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Jewish World Review /Jan. 6, 1998 /17 Teves, 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin

Israel: The Millennial
Theme Park

ONE THING I NEVER FAIL TO NOTICE when I travel to Israel is the makeup of the tourist population. Walk the streets of Jerusalem or any other place where tourists congregate and the first thing you notice is that most of the foreign visitors are not American Jews. They are American or European Christians.

This past month was no different, as the Arab market in the Old City was packed with people speaking Swedish, German and Midwestern or Southern American English. Christian tourism to Israel is big business, and thrives under any and all circumstances.

Statistics show that -- at best -- only 20 percent to 30 percent of American Jews have ever even visited Israel once. And, as travel agents I have spoken to have confirmed, when crisis in the Middle East threatens, the American tour groups that cancel their trips are more likely to be Jewish than Christian.

Not yer typical gentile pilgrim:
Concerned Christian cult member
being ‘escorted’ by Israeli authorities
That is a trend that was amply confirmed by anyone who was in Israel during the lead-up to the Persian Gulf War several years ago. As I recall, the Jerusalem hotel I was staying at was packed with Swedish teens on a Christian pilgrimage and was virtually bereft of Jewish visitors.

The greatest danger I faced on that visit was getting into elevators crowded with the young Swedes, who were proudly brandishing what seemed to be the best-selling Christian souvenir: genuine crowns of thorns (the thorns were big and looked like they hurt!) sold by enterprising Arab peddlers.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that the latest "crisis" Israel is preparing to face is the onslaught of "millennial pilgrims" --- Christians who wish to experience the coming of the year 2000 in what they like to call the "Holy Land."

While most of the focus of this story has centered on the few religious nuts who expect the millennium to signal the end of the world or the fulfillment of Christian prophecies, what really interests me is the role Israel plays as a metaphor for so many non-Jews.

And for all of our justifiable concerns about how Israel and issues affecting its survival are portrayed in the media, I wonder how much of non-Jewish public opinion is more interested in apocalyptic visions about the "Holy Land" than the facts of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

For those of us who know Israel and love it as the home of the Jewish people and the place where our history began, this is a difficult notion to comprehend. It is true that Jerusalem and Israel were something of a metaphor of redemption for Jews throughout our history, but we still saw it as a real place that needed rain and dew in order for its crops to grow (and for which we prayed daily, no matter where we were living).

But let's face it: Despite the disproportionate amount of press coverage it gets, most viewers may be far better acquainted with the geography of biblical Israel than they are with the sites of the contemporary Jewish state. I believe the State of Israel is not seen by most people as a real place on the map. For the non-Jewish world, it is, instead, a sort of biblical theme park whose current Jewish and Arab residents are inconvenient distractions from the theological passion play in which it is set.

This is nothing new. Israel and the Jews have always been part and parcel of Western thought as symbols, not as a real place and people. Christian thinkers have been using it as a metaphor for centuries. Along with the negative images that two millennia of anti-Semitism engendered, the heritage of biblical Israel was still a powerful symbol for Christians.

The Puritans who fought in the 17th-century English Civil War saw themselves as the Jews fighting the L-rd's battles against infidels. Those who fled to America saw the new world as a new Israel and their settlements as new Jerusalems. And when an English king sent his troops north to massacre the Scots a century later, he commissioned the composer Georg Frederic Handel to compose an oratorio to commemorate his son's victory. The title of that tribute was "Judas Maccabeus." English troops suppressing the Highlanders had been transformed into Maccabees!

At the other end of the spectrum, an 18th-century figure, the French philosopher Voltaire, also saw the Jews as symbols. The only problem was that, to him, Jews and Judaism were symbols of evil, as he believed that Judaism was the source of a corrupt Christianity that he despised. Nineteenth-century Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi's opera "Nabucco," which is a fanciful rendering of the of the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the subsequent redemption of the exiles, was widely interpreted as a symbol of the suffering of Italians under foreign rule and the fight for the unification of that country during the Risorgimento. Indeed, a chorus from the opera, which is roughly based on the 137th Psalm ("If I Forget Thee, Oh Jerusalem"), is still treated as a patriotic anthem.

But as much as this may strike some of us as a kind of nationalist plagiarism, this mythologizing process did play a key role in building support for Zionism at the start of the 20th century.

As explained in historian Barbara Tuchman's classic work Bible and Sword, the basis of the support of British statesmen David Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour for Zionist aspirations in what was then known as Palestine were their own strong beliefs in and knowledge of the Bible. For them, the rights of the Jewish people to their historical homeland was spelled out for all to see in the Bible long before Theodor Herzl.

And not surprisingly, that is the same basis for much of the passion for Israel (as well as the desire to travel there) on the part of many American Christians. The irony is that these Christian friends of Israel tend to be exactly the sort of people who scare the heck out of American Jews: Evangelical Protestants.

Despite the fact that many Jews tend to think of the Christian Coalition as the epitome of evil, there is no denying that they care deeply about Israel and support it tangibly in ways that should put to shame many apathetic American Jews. Most of us have a hard time accepting their support of Israel, since we see it as based on strange beliefs such as their expectation that the ingathering of the exiles in Israel will help trigger the "Second Coming"and lead to the mass conversion of the Jews to Christianity. My attitude toward that is that if they will support us until then, we should take our chances on their eschatological hopes being fulfilled.

Which leads us back to the millennial pilgrims. While Israel is right to take action to boot out crackpots who might harm themselves or others next New Year's Eve, we all need to try and understand just how important the symbolism of Israel is to believing Christians, especially those who are not off their rockers.

Perhaps we should also think about how this should inform our information strategy as Israel is assailed in the coming year. Maybe that's also why Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat never loses a chance to falsely assert that Jesus was a Palestinian.

And though the dawn of the 21st century should mean nothing theologically to Jews, it would be nice if American Jews took this year as a challenge to come to Israel. In a time when we are told fewer American Jews care about Israel or Zionism, it would be appropriate for more American Jews to assert their own biblical heritage by visiting the Jewish state.

1999 is as good a time as any for Jews to remember that the history of the land of Israel and the existence of the state that thrives there today is, after all, not a Christian millenarian metaphor, but our own story.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.


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©1998, Jonathan S. Tobin