Catechism of the Catholic Church agrees that the return of the Jews to their land is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy?

Once again, we plead with you to stop bringing a curse upon your own people and upon the Palestinian Christians. Repent from your anti-Israel hatred! Choose LIFE and BLESSING for the Palestinians by blessing and loving the people of Israel. As hard as this might be, this will do infinitely more for your people than all the anger and hatred that you are expressing now. You know the Lord is calling you to forgive and to love your enemy. DO IT! Renounce your way of hatred and choose life and blessing for the sake of your people and your children!

Jacko: Bla Bla Bla... typical Zionist propaganda that no one believes in anymore, even Israelis and Jews do not buy it as we all know better... you asked for a list of Zionist crimes against Christianity, and I see that u did not even comment on them or even condemned such satanic terrorist acts or showed sympathy to the victims of the Zionist crimes and terror... which proves that u r not a catholic or even a Christian; but as I said it before you are a mossad paid agent that is using naive Catholics to misinform and mislead them and have them to support the anti-Catholic and anti-Christ state that was founded by atheists, Christ-deniers and terrorists over the poor of the poor indigenous Palestinians and Christians of Jesus Land

it's sad that u r going against the teachings of the Catholic church! u r a hypocrite and a Zionist who follows the heretical teachings of the anti-Catholic Dispensational Theology that was founded last century by anti-catholic heretics!

James: Zionism is anti-Judaism and anti-Christ! it's heresy

Mansur: The jews of Jesus's time are not the same Jews of today. The israel of 2000 years ago is not today's israel. The name was stolen and used to get people to support the modern state. "God's Chosen people" who are they? What is Israel of the bible? these are two very important questions to answer. God's chosen people are people who believe in God and not a religious group or an ethnic group. Israel of the bible refers to the people of God in the entire world and not a state that was build on the blood of palestinians. The modern state of Israel does not follow the word of God. Many of its citizens are secular jews and do not believe in the God of Abraham. We the palestinian christians are the first people to receive the message of the lord and we have been faithful to that message through ages. Why do we not support the modern state of Israel "if the bible says so"? because the modern state of israel is not the israel of God. The Israel of the lord is his church and people all over the world and not a state that was build against the very basic fundamentals of both Judaism and Christianity.

Christian Zionism differs from church doctrine, due in part to its being developed by anti-state church clergymen and theologians in England. Today its views find significant support among the charismatic, Pentecostal and independent Bible churches in Protestant fundamentalism. Christian Zionists often view mainline Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic denominations with hostility and have at times considered the World Council of Churches and related bodies to be tools of the Antichrist. In the Holy Land, Christian Zionists have been hostile toward Palestinian Christians and generally detest Muslims as evil forces worshipping another God. Recent comments by Christian Zionists such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham (the son of evangelist Billy Graham) have added to the suspicion with which many Muslims view the Christian West.

Catholics for Israel: Jacko prefers cheap insults to rational discourse, so there is not really anything more worth saying to him, except that of course we condemn the incidents he mentions - at least those that are true. Some are isolated incidents that were condemned by the Israeli government and the majority of Israelis (burning of NT in Or Yehuda, shooting in church in Jaffa, attack on Baptist church); others are tragic accidents of wars provoked by Hezbullah and Hamas (Lebanon, Gaza), and others are complete bogus (Israel blocking access to Holy Sepulchre). We can only hope for Jacko to repent from his hatred so that he may stop being a curse to his own people, and choose instead forgiveness and reconciliation so that he may instead be a blessing to the Palestinians.

Mansur's position is the classic idea of 'replacement theology', the idea that the Church has replaced Israel as God's chosen people.  The Catholic Church now clearly rejects this false teaching, as clearly expressed in Nostra Aetate 4. Affirming God's eternal election of the Jewish people is not a idea that is limited to dispensationalism, it is also the clear teaching of Scripture and of the Catholic Church.

Many Palestinian Christians, including many of the clergy, still embrace the heresy of replacement theology because they think that supporting Israel means to support injustice against them, or to approve of every single action carried out by Israel, or to be generally against the Palestinians.  These claims are completely false - at least in our case: as "Catholics for Israel", we love the Palestinian people and wish the best for them. We also think that some actions of the Israeli government, army or individuals are wrong, and have no problem in criticizing them in some cases.

Unfortunately, many Palestinian Christians are completely fixated on their own agenda of Palestinian liberation theology. They hijack the Gospel to achieve political aims, while at the same time constantly spewing anti-Israel venom and hatred (like Jacko). In other words, they are Palestinian first, and Christians second.

Mansur's position that "Israel" is in fact the Church cannot be substantiated in any way by Scripture.  The NT uses the word "Israel" over 70 times, and in all cases (except one or two which are ambiguous), "Israel" always means the Jewish people - never the Church.  God's election of Israel never depended on whether Israel was faithful to God or not: the prophets constantly condemn Israel for their sins, but NEVER do they say that God has definitely rejected them.  The Church is grafted into the root of Israel, as St. Paul writes (Romans 11), and he warns us not to become arrogant against our root, Israel, because if we do, God can cut us off from grace.

This is in continuity with Gen 12:3 and Num 24:9: He who blesses Israel will be blessed; he who curses Israel will be cursed. Jacko is a sad example of the latter: full of hatred and anger against Israel and hardly reflecting the love of Christ at all, unable to engage in rational discourse and only capable of hurling insults.

Mansur continues with some bizarre claims that are unfortunately quite common among Palestinian Christians. Although false and quite unprovable, they find it necessary to constantly repeat them in order to substantiate their delegitimization of Israel:

"The jews of Jesus's time are not the same Jews of today" - how should this be proven? Apart from a trickle of conversions throughout history, it is clear to any serious historian that the Jewish people have been extremely strict in keeping and protecting their identity throughout the ages. And once again, the fact that they have tragically rejected Jesus does not cancel out God's election or his purposes for His people. The Jewish people remain the Jewish people.

Mansur also claims that "we the palestinian christians are the first people to receive the message of the lord" - with all respect, this claim is nonsense. The first Christians were all Jews - JEWS!  Just read the Acts of the Apostles. There was no such thing as "Palestinian Arab Christians" in the first century in the land of Israel - but rather Jews, Samaritans, Romans... and then later Byzantine (Greek) Christians. Arabs came much later.

