An underreported tragedy of the Middle East is the persecution and exodus of Christian communities that have lived there for centuries, some for millennia, well before the advent of Islam. The irony is that today Israel is the only country where the Christian population is growing. The sorry exception is in the Arab controlled regions of Judea and Samaria.
Lela Gilbert, in her inspiring book Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of
a Christian Sojourner, describes her life in a country she came to visit but now makes her home.
Although Gilbert grew up in a family supportive of Israel, for her the defining moment was Israel’s triumph in the 1967 War–whose 46th anniversary will be celebrated on June 5th this year. She watched with concern as, in the following decades, Israel’s enemies increased in number, with Muslims joined by fellow travellers throughout the world, including the leadership of the mainline churches who shrugged off the fiercest faith driven diatribes against Jews, Christians and other “infidels.”
Alarmed by these trends, in 2006 Gilbert decided to visit the land that fascinated her as a writer and as a practicing Christian. To her family’s surprise and to Israel’s great benefit, Gilbert would be no ordinary tourist. She rented a flat in Jerusalem and began her sojourn. She currently divides her time between Jerusalem and California.
What is amazing about this book is the way Lela Gilbert resonates to Israel’s dangers, its security concerns, its diversity, its army, its vitality and its destiny, feeling them as her own. In her words: “….I came with the conviction that an assault upon Jews is an implicit assault upon Christians, since it strikes at the root of the same ancient tree.” She experiences the hypocrisy, the lies and libels of the world’s “enlightened” elite; she feels horror at the unspeakable jihadist terrorists who murdered the Fogel family including women and babies in their beds. She absorbs “the heavy weight of sadness pressed against the whole country.” She also has witnessed the fear of Christians in PA-ruled Bethlehem, similar to the fear of Christians throughout the Muslim world–in Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Indonesia, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
But Lela Gilbert also experiences the holiness of Israel, the eternal miracle of the Sabbath in Jerusalem, the joys of Passover and Sukkot, the renewal and commitment of Tisha B’av and the optimism that pulses through Israel with the belief that the best is still to come.
With the Bible as her GPS, Gilbert has visited every corner of Israel and spoken to Israelis–and Arabs–from every background. She has visited the “settlements” of Judea and Samaria–from the handsome villas of the towns to the hilltop “outposts” where she went to ancient wine cellars as well as new vineyards on the windswept hills. In Gilbert’s words: “For a number of reasons, the passage in the bible referring to the Israelites coming into the land and claiming their land has held important personal meaning for me.”
Ruthie Blum, the American born Israeli journalist and our mutual friend, has described Lela Gilbert thus: “Lela is what I call ‘one of us.’ She gets it about America, and she gets it about Israel. She is a rare breed who, upon her arrival in Israel, immediately grasped that the issues in both countries are very similar. It is not only that, as a pro-Israel Christian, she has a belief in the justice of the Jewish homeland. It’s more complicated than that. She actually understands the threat to democracy and free cultures that radical Islam poses. Aside from that, she managed to become socially enmeshed in Jerusalem society in a way that even many Jews who immigrate here have difficulty doing. She’s a real treasure.”
Gilbert writes that during her first days in Israel she visited a shop on Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street. The owner was curious about her as a writer and as a Christian who would come during the war in Lebanon. He gave her a gift–a silver Star of David–with the words: “It is my way of saying thank you for being with us.”
I can only add “Thank you Lela Gilbert, for this book.”