“If We Could Be Where Peace Starts”: Elisheva Korytowski
A Messianic Jew, Elisheva Korytowski was born and raised in the United States before immigrating to Israel in 2006 at the age of 20. After completing her military service, she joined the team at a reconciliation ministry called Musalaha and began studying Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (This interview was published in the March/April 2012 issue of PRISM magazine.)
My first year in Israel, I worked at a restaurant where all the staff was Arab except for me. They were all Muslim, from East Jerusalem. I went to government-sponsored Hebrew class in the beginning, too, and probably half the class was Arab teenagers who needed to improve their Hebrew before getting into college.
I wouldn’t have called any of these people my friends, but we got along fine. I don’t know exactly how to put it, but I thought I was being this amazing tolerant individual just because I could be polite to them. It wasn’t really conscious, but when I look back I see that I thought so highly of myself at that point just because I wasn’t saying hateful things about Arabs; just because I wasn’t being a complete jerk, I felt I was the pinnacle of tolerance. It was important for me to get along with people, but now I understand that it’s not just about getting along. It’s not about being able to have a business transaction without stabbing somebody.
The fact that these people weren’t believers made a huge difference, because I didn’t have to really incorporate them into my life. I had this fatalistic attitude of maybe we’re polite on the surface, but there’s a conflict going on and we are on different sides. That was in the back of my head, which is why I didn’t put forth a lot of effort into understanding. Besides, they were only work and school relationships.
Then, about six months after I came to Israel, I went on a trip to the Jordanian desert with an organization I’d heard about called Musahala, which means reconciliation in Arabic, an organization that seeks to reconcile Israelis and Palestinians, starting with the believers on both sides. I went because I was curious—I’d never met Palestinian Christians before, and subconsciously I was trying to fill this role of being the tolerant, liberal, Western, forward-thinking, Messianic Jew, proving through my participation that I didn’t hate Arabs.
When I got there, it suddenly hit me: These people aren’t the kind of people I’ve been interacting with every day; these are my brothers and sisters in the Messiah, and a smile is not going to cut it here. For some reason I hadn’t thought about it before. I realized then that what I had thought was love was really only a kind of superficial niceness.
There was tension throughout the trip. We were all very kind to each other, and we were sensitive and made sure not to talk about certain things, because the point of the trip is to have a forum where people can get to know each other just as people. So that’s what we did. We were each paired up with a person from the opposite side. We rode camels together on a journey through the desert and had to struggle together and make something work. And as a whole unit, we had to cross the desert as one. We did different team-building exercises, and we worshiped together, prayed together, and had communion together.
The most touching experience for me was at the end of the trip. Some of the tension had been released by that point, but it was still there. But at one point we entered into worship, and I suddenly felt as if we had transcended all of our physical limitations, our ethnicity, all the things that define us as who we are on this earth. We just came together as children of God and worshiped him; we were doing something towards God, together.
Once we came down from that, it was as if we fell back into our bodies, into our male and female and Jew and Gentile bodies. Those are important on this earth; they bring blessing as well as conflict. But I had a kind of defeatist attitude, thinking, Well that was nice; this was a taste of Heaven and we’ll be able to know that someday, but, for now, we’re here and it’s still hopeless.
I think, honestly, that a lot of that attitude came from what I believed then, which was that there will never be peace until Yeshua comes back, so there’s no use trying. In the back of my head, I thought We can enjoy these nice little session; we can be brothers, but really in the end they’ll probably all kill us and we’ll probably all kill them. But at the same time, it was still really on my heart to bring these two communities together.
The trip was a great experience, and I continued to participate in the organization in follow-ups and as a camp counselor, but soon after that I went into the Israeli army and then that was where my head was. So I kind of put all of that stuff on the table.
