Saturday People, Sunday People:
A Christian’s Sojourn in Israel
By Lela Gilbert
“So…why did you go to Israel? You’re not Jewish…are you? When questions arise about my years in Jerusalem, that one is usually at the top of the list. The follow-up is, “…And why did you stay so long?”
To begin with, my initial journey to Israel was rooted in curiosity. I’d heard stories from my father – a Christian like me – who delighted in biblical prophecies fulfilled when the Jews regathered in their land. And he firmly believed that miracles were the source of their against-all-odds military victories. He instilled his sense of wonder in me.
Meanwhile, I’d had opportunities to visit and write about many faraway places, yet somehow Israel was never one of them. Then, during a trip to Egypt in January 2006, something unexpected happened.
I was standing on a beach in a Sinai resort called Nuweiba. It was a gorgeous sunlit day, the sky remarkably blue. With the distant mountains of Saudi Arabia as backdrop, I watched as a white camel and his rider splashed through the surf.
Then I turned and looked in another direction, and suddenly realized that I was actually facing the Israeli-Jordan border. And something I can only describe as a personal epiphany took place. I knew, in an instant that I had to get myself to Israel – and the sooner the better.
In the weeks that followed, I rented a Jerusalem apartment on-line, scraped together all my airline award miles, and put my worldly goods in storage. I left for Israel on July 31, 2006.
I managed to arrive in the midst of the Second Lebanon War, with thousands of Israelis rushing in and out of bomb shelters, night and day. Meanwhile, 4000 Hezbollah rockets rained down on Israel’s cities, while air and ground battles raged inside Lebanon.
Still, war or no war, I planned to stay in Jerusalem for four months. Instead, I moved back to the U.S. in 2017.
I could write a book about why I stayed so long. In fact, I did! It’s called Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner (available on Amazon).
First of all, I was stunned by the beauty and variety of the tiny country’s landscapes and vistas. From deserts to farmlands to golden, sunlit cities; from tidy farms to rugged cliffs to bird sanctuaries and waterfalls; from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea to snow-capped Mt. Hermon, Israel is unmatched in its photogenic appeal.
And I was impressed (and a bit intimidated) by the intellectual quality of even the most casual conversations with friends. And this extended well beyond my circle. I learned about Israel’s extraordinary medical researchers, hi-tech innovators, and world-class music, theater and film production. Israel absolutely throbs with intelligence, imagination and creativity.
But, first and foremost, I cherished the friends I made – their warmth, intelligence, insights, and love of life were matchless.
And through those friends I was able to uncover realities I’d never known about before.
Like most Americans who respect Israel and follow international news, I knew that there were lies told about the country. The most startling of all was PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s declaration to President Bill Clinton that there had never been a Jewish Temple on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
Thankfully, in Israel it’s not particularly difficult to locate authentic scholars who can provide answers to puzzling questions. I was soon in touch with archeologist Gabriel Barkay, who has spent many years sifting through tons of dumped soil from the Temple Mount, removed illegally during an Arab expansion of the al-Aqsa Mosque.
Barkey’s evidence pointed not only to the obvious existence of the Jewish Temple (whose foundations are still visible, by the way) but even to a church that predated the 7th Century Muslim invasion.
Another discovery – while BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera and other dishonest news sources report to the contrary, I learned that Israelis, not Gazans, were the long-suffering victims of endless rocket launches into civilian neighborhoods.
And, of course, the accusation that Israel is an “apartheid” state was nothing short of laughable, once I saw Muslims, religious Jews and Christian tourists all eating in the same Jerusalem restaurants.
However, the discovery I made in 2009 was the most startling of all.
During an international conference, I heard that between 1948 and 1968, nearly a million Jews were driven out of ancestral homelands where they’d lived in for centuries, some for millennia. Their businesses and lands were confiscated. Their synagogues and schools were torn down. Some 850,000 fled – with nothing but a single suitcase – from Iraq and Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and beyond. More than 600,000 made their way to Israel.
We’ve always heard the plight of Palestinian refugees. So I was stunned to learn that there were more Jewish refugees from Arab lands than Palestinian refugees, who left Israel during the 1948 War of Independence.
Meanwhile, a friend told me about some cryptic graffiti that had been painted on a wall in Bethlehem. It said, in Arabic, “First comes Saturday, then comes Sunday.” In a more complete version, that slogan announces, “On Saturday we kill the Jews; on Sunday we kill the Christians.”
In fact, an Egyptian-Jewish woman told me that, when she and her family were about to flee their Cairo home, a Coptic Christian neighbor brought food to them. And as she tearfully said goodbye, she added, “We know very well that after you Jews are gone, they’ll come after us next.”
And that’s precisely what has happened.
In the same countries that expelled their Jewish populations in the mid-20th Century, Christians are now under intense persecution. In Iraq and Syria alone, more than a million have fled, while thousands of others have died in the ensuing genocide. In Egypt, Libya, Iran, Turkey and many other Muslim majority countries, Christians continue to suffer.
My years in Israel were a time of discovery, delight and great joy. But there was sadness too – about lies, terrorism and the tragic fate of so many Jews and Christians
These days I find hope for both Christians and Jews crystallized in a few words from the Book of Lamentations. Their message is recalled, year after year, at Tisha b’Av – the day of fasting that memorializes the destruction of the ancient Jewish Temples.
In today’s turbulent world, where dangers abound for us all, may they remain an affirmation of hope and faith.
It is of the L-rd’s mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning:
Great is Thy faithfulness.
Lela Gilbert is an award-winning writer who has authored or co-authored more than sixty books. A Christian who resided in Israel for over ten years, her critically acclaimed book Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner (Encounter Books, 2012) although authored by a Christian, was listed as one of the 20 best non-fiction Jewish books of 2012 by J.G. Myers in Jewish Ideas Daily.
Gilbert also co-authored Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians with Hudson Fellows Nina Shea and Paul Marshall (Thomas Nelson, 2013). She co-authored the award-winning Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion (Oxford University Press, 2008) with Paul Marshall and Roberta Green Ahmanson. She writes for The Jerusalem Post, Fox News, Religion Unplugged, World Israel Now, and other news outlets.
A Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC., Lela works with both the Center for Religious Freedom and the Center for Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World. You can reach her via email at Lela@LelaGilbert.com. Follow her on Twitter @LelaGilbert.