At times, attempting to understand the modern Holy Land, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict played out there, can feel like trying to piece together a puzzle. Some people think that’s a one-piece puzzle, the one piece being cut in the shape of Israel. For others, including the majority of those who actually live there, it’s a puzzle of a thousand pieces that seem impossible to fit alongside one another. I fall somewhere in the middle. What I do know though is that if one doesn’t make the effort to understand what the pieces look and feel and sound like, there is no hope of ever seeing the full picture. In that scenario, one is left on hands and knees hunting around for missing pieces.

Here then are some facts and realities, some puzzle pieces if you will, of which most Americans, including the Christian community, are unaware.

Note: Since Israel and Palestine–or the “Palestinian Territory” if you prefer—are two very different places; governed differently, protected differently, certainly treated differently by the international community, I refer to them clearly as two separate entities. Today, the “Holy Land” encompasses parts of both, (Bethlehem, for example, lies squarely in the Palestinian West Bank), so when I use that term, I’m referring to the entire area.

The population of modern Israel is approximately 9 million. While the majority are of course Jewish, almost 22% (just shy of 2 million) are Arabs. Meaning nearly 1 out of every 4 Israelis are not ethnically Jewish at all.

While many people get the term Arab and Muslim confused, they are completely unrelated. Officially, being an Arab has a much simpler qualifier than most could imagine. It simply means you speak Arabic. It is much more a linguistic and cultural identifier than it is a race, and it is certainly not a religion. Arabs came on the scene as far back as 3,000 BC. Islam, however, did not come into existence until the 7th century, nearly 4,000 years later.

Before 1948, and even for several decades after, due to the diaspora, many Jews considered themselves Arabs. There were Moroccan Arab Jews, Iraqi Arab Jews, and so on. The spoke Arabic and/or had ties to the Arabian peninsula. And no one considered this odd or out of place.  There were even Jews who referred to the Holy Land as Palestine. And when Jews immigrated to the area in the 1800s and early 1900s, they referred to themselves as Palestinian Jews. If you open your Bible to Acts chapter 2, verses 10 & 11, you will read that there were Arabs in Jerusalem all the way back on the Day of Pentecost. Arabs from places like Mesopotamia (Iraq), Egypt and Libya.

As for its religious demographic, it might surprise you to learn that less than 2% of the 9 million citizens of Israel claim Christianity (or the following of Jesus) as the basis of their faith or religious culture. Of those approximately one-hundred and eighty thousand (the overwhelming majority of whom are Arabs), some local pastors suggest a mere thirty to thirty-five thousand would label themselves Believers; people who wake up each day trying to actively follow Jesus.  Five to seven thousand of these are Arab Christians. Twenty to twenty-five thousand are Messianic Jews: Jewish-background Israelis who believe in Jesus as Messiah and Savior. Meaning that altogether, a mere .004% of the nation of Israel actually follow the Jewish carpenter from Nazareth.

Most of these Believers are comfortable with the term born-again or “evangelical” as a way to describe themselves, however, since so many western evangelical organizations and individuals have supported the non-believing, secular Jewish community over and above them, especially the Arab Christians, they often feel marginalized and ignored by America and the west in general.

Nazareth, where our family lived from 2012-2017, once an orthodox Jewish town of 500 in the first century, is today an almost exclusively Arab city of more than 80,000. 70% of modern Nazarenes come from Muslim-backgrounds, while 30% are from Christian families. I say “families” because all Arabs, whether Muslim or Christian, consider themselves born into a cultural religious identity, regardless of any belief, or non-belief system. They may actually categorize themselves as atheists, but typically do not shy away from identifying with their cultural religious heritage. Even though a minority in Nazareth, the Arab Christian population there today is the largest in all of Israel or the Palestinian West Bank. In many ways, they are a very bright light in an increasingly dark land.

As for our Jewish brothers and sisters who follow Jesus (they are usually more comfortable using the Hebrew word Yeshua), while we may think that being a “Messianic” or “completed” Jew living in modern Israel should be as close to heaven on earth as possible, the reality is they live out a very difficult existence. Not only are they an overwhelming minority (.0035% of the Israeli population), but they face persecution from their own government, as well as Jewish organizations and individuals who consider them traitors since they follow the “Christian” Messiah of Jesus. Many Israeli Jews do not consider Messianics as being Jewish at all, and have tried to pass legislation to keep them out of Israel. For those already living there, anti-Christian and anti-Messianic groups have formed to protest their ability to share their faith, to worship, to hold conferences, etc. Mind you, this has nothing to do with Arabs or Palestinians.  These are Jewish groups inside Israel who work hard to make life as difficult as possible for Yeshua-following Jews. Lately, persecution against Jewish Believers, as well as their Arab counterparts, has increased heavily under the current Israeli administration, which has deep ties with the Ultra-orthodox community.

