Experiencing any culture for the first time can always be a shocking experience. I felt like my time in Israel was especially jolting because I had encountered a form of Israeli society in the Bible. It was too easy to import many of my presuppositions onto Israel. Here are a few examples of the misconceptions I had concerning Israel, and the truth of the matter I discovered.
- Only Jews live in Israel
Isn’t Israel supposed to be the homeland for the Jews? Therefore, only Jews should live there, right? On the contrary, Israel contains diversity within its population. Just under 75% of those living in Israel are ethnic Jews, while the second largest demographic (around 21%) are the Arabs.
So what’s the big deal? Why does it matter that not everyone living in Israel is a Jew? Israel seems to exist in perpetual conflict with herself because of the people living within her borders. Arabs are those who lived in the land of Israel (formerly known as the land of Palestine before the founding of the state of Israel in 1948) before Jews started immigrating there in the late nineteenth century. As can be inferred from the statistics above, the fact that so many Arabs still live in Israel to this day means that many are not willing to give up their land just yet. This reality brings with it conflict and racial tension.
- Everyone in Israel is religious
Maybe you were confused when I said that the majority of Israel’s population is comprised of “ethnic Jews.” “An ‘ethnic Jew’, you say? I thought Judaism was a religion, not an ethnicity!” Well, yes; Judaism is a religion, but just because a person is Jewish does not mean that they practice Judaism. A person is considered a Jew if they trace their lineage back to Abraham and are originally from the land of Judea (JEW-de-a). Jewishness is usually an ethnicity, not necessarily a religion. Although, a non-(ethnic) Jew can also be considered a Jew if they convert to the religion of Judaism.
Therefore, in Israel you can meet a “secular” Jew, a “religious” Jew, or an “ethnic” Jew. These qualifiers are meant to help us understand that not everyone who is born into a Jewish family decides to practice the religion that is connected to their heritage. It is important that you do not assume when talking to a self-identifying Jew that they are religious.
- Jews clearly have the sole right to live in Israel
This is one of the most controversial topics surrounding the nation of Israel. Most people believe that since Jews make up the majority of the population in the land of Israel that this is the way it has always been. As mentioned above, modern Jews did not start arriving in the land of Palestine before the late 1800’s. The land was largely populated by a group of Arabs, with only a handful of Jews living in the region. The Arabic exodus from the land of Palestine occurred for a variety of reasons, but one of the major immigrations occurred after the war for Israel’s independence in 1948. As a result of the war, 700,000 Arabs were forced to seek refuge in surrounding countries.
So now there exists two competing narratives concerning who has the right to the land of Israel. Israelis believe that they have the right to the land, appealing to their religious history. Arabs also believe that they ought to live in the land, appealing to their hundreds of years of existence in the land prior to the Jewish immigration. As an example of these two narratives, consider the names that each people group assigns to the 1948 war. Arabs call that war the Nakba (“the catastrophe”), because it was a day of tragedy for them. Israelis named it the War of Independence, since they gained their freedom from this war. This double narrative constitutes the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When approaching this conflict, we must have humility in the face of a complex reality.
- The modern nation of Israel was born out of religious fervor
Israel has been in exile for hundreds of years. They lived under foreign rulers for ages. They longed to return to their land, praying that God would give them that which He promised. This is the narrative I received in the Bible, so I believed that this must be the mindset of modern Jews as well.
Israel was born out of a movement known as “Zionism.” While this movement does have its religious proponents, its founders were mainly secular. Most of the early leaders of the Zionist movement were influenced by the haskalah, which “sought to reform the Jewish emphasis on tradition and collectivism and to import into Jewish society a more rational, analytical, intellectual, and individualistic way of life” (Daniel Gordis, Israel : A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, pg. 13). This Jewish reform directly resulted from the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Zionism mainly concerned itself with establishing a national homeland for the Jewish people, since the Jews had been facing violent persecution in their current European homes. It also desired to create a “new Jew,” unlike those Jews who lived like victims to their European colonial powers. This new Jew would be self-sufficient, strong, and powerful. This movement still exerts powerful influence in present-day Israel. Zionism presents a different picture of Judaism than what we are handed in the Bible, because modern Jews have a very different history than the Jews we find in the Bible (2,000 years have passed since the Bible was written!). We must be sensitive to modern narratives surrounding the Jewish people, not just ancient ones.
- Jerusalem looks exactly like it did when Jesus was alive
While this final thought is humorous, it is very true. When we entered into the golden city of Jerusalem, I half-expected to see donkeys, wooden carts, people wearing long robes, and lots of hemp sandals. Sadly, I only saw those things while on a tour in Nazareth at a place which was created to look like the Nazareth of Jesus’ day.
Modernity has reached Israel. On our way to the famous Western Wall, we passed Israeli coffee chains, pizza and burger restaurants, and souvenir shops. Our first night out on the town in Jerusalem included youth dancing to electronic dance music on the top of a van. People drive cars! Israelis wear Western clothes. Modernization has come to Israel, causing it to look very different from Jesus’ day.
I share my misconceptions to help you broaden your thinking about the nation of Israel. Sometimes in Christian sub-culture we can get so caught up in our own presuppositions that we don’t consider the reality of a situation. All that I have shared with you is incredibly condensed, but I hope that this post has stimulated you to consider alternate perceptions of the reality in Israel. I pray that these facts will help deepen your theological thinking about ancient, modern, and end time realities surrounding Israel. Many conversations in theology surround the role of Israel in God’s end-time plan, and some of the facts above have caused me to rethink my positions regarding Israel’s role. I also hope that these facts will help you engage political conversations about the nation of Israel in a more nuanced manner. Nuanced thinking destroys false presuppositions and thinking about Israel in new ways helps us engage theology and dialogue better.