Int’l community’s ‘attacks on Israel puzzling, especially when atrocities are taking place every day in Syria,’ says author

Jamie Weinstein | Senior Writer

After spending more than six years living in Israel, author Lela Gilbert says she finds the “constant attacks on Israel” by the international community “puzzling,” especially when so much horror is being inflicted by Israel’s neighbors on a daily basis.

“I find the constant attacks on Israel puzzling, especially when atrocities are taking place every day in Syria, and too frequently in Egypt, Iraq, Iran and many other Middle Eastern countries,” Gilbert, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of numerous books, told The Daily caller in an interview about her new book, “Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner.”

“Why is this so? Some of it is ideological – Israel is categorized as a pariah state, a ‘colonial’ outpost in a post-colonial world, or an infidel trespasser in pan-Islamic utopia. But I don’t think anti-Semitism can be overlooked either. And unbalanced or dishonest reporting of news simply serves to feed the fire.”

Gilbert said she believes that President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy would benefit if he talked to Israelis “who have suffered grave losses at the hands of Palestinian terrorists.”

“As for President Obama, from what we know of his past, he is well versed in the Palestinian narrative through his studies and social involvements with Edward Said, Rashid Khalidi, Rev. Jeremiah Wright and others. I would suggest that he spend a day or two having face-to-face conversations with Israelis who have suffered grave losses at the hands of Palestinian terrorists,” she said.

“Perhaps he could gain perspective about security issues by listening to a mother like Sherri Mandell, whose 13-year-old son Koby was murdered and mutilated by terrorists in 2001. Or hearing from 14-year-old Tamar Fogel, who discovered the bodies of her parents, two brothers and beheaded baby sister, all of whom were butchered in their home in March 2011. Or learning of my friend Petra Heldt’s agony after being catastrophically burned in a Hamas bombing in 1997.”

With her book, Gilbert said she seeks to convey a little of what she learned from her time living in Israel.

“I wanted to share some wisdom and understanding I had gained living in Israel: about the remarkable religious tolerance and diversity there; about Israelis’ determined celebration of life over death; and about the existential threat they have faced for more than half a century – which Christians in Muslim countries are now dealing with on a daily basis,” she explained.

Gilbert spoke at length with TheDC about her book, Israel’s place in the world and what President Obama can do to correct his Middle East policy.

Why did you decide to write the book?

I wanted to share some wisdom and understanding I had gained living in Israel: about the remarkable religious tolerance and diversity there; about Israelis’ determined celebration of life over death; and about the existential threat they have faced for more than half a century – which Christians in Muslim countries are now dealing with on a daily basis.

On a personal level, I wanted to preserve vignettes of Israeli life that were vivid in my memory. I didn’t want my experiences to fade, but I also wanted to interweave them into the many things I was learning – a bit like photographs that enliven a collection of stories.

What took you to Israel in the first place, and what compelled you to stay for six years?

For one thing, I went there to fulfill a personal aspiration — it had been my father’s dream to visit Israel before he died. He didn’t make it, but I had long shared his fascination with the place. So I came on my own, and in his memory.

I also wanted perspective and understanding. I had worked for years on books about both Christianity and Islam. Israel is the only place in the Middle East where Christians, Jews and Muslims live more or less side-by-side, shop in the same stores, eat in the same cafes and share the same streets and sidewalks.
And went as a pilgrim – I wanted to actually see the places I’d read or heard about all my life. Still, I wasn’t especially interested in going on guided pilgrimage. I chose instead to live in a neighborhood and experience life in a more natural and relaxed way. And why did I stay? Quite simply because I didn’t want to leave. I made some wonderful new friends, and they quickly became part of the way of life I was coming to know in Jerusalem.

Do you think Israel is viewed differently “though the eyes of a Christian Sojourner?”

Like most places in the world, Israel is viewed differently through the eyes of every person that visits. But of course there are stereotypical impressions that find their way into travel books. My perspective is perhaps a little more unusual because I “sojourned” long enough to feel the rhythms of life – of holidays, Sabbaths, times of difficulty and times of celebration. Most of my friends, but not all, are Jewish. As a Christian, I think that I have a great deal to learn from them. Curiosity has led me to ask questions, and to listen as carefully as possible to the answers.

What did you learn about Israeli society while you were there?

The friends I’ve come to know are warm-hearted, lively people of great intelligence and decency. But what I am most impressed with is their love of life and their ongoing celebration of being alive. It seems that despite the many sorrows that have touched virtually every person in the country – whether through the Holocaust, terrorist attacks, military operations or major wars – somehow joy and good cheer prevail.

