MY FRIEND Lydia Aisenberg came to visit last week. She is the international
director of Givat Haviva, an Arab/Israeli peace centre a few miles west of
Jenin in the West Bank. A gutsy ex-hippie, she left Caerphilly in Wales years
ago to escape anti-Semitism. Preaching for us at Pentecost, she told how she
lives “five minutes from the end of the world” — that is, a few miles from
What caught my attention was her description of those who gathered at
Armageddon over the millennium to witness the Second Coming and the final
battle. According to Hal Lindsey, the most influential of the Christian
Zionists, the rift valley from Galilee to Eilat will flow with blood, and
“144,000 Jews would bow down before Jesus and be saved, but the rest of Jewry
would perish in the mother of all holocausts.” Mr Lindsey’s book, The
Late Great Planet Earth (Zondervan, 1970), has sold nearly 20 million
copies in English, and another 30 million or so worldwide.
For many of these extremists from the US, Christ will not come again until
Israel has the same borders as it does in those maps in the back of the Bible.
And this means that Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza — many of
whom are Christian — must be removed or conquered. The displacement of these
people matters little when compared to the fulfilment of biblical prophecy.
I remain fascinated by the ways in which many Israelis use the Christian
story, and the support of Christian groups (mainly from the US), to advance a
dangerous political agenda. Despite the fact that this story ends with a
holocaust for non-converting Jews, many Israeli institutions encourage a
Christian reading of their land for short-term political advantage.
A few years ago, the remains of a 2000-year-old boat were found by the Sea
of Galilee. It was immediately dubbed “the Jesus boat”, for no other reason
than its age. The museum built to house the find encourages the association by
constantly teasing the visitor with the thought that this might have been the
boat Jesus actually used.
As I wandered around the museum, I was puzzled about why a country formed in
response to the horrors of European — and, in no small part, Christian —
anti-Semitism would do so much to titillate the Christian pilgrim. The answer
was found in the museum shop, which sold T-shirts showing the Stars and Stripes
knotted together with the Israeli flag. Others were emblazoned with an Israeli
F-15 fighter-bomber, carrying the inscription: “Do not worry America, Israel is
behind you.” The Jesus-was-here motif is a canny way of cementing
Christian tourism is now returning to the Holy Land. But far too many guides
lead their groups to the tranquillity of the Sea of Galilee, where they sing
reassuring songs about peace. “O Sabbath rest by Galilee, O calm of hills above
. . . Drop Thy still dews of quietness, Till all our strivings cease . . .”,
and so on. Down the road from all this singing about peace, places like Jenin
look as if they have actually seen the end of the world. It doesn’t help the
work of peace campaigners like Lydia to pretend otherwise.
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, and lecturer in
philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford.