Try reading the word aloud twice, and listen to your inflection. What perspective does the combination express? A parent’s exasperation? A lover’s crescendo of intimacy? A victim’s indignation? A child’s curiosity? A friend’s exhortation? However it emerges, attitudes about Israel crystallize clearly when the name is spoken twice.
When Jews and Christians come together to speak of Israel, there are always two words. This is axiomatic, in one sense, because two people always experience something in different ways. And when Jews and Christians deal with Israel, the difference in their identities assures different experiences. I do not mean to imply that all Jews are the same in their understanding, nor to ignore the fact that some Christians have planted Israel deeply into their souls through extended experience there and profound reflection on its existence.
I mean that peoplehood shapes perception. So Jewish peoplehood shapes the perception of Israel differently from how Christian peoplehood shapes it.
The gap between these two perceptions presents the challenge to Jews and Christians as they speak of Israel together. Until it is bridged, each community’s voice falls short of clearly communicating to the other. Until it is bridged, incompatible monologues too often fly past one another, landing as explosive attacks on the opposite side.
Discovering the common perspectives that can bridge the gap is what the iEngage Project, with its component of “Images of Israel,” is all about. To understand its approach, it will help to profile the typical perspectives of Jews and Christians as they come to speak of Israel.
For Christians, Israel is a Place Far, Far Away
Most of the Jewish community identifies with Israel as a homeland in one way or another and many Jews have been schooled in the homeland perspectives of Zionism.
In addition, many Jews have traveled to Israel and know friends or family who live there. Israel has faced communal, environmental, political, and military challenges of existential proportions, leading many Jews to assume that Israel must be defended against implicit or explicit assaults. Non-Jews in a conversation about Israel are then seen through a lens of “with us” or “against us.” The object of an encounter is to ensure that as many non-Jews as possible emerge in the “with us” column.
For many in the Christian community, Israel is a place far away, more familiar from Bible maps or the news media than from any direct experience. It may be the “apple of God’s eye,” with accompanying expectations of holiness that no nation can achieve.
It may be the powerful economic and military presence representing Western interests and an unwelcome intrusion in the Middle East, hence a source of moral and political misgivings and distrust. In either view, the important characteristics of the Israel being discussed are framed outside the daily experience of Israeli life. An encounter framed in that way becomes an exercise in persuasion, advocating for Israel to live up to the expectations of others.
What can complicate such encounters even further is the dynamic that is set up when one party has been to Israel and the other has not. After all, how does one who has never been there hope to stand on equal ground with someone who has been there at least once and perhaps many times? Many a discussion has ended unresolved with the assertion, “Well, if you would go there and see what I have seen, you would realize that I am right.”
The stakes are high in such encounters, as they are shaped around a sense of crisis. The threats to Israel that make solidarity so crucial for Jews and the challenges that make Israel’s moral character such a focus for Christians combine to put everyone in the encounter on high alert.
Watch one of these encounters and it is clear from body language, gesture, the tone of the voice, and heightened senses that moves and counter-moves are being calculated and launched as though in a verbal fencing match. Parry and thrust from a sure, nimble footing constitutes the most advantageous posture for the engagement.
Christian Learning Environment on Israel
But crisis is rarely the basis for constructive engagement over a long period of time. When one is defending a position against a perceived opponent, there is little ground for mutual understanding or exchange.
To achieve that, iEngage and “Images” offer Jewish and Christian participants, respectively, an arena in which to examine the values that underlie their own positions. In “Images,” the values that animate Jewish perspectives on Israel are also brought into the discussion in relation to the Christian values of the participants. By developing a perspective on Israel shaped around values, rather than crisis, the possibility emerges of bridging the Jewish-Christian gap and rendering a more fruitful, constructive encounter.
In order to allow for the examination and exploration of values to take place thoroughly, “Images of Israel” envisions a Christian learning environment, where the Jewish voices are encountered first through texts and video presentations. This has two advantages over a direct interfaith setting.
First, it removes the immediate presence of one who needs to be convinced; hence, it removes the high-alert sensibility that makes self-examination so difficult. Second, and perhaps most importantly, it allows the Christian participant to step back from the persuasive arguments and consider the values that underlie them.
Together, these moves empower a Christian conversation in a setting where the certainties of argument can be relaxed, where a bit of vulnerability can be risked, where we can open ourselves to the messy ambiguities of a learning process in which deeper self-understanding can be achieved.
A similar process is under way within Jewish communities who are studying iEngage, which also offers a shift from crisis-based calls for support of Israel to a values-based invitation to engage Israel in its complexity.
That discussion within the Jewish community would be complicated greatly were it to take place with Christians in the room, for the same reasons that “Images of Israel” is complicated by a Jewish presence. In time, and hopefully quite soon, there will come opportunities for the Jews of iEngage and the Christians of “Images” to bring their respective values-based perspectives into encounter with one another.
The language of religious values will then be the bridge that spans the gap between their perspectives, and the two words that are spoken by Jew and Christian will at least, and at last, be in the same language. With that, they will empower an encounter that promises to enrich both, to deepen insights, and to engender a more fully shared commitment to the vital interests that both Jews and Christians bring to their engagement with Israel.