Enough said. Again, we wish the best to our Palestinian Christian brothers, but find it very sad that they continue to sabotage their own cause by disrespecting and undermining God's eternal covenant with Israel, the root upon which their own faith is grounded.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Frank Sinatra’s Support of Israel & the Jewish People

According to, Francis Albert Sinatra may have been one of America ‘s most famous Italian Catholics, but he kept the Jewish people and the State of Israel close to his heart, manifesting life-long commitments to fighting anti-Semitism and to activism on behalf of Israel .. Sinatra stepped forward in the early 1940s, when big names were needed to rouse America i nto saving Europe’s remaining Jews, and he sang at an “Action for Palestine ” rally (1947). He sat on the board of trustees of the SimonWiesenthal Center; and he donated over $1 million to Jerusalem's Hebrew University, which honored him by dedicating the Frank Sinatra International Student Center.. (The Center made heartbreaking headlines when terrorists bombed it in 2002, killing nine people.) As the result of his support for the Jewish State, his movies and records were banned in some Arab countries.

Sinatra helped Teddy Kollek, later the long-serving mayor of Jerusalem but then a member of the Haganah, by serving as a $1 million money-runner that helped Israel win the war. The Copacabana NYC nightclub, which was very much run and controlled by the same Luciano-related New York mafia crowd with whom Sinatra had become enmeshed, happened to be next door to the hotel out of which Haganah members were operating. In his autobiography, Kollek relates how, trying in March 1948 to circumvent an arms boycott imposed by President Harry Truman on the Jewish fighters in Eretz Yisroel, he needed to smuggle about $1 million in cash to an Irish ship captain docked in the Port of New York. The young Kollek spotted Sinatra at the bar and, afraid of being intercepted by federal agents, asked for help. In the early hours of the morning, the singer went out the back door with the money in a paper bag and successfully delivered it to the pier.

The origins of Sinatra’s love affair with the Jewish people are not clear but, for years, the Hollywood icon wore a small mezuzah around his neck, a gift from Mrs. Golden, an elderly Jewish neighbor who cared for him during his boyhood in Hoboken, N.J. (years later, he honored her by purchasing a quarter million dollars’ worth of Israel bonds). He protected his Jewish friends, once responding to an anti-Semitic remark at a party by simply punching the offender. Time magazine reported that Sinatra walked out on the christening of his own son when the priest refused to allow a Jewish friend to be the godfather. As late as 1979, he raged over the fact that a Palm Springs cemetery official in California declared that he could n ot arrange the burial of a deceased Jewish friend over the Thanksgiving holiday; Sinatra again — threatened to punch him in the nose.

Sinatra famously played the role of a pilot in Cast a Giant Shadow, the 1966 film filmed in Israel and starring friend Kirk Douglas as Mickey Marcus, the Jewish-American colonel who fought and died in Israel’s war for independence (Sinatra dive-bombs Egyptian tanks with seltzer bottles!) He donated his salary for the part to the Arab-Israeli Youth Center in Nazareth , and he also made a significant contribution to the making of Genocide, a film about the Holocaust, and helped raise funds for the film. Less known is Sinatra in Israel (1962), a short 30-minute featurette he made in which he sang In the Still of the Night and Without a Song. He also starred in The House I Live In (1945), a ten-minute short film made to oppose anti-Semitism at the end of World War II, which received an Honorary Academy Award and a special Golden Globe award in 1946.

A 1975 benefit concert recorded live in Jerusalem was officially released only in Brazil. Frank’s in fine form in STILL another impossible to find cd. Oy Vey !

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Gilad Returns Home... and Christians Celebrate at the Jerusalem March

An unusually emotional and joyful day in Jerusalem and Israel:  Throughout the morning, Israelis watched with trepidation the unfolding of events surrounding Gilad Shalit’s release after 1941 days - nearly 5 ½ years of captivity.  The price paid for his freedom: 1027 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom ruthless terrorists with blood on their hands.

The Israeli public is divided about the deal.  While everyone is happy to see Gilad come home, many think that the price paid was too high, and that the release of the 1027 terrorists will only endanger more Israeli lives and increase the motivation of Islamic terrorist organizations to kidnap more soldiers or citizens.  The pain was especially felt by the families and friends of those whose loved ones were murdered by the criminals who are now again on the loose.

But the fears and concerns were for the most part set aside today in Jerusalem.  The joy of seeing Gilad come home, the emotion of watching him be embraced first by Prime Minister Netanyahu, and then by his parents, was felt by all.

It seemed like the perfect timing that Gilad’s release coincided with the Jerusalem march.  Thousands of Christians from around the world, many dressed in their traditional clothes, joyfully processed down the streets of Jerusalem, passing out flags and candy to locals, singing songs, and displaying banners with Bible verses or words of love and solidarity with Israel.

No matter the nationality and colors, the message from all visitors was one of solidarity, support, and love.  The red-and-white Canadians carried a banner with the words in Hebrew “Canada loves and supports Israel.”  The Scots processed playing the bagpipes in their trademark kilts.  A group of Americans displayed a flag with the words “welcome home Gilad,” while a Dutch delegation carried a large banner that said “Keep Jerusalem United.”  Even faraway Asian countries such as China, Thailand, and Malaysia were well represented.

And the Israeli reaction?  A lot of smiles and gratitude… and a bit of skepticism.  One orthodox family told me that they come every year.

Why do you think so many Christians come here to Jerusalem, I asked?

“I don’t know,” the mother answered, “maybe to identify with us.”

But what do you think is their motivation? Faith?

“I don’t think so,” she said. “I’m a bit skeptical about the motivation of some… like the Germans for example.”

Another young orthodox man was more optimistic: “It’s really fun to see this that they support us.”  And why do you think they are doing this here in Israel? “I think they see it as a religious vocation… it’s because of the Bible, you know, we are the ‘chosen people.’”

Another man knew exactly why all the Christians are here: “It's very moving. It’s the fulfillment of the biblical prophecies that talk about the return of the people of Israel to the land of Israel.  And the prophet Zechariah says that all the gentiles will come here for Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles).  Zechariah said this 2,500 years ago, and here you go… it’s now coming to pass!”

And so a double reason for rejoicing today in Jerusalem: Gilad Shalit’s return to his parents, family, and people… and all the nations of the world celebrating together with them.

And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles. (Zec 14:16)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Christian Celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem

By Nicole Jansezian

Article courtesy of Travelujah

As Jews in Israel take their meals in sukkahs, temporary structures that have been erected all around the country during the Feast of Tabernacles this week, many Christians continue their own celebration of the biblical holiday with the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.

After a rousing message at Ein Gedi, a resort on the Dead Sea, Friday night and a restful Sabbath on Saturday, the Feast meetings returned to Jerusalem on Saturday evening and continue this week with events in additions to meetings.

Werner Oder, the son of a ranking and convicted Nazi official in Austria, who is now an Israel supporter spoke at the Feast recounting the testimony of his conversion from anti-Semitism to faith in God and love for the Jews and support for Israel.

The Feast this year includes a tour to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and a trip to Haifa to visit the home for Holocaust survivors that the ICEJ supports.

On Monday, the ICEJ is sponsoring bus tours designed to acquaint Feast pilgrims with various locations and situations around the country. One of the tours, which will be led by ICEJ spokesman David Parsons, is the flash points of Jerusalem including neighborhoods such as Ramat Shlmo, Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan to Gilo and Har Homa.

“We are trying to make them familiar with the issues surrounding some of these flash points they hear about in the media all the time,” Parsons said. “When (world leaders says that) new homes in Gilo constitute a settlement, that is ridiculous.”

The ICEJ Feast of Tabernacles Celebration
Another tour will travel along the lines of the 1967 borders, frequently mentioned by Palestinians as their desired lines for a state. The travelers will visit a community from where you can look right into Tel Aviv, thereby showing the strategic location of Jewish communities in the West Bank to Israel's defense should there be rocket attacks from there as there are from Gaza.

A third tour will take pilgrims to the Gaza border area, specifically the city of Sderot, which has takent he brunt of rocket attacks in the last decade. Feast participants will have the opportunity to deliver more bomb shelters donated by the ICEJ.

On Tuesday, a minimum of 2,500 Feast pilgrims will join in the Jerusalem march with colorful flags and outfits representing their countries. The ICEJ always comprises the largest delegation in the march.

While most of the Feast pilgrims are from Brazil, more worshippers from Asian nations have come to the Feast this year including a delegation of 150 from China, Taiwan, Japan and Thailand. The Christian pilgrims hail from more than 80 countries.

The theme of the Feast this year is “Israel – A light to the nations.” Parsons explained that this phrase, mentioned twice in Isaiah, has a specific application to the person of the Messiah and a broader application to Israel's spiritual character not just its leadership in scientific and economic fields.

“Israel may be a high-tech country, but the context of the promise was about its redemptive purposes and not just technological advances,” he said.

Parsons said that the global constituency of Israel-supporting Christians is starting to show and many are having an influence on their nations' voting patterns. The theme is a timely one as Israel grapples with anti-Semitism and anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations.

“This year’s gathering is again underlining our message that Israel is not isolated, but has millions of Christian advocates and admirers worldwide… and we all look forward to celebrating the joyous festival of Sukkot with our Jewish friends,” ICEJ Executive Director Juergen Buehler said at the opening of the ICEJ celebrations on Thursday night.

By Nicole Jansezian, Travelujah

Photos courtesy of the ICEJ

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Israel: Land of Living Prophecy

Can ancient prophecies about Israel be true? Is the Bible true or relevant today?

Watch this remarkable video showing how biblical prophecies made thousands of years ago are fulfilled before our eyes in the modern miracle of Israel.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Shana Tova from Catholics for Israel!

A blessed shana tova u'metuka (a good and sweet new year) to all our friends, supporters and visitors from Catholics for Israel!

Enjoy this joyful Rosh HaShanah musical parody by the Israeli group "Fountainheads" from the Ein Prat Academy, Israel.

Dip Your Apple - Fountainheads Rosh Hashanah

Monday, September 19, 2011

Jerusalem Old City Arabs on the Palestinian State, Conflict and Peace

Just a few days away from the dramatic events that will occur this week in New York, when PA President Mahmoud Abbas will make a formal request at the UN to recognize a Palestinian state, I went out onto the streets of the old city of Jerusalem to hear from some of the local Arab population how they viewed the upcoming events.

I went out not really knowing what to expect. Would they be enthusiastic and hopeful? Would they see this as a step towards a resolution of the conflict and finally attaining peace? Or would they view it, rather, as a hostile action aimed at undermining Israel?

I interviewed a little more than a dozen shopkeepers and bystanders. Even though I spent most of my time in the Christian quarter, most of them turned out to be Muslims, which in itself says a lot about the demographics of the old city.

I first spoke to a young, mild-mannered Muslim shopkeeper named Esmat, sitting in front of his t-shirt and oriental clothing shop.

"Are you for the creation of a state of Palestine," I asked him.

"Yes, of course," he answered. "This will make things better for us. Hopefully there won't be any violence afterwards. Now, business is not so bad, but if there are problems afterwards, business will drop."

And what about Jerusalem? Esmat said he was in favor of dividing Jerusalem so that it would be the capital of both Israel and Palestine, seemingly unconcerned about the impracticability of having some kind of international border with passport control dividing the old city.

Further down the street on Christian Quarter Road, between the various souvenir shops, I had a brief exchange with an elderly Muslim man called Abed.  He also pronounced himself in favor of a Palestinian state, personally preferring the internationalization of Jerusalem rather than its division. Abed said that he often prays for peace. As I thanked him and began to walk away, he called me back and pointed to another man sitting across the alley, saying: "go speak to him, he has lots to say about this." And indeed he did.

The gentleman called Muhammad spoke to me for several minutes in impeccable English (he had lived in England for some time), sitting in his chair in front of a fruit juice stand, with his son sitting next to him, occasionally interjecting some uncalled for comments (such as "Jews are Hitler"). Muhammad believes that the whole business of going to the UN is one big show, and that Abu Mazen (Abbas) is only trying to appear as a strong leader and "hero." He saw nothing positive in the creation of a Palestinian state now because this will create greater obstacles to solving concrete problems such as the refugees: "with a Palestinian state," he said, we will lose the right of return for the refugees, and we will lose East Jerusalem."

So, I said, if all these Palestinian refugees should go back to Israel to live there, what about the Jewish settlers in Palestine? Can they stay there, or must they get out? Muhammad said that they should either get out or accept to live in Palestine, with no weapons and no privileges such as those that they enjoy now, like having their own roads which allows them total freedom of movement and upon which Palestinians are not allowed.

