Roadmap to peace, renewed peace talks, stalled peace talks … peace in the Middle East. The dream of peace finally coming to the Middle East is a pervasive and emblematic notion around the world – mostly because peace in this region has been so elusive. There has been so much talk, reams of negotiations, countless speeches from the world’s leading politicians, activists and religious leaders, investment of capital, investment of labor, tears, prayers and most distressing, much bloodshed. The hope of peace in the Middle East has become the anticipated panacea for the world’s political ills. Academics, military leaders and politicians all anticipate a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict would break the mounting tension between the West and the Muslim world and usher in a new era of world peace.
In sharp contrast to all of the hostility that fills the pages of newspapers and websites, there is something so right and wonderful when Arabs and Jews come together in true friendship and mutual appreciation. I have had the privilege of praying deeply together with Arab brothers and I count those moments as some of the most precious and holy in my life. It is as if heaven pauses when the sons of Isaac and the sons of Ishmael come together against the waves of rejection, mistrust and estrangement. I sometimes imagine the angels gazing on the scene in wonder and our Heavenly Father beaming with delight. Indeed how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity – especially when that unity has been marred by thousands of years of animosity.
Without much fanfare but with slow, deliberate progress, Christian Arabs and Messianic Jews have come together in a Galilee forest for the last 25 years to celebrate their oneness in Messiah and to pray together. This year, as timing would have it, the celebration took place the Saturday before “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem” Sunday. As Christians around the world lovingly responded to the Psalm 122 exhortation to “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem”, Galilean believers awoke to a new day that testified to the potential for peace between Jews and Arabs in this land. Of course, one day of singing and praying together does not solve the complicated issues facing Arabs and Jews living in harmony in this land. But the mutual recognition that we are all loved by the same Heavenly Father and share a oneness together as the Body of Messiah is a refreshing contrast to the rhetoric of incitement carried by the media.
Still there is a lot of work to do to bring Jewish and Arab believers together. I had a chance to sit down with Eitan Shishkoff and two of his Arab colleagues to get their perspective on what this yearly gathering means to them. Nizar Touma is the Church of the Nazarene pastor in – of all places – the Nazarene’s hometown, Nazareth. Nizar has been coming to the Galilee forest gathering for 10 years and is committed to seeing stronger ties between Jewish and Arab believers. “This is what should be happening – I can see all of us, Arab and Jewish believers coming together to lift up the name of Jesus.” Nizar understands that this vision of unity just doesn’t happen automatically, “This is a privilege and a responsibility, whatever sacrifices; the Arab body is prepared to make them.” Nizar sees this unity progressing. He observed that Arab and Jewish believers are more open to each other now than they had been in time past. He has been invited to speak at several Messianic Jewish congregations and has likewise invited Messianic pastors to speak at his congregation in Nazareth. “For an Arab to speak to Jews about the love of God is powerful. For a Messianic Jew to preach in an Arab Christian church can be challenging; but now our people understand that there is such a thing as a Messianic Jew.”
Edourd Tannous is an Assemblies of God pastor with congregations in Haifa and Nazareth. Like Nizar, he has been coming to this forest gathering for 10 years. So much has been made about the difference between Arabs and Jews but Edourd reminded me that before there were Jews or Arabs we all had one common ancestor, the first man, Adam. We have one Father, there is one Spirit and in Messiah we are all called to bring glory to God. “Yeshua is the one who brings us together – without Him it cannot be done.” Edourd gave an illustration from marriage, “If it takes Yeshua to make a husband and wife one, how much more do we need Him to unite an Arab and a Jew?” Edourd echoed Nizar’s assessment that true unity takes time, “We want to spend more time together, to pray, to visit…”
As Eitan sat listening to Edourd’s plea for Jewish and Arab believers to take the time to get to know each other, my interview with Edourd shifted into a dialogue between these two Israeli shepherds. Eitan was compelled to interject: “This is the priority, not just seeing each other as Arabs and Jews but to truly see each other as brothers.” Edourd responded: “This is the most important thing – just as Yeshua spent time with His disciples – we need to know each other, what are the pains, what are the points of suffering and rejection.” Eitan: “I want my brother to know the difficulties I face as a Messianic Jew living in Israel but I need to understand what he is facing as an Israeli Arab. This is true friendship, listening to another man’s heart without putting an interpretation on it.” Edourd: “Not only what is the situation but what is the medicine? Yeshua works through the kehilah to bring healing but the average member (of Arab churches and Messianic Jewish congregations) does not understand the experience of the other.”
As I sat listening to these two men of God, I shifted from interviewer to disciple. As I saw their heart for their people, I could see a way forward through all the difficulties. I reflected back to the scene that took place just an hour ago … As the Jewish and Arab pastors stood up to bless the people and to pray for God’s blessings on the believers my heart was stirred with anticipation of the full reconciliation of brothers now so deeply estranged from each other. There is indeed a Middle East peace plan, far beyond the wisdom and abilities of politicians and generals. He who makes peace in the heavens will make peace for us. The flocks of Kedar and Nebaioth (Ishmael’s sons) will be gathered together to Zion and their sacrifices will “Ascend with acceptance on My altar”. (See Isaiah 60:7)
“I will make your officers peace,
And your magistrates righteousness.
Violence shall no longer be heard in your land,
Neither wasting nor destruction within your borders;
But you shall call your walls Salvation,
And your gates Praise.”