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Pilgrims return to an unholy peacefulness

02 November 2006


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 Armageddon.

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 Israeli-American relations.

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.

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