"But what about Hamas and the other terrorist groups?" I asked. Muhammad claimed that Hamas was actually Israel's creation. I found this hard to follow, but I think that his logic went something like this: since Israel doesn't want a Palestinian state, it allowed and even somehow favored the rise of Hamas so that their terrorist attacks against civilians would give Israel a pretext not to move forward with the peace process. I think I was too taken aback by this bizarre claim to come up with an intelligent reply. In addition, said Muhammad, the current Palestinian Authority is actually working for Israel, They have no backbone and really only want to make an impression on the international politics scene. In short, they are the “worst rulers that the Palestinians have ever had.”

I thanked him for his time and walked away, slightly confused, jotting down in my notebook the jist of what he had said.

My next stop was in a shop that I knew was owned by a kind Christian woman that I will call Sandy. When I asked her what she thought about the situation, she sighed and raised her eyes towards heaven, saying that she had no hope that things would improve. Sandy didn't think there would ever be peace in Jerusalem - as long as the Muslims and the Jews are around, because the positions of the two sides are irreconcilable. She then lowered her voice, even though we were alone in the shop at this point, and said that she had overheard her Muslim neighbor say "first, we will kill the Jews, and then we will kill the Christians." It was not the first time that I heard this saying. Sandy had also lived abroad, and she repeated several times how she wished she could leave again. I could not help but feel very sad at her hopelessness. I then asked her if there were any other Christians who I could talk to. She hesitated, and then said "people can't really talk freely here, they are afraid. Christians will not openly tell the truth."

I kept these words in mind as I walked into another Christian shop of archaeological artifacts and souvenirs held by an evangelical Christian. He was standing there chatting with two other young Christian friends in their 20s, one of them nonchalantly playing "Angry Birds" on his iPhone. The shop owner seemed to be the most serious of all, so I asked him for his opinion on things, but I noticed that at almost every question he deferred to his two friends. I immediately thought of the lady in the last shop: "people can't talk freely here." Perhaps I should be interviewing people only when they are alone, I thought, so that they are not under any peer pressure to parrot the things that they are expected to say?

His two friends did not come across to me as being the most devout Christians. "What do you think is the solution to the conflict?" I asked. "Suicide bombings" said the guy playing "Angry Birds," in Arabic, with a sarcastic sneer. Looking uncomfortable, the shop owner translated into English for me, quickly adding that he was only kidding. To my relief, the Angry Birds guy confirmed that he was indeed joking, but that there was no difference between suicide bombings and Israeli F-16s bombing civilians in Gaza. I was tempted to ask if he did not see a moral difference between a suicide bomber who intentionally murders civilians, and a targeted airstrike against known terrorist cells resulting in tragic but unintended civilian casualties - but I didn't feel that the debate would be very fruitful, so I kept my tongue. There followed a long litany of grievances: checkpoints, humiliations, being asked for their I.D. cards by the *expletive* Israeli police 4-5 times a day, and so on. I couldn't help but think to myself how their attitude ironically matched rather well the name of their iPhone game.

At this point it also struck me how little difference there was between the opinions of these guys and their Muslim neighbors, so I asked: "what difference does it make that you are Christian? How does your faith in Christ help you to deal with the conflict?" - wondering whether they actually had any such faith beyond being Christian by name. One of them said: "We are not violent, we don't hurt anyone, and we hope that there will be peace." I thanked them and moved on, walking towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, beginning to feel exhausted at hearing so many expressions of frustration and anger, cynicism and pessimism.

Just before I reached the Church, I stopped to talk to another young Muslim man who looked very bored sitting in front of his shop. It was again the similar language: "Palestinians want peace but Israelis don't. We are fed up." In the back of the shop was his father, sitting on a chair, who quickly joined in: "where there is justice, there is peace" he said, inviting me to come in. I stepped in and pursued the conversation with the father. He continued: "we want equal opportunities, there is constant discrimination against us, Israelis destroy the homes of Palestinians; true they are often built without a permit, but then they wait for the homes to be completely built and the furniture moved in and then they destroy everything, economically ruining the families that have built them." I thought that this was indeed a horrible thing to do, and it is no wonder that there is so much frustration if such things happen regularly... but do they?

The conversation with the Muslim gentleman somehow moved towards the issue of 9/11 and global terror. "Bush is so stupid, he just wanted to rule the whole world... what are the Americans doing in Iraq and Afghanistan?" But, I replied, wasn't there as a matter of fact a real problem of global Islamic terrorism? The 9/11 attacks preceded and provoked the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, didn't they? And what about the London, Madrid, Bali bombings, etc...? How do you think the US should have responded after 9/11? Should they have done nothing? He was not able to give me a coherent answer and kept going on his anti-American rant, saying that acts of terror were a distortion of Islam that he did not approve, but that America's politics of power will never bring peace.

After six or seven such conversations, I was beginning to feel dizzy. So Israel and America are at fault for all of the world’s problems, and the Palestinians have been nothing but innocent victims all along. And they really believe this. Trying to listen sympathetically, I could understand how their long list of grievances and sufferings, mixed along with a constant feed of anti-Israeli and anti-American propaganda, and a good dose of Middle Eastern pride rendered them completely incapable of admitting that perhaps the Arabs and Palestinians have also done a few things wrong (such as launching numerous wars of extermination and murderous terrorism campaigns against the Jewish State).

Still, I kept wondering: how true is what they are saying? How much of it is the result of suffering true injustices at the hands of the Israelis, and how much of it is ideological?

The next conversation came almost as an answer to my question, leaving no room for ambiguity. This encounter was now in the Muslim quarter, just on the edge of the Jewish quarter. I began speaking with an elderly man, but because his English was poor, the conversation soon shifted to a young, well built lad sitting across the alley from him, still in his 20s, with intense eyes and speaking fluent English. When I asked him my opening question about what he thought about the possibility of a Palestinian state, he said that he didn't like the way things were going.  Why, I asked?

- "Because I don't like the fact that Abu Mazen will leave half of the land to Israel," he said. "For you see, it is written in the Qur'an that jihad must continue until we have brought the entire land under the dominion of Islam... in fact, not only Palestine but the whole world."

"You see," he continued articulately and quietly, "I have to obey the Qur'an. The whole world must be ruled and judged by Islamic rule. This is not an idea of man but it is Allah's command. Islam is Allah’s system, intended for the whole world"

- "The whole world?" I exclaimed. "Even America and Europe?"

