The Feast of Tabernacles is how many Christians refer to Sukkot, the Biblical festival we are celebrating this week. It is also a multi-day event known in shorthand as “the Feast,” organized by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ), arguably Israel’s largest annual tourist event, drawing thousands of Christians from all over the world since 1980.
As I have done for years, this year I am celebrating both. But this year, all the more so, I am celebrating the thousands of Christians who come to Israel to celebrate with us all the more so, in light of calls by some other members of the Jewish community, to protest the ICEJ event. Albeit those calling to protest represent a fringe minority, because others don’t know any better, they have drawn hundreds of protesters in the past in what has been described as hateful, violent, and intimidating. I pray that calls to protest this week will be muted.
Feast of Tabernacles (Photo courtesy ICEJ)
Don’t get me wrong, I am not in favor of anyone coming to Israel to try to convert Jews to anything. Not to Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, or anything else. Building bridges with Christians around the world, I speak about often and openly. While there is a reality of missionary activity that takes place in Israel, calls to protest the Feast of Tabernacles and its Parade of the Nations are particularly misplaced. Here’s why.
Judaism has a long history of intellectual debate and dialogue. Just as we do so widely among ourselves, we can discuss theological differences with our Christian friends and do so respectfully, not to shout down or intimidate others. Indeed, if we believe what we believe about Judaism, it just makes more sense to share that, challenging others (Jews and Gentiles) with whom we differ. Legitimate protests are legitimate, but not when they border on assault as some have become.
Feast of Tabernacles (Photo courtesy ICEJ)
Jews in general and the State of Israel in specific have an obligation to protect and respect Christians and Christian sites in Israel, and welcome Christians living among us or visiting for the Feast, even if we disagree theologically. It’s OK to disagree with friends even on important things, even on things that are big. As early Christianity grew out of Judaism, and Jesus was a Jew, while we have some major theological differences, we have far more in common.
We need to understand who our friends really are. ICEJ and many other Christian ministries exist today to be a blessing to Israel and the Jewish people, to break down barriers of the past in addition to crimes committed by “the Church” in the name of Jesus, and to teach Christians about the proper role of Christians vis a vis Israel and the Jewish people. If we embrace all of the Tanakh, the Old Testament, we must affirm that the Temple, for which we pray to be rebuilt daily, is and will be a house of prayer for all nations, not a Jewish synagogue.
While the Temple does not exist for now, the celebration of one of the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals by Christian gentiles from around the world should be celebrated. This brings us closer to the redemption that we – Jews and Christians – both pray and wait for. In fact, it’s a direct realization of the prophecy of our prophet, Zachariah, 14:16. Not coincidentally, Zachariah 14:16 is a cornerstone for ICEJ’s inspiration to organize the Feast decades ago.
Building bridges between Jews and Christians has its potholes. It’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s a theological version of a contact sport. But it’s not good enough for Jews, whether they are involved in or support such activities or not, to paint all Christians and all history of relations between Jews and Christians with a broad brush. People need to know what they’re talking about. Nuance matters. Not only was ICEJ one of the original and longest-standing Christian organizations to set up shop in Jerusalem to be a blessing to Israel, specifically for and during the Feast, but they proactively tell Christian participants that missionary activity is not appropriate or appreciated. Does that mean that each of the thousands of participants understands that completely or honors it? No, not necessarily. But ICEJ as an organization draws a line in the sand that they tell participants not to cross.
In a Jerusalem Post Op-Ed last week, David Parsons, Vice President and Senior Spokesman for ICEJ, recognized that Jews who object to the Christian presence and activities in Israel do so for many reasons, none of which are applicable to ICEJ.
“The protesters and those who back them have expressed doubts about our friendship. They are afraid it is a cover for missionary activity. Others question our motives for standing with Israel, saying we are just here out of guilt for past Christian antisemitism, or we want to bring back Jesus, or – worst of all – we are out to force the Apocalypse.”
“On behalf of tens of millions of Evangelicals worldwide, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem has been refuting these claims for decades, both through our words and our benevolent deeds in the land.”
As unpleasant as it is to be the target of protests, he acknowledged that “it is not easy to turn attitudes around so quickly after centuries of Christian hostility and violence towards Jews. We realize the Jewish people went through a long, hard journey of exile among the nations over many centuries, and this involved much suffering. Regrettably, many of these travails were inflicted by Christians.”
Sukkot is arguably the Jewish holiday with the widest roots among gentiles. It’s long known that when the Temple stood, during Sukkot, Jews would bring 70 offerings on behalf of the 70 nations of the world.
In a recent conversation on the “Inspiration from Zion” podcast, Rabbi David Stav of the Orthodox Jewish organization, Tzohar, noted that Christian support for Israel is a sign of redemption. Rabbi Stav specifically related to King Solomon building the Temple in Jerusalem, referring to it as a house of prayer for all nations, with gentiles bringing offerings to the Temple. Rabbi Stav also highlighted that this is part of Jewish prayer daily. Therefore it’s something that Jews need to understand and affirm as well, not just in meaningless prayer.
Commenting on recent Jewish protests and violent acts toward Christians, Rabbi Stav noted that Israel’s first Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Kook said that anyone who thinks that being Jewish, or to love Jewish people, means to hate non-Jewish people does not even have the basic understanding of what it means to be Jewish. Rather, to be Jewish is to love all humanity, to be a blessing and a light unto the nations. Judaism needs to care about all people who, as we know, are created in the image of God.
The ICEJ is no longer the only embassy in Jerusalem. But for decades it served as the face of Christian support for Israel from dozens of nations. Today, we celebrate each time a new country establishes an embassy in Jerusalem, and we pray that more will. But for decades while the world did not recognize Israeli sovereignty or Jewish history in any of Jerusalem, we must gratefully acknowledge, and celebrate ICEJ and the Feast of Tabernacles.