Did your view of the Israeli-Arab conflict change while you were there? If so, how?

My views of Israel were molded by media and whatever books I read, most of which report the Middle East conflict in abstract terms – settlements, terrorism, “Peace process,” checkpoints and so forth. My views were changed by talking to real people about their experiences, and about how these abstract terms have become embodied in their personal histories – Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

What do you think is the greatest misconception Americans have about Israel?

Some Americans, especially those with a biblical Christian background are infatuated with the land of the Bible and all things Israeli, and tend to see it in an unrealistic and rosy light. Others, who rely only on mainstream media for information, are convinced that Israel is a nation of bullies surrounded by barbed wire. It’s really difficult to say what the #1 misconception is because there are so many different kinds of Americans. Everyone arrives in Israel with at least a few misconceptions. And most of us that ask a lot of questions have learned that sometimes the best answer is, “It’s complicated.”

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

I hope to introduce readers to real Israeli people and to provide glimpses of life as it unfolds around them on a daily basis. I also hope to disabuse those who have been deceived by some of the inaccurate, unjust and biased accounts that continue to make their way into various media reports.

Why do you think the international community, including many countries in Europe, so often attacks Israel rhetorically?

I find the constant attacks on Israel puzzling, especially when atrocities are taking place every day in Syria, and too frequently in Egypt, Iraq, Iran and many other Middle Eastern countries. Why is this so? Some of it is ideological – Israel is categorized as a pariah state, a “colonial” outpost in a post-colonial world, or an infidel trespasser in pan-Islamic utopia. But I don’t think anti-Semitism can be overlooked either. And unbalanced or dishonest reporting of news simply serves to feed the fire.

On Dec. 17, the Israeli government posted this message on its Facebook account, which they later deleted: “If Jesus and mother Mary were alive today, they would, as Jews without security, end up being lynched in Bethlehem by hostile Palestinians.” What are your thoughts on that? Do you think the post has a legitimate point, even though it was deleted?

This is a severe accusation, although certainly Israeli Jews continue to be attacked and, indeed, murdered in Palestinian areas. I don’t suppose Mary and Joseph would have had an Israeli license plate on their donkey, so maybe they would have blended in a little better than a family car on a highway or a jeep lost on a city street. And in any case, if they had Israeli passports, they could not enter Bethlehem today anyway. The Israelis at the checkpoint would prevent their passage – for no reason except for their own protection.

Finally, do you think there is anything the United States can do to help facilitate peace between Israelis and Palestinians at this point in time? Or what would you advise President Obama if you had his ear about his Israeli-Arab policy?

Most of the peace negotiators that come and go from Israel – Americans and others – have the idea of a land-for-peace swap fixed in their minds. This is mystifying, because over several decades Israel has withdrawn entirely from three specific areas in a quest for peace: Sinai, Southern Lebanon and, of course, Gaza. These withdrawals have resulted in vast arsenals of rockets and mortars on Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Gaza, and have opened up weapons smuggling routes in Sinai. Would further withdrawal from portions of the West Bank have better results? No, and especially not with Hamas rising and fervently committed to their charter, which calls for the eradication of the State of Israel.

As for President Obama, from what we know of his past, he is well versed in the Palestinian narrative through his studies and social involvements with Edward Said, Rashid Khalidi, Rev. Jeremiah Wright and others. I would suggest that he spend a day or two having face-to-face conversations with Israelis who have suffered grave losses at the hands of Palestinian terrorists.

Perhaps he could gain perspective about security issues by listening to a mother like Sherri Mandell, whose 13-year-old son Koby was murdered and mutilated by terrorists in 2001. Or hearing from 14-year-old Tamar Fogel, who discovered the bodies of her parents, two brothers and beheaded baby sister, all of whom were butchered in their home in March 2011. Or learning of my friend Petra Heldt’s agony after being catastrophically burned in a Hamas bombing in 1997.

President Obama must be aware of the history of Jews and Christians under Muslim rule and the increasing risks they face every day, confronted by religious fanaticism and Islamist apocalyptic ambitions. But doubtless he could learn a great deal more by taking the time to listen to those who live on the front lines of a centuries-old war — a war that is intensifying on his watch, before his eyes. He might even come to understand the meaning of the radical motto, “First the Saturday People, then the Sunday People” and what it bodes for the People of the Book in today’s Middle East.

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