- "Yes," he said.

- "But is this not a recipe for perpetual war?" I replied, acting cool, detached, and mildly interested.

- "Oh no" he reassured me. "Jihad doesn’t mean war all the time. This will only be for a certain time. For when Islam takes over, non-Muslims just have to pay the jizziyeh tax to the Islamic authorities, and then they can live peacefully under Islamic rule.

I thanked him for his candidness and walked away, thinking how he had matter-of-factly confirmed in an instant everything I had read about Islam and jihad as being an absolutely normal and integral part of his religion.

On the way back home, I stopped and had a chat with one last shopkeeper who was more pragmatic and less religiously oriented than the previous one. He summarized well everything that I heard before: he hates the present situation; the Palestinians want peace; Abbas is sold to the US and for Israel; the Israelis are constantly destroying Palestinian houses; Jewish settlers are burning Palestinian trees; Israel is deceiving the Palestinians by constantly speaking about peace but never actually doing anything about it; the Jewish Temple never existed; the separation wall was built as a pretext to grab Palestinian land; he is against suicide bombings, but they are a natural response to Israeli aggression; Palestinians lose their citizenship if they leave the country for two years; they paid huge taxes to the Israeli government but get no services in return, etc, etc…

At this point, a French-Israeli you tour guide who was passing by with his group and had overheard the conversation politely intervened: "well," he said, "at least we are in a country where we are allowed to criticize our government, which might not be the case under another (Palestinian) rule... And remember the pitiful condition of the old city back under Jordanian rule when you didn't even have sewers, and how the Old City and your own condition has improved and developed under Israeli rule..."

I wrapped up my conversation with the shopkeeper who concluded with a thinly-veiled threat: "The Israelis had better give us our state, or we will get it by other means..."  I then caught up with the French-Israeli tour guide and asked if there was anything else he wanted to add. He said: "every time the Palestinians make strategic mistakes, and every time they are the ones who end up losing the most. It seems like this is what they are doing it again. Let's just hope that this will not lead to another regional war, and especially not one involving Iran..."

Mentally and emotionally exhausted, I headed back home, sadly thinking about Sandy's words: "as long as the Jews and Muslims are here there will never be peace..."  In the face of such cynicism and hopelessness, I thought that the most important thing we as Christians can do is to pray and work that the wounded inhabitants of this city and land may encounter Jesus, Messiah and Prince of Peace. Only He may renew their minds and hearts and turn a seemingly hopeless situation into one where true forgiveness, reconciliation and hope become again possible.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Conflict and Peace: Between Myth and Reality

On the Arab "Spring", Nakba, Hamas, Dhimmitude... and Sleeping Christians

In the last few months, it seems like the temperature has been steadily rising in the Middle East - and not only because of the nearing summer. The so-called "Arab Spring," initially carrying the hope that the fall of dictators in the Middle East would bring a blossoming of democracy and freedom in the Arab world, has already turned sour with bloodbaths in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The death toll at this point of some 13,000 and counting - with no sign of true democracy on the horizon - raises serious questions as to whether we are witnessing a "spring" at all.  As Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu noted in his recent speech to the U.S. Congress, other revolutions that had raised similar hopes in the not too distant past ended up disastrously:
This historic moment holds the promise of a new dawn of freedom and opportunity. Millions of young people are determined to change their future. We all look at them. They muster courage. They risk their lives. They demand dignity. They desire liberty... Yet as we share their hopes, we also must also remember that those hopes could be snuffed out as they were in Tehran in 1979. You remember what happened then.  The brief democratic spring in Iran was cut short by a ferocious and unforgiving tyranny.  This same tyranny smothered Lebanon’s democratic Cedar Revolution, and inflicted on that long-suffering country, the [dark] rule of Hezbollah. 
In Israel, so far largely untouched by the nearby revolutions and uprisings, the developments are nevertheless worrisome.  On May 4, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority signed a reconciliation agreement with the Islamist terrorist organization Hamas, which has been ruling the Gaza strip since the bloody conflict between them in 2007. Just a few days later, on May 9, Israelis tried to put their worries to rest for 24 hours as they celebrated the 63rd anniversary of their independence.

But what is a cause of celebration for some is a disaster for others: On May 15, Palestinians remembered "Nakba day" - the "day of the catastrophe" commemorating the displacement of Palestinian people that followed Israeli independence and the subsequent war launched by the Arab nations in 1948 (the discrepancy in the date is due to the fact that Independence Day is celebrated according to the Hebrew calendar, and "Nakba Day" according to the Gregorian calendar).  In addition to clashes and riots in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, in an unprecedented development, thousands of Palestinians and other Arabs marched towards the Israeli borders, and over one hundred protestors from Syria managed to breach the fence and entered Israeli territory - at the cost of more human life.

While the massive calls for a third intifada fortunately did not materialize and the violence quickly subsided, many challenges lie ahead in the coming months, with the interim Egyptian government flirting with the idea of cancelling the peace agreement with Israel, and with Palestinians expected to unilaterally declare statehood in September, causing Israeli police to prepare for wide-scale rioting.

