As I went down in the river to pray/Studying about that good old way/And who shall wear the robe and crown/Good Lord, show me the way

The last time I was at a church service, I ate a wafer. I didn’t know what it was, so I took it–just like everyone else did. They all laughed. I didn’t. But I wasn’t in a church now. I was on a bus tour in Israel, on my way to Rosh Hanikra, a cave where Israeli soldiers repelled a joint Arab assault. In a way, it was a good metaphor. No matter the era, Jews are always under siege. Even in supposedly liberal Long Island, my ex-girlfriend left me for a Neo-Nazi. And this is even before they were emboldened. 

I’ve told that story many times since–worn it like armor. But the truth is, it made me aware of my differences. And how aware everyone else was of those differences. But if I recounted it as comedy, I’d control the story, bury the shame and humiliation. After all, that’s what Jews do. 

On the bus, I was the only Jew. At least, the only one from America. The tour guide was an older Israeli woman–but there was a gulf between us. Here she was, singing a Christian tune, completely aware of the implications of what she was doing. She had an audience–and she needed to entertain them, signing a siren song for her own survival.

I had been to Israel one before. At that point, I had never really traveled. I had no sense of the world. I was told–by my mom, who worked on a kibbutz, as well as other family members–that Israel was a place I would love, a place I would connect with. I had to. After all, it was a place made just for me.

visiting israel
Photo by Robert Bye.

Coming back, ten years, I had a sense that Israel wasn’t that, at least not on a personal level. It wasn’t created for me as an individual. But it was created for me as a Jew. Before we departed on the bus for Rosh Hanikra, we strolled around Haifa, the third-largest city in Israel after Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Staring down the slopes of Mount Carmel at the Bahá’í World Centre, I spotted a menorah in the distance, jutting out of the ground like a totem to the majority.

It was the holiday season after all, and Hanukkah festivities were in the air. Prior to that moment, that wasn’t a sentence I had ever felt cross my mind. Like that old Hess truck commercial said, “the Hess truck’s back and it’s better than ever… for Christmas this year.” At the time, my mother was irate. She threatened to petition Hess, to get the phrase “Merry Christmas” banned from the airwaves. It must’ve worked–by 2006, the revamped Hess truck commercial spouted “Happy Holidays,” even as they showed overt images of Santa Claus.

We know what they meant–and evidently, so did Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel. The culture wars were far from over. They just went deep underground, only to be uprooted by recent upheaval.  Netanyahu made the ultimate Faustian bargain when he recently proclaimed that Israel is a country that says “Merry Christmas” to its citizens and to the world. In essence, he made the same calculation that the tour leader did. It’s better to bargain to get what you want then get nothing at all. 

As I explored Israel, that alliance became more and more evident. Israeli culture itself is constantly at war. Not just moral and ideological wars, but actual, physical war. The lens in which Americans–both liberal and conservative–view Israel is not in that context, but in a context of relative peace and prosperity. As though their decision-making is entirely of their own design. 

visiting israel
Photo by Reiseuhu.

A country at war needs allies, and there’s no more willing ally to Israel than the American Christian Right. Not just politically–but economically as well. American Evangelicals have become the largest-growing sector of the Israeli tourism market at an estimated growth of ten percent per year. This has had a significant impact on Israel’s economy. Since the 80s, Israeli politicians have been making commercial alliances with Evangelical leaders, from John Hagee, to Jerry Falwell, to Pat Robinson, all in an effort to influence US foreign policy and to promote their own commercial interests. 

“Merry Christmas” indeed. 

To me, this was most noticeable in the holy Christian sites in Jerusalem. When I visited Israel on Birthright ten years ago, this wasn’t an area we went to. But as an independent tourist, I was free to go where I pleased. When touring the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I found it odd that people were constantly cleaning a centerpiece, even going so far as to leave lavish donations and make wild proclamations, bodily flopping down in tears and awe. I later found out this was allegedly where Jesus rose from the dead. After taking the city from the Fatimid Caliphate, the Crusaders proclaimed that Jesus had risen here. 

That is, of course, one of many spots that people believe Jesus was resurrected from. I visited all of them. To a non-believer, none was more convincing than the last. But the passion was real. These strangers in a strange land felt like it belonged to them. That Jerusalem was the story of their people. Based on their fervor, and their political and commercial clout, it would be hard to disagree.  

Later, in Tel Aviv, I saw a Christmas tree staring gloomy outward toward me, hugging the port. It was fitting that it light up the commercial district of Tel Aviv, serving as a kind of beacon of guiding light to faraway patrons. As an American Jew, it felt like seeing a menorah out in public–it represented a cultural minority, but one with an established influence. 

“Israel is the country in which Christians not only survive, but they thrive…”

I thought back to Netanyahu’s speech about welcoming Christians into Israel. That Christmas tree said it all. Like the tour leader on the van to Rosh Hanikra surmised, the Christmas tree showed that everything was for sale. After all, there were no more willing buyers than those who say “Merry Christmas.”

Photo by David Herring.

This wasn’t shocking or upsetting even. Israel doesn’t belong to any one people. As a modern nation, it may have been created for the Jews. But throughout history, its changed hands many times. No one can ever own the culture–even when they’re in the majority. 

In Israel, and all over the world, Judaism is not a religion, or even an ethnicity. It’s a toolkit for survival. It seems I’m not the only Jew to make that assessment. According to Evangelicals, only 25 percent of Jews will survive during the End Times. 

To bargain is to hope to be one of them.

Header photo by John T D.