Showing their faces

Dear coworkers,

Joy in Israel tonight as a third wave of women and children hostages were released, this time crossing the northern border of the Gaza Strip directly into Israel:

hostage releaseMost moving was the release of Avigail Idan, who turned four this week underground in Gaza. She and her mother were citizens of both America and Israel:

avigail and motherLittle Avigail was seized and taken into Gaza while hiding with neighbors on October 7. Her brother and sister escaped detection by hiding in a closet in their home for hours; when their panicked uncle finally reached them by phone, the six-year-old sister whispered, “The terrorists killed Mom and Dad, but don’t worry, the army is on the way.”

Stories like these are why the people of Israel, and their allies, are so convinced this war is just, and why Israel’s enemies around the world seem compelled to tear down posters showing the faces of children hostages.

Our community’s own contribution during this war is to shelter six little ones from Gaza who were in Israel for medical care on October 7. This has given us an unparalleled window into the lives of our Gaza neighbors during wartime, particularly after Naim’s mother lost her other three children when the family home in Gaza was bombed.

naim and mother in ashdodAnd it lays on us a unique responsibility to show also their faces to those who wouldn’t otherwise see them, and encourage Israel to prosecute this just war justly.

Here’s how I explained it to a journalist who interviewed me just as we were dropping off three of the Gaza children for safekeeping with the Christian community in Bethlehem:

bethlehem interviewAnd it was so encouraging this week to hear a longtime reserve chaplain with the IDF sharing with his people the same burden for the people of Gaza that we’ve been feeling:

Alon blog

This war is fundamentally just. Our leadership is therefore correct in resisting calls for a permanent ceasefire, which would amount to a return to the status quo and its enduring potential for Israel’s destruction…

In this present war, given its intensity and the goals of destroying the enemy, we must ask…what is it doing to our hearts and souls?

As the world pressures us to cease the fighting and as the world critiques our actions, we understandably push back, recalling the foundations of a just war. But does its bloody price compromise our position as a people engaging in a “war of the just?” I am haunted by multiple questions, regardless of how much and how precise our knowledge of events on the ground is. We are obligated to make room for some painful and challenging questions:

Has this war been fought purely as a war for the protection of Israel?

Have other human elements, such as revenge and hatred, shaped the battle, informed decisions, or established strategy?

Can I trust a leader whom I see as lacking adequate empathy and compassion, even to his own people, and who sees his own survival and self-interest as primary drives, to act wisely and compassionately to others, especially at time of war?

Have all decisions taken into account the human reality of the other, in an attempt to maximize the protection of life?

More fundamentally, has the rhetoric of dehumanization, that naturally came to expression following the events of October 7, blinded us to the humanity of Gaza’s citizens?

We are often told that the IDF is the most moral army in the world. Perhaps it is. More than anything, that has become an important pillar of my prayer during this period. I pray that we really are that. I pray that our hearts are not hardened due to our own suffering. I pray that we can see the suffering of others, even as we seek to protect our people now and into the future. I pray for wise and compassionate leadership. I pray for a heart wide enough to make room for the suffering of my people and of others. All these are incorporated into my prayer precisely because herein lies the spiritual battle, the higher battle that I believe is lived in prayer…

For it is not we who will save or defend ourselves. It is from God, and in God, that our battle will be won.

Wow. When God raises up voices like these within Israel, we outsiders can wisely recede into the background. When Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, all the Egyptians left the room.

So instead of addressing Israel again in this week’s letter, let’s ask some hard questions of ourselves.

Does our love for Israel rightly translate into hatred for his enemies? Do we feel we must choose one side or the other? Do we think the Jewish people are better than their Arab neighbors? (A thought often expressed by the humble people of Gaza themselves).

This week a messianic group in Israel published an Israel-is-at-war video for Christians around the world. In it an armed soldier in front of a tank calls for the destruction of Israel’s enemies:

This is about a people that hates us and celebrates every time they succeed in harming us. It’s not about one organization or another, it’s about a people that was raised on complete hatred for the Jews and for the people of Israel. In such a situation praying for the enemy nation is a form of betrayal, much like if the army of the Philistines led by Goliath would come to fight Israel and King David and we would pray for both sides. Are you on the side of Israel or their side? You decide.

The Palestinians hunt and harm our citizens from behind, including the elderly, the sick, the handicapped and even babies, just like Amalek attacked our weak from behind, those who could not defend themselves, those at the back side of the camp. Deuteronomy 25 says the following about Amalek: ‘Remember what Amalek did to you, how he met you on the way and attacked your rear ranks. You will blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under the heavens. You shall not forget.’

I’ve asked the friends who produced this video to consider retracting it, so I won’t link to it. It’s already been viewed over 150,000 times, so it struck a chord among Israel’s Christian friends. Nearly 2000 have commented and the vast majority are on their feet cheering: Thank you for this great message. I am a Christian who stands with Isreal. etc.

Only ten percent or so raised the questions that should be obvious to disciples of Messiah Yeshua: Didn’t he command us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? Didn’t his death and resurrection tear down the wall of separation between Jew and Gentile so that all peoples can be reconciled to God? Won’t there in the end be a great multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the lamb?

Friends, we need to pray into this. Is our support for Israel so soulish that we’ll even entertain thoughts directly contradicting our Messiah? We must go to the word of God which is living and active and able to pierce right through to a separation of soul and spirit.

And the word of God is the great equalizer, every time we drift into thinking that Israel or Christians or any other group or individual is inherently better than others. The Torah confines all people under sin. There are no good people who can be separated out from the bad ones. There is now only the righteousness offered to each person by God through the new covenant.

Friends, in some profound way this war is dividing the world. First of all between those who love the God of Israel and those who hate him. Let there be no mistake on which side we stand.

But let there also be no mistake: in Messiah there are no excluded peoples. The kingdom of heaven is for all who will receive him with the faith of a child. Let’s end tonight by showing the faces of Avigail from Israel and Naim from Gaza side by side, just as their homes and families were side by side before they were destroyed in this war. We ask our Father for grace to see his image equally present in them both, and we ask for redemption for these two children, and these two peoples, who have lost so much.

Jonathan for Shevet Achim

“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133).