With the ever-growing threats and attempts at delegitimizing the existence of Israel, what is perhaps most worrisome is the attitude of many Christians towards the conflict, ranging from misguided activism to naive passivity. I have recently been watching videos and visiting websites and Facebook pages of some Christian pro-Palestinian and "peace activist" groups, even engaging in conversation with some of them to try to better understand their point of view. These discussions, to be frank, were troubling.  I have found that the essential kernel of truth that they are supposed to stand for - which all Christians can agree with in principle - namely, the desire for peace, justice and dignity for the Palestinian people, becomes largely or even completely eclipsed by a number of nonsensical aberrations.  Some of these myths and lies are repeated ad nauseum until even sensible people start believing in them.  Here are some of the most prominent ones that come to mind:
  1. The disproportionate amount of time, resources and energy spent in delegitimizing and attacking Israel rather than in proposing concrete solutions for the Palestinians (such as, for example, the anti-Israel campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions).
  2. The disproportionate focus on Palestinian victimization and on Israeli injustices (some of which are true and certainly deserving of criticism, while others are greatly exaggerated), matched with a nearly total inability to see the "other side", namely the existential threat and fear of terror faced by Israelis almost on a daily basis.
  3. The Palestinian inability to take responsibility for or even acknowledge the horrific acts of terrorism committed year after year against Israeli civilians.
  4. The selective reading of history or even rewriting of historical facts.  Examples include the fixation on the Palestinian refugee problem while deliberately ignoring the story of the 800,000+ Jewish refugees who fled Arab lands in the years following the founding of the State of Israel, or more generally the myth of the vanishing Christian population in the Holy Land.
  5. The Palestinian culture of incitement and hatred against Jews, and the public glorification of terrorists by the Palestinian Authority.
  6. The propagandic use and wrenching out of context of hard realities such as the security fence/wall, originally built by Israel to stop relentless waves of terror bombings, but now used by Palestinian propagandists to symbolize an alleged "Israeli apartheid" - regardless of the fact that Israel is one of the most multi-cultural countries in the world.
  7. The systematic demonization of Christian Zionists and supporters of Israel, who are commonly falsely portrayed as Arab-haters, avid supporters of injustice, or apocalyptic doomsayers.
  8. The dhimmi mentality whereby out of fear for their safety, Christians oppressed under Islamic regimes prefer to remain silent or even claim that all is well with their Muslim neighbors to avoid further aggression, and instead blame Israel for everything.  
While one can appreciate the need to speak prudently in a situation of conflict with Islam, the absurd and disastrous result of dhimmitude is at least twofold: first, the one country that is most often singled out for criticism in the Middle East is ironically the one where Christians are entirely safe and enjoy full religious freedom, namely Israel.  Second, and carrying much graver consequences, the stories and reports that are told by many local Christians, increasingly tainted by fear, political correctness and dhimmitude, are forming a world opinion about the Middle East conflict that has more to do with caricature, fantasy and myth than with reality: this is the caricature of Israel the evil occupier, ruthlessly oppressing and dispossessing the poor Palestinians, and the fantasy that if only Israel would dismantle all settlements and grant the Palestinians their state, it would be the end of the Middle East conflict. Of course, as past Israeli withdrawals and concessions have demonstrated, nothing could be further from the truth.

Let's illustrate the problem with one small example. A few weeks ago, the Franciscan Media Center in Jerusalem interviewed Auxiliary Bishop of Jerusalem William Shomali on the Fatah-Hamas agreement. The news report claimed that the agreement between the two Palestinian factions could "mark a [positive] turning point in the Arab-Israeli conflict," and would somehow increase the Palestinian Authority's credentials to ask the UN for the recognition of a Palestinian state.  Msgr. Shomali claimed that the agreement would be an opportunity to "revive the [peace] negotiations," and that the freedom of local Christians (under a potential Hamas regime) would be guaranteed because "Hamas respects the freedom to build churches [and] to worship freely."

Over-zealous optimism, wishful thinking, or disconnect from reality?  It is hard to comprehend how Abu Mazen's agreement with the unrepentant terrorist organization, responsible for dozens of suicide bombings and the deaths of hundreds of civilians, could "mark a turning point" in the conflict or increase the PA's credentials. This is the same Hamas that has called for the killing of Christians and Jews "to the last one" and condemned the death of Bin Laden as the the murder of a heroic "Arab and Muslim holy warrior." Ironically, just two days before the bishop's interview was published, a Hamas MP and cleric said on Al-Aqsa TV in Gaza that the Jews were brought to Palestine for "the great massacre" whereby the Arabs will "have the honor of annihilating the evil of this gang," more dangerous than reptiles and lethal bacteria, so that "the land of Palestine will become the capital of the Islamic Caliphate."

An interesting basis for "reviving peace negotiations."

If this is not convincing enough, you can also read for yourself the Hamas Charter which openly proclaims that "Israel will rise and will remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors."  The charter also rejects all peace initiatives and praises Jihad and death for the cause of Allah as the Muslim's highest duty. As for Hamas guaranteeing the Christians' freedom of worship, this is the same Hamas that has relentlessly persecuted Christians in Gaza and is looking forward to the day when Rome and the rest of Europe will be conquered by Islam just like Constantinople was.

In this light, the "religious freedom" guaranteed by Hamas might of a rather peculiar type.

How the good bishop's rosy optimism can be reconciled with these basic facts on Hamas is a mystery. But this dichotomy between mythical opinion and sober reality demonstrates one thing: Christians around the world should be wary of passively swallowing any narrative or story coming from the Holy Land and Middle East - even when told by well-meaning Christians - without throwing in a good dose of critical thinking and fact finding. Things are not always as they seem. How many more bombings of churches will it take for the world to finally wake up and realize that Israel is not the problem?

Ariel Ben Ami

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Jewish-Arab Coexistence in the Midst of Conflict

Sunday morning. In Israel, it's the first day of a new week. Just a few minutes ago, I arrived on the campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on Mount Scopus, just a short walk down from the Mount of Olives. Before beginning a day of studying and writing, I went to the cafeteria to buy an orange juice. I greeted with a smile the Arab girl working at the counter, ordered, paid, and then said "shukran" (thank you) in Arabic. I then sat down and read the headlines in the Hebrew daily newspaper "Israel HaYom" (Israel Today). It was a quiet Shabbat in Jerusalem, but not in southern Israel, where thousands of residents were forced to spend the weekend in bomb shelters. Over the weekend, Islamic factions in the Gaza strip fired some 120 rockets and mortars onto the neighboring Israeli communities. The newly deployed "Iron Dome" missile system intercepted about eight Grad rockets that were heading for the civilian populations in the coastal city of Ashkelon and the biblical city of Beer Sheva in the Negev Desert. Last week, an anti-tank missile was fired at a school bus, critically injuring a teen and prompting a harsh Israeli response which led to the killing of several Hamas commanders.

With all the grim headlines and the seemingly endless conflict, I could not help thinking about how different my daily life is. In the last post, I posted a video showing examples of tolerance and kindness in Israeli society towards Arabs. I personally see similar situations every day around me. Earlier this morning I had breakfast at the Christian guest house in the old city where I usually eat, greeting Charlie, the Arab Christian receptionist, with a friendly "sabbah el'kheir" (good morning) in Arabic. In a couple of hours I will go to my Arabic class, continuing my study of literary Arabic along with some 20 enthusiastic Israeli Jewish students. Perhaps after class a group of us will head to the library together to do our homework, as it has become our custom. Last week, as we were all struggling with Arabic verbs, Shoshanat, one of the Israeli students, calls out a passing young female Muslim student friend, gives her a hug, and after a bit of friendly chitchat proceeds to grill her on the correct way to conjugate the verb "to prepare" in Arabic. Another time, it was Elisha, a young kippa-wearing religious Israeli Jew who lives in one of the Jewish settlements in Samaria, who chats, smiles and jokes around in Arabic with the veiled Muslim girl for several minutes as she kindly helps him do his homework.

