Why Israel matters to me, even if I’m not Jewish

Click photo to download. Caption: A poster for the 1960 movie "Exodus." Credit: Courtesy of Ivan/doctormacro.com.

By Father Gabriel Rochelle/JNS.org

I was thrilled as a young boy to watch the rebirth of Israel. I knew of the Holocaust; pictures of people suffering and dead in the camps sent shivers up my spine. I celebrated with Jewish friends in Philadelphia when Israeli independence was declared in 1948. But it wasn’t the same, really, because I’m not Jewish. For Jews, supporting Israel was choosing life over death, but I did not feel that. I did not have that personal stake.

My grandparents did not come to the U.S. because of repression or persecution. They came for economic advantage. My people did not suffer the consequences of a holocaust. Centuries ago some of my people suffered repression, but when they had enough, they moved across the English Channel to better their lot, and later across the Atlantic Ocean for the same reason.

In 1960, I went with millions to see Paul Newman and Sal Mineo as heroes in the film version of Leon Uris’s novel “Exodus.” Mineo played a young survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, a symbol of heroism and cunning in the midst of passivity and slaughter. Newman played a native Israeli, that new breed born of the kibbutz who was carving out a new land and a vibrant approach to being Jewish.

I was barely beyond youthful naivete when the movie came out, and it made a huge unfiltered impression on me. The key figures looked strangely like Americans transported into an Israeli context, but they were heroic as Jews. I realize that the casting was deliberate to garner support through identification, and the film’s caricature of Palestinians is in retrospect embarrassing. Yet overall “Exodus” was impressive, because it showed Jews no longer as victims, but as actors on the world stage. 

I am aware that, in the wake of that movie, some American Jews made aliyah (immigration to Israel), and many friends made summer pilgrimages to this new homeland when they were teenagers. “Exodus” was panned by critics, but loved by millions. I loved it because it showed values I believed in, like the move from passivity to action and the struggle for rights amidst opposition. 

Today, I love Israel—with its warts and its beauty marks. But there is a clear difference between my love for Israel and the love my Jewish friends have for this small nation. I can love it from a distance. I can love it critically. I can love it without going there. All of this is true for American Jews, with one exception. I’m not Jewish and they are, and that makes all the difference, because for them Israel matters in ways that it may never matter for me. It may matter as a source of pride; it may matter as a source of pain. Whatever the reason, it’s different for them.

I identify with the attempt to build a democracy on a precipice faced by Arab countries to the north, east, and south, and the ocean on the west. I identify with the technological advances made by this little country. But would it matter to me if Israel eventually fails as an experiment of modern rebirth? On one level I say yes, but on another level I cannot answer fully, because I am not tied to Israel in the same way as my Jewish friends. 

As the years go by and the critique against Israel rises around the globe, and within so much of liberal American Christianity, I go deeper into my own psyche to understand the dynamic that draws me ever onward in Jewish-Christian relations. When I do, I see that my investment in Jewish-Christian relations has paid off in the form of a connection to Israel that is closer than that of many, if not most, other Christians. 

I have a personal stake in Israel. I inhabit what Paul van Buren called “the Jewish-Christian reality,” a mental territory that will not allow for being Christian without a relationship with Judaism. Since all contemporary expressions of Judaism include a connection to Israel, I too am connected. Israel matters to me, even if I’m not Jewish.

I have visceral reactions when I hear the relentless criticisms. I wince at what I think are unfair assessments of the country, just as I wince when I encounter anti-Semitism. Many of my peers, frankly, either could not care about Israel’s fate or may even express their negativity through BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movements or hostile criticism of a society now facing great difficulty. It’s frustrating and often painful. Yet there remain others who continue to support Israel in a critical way, yearning for the country to overcome policies that do not ring true to its ideals. They also care about Israel, though it is not their homeland. 

Israel is no longer the land of Paul Newman and Sal Mineo. Israel is different from the “Exodus” depiction, both geographically and existentially, as it approaches maturity and seeks to solve the nagging problems that keep it locked in internal strife and external trials. 

Father Gabriel Rochelle

Father Gabriel Rochelle

I care about Israel. It has fallen on hard times, with some of its previous supporters turning sour, the intractable problem of West Bank settlements grinding on, and terrorism within and without threatening the country. But Israel can affirm its values and find a way to include its entire people in the experiment. Israel can find a way to become contextualized in its environment. I live with these hopes, too, even if I’m not Jewish.

Father Gabriel Rochelle, Ph.D., is Pastor of St. Anthony of the Desert Orthodox Mission in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and a member of the Steering Committee of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s New Paths: Christians Engaging Israel Project (www.newpaths.org.il).

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Posted on November 3, 2014 and filed under Christian, Israel, Opinion.