Moving over to the Palestinian side, with some obvious differences, statistically speaking it’s amazing how much the two places are similar, especially when it comes to the Christian community.

Of the combined five million people that make up Palestine (the West bank and Gaza), approximately 1.5% come from Christian backgrounds. (slightly less than Israel) Most of those Christians live in the West Bank, while estimates in Gaza fall between 200-700. That number has decreased since October as dozens of Christians have died in the current conflict.

The vast majority of those roughly seventy-five thousand people were born into families with long-standing Christian histories. Very few grew up in the Muslim religion and then adopted the Christian faith, although that number is slowly growing. (Remember, Islam and Arab are two completely unconnected terms.) If you ask a Palestinian Christian when did they “become a Christian”, the response will often be, “on the day of Pentecost.” They know well that Arabs are mentioned in the second chapter of Acts as being present that day in Jerusalem, and there is a certain amount of pride surrounding this fact.

The largest Palestinian Christian community lives in Bethlehem, where an estimated 11,000 reside. Even though their Muslim neighbors outnumber them almost four to one, today a law remains in place that decrees the mayor of Bethlehem must always be a Christian.

Since that first day of Pentecost, there has been virtually no time in the two-thousand plus history of the land when there were not Arab Christians living there. If this were not so, due to the dramatic swings in governance, conquests and political changeover, there might well have been centuries of time when the Holy Land had virtually no Christian presence. Imagine visiting Jerusalem or Bethlehem or Nazareth in centuries past and finding not a single follower of Jesus?

For these reasons and many more, the Palestinian Arabs, whether in the West Bank, Gaza, or those who live on the Israeli side, feel as much a part of the Holy Land as any of their Jewish counterparts who live in the nearby settlements or on the other side of the thirty-five foot concrete wall dividing large swaths of the West Bank from East Jerusalem and Israel proper.

When violent conflicts or invisible viruses are not keeping people from visiting the Holy Land, the tourists are present in droves. In a typical year, tourism brings in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. It’s hard to go anywhere in the area, especially on the Israeli side, without seeing tour buses parked bumper to bumper, waiting as their passengers visit churches, ruins, rivers, and restaurants. I’ve met many such folks who return to the US after ten days or two weeks and talk about how the land is full of people who must love Jesus. When I list for them the true statistics from above, they are often shocked. How can that be, they say? How can so few in that wonderful land know the Savior? Moreover, how can they live so close to such iconic New Testament locales and be unaware that Jesus is who he says he is? What I quickly realize is that they encountered very few locals. They likely had little to no communication with the people who actually make up the land; the Israelis, both Jews and Arabs, or the Palestinians around Bethlehem (if they even crossed over to that area). Instead, they engaged only with their guide, their driver, the waiter at the hotel restaurant, the others on their tour. For them, the true puzzle is horribly incomplete. There are more missing pieces than present ones. For some, even knowing this, they wouldn’t change a thing. Ignorance is bliss. Better not to look too deep below the surface, in case the reality found there might bring up uncomfortable questions. But for some, especially those of us who claim Jesus as Lord and Savior, and if we take prayer seriously, don’t we want to know the truth? Don’t we want to be aware of what lies beneath? So that, if nothing else, we can better go before the Lord with a more informed and focused supplication? I think of the many scriptures, littered throughout both the Old and New testaments, extolling the values of wisdom. Verses like Proverbs 16:16, championing wisdom as more valuable than gold or silver. Let us speak and act and pray from such a position. When we whisper that quiet plea, or shout it from the rooftops—peace in Jerusalem!—may it not be merely a token cry but rather a hopeful petition clothed in true perspective. Perhaps then, we might better hear and know how to respond to the very God of truth Himself. The One who loves both the Jew and the Gentile, the Israeli and the Palestinian, more than we can possibly know.

                                                          ~ ~ ~

The author welcomes comments, questions and even kind rebuttals at: MHL23@juno.com

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