Despite the undeniable fears and tensions in the country, such beautiful examples of friendly coexistence between Jews and Arabs abound, not only here at Hebrew University, but all over pluralistic and multi-ethnic Israel.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Latest News, Learn Hebrew, and Win a Trip to Israel!

[Apologies for the late posting of this newsletter, sent 10 days ago]

Today, for a change, I have no theological reflection to propose to you.  Instead, I will briefly summarize some of the topics that have recently been of interest to us Christians in the Holy Land, along with some suggested links, and then present to you a special offer from one of our partners to learn Hebrew giving you a chance to win a trip to Israel!
  • Purim: On March 20, Israelis celebrated Purim, a joyful feast remembering the deliverance of the Jewish people from a plot to exterminate them (sound familiar?) while they were living in exile in Persia. The story is told in the book of Esther, read in all synagogues during the feast.  Although this is the only book of the Bible that does not explicitly mention God, believing Jews and Christians see with confidence His guiding hand of protection in the story of how the Lord protected His people from the evil Haman through Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai. For a good introduction on this feast, see this crash course on Purim.  In Israel, we were blessed with some abundant and well-needed late-winter rain this Purim.
  • Modern-day Hamans: Unfortunately, murderous plots against the Jewish people are not only a thing of the past. Israelis were brutally reminded of this fact in the past weeks, first with the gruesome murder of the Fogel family in the settlement of Itamar on March 12, then the increasing Hamas mortar and rocket attacks on southern Israeli cities,  and then the terrorist bombing here in Jerusalem last Wednesday (March 23) which killed Evangelical Christian and Bible Translator Mary Jane Gardner, and wounded some 40 people.  It was the first major terrorist bombing in Jerusalem since 2004.  Still, things remain otherwise calm in the Holy City which is filling with an increasing stream of Lenten pilgrims as Passover and Easter come nearer.
  • Third Palestinian Intifada?  The modern spirit of Haman also lives on in calls on Facebook for a third  Palestinian Intifada, following in the footsteps of the recent revolutions in neighboring Arab countries that also began via the channels of social media. Thankfully, after receiving massive protests, Facebook decided to shut down the page which had gathered over 300,000 supporters, though other pages are already appearing in its place.  Please act and report to Facebook pages that incite violence!
  • Racism in Israel?  You might think that the recent wave of violence would provoke anti-Arab attitudes of resentment and even racism in Israeli society.  One even often hears the claim that Israel is an "apartheid state", discriminating against Arabs and other non-Jews.  These smear campaigns have little to do with reality.  If you follow only one link in this news report, be sure to watch this  moving video of an Israeli TV show that staged a scene with hidden cameras where an Israeli attendant in a gas station (an actor) refuses to sell coffee to an Arab-Muslim woman (also an actress).  How do you think the other Israelis in the shop reacted to the (staged) anti-Arab discrimination, unaware that they were being filmed?

  • Jesus of Nazareth, Part II: The Holy Father's new book and especially his statement that there is no basis to hold the Jews responsible for the death of Christ caused a sensation in the Israeli media.  Even though informed Catholics and others know that this is nothing new (the same thing was already said almost 50 years ago in the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate), it was a needed re-emphasis of a foundational teaching that is still very much misunderstood (or unknown!) by many Jews.  Perhaps of even greater interest is the Pope's remarks on the evangelization of the Jews and ongoing mission of Israel today. Read some interesting commentaries here and here.
  • Finally, one of our goals here at Catholics for Israel is to help Catholics rediscover the Jewish and Hebrew roots of our faith.  As St. Paul tells us, we Gentile Christians are but wild olive branches that were grafted into the natural olive tree of Israel, and we should be grateful towards our roots (cf. Rom 11:17).  Someone once told me: "Jesus was a Jew.  Everything about Him, in his humanity, was Jewish.  Can we therefore really know Jesus without knowing anything about Judaism and about our Hebrew roots?"  One of the best things that I have ever done in this respect was to learn Hebrew - the language that God chose, for some reason, to communicate His Word, the Holy Scriptures to Israel and to us.  Even the New Testament, which was written in Greek, is full of Hebraic and Semitic expressions and ways of thinking. Learning Hebrew is one of the best ways to get to know the Bible in-depth, digging deep into the texts and into the Biblical and Jewish way of thinking that underlies our faith.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Quiz: Are you living out the Church's mission of evangelization?

I am not the most punctual person in the world. Since the AHC conference last October I have wanted to write about the topic of evangelization and proselytism. This project, however, was trumped in our last newsletter by our commentary on Israel as "womb" of the Second Coming, as a response to the controversy with a Palestinian priest on the topic of "Catholics for Palestine" and "Catholics for Israel."

Today, the moment has come. I feel that the topic of evangelization and proselytism is timely for at least two reasons.

The first reason is the urgency of the task of the new evangelization, urgent because formerly Christian countries are seriously threatened on two fronts - by an increasingly aggressive anti-Christian secularism on the one hand, and the equally aggressive growth of Islam on the other.

The second reason is the considerable confusion that seems to reign among many Christians and especially Catholics regarding evangelization and proselytism. Confusion on this topic now would be nothing less than disastrous if  it results in neutralizing believers from carrying out precisely the Church's most critical task of our time. It would not be an exaggeration to even characterize as "work of the devil" any thought construct that would lead to the paralysis of the Church's central mission.

And so today we ask the questions: What is evangelization? What is proselytism? What is the difference between them? How should we relate to non-believers? Should we try to convert them? Or just accept and love them the way they are?

Some would have us believe that proselytism is a great problem nowadays, displaying great disrespect for people of various faiths, religions and walks of life. But is this really the case - in light the Church's definition of  proselytism - or is the real problem actually quite the opposite?

Before we go any further I would like to invite you to do a little self-evaluation quiz. This test will help you to determine where you stand - whether you are being faithful to the Church's call to the new evangelization, and if not, what may be some of the false presuppositions or ideas lurking "below the surface" that are hindering you from responding to the call. The quiz will also hopefully help to make the rest of this article more interesting and relevant to you.

