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JIIS Bulletin - July 2012
Christians and Christianity in the Jewish State
A new book by JIIS researcher Dr. Amnon Ramon offers an in-depth look at Israel’s relationship with Christianity and the Christian world. It examines that connection over time and presents recommendations for the future. Ramon opens Christians and Christianity in the Jewish State by underscoring the unique relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and between Jews and Christians. “Christianity emerged from within the Jewish world and – like Judaism – sanctifies the Hebrew Bible… This shared foundation has resulted in a perception of the land of Israel as the Holy Land and of Jerusalem as a holy city and pilgrimage destination.” 

He goes on to discuss the “complex theological challenge” the churches faced with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and again in 1967, with the Israeli conquest of Bethlehem and East Jerusalem, home to most of Christianity’s holy places and the centers of the different churches in the Holy Land.

Moreover, in 1948 the leaders of Israel, the state of the Jewish People, which for centuries was a minority dependent on the good graces of Christian and Muslim rulers, found themselves in the role of the "Caesar" expected to deal with the affairs of local Christian communities, with international Christian bodies, holy sites and the vast Church property that remained within the boundaries of the young state. Most of the country’s leaders were aware of the influence of religious-historical residue on the attitude of the Christian world towards Israel. Nor were they free from the influence of Jewish notions about the Christian world. The fact that most of the Christians in the country were Arabs, regarding whose loyalty to the state the Israeli leadership had some doubts, increased the problematic nature of the ties between Israel and the local Christian communities. This reversal in the state of affairs, and the intricate and complicated relations that have prevailed between the Christian world and the State of Israel, are the principal focus of this book. 

Relations between Israel and the churches have sometimes flowed quite smoothly, at other times resembled a quiet rollercoaster – but inconsistent Israeli policy toward them has been the one consistent feature. The book includes the many aspects of the ties that make this a truly good story – in addition to religion(s) and sensitivities you can find politics, real estate (the churches hold extensive property, especially in Jerusalem), power and an innate determination – on both sides – to have attitudes and demands validated. 

In general over the years Israel has granted limited freedom of operation to the established churches – certainly in comparison to, say, the non-institutionalized Protestant entities due to suspicions that they were engaged in missionary activities amidst the Jewish population. And from a resources point of view, Christian entities were in a better situation than the Muslim religious establishment, which lost most of its resources (income from Waqf properties) following the 1948 war and became completely dependent on the Israeli establishment. One major reason for Israel’s special attitude to the church institutions was a fear of strong Christian elements (led by the Vatican) and certain Western countries that were considered guardians of the local churches in the Holy Land. 

Over time there has been a growing identification among Israel’s Arab-Christian minority with the Muslim minority, although their high level of education propelled the Christians to organize themselves politically and achieve parliamentary representation in the Knesset beyond their proportionate population – and also to emigrate to Western countries in ever-increasing numbers. This and their relatively low fertility rate have long raised concerns among the Vatican and other international Christian entities that the State of Israel and the Holy Land would lose all their Christian residents and the holy places would become museums without living communities. 

During the period surrounding the Oslo accords (1993-95), the Christian issue became “a bargaining chip of sorts between the negotiating parties.” The Palestinians insisted that the new Palestinian Authority be the custodian of the Christian communities and holy places. “This matter was very important to the Palestinian leaders, who viewed it as a mechanism for reinforcing solidarity between Christians and Muslims and as a tool to strengthen the standing of the PA in global public opinion. In contrast Israel did not attribute great importance to this matter and was willing to concede control over holy places and influence in this area, without really examining the implications of such concessions.” A case in point is the recent acceptance by UNESCO of the Palestinian request that the Church of the Nativity be declared a world heritage site. 

This perhaps exemplifies how the entire issue of relations with Christianity, Christians, and the Christian world has been relegated to the bottom of Israel’s list of priorities. True, there are numerous reasons for this: ignorance and lack of information; the growing influence of the ultra-orthodox political parties (primarily Shas, which controls the Interior Ministry); the increasing power and influence of nationalist ultra-orthodox bodies as compared to the more moderate approach prevalent in the past within the religious Zionist camp; and in particular, the Israeli national agenda, which is overburdened with security, social, and economic problems. 

The bottom line is that “the matter deserves much more attention from the Israeli government than it has received.” Ramon believes that “actions and gestures on the part of the state are likely to yield positive results, particularly during times of tension between Israel and the international community,” and offers recommendations for doing so in the book. “It is clearly in Israel’s interest that Christian communities and entities be strengthened, and this can – and should – be done in a way that neither alienates the Muslim community nor increases tension with the orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jewish communities.” 

Considering the alternative worries him deeply: “The disappearance of Christian communities and churches from the panorama of Jerusalem and surrounding metropolis would strike a severe blow to the charm of the city and to its special, unparalleled standing.”

Christians and Christianity in the Jewish State is a joint project between JIIS and the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, and is dedicated to the memory of Daniel Rossing, founder and Executive Director of the Center until his untimely death in 2010. The book is published in Hebrew, with a summary in English. 

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