May 18, 2022

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Both Jewish and Christian critics of a popular program that brings Christian college students to Israel accuse the program of presenting their participants with an unbalanced view of the region, focusing on the Palestinian narrative at the expense of the prophetic return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel.

But are these accusations justified? Breaking Israel News dove in to examine the issues and see where the truth actually lies. 

Thousands of Christian college students visit Israel each year with Passages, an organization co-founded five years ago by Robert Nicholson and Rivka Kidron and modeled after the well-known Birthright trips to Israel for young Jews. According to a recent story in the Jerusalem Post, by the end of 2020, the organization will have brought 10,000 Christian students to experience the Land of Israel for themselves.

This news ought to be greeted with excitement by long-time Christian Zionists and Israeli Jews. Indeed, Passages has gotten a fair amount of positive press coverage in Israel of late.  However, critics of the program reveal a problematic aspect of the Passages experience that isn’t widely discussed.

In a related story, Passages co-founder Robert Nicholson recently went on record urging Israel to do more for its Christian community, in exchange for continuing evangelical support. This statement, and the fact that Nicholson did not express any condemnation of the Palestinian Authority’s treatment of Christians, also ruffled some Jewish and Christian Zionist feathers.

Missing A Critical Perspective

David Ha’Ivri is a councilman in the municipal government in Samaria. He told Breaking Israel News that Passages students are simply not provided with an opportunity to visit Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria during their time in Israel.

“The regions of Judea and Samaria are the core of the Biblical connection of the people of Israel to the land of Israel. For unclear reasons, [the] Passages program avoids this part of the story and chose not to engage with the Jewish community in the Heartland.

“They seem to invest more of their time and efforts sympathizing with the Palestinians, rather than supporting the prophetic return of the Jewish people to the land of the Bible, which is strange and disappointing.”

Breaking Israel News independently confirmed that Passages participants do visit Muslim-majority Bethlehem and meet with a speaker who shares the Palestinian narrative with them.

Ha’Ivri has developed and led foreign affairs for the Shomron (Samaria) Regional Council for the past 15 years, serving as an advisor to the Head of the Council in its relations with the Christian world. He has led hundreds of VIP tours in Samaria for foreign guests from all backgrounds, including many Christian leaders and groups.

Similar criticism was voiced by John Enarson, who serves as the Christian Relations Director of Cry for Zion, a non-profit organization that advocates for Jewish rights on the Temple Mount. 

Enarson, who is also a theology student at Scandinavian School of Theology, told Breaking Israel News, “I am very concerned that Passages seems based on an existential, secular case for Israel, rather than classic evangelical Biblical Zionism.”

Prior to speaking with Breaking Israel News, Enarson consulted with a family member who participated in a recent Passages program. Based on her experience, he elaborated on the failure of the Passages staff to present a balanced view of the Biblical claim to the Land.

“College kids, children really, with little to no background knowledge, were parachuted into the complexities of the Middle East and inundated with opinions ranging from far right to extreme left,” he reported. “There was a pamphlet and a suggested reading list, which no one read.”

Even more critical is his claim, based on a first-hand report by the recent participant he consulted, that, “Their only source of interpretation was their academic leader and their tour guide, who were no help. The one time they had a group discussion, it deteriorated into a shouting match over everything from politics and Trump to racism. People stormed out.”

Enarson continued describing an insider’s view of the experience, “There were positive moments, and the official tour guide would mention traditional Christian places. But, and this is very important, there was hardly any emphasis on Biblical history and sites aside from [Christian ones. There was no mention of] Abraham, Samuel, David, the Twelve Tribes, Shiloh, Hebron or Shechem.”

Enarson highlighted a related problem within the evangelical world. “Older evangelicals have failed to transmit knowledge of both the Bible and Israel to younger generations. There is a cold civil war going on in evangelical circles over the role of the Hebrew Bible in Christian faith.

“There is a lot of truth to [Israeli philosopher, Bible scholar, and political theorist] Yoram Hazony’s statement, ‘Show me a Christian who loves the Old Testament and I will show you a Christian who loves Israel.’”

Is Passages “Afraid” To Share A Biblical Message?

Tommy Waller, founder of HaYovel, an organization that brings Christian volunteers to help Israeli farmers in Judea and Samaria with their grape and olive harvests, shared his concern that, in its attempt to be balanced, Passages is failing to deliver a clear Biblical message about the responsibility of Christians to support the restoration of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel.

“This message needs to be, first and foremost, to influence Christianity to stand with what God is doing right now,” Waller told Breaking Israel News.

“[Passages is] bringing people to Israel and they’re giving a somewhat positive message. But if Passages is trying to bring a Christian message here about Israel, the message should be that we should be protecting the Jewish people and undoing what we’ve done in the past.

“I’m concerned that Passages is afraid that somehow the church is going to not send their people, or not let their youth be a part of something that seems radical. Is it radical to protect the Jewish people?” he questioned.

Waller emphasized that, as a Christian organization bringing Christian students to Israel, Passages has a particular responsibility to deliver a clear, Biblical message to their participants. “The reality is that this is the Biblical narrative. The vineyards are going to be planted again,on the mountains of Samaria. The Jews are going to return. All the prophets speak about it.”