So without further ado, why don't you go ahead and take the quiz now...

[Quiz no longer available]

Well, how did you do?

Allow me to take a guess: My guess is that not too many Catholics are guilty of proselytism. I suspect that more of us are influenced and affected by the secular humanist or post-modernist/relativistic worldview.

Now let's look at a few definitions to help us better understand the results of the quiz. The Church has spoken profusely about evangelization and mission in the last forty years, and so we don't suffer from a lack resources on the topic. For the sake of simplicity, however, I will quote here from only one document - the most recent one published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, called rather unimaginatively Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization (hereafter DNE). It is neither the best nor the most inspiring text, but it is relatively short, simple, straightforward and perfectly adequate for our purposes (I will list some of the other documents at the end of the newsletter).


What, then, is evangelization?

Evangelization "sums up the Church's entire mission." It consists in "the proclamation and handing on of the Gospel, which is 'the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes' (Rom 1:16)."  It is to "proclaim Jesus Christ by one's words and actions."  Note that the document specifies that actions only are not enough; they must be accompanied by words to effectively transmit the Gospel of salvation to others. Every person has the right to hear the good news, and this implies that every Christian has a corresponding duty to evangelize. The gravity of this task is poignantly expressed in St. Paul's words: "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!" (1 Cor 9:16). And the primary objective of evangelization? It is to "help all persons to meet Christ in faith" (DNE 2).

Where is Christ most especially encountered? Through incorporation into the community of believers, that is, in the Church. And so "since the beginning, the Gospel, in the power of the Spirit, is proclaimed to all people so that they might believe and become disciples of Christ and members of his Church."  The desire that people be saved through communion with Jesus in the Church is not something to be ashamed of. On the contrary, "the Christian spirit has always been animated by a passion to lead all humanity to Christ in the Church" (DNE 9).


But isn't this desire to make people Catholics precisely what constitutes proselytism? No, it is not, and this is precisely wherein lies the modern-day confusion.

Proselytism, actually, is using "deception, selfish motives or arrogance" in trying to convert people, thus "failing in respect for the dignity and religious freedom of the partners in dialogue. For this reason, the Church severely prohibits forcing people to embrace the faith or leading or enticing them by improper techniques" (DNE 8). In other words, proselytism is the "promotion of a religion by using means, and for motives, contrary to the spirit of the Gospel; that is, which do not safeguard the freedom and dignity of the human person" (DNE 12; n. 49).

How then are we to avoid proselytism? In the task of Evangelization, everyone should "'refrain at all times from any kind of action which might seem to suggest coercion or dishonest or improper persuasion, especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people" (DH 4). In short, "the witness to the truth does not seek to impose anything by force, neither by coercive action nor by tactics incompatible with the Gospel" (DNE 12).
Simple enough? Don't force people into the faith at gunpoint (or the equivalent - through fear, guilt trips, etc...). Inviting people into the faith, however, is quite another matter.

"I don't proselytize": Respect for others or cop-out from one's duty to evangelize? 

I have mentioned above that many people nowadays see proselytism as a big problem - a terribly disrespectful and intolerant thing to do. Put on the defensive by such criticism, one often hears Catholics - even some involved in missionary work - assuring us that they "don't do" that awful thing, proselytism. But what do they mean by that? The next time you hear someone make such a statement, ask them to clarify. Do they mean:
"I don't use any dishonest, deceptive or coercive measures to try to convert people" (the right answer!)
Or do they mean, rather:
"I have no interest at all (or lack the courage) to help people come to salvation by inviting them, in respect and love, to repent of their sins, accept Christ's forgiveness and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit through faith and communion with the Church."  (If this is what they mean, they will probably tend to muddle the answer a bit).
Sadly, I fear that too many Christians who claim to not proselytize really mean that they don't evangelize. Perhaps they are simply intimidated be the daunting task, and this is understandable. But perhaps they have fallen prey to what Pope Benedict has calledthe "dictatorship of relativism," that symptom of the post-modern world which refuses to accept any truth as definitive apart from one's own subjective whims.

Relativism: The Great Enemy of Evangelization

Under the leadership of Benedict, the Church has tackled the bull of relativism by the horns. In our document, she expresses her concern for the "growing confusion" today which
"leads many to leave the missionary command of the Lord unheard and ineffective. Often it is maintained that any attempt to convince others on religious matters is a limitation of their freedom. From this perspective, it would only be legitimate to... invite people to act according to their consciences, without aiming at their conversion to Christ and to the Catholic faith. It is enough, so they say, to help people to become more human or more faithful to their own religion; it is enough to build communities which strive for justice, freedom, peace and solidarity. Furthermore, some maintain that Christ should not be proclaimed to those who do not know him, nor should joining the Church be promoted, since it would also be possible to be saved without explicit knowledge of Christ and without formal incorporation in the Church" (DNE 3).
Quite opposite to this relativistic mentality, the Church invites us not to lose confidence in the truth and goodness that Jesus the Messiah has come to reveal to humanity. For this reason,"love impels the followers of Christ to proclaim to all the truth which saves" (DNE 10) - the truth which is Jesus Christ Himself. As then cardinal Ratzinger said a few years ago, "mission and dialogue should no longer be opposites but should mutually interpenetrate. Dialogue is not aimless conversation: it aims at conviction, at finding the truth; otherwise it is worthless" (Many Religions, One Covenant, p. 112). Interreligious dialogue is thus not an end in itself but rather a "moment" in the Church's mission of evangelization (AG 11-12).

Let us, then, not lose heart, and may we work with renewed ardor to testify to the risen Lord with all our being, in our witness of holiness and in our words. Let's not forget that "even witness by itself is not enough because even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run, if it is not explained, justified – what Peter called ‘giving a reason for the hope that is in you’ (1 Pet 3:15) – and made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus'" (DNE 11). 

Important Church Documents on Mission and Evangelization

Second Vatican Council - Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church Ad Gentes (1965)
Pope Paul VI - Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975)
Pope John Paul II - Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Missio on the permanent validity of the Church's missionary mandate (1990)
Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith - Declaration Dominus Iesus on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church (2000)
Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith - Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization (2007)

See also Catholics for Israel's PowerPoint presentation:
Go into all the World! The Church's Missionary Mandate