Monday, September 17, 2012

Israel: Not on Sacred Ground

Reading from the sacred Torah
The Jewish High Holy Days, which began September 17 this year, are usually a time of reflection and prayer.  This year, apparently, it’s just another opportunity for the worldwide Jewish community to fuss and fight over deeply divisive ideas.  

According to a CNN report, the rancor has gotten so intense that some rabbis aren’t even going to talk about Israel.  Conservative Jews are demanding attacks on Israeli enemies while liberal Jews are counseling talks with the Palestinians and others that threat the country’s existence.  Those in the middle are torn in both directions.  Silence seems like a better option.

The real problem is not the debate, but that everyone has the wrong idea about the “Promised Land.”

I see the reality exposed on a daily basis.  For more than six years, I‘ve had the opportunity to teach English to foreign students attending a university in Florida.  Many of them want to work in aviation, which requires English fluency.   As a result, there are plenty of students.  Many of them come from the Middle East, principally Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates.  They are all Muslim and are often fearful of how they will be received in a country when their religion is typically associated with the word “terrorist.”

I have found all of them, without exception, to be intelligent and thoughtful young men and women.  However, they invariably have a blind spot in regards to Israel.  Most believe that Israelis somehow conquered a land called Palestine and forced the native Muslim residents to leave.  They can cite Jewish atrocities against their Muslim neighbors and insist that the so-called terrorist attacks are nothing more than brave people fighting back against an overwhelming adversary.

One student went so far as to say Jews were brutally attacked by Germans during World War II and are now turning around and doing the same thing to Palestinians.

I invariably suggest they research the topic   Most ignore basic facts and find something in the literature which supports their belief.  I understand that phenomenon.  A neighbor of mind once adored George Wallace and considered the racist Alabama governor to be the epitome of American politics.  I gave him a lengthy research article on Wallace’s diabolic and hate-filled career.  My neighbor found part of one sentence – which stated that Wallace did not raise taxes in his first term as Alabama governor, but did so disastrously in his second – said he was pleased the reporter was so supportive of his hero.  Many of my Muslim students operate on the same wavelength.

Israel has that kind of effect on many other people, too.  It is seen as some kind of special place.  At one time, Jerusalem was considered the center of the earth.   Even today, in our less-religious times, too many people are just as myopic about the so-called Holy Land.

I felt that way once.   As a teenager, I had a chance to visit Israel with my Sunday School principal Dov Pikelny.  We lost touch over the years after he moved to Massachusetts, but I hope he is still doing well.  We had a wonderful adventure.  

An El Al Boeing 767
His brother was a travel agent then and would invite his brother to fly on some tour whenever extra seats existed.  Mr. Pikelny told my family he was going to Israel on its national airline, El Al.  I was already deeply involved in studying religious history and couldn’t wait to see the famed sights in Israel.  So, I piped up that I’d love to go, too.  Mr. Pikelny thought that was a great idea, and my parents went along.

After some minor misadventures, including the temporary lack of an official birth certificate, I was soon on my way to Israel for seven days of wandering around the country.

What I learned completely changed my feelings toward the country.

First, it is a country, nothing more or less.  It is steeped in history, but so are Egypt, France, Russia and China, among others.  It is not special in any way.  No amount of caterwauling about biblical events will change that.  I know it is a Jewish homeland, but many countries developed as homelands – Hungary for the Magyars, for example.   Besides, many Jews oppose Israel as a Jewish state, pointing out that collecting Jews in one place makes them an easier target.  One rabbi told me that creating Israel could turn out to be the worst thing that ever happened to his people.   Comparing the creation of Israel to the Holocaust is saying something.

Second, the “holy” places are no more sacred than any other places.  In some instances, the sites are nothing more than old building.  In other cases, they are simply given a label that, in reality, is completely inaccurate.   Constantine’s aged mother, Helene, selected many of the honored Christian locales based on her own inspiration.  She wandered around Jerusalem some 300 years after Jesus lived and simply pointed out places she was sure were associated with him.  Later research proved she was invariably wrong.

Wailing Wall
Regardless, there’s nothing special about the locations.  In another context, they would have no meaning what so ever.  The Wailing Wall, for example, is simply a pile of stones with some weeds growing on it.   Its association with the Temple gives it historical meaning, but its sacred aspect exists only in the mind of those who think it carries such a meaning.  In truth, it’s just a wall.

Third, whether or not some person walked there doesn’t matter.  Every inch of the Earth has felt the footprints of someone important.  So what?  We cannot live in the past.  Besides, few of these people were important in their lifetime – Jesus included.  Their footprints were quickly wiped out without a second thought until much later.  

My Arab students instinctively understand that.  Although Jerusalem is the third-most important city in their religion, they view Israel for what it is -- a country with no special distinction.  

More of us need to do that.  We should support Israel as a democracy in the midst of nations dominated by religion, as we should support any nation that shares our political philosophy.  We should respect and honor historical sites, as we do Valley Forge in this country or Shakespeare’s home in England.  

However, as many rabbis this year are doing, we need to focus our attention on reducing partisan rhetoric about a small country that has only known war and bloodshed through the millennia.  Maybe, in time, it will become again the “Land of Milk and Honey.”

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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