Again you shall plant vineyards On the hills of Shomron; Men shall plant and live to enjoy them. Jeremiah 31:4

Waller reiterated the necessity of Passages, along with the rest of Christianity, to offer unqualified support to the Jewish people in Israel. “If Passages doesn’t have the strength, the courage, to stand out there 100%, to protect the Jews, then somebody else is going to stand up. Christianity has to turn a corner.”

The Church versus The Academy

Enarson suggested that the politics and theology of the Christian college faculty who staff these trips are at least partially to blame for the lack of a Biblical Zionist perspective. “Christian academics are generally more influenced by progressive politics and liberal theology. It is these Christian academics that make up the students’ only filter.”

In a related comment, Rabbi Pesach Wolicki, working with the Department of Campus Outreach of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) spoke to Breaking Israel News about what he considers “to be the greatest threat to Christian support for Israel.

“There is a disconnect between how Israel is viewed and talked about at the church level and how it is talked about at the academic level, even within the same denominational community.

“The Christian Zionist movement has always been a grassroots, church-level movement. Unlike the earlier generation of pastors, the younger leadership is far more influenced by what they learned in Bible college or seminary.”

Wolicki has been a guest lecturer at numerous evangelical colleges and seminaries over the past few years. “I have been working on building relationships with evangelical academics,” he said. “It’s a different language, a different approach. I think that most Christian Zionist organizations and Jewish organizations that are involved in this space have ignored the academic side, perhaps because there are no funds to be raised there.

“Most people teaching theology or Bible in evangelical seminaries have never been to Israel. They are poorly paid and can’t afford trips like the pastors can. We all know how impactful trips to Israel are. The theological transformation often is spurred by one’s experiences [in Israel. My perspective] is based on extensive conversations and experiences getting to know the academic side,” Wolicki explained.

Addressing The Imbalance

Elaborating on the influence of liberal Christian academics who offer Passages participants a skewed version of Israel by underemphasizing the Biblical roots, Enarson commented, “If [the] Philos Project (sponsors of Passages) and Passages do not promote Biblical Zionism, it will not work. And you cannot promote Biblical anything, if liberal, compromised theology is in control of the worldview.

“I would implore Passages to present a Biblical case for Israel, in harmony with the secular case. Show [participants] the Biblical sites that Christians do not get to see. If they are going to visit Bethlehem or let professional political actors from the PA address the students, they must visit the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria and listen to competent representatives. They have not seen both sides of anything if they don’t do that.”

Past Participants Speak On The Record About Sympathy For Palestinians

In July of 2018, Passages participants were quoted in a story published by Forward, a liberal Jewish publication. The writer, Ben Fractenberg, wrote, “The Passages program aims to ensure that Christians stay passionate supporters of the Jewish state,” but some of the participants’ quotes he used told a different story.

One participant, Grant Anderson, commenting on having heard Palestinian journalist Rami Nazzal speak about what it’s like for Muslims living in the West Bank, said, “I would like to hear more of the Palestinian side.”

Rami Nazzal runs Beyond Borders Tours which, according to its website, takes tourists to meet “residents of a refugee camp in the West Bank” and learn how they “are able to survive living under the hardest possible conditions…  hearing stories of their life under occupation.”

Note that the Beyond Borders Tours website employs highly politicized terms like West Bank and occupation. Their website also refers to Maarat HaMachpeleh (the Biblical Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hevron as the Ibrahimi Mosque.

And then Avraham buried his wife Sara in the cave of the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre—now Chevron—in the land of Canaan. Genesis 23:19

Fractenberg reported that participant Ryan Mills was “sympathetic to Palestinian concerns over conditions in the West Bank, where he heard a speaker talk about their lack of basic
services and properly functioning cellular network.”

None of the quotes in the Forward article indicated that participants received a clear message of Biblical Zionism.

Passages Co-Founder Responds

Breaking Israel News reached out to Passages Executive Director Scott Phillips for an official response to the criticism that the Passages experience gives short shrift to the prophetic return of the Jewish people to Judea and Samaria.

Phillips offered this official statement. “Passages students do not visit Ramallah, and they visit Alfei Menashe [on the border of Samaria] for a briefing on Israel’s rich history and its geographical position and security challenges. Students hear from local residents and guides talk about the Biblical significance of the area.

“Passages vets and approves all faculty, and faculty are expected to share and enrich the Passages-designed curriculum,” Phillips explained. 

In the FAQ section of their website, the Passages program responds directly to the question, “Is a Passages trip fair and balanced as it relates to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?”

“Passages is transparent about its beliefs. In particular, Passages believes Israel is a force for good in the region and in the world. That being said, we do not claim that Israel is perfect.

“In particular, we seek to offer a diverse array of speakers who approach modern geopolitical issues in Israel and the Middle East from a variety of perspectives. On the trip, students will meet with Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Arabs (both Christian and Muslim), and a member of the Israeli Maronite/Aramaic Christian community.

“We believe Passages participants are smart, good, and have the ability to identify truth and we, therefore, consider this an educational journey to both connect participants with the roots of their Christian faith as well as introduce them to modern Israel.”