As our tour bus full of Christian pilgrims rolls out of Jerusalem, the Jewish guide reads a poetic description of the Israeli settlement Itamar, a place where, we are told, the fields are carpeted in scarlet poppies and blue pansies and the deer “run free … and skip from hill to dale.”
Mid-poem, a woman snaps a photo of the Israeli-built cement separation wall just before we cross a checkpoint into the West Bank. Now we’re heading into the heart of the land where Palestinians want to build a state and Israeli settlers want to build Greater Israel. According to Scripture, God promised this land to His chosen people.
That’s a promise Christian Zionists fully support.
“If we’re going to believe the Bible is the word of God, then we must believe that,” says Heather, an Irishwoman on her tenth trip to Israel.
She’s one of 5,000 Christians from more than 80 countries – most notably Brazil and Finland – who came to Jerusalem for the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem (ICEJ) annual Feast of Tabernacles week in a show of solidarity with Israel.
Each year since the inaugural event in 1980, bus tours have been organized to bring pilgrims off the beaten path of traditional Christian tours. And each year, the visit to Israeli settlements in the West Bank has been one of the most popular, says ICEJ media director David Parsons, who has helped organize the Feast week for 17 years.
Rabbi: 'Spread the word'
As we make our way up to Itamar, there are plenty of sites that resonate with Jewish and Christian readers of the Bible. Off to the left is Beit El, or Bethel, where Jacob spoke with God. Further up on the right is Shiloh, where the ark of the covenant rested for 369 years and the little boy Samuel heard the voice of God. If we hadn’t turned off for Itamar, we would have ended up in Shechem, known today as Nablus, where Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel and the people made a covenant with God to serve Him.
Standing on the top of a windblown hill in Itamar, with sweeping views west toward the Mediterranean, north to the Galilee, and east to the Dead Sea, it is easy to see the appeal of such a vast inheritance, whether in ancient or modern times.
But it is also easy to see that Jews are not the only people here; a patchwork of fields and olive groves dot the Palestinian village below, and the metropolis of Nablus and the adjacent Balata refugee camp fills the nearby valley.
Only 500 families live in a handful of relatively isolated Israeli settlements that cling to the mountainous backbone here; in Itamar, Palestinian terrorists have killed more than 20 residents out of a population of 1,800, including Ehud and Ruth Fogel and three of their six children, who were murdered in their sleep in a particularly heinous attack in March 2011.
The Christian visitors listen empathetically as Rabbi Moshe Goldsmith recounts that night, eagerly ask him about the biblical geography in the area, and nod their heads with an “Amen” as he leaves them with a request: “I do hope you’ll come back, and spread the word,” he says. “You should realize that every good word about Israel strengthens the country. It’s very important to feel that you have that mission of being an emissary.”
'God has a plan for Palestinians, too'
Christian evangelicals have become increasingly vocal in their support of Israel, including Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Such activities have become so energetic, in fact, that some Jewish groups have become unnerved and actively worked to alert fellow Jews about the dangers of over-zealous Christians eroding their Jewish heritage and claims to the land.
But the ICEJ group seemed to strike a less political tone than other Christians, mainly emphasizing their appreciation for the Jewish people, the spiritual heritage they share with Jews, and their prayers for Jewish settlers. At a later visit to Shiloh, they bade farewell to their rabbi tour guide with a "God bless you, we'll be praying for you." Yet they also showed compassion for Palestinians, who see Israeli settlements as increasingly encroaching on their national aspirations.
“I believe God has a plan for Palestinian people, too, he has not cast them out,” says Heather, the Irishwoman, who references God’s care in the desert for Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham’s son by Hagar. According to Jewish tradition, Ishmael was cast out while his half-brother Isaac was favored by Abraham, while in Muslim tradition Ishmael was the favored son. John, an evangelical Christian from Oregon who didn’t want his last name published, says he believes there is a divine plan for resolving that age-old “family feud” between Arab and Jew going back to Abraham and that focusing on land and territorial issues misses the mark.
“God loves the Palestinian people just as much as He loves the Jewish people or any other people on earth, says the Oregonian, who has been to Israel 27 times in 18 years. “I think God has a huge plan for the Arab peoples in healing that rift, that family feud.”