A Season of Reconciliation
By David Parsons, ICEJ Vice President & Senior Spokesman
As the Christmas season approaches every year, I often get inquiries from journalists about how celebrating this holiday in the Land where Jesus was born is different from back home. Of course, we miss our families dearly, but there is something special about being here in the Land of Israel as we mark the birth of Jesus. There is certainly less commercialism around Christmas here, and the story of the Nativity comes alive in very dramatic and personal ways.
This became especially so when I began venturing out years ago with family and friends on Christmas Eve to the hillsides overlooking Bethlehem, as we gathered around a bonfire to ring in the joyous Noel. Under a canopy of stars, the timeless carols never sounded so sweet, the hot chocolate never tasted so smooth, and our hearts always seemed to focus solely on the glorious gift of Christ from above.
But my very first Christmas in the Holy Land was not so enthralling. It was December 1995 and I had come to Jerusalem to help the Christian Embassy prepare for an upcoming Christian Zionist Congress. At that time, the Israeli government was implementing the second phase of the Oslo Accords. In the first stage, Gaza and Jericho had been handed over to the PLO as a test case of whether Oslo could bring peace to the Land. Now it was time to cede more of the main Palestinian cities in Judea/Samaria (the “West Bank”), and since Christmas was drawing near the spotlight was squarely on Bethlehem.
On the 22nd of December that year, the IDF vacated Bethlehem and Yasser Arafat flew in on a helicopter and landed late afternoon on top of the former British police station overlooking Manger Square. He then delivered a fiery anti-Israel speech and broadly smiled as the crowd below chanted “a million martyrs marching to Jerusalem.” This was the Palestinian rallying cry of those days, and every Israeli knew the word “martyr”, or shaheed in Arabic, referred to Muslims who die while waging holy war.
As the sun set, I went to a hillside and looked across Shepherd’s Field at the skyline of Bethlehem against the darkening sky. The circus had come to town, as a large, brightly-lit ferris wheel turned in the distance and fireworks burst overhead. Christmas in the birthplace of Jesus had been turned into a triumphant celebration of Palestinian nationalism.
From that moment, I could not escape the sense that Oslo was truly a false promise of peace. Phony! Contrived! And imposed from abroad. Which, sadly, proved to be the case.
In contrast, there seems to be a very different dynamic today with the Abraham Accords. This historic move towards reconciliation and peace between Israel and a new tier of Arab neighbors may have been sealed two years ago with the help of US President Donald Trump, but it began many years earlier in the quiet trade ties Jerusalem established with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. And it was further nurtured by Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington in 2015 when he defied an American president by standing before Congress to voice his opposition to the pending Iranian nuclear deal. Many Arab Gulf rulers felt he was speaking on their behalf as well, as they too were feeling abandoned amid the Obama administration’s continual courting of the ayatollahs in Tehran.
Now it is true that the Abraham Accords are being driven on both sides by strong economic interests and by the common threat posed by Iran. And there are reasons to be cautious with any man-made deals. But I also believe there is something truly genuine and positive at work in the hearts and mindsets of those embracing this normalization process.
Even the name of the Abraham Accords is a tacit acknowledgement that the Jewish and Arab peoples of this region have a common ancestry in the Patriarch Abraham. The Accords carry a message to the Jewish people that they are indigenous to this region and have come home to help build its future. This is music to the ears of so many Israelis today. It also is the realization of the quest of Chaim Weizmann, the successor to Theodor Herzl as leader of the early Zionist movement, who sought to forge an agreement with the Hashemite Arab rulers of his day along these very same lines.
As a result, Israelis are flocking to Dubai and Abu Dhabi to shop and dine, and they are being very warmly welcomed. Israeli tourism to Morocco is also sharply on the rise, and many Israelis were even flying the Moroccan flag over recent weeks in support of their soccer team’s surprising run in the World Cup. This is the sort of people-to-people contact and peace that many Israelis longed for over past decades with Egypt, and indeed even Jerusalem’s relations with Cairo are warming in the wake of the Abraham Accords.
I believe we are in a season when Israel’s many Christian friends can trust the genuine spirit of reconciliation inherent in the Abraham Accords. It was actually Evangelical leaders who helped birth the Accords with their visits to meet with regional Arab rulers, helping them to connect more closely to the Trump administration and to the thought of normalization with Israel. So, we should be praying and working ourselves to reconcile Jews and Israel with the Arabs and their respective nations. And we should be guarding against any effort by the US State Department or European Union to steer the Abraham Accords back towards the flawed two-state solution.
There also is a remarkable spiritual dynamic at work today in the growing fellowship between Jewish and Arab believers in Yeshua. They are worshipping and praying together as never before in history. An ICEJ leadership delegation just had a wonderful encounter in Cyprus with some 70 Arab Christian leaders from around the region, and this again demonstrated to us that God is at work to reconcile all things in Messiah.
I believe this is a day for Christians who love and support Israel to be reconcilers, and not just partisans for one side of this conflict. We must continue to stand with Israel and defend her from her sworn enemies. But we also should be looking for opportunities to reconcile Jews and Arabs whenever possible.
In the Torah portion recently, we read in Genesis about the incredible moment of reconciliation between Jacob and Esau. Jacob was still afraid of his brother. He wrestled all night with an angelic being (Hosea 12:4). He divided his camp into thirds, with Rachel and Benjamin protected in the rear. And then Jacob saw Esau and his 400 men coming in the distance, and he anxiously bowed seven times to the ground. Yet then we read:
“But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” (Genesis 33:4)
This is an incredible prophetic picture of what the Lord can and wants to do between brothers once separated by jealousy and hate. May we see it in our day, and may we be instruments of reconciliation to help make it happen, just as God reconciled us to Himself through the amazing gift of Jesus from above.
“Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
Our goal is to stand with Israel in support and friendship, equip and teach the worldwide church regarding God’s purposes with Israel and the nations of the Middle East, be an active voice of reconciliation between Jews, Christians, and Arabs, and support the churches and congregations in the Holy Land.