My experience in the army didn’t really change how I feel about reconciliation, but it definitely changed how I feel about politics. I came to Israel with a vision, and the first thing I wanted to do was serve the country; I believe, and I still believe, that Israel needs to be defended. Up to that time I was mostly friends with believers, but the army is a place where you have to interact and be a part of a team with people you wouldn’t otherwise hang out with—all different socioeconomic backgrounds, political views, ethnicities, races, religions—Orthodox Jews, secular Jews, and every kind of Jew in between, Druze, Muslims, and Russian Christians. So, it was a really great exposure for me to the country.
Most of the time, my unit was in the north guarding the Syrian border. We had guard posts and lookouts as well as a couple of jeeps constantly patrolling the area. During these patrols we would stop to make coffee under the trees, pick wild figs, or chat with Israeli tourists. It was not the hardest work a lot of the time. I felt good about guarding the borders, about being ready for legitimate warfare with, say, Syria or Lebanon. But at two points we were in the West Bank for a few months at a time, which was entirely different work. I can’t say that I felt as positively about this, but I’m really glad I got to see things for myself instead of just reading about them. We weren’t in the most dangerous part of the country, but we did all the missions that a regular combat unit would do in the West Bank—guarding, jeep patrols, raiding houses, arrests, random checkpoints.
During this period, I often felt like we were just inconveniencing people greatly, bothering people, and building a society that hates us for doing things that aren’t completely necessary—until one day we had a checkpoint and found somebody with Coke cans full of explosives. Then another day, we arrested somebody who was on his way to a suicide attack. Then I’d think, Well, it was certainly good that we stopped that. I was very conflicted, because on the one hand, I would hate a lot of what we were doing there, the things that were mainly for protecting settlers and the most intrusive on the lives of everyday people, and on the other hand, I’d think, Somebody needs to be here to stop the real threats.
When I got out of the army I had time to process and research and really look into all these things for myself. But I didn’t tell a lot of my friends about it, because the Messianic movement, as a whole—it’s changing now with my generation—but as a whole, they’re very right-wing. And this is mainly because of their interpretation of the Bible, which was my interpretation as well at one point—that God gave this land to the Jewish people and we need to conquer it, period. But even when I still held to that theology, I wondered, What about the Palestinians? Is what’s happening to them okay? And if not, if what we are doing is not something that looks like the love Yeshua talks about and commands us to show, then there’s a problem .
I no longer hold to the typical Messianic Jewish theology concerning these things, but I don’t think it’s an illegitimate view either. What’s important is to address these issues no matter what theological framework you embrace. In general, I think it’s much more important to focus on what Yeshua commands us to do than anything else. Our role as believers is to do good and love our neighbor—then God will accomplish what he wants to accomplish through us. We need to act justly. And what’s happening is not just. Of course, there are many issues, and I don’t think that you can have complete justice when there’s the threat that there is. You can’t just give complete freedom when it jeopardizes your own. So it’s very complicated.
In Israel, we Messianic Jews are fighting for our own rights within society as Israeli citizens, and rightfully so. There are anti-missionary organizations which persecute believers here, trying to shut down our businesses and deport us. There have been numerous protests outside of private homes and congregations, and even a few violent attacks including fires and bombs. These organizations are mostly backed by the ultra-Orthodox. This minority has a disproportionate amount of power in the government, so much that if they find out that a person is a believer they bar him from immigrating to Israel like any other Jew. But how can we demand justice for our own Messianic community while keeping quiet about the issues affecting the rights of those across the line, let alone those within our nation’s borders who are citizens of the State of Israel just like we are?
I have no doubt that most Messianics do care, that they don’t harbor hate towards Palestinians, especially not towards the Christians. I also think that their love towards them is often manifested in politeness, as it was for me. I’m not saying that it’s not important to be civil, but love is much deeper. Yeshua commands us to love as he loved us, which is obviously sacrificial. It probably doesn’t take sacrifice for most people to smile or shake someone’s hand. Love is about giving something of ourselves, in this case at least putting in the effort to try to build relationships and understand the other side. To listen to the other side’s grief. To know their heart, because we are a part of each other. To treat them as my brothers, to love them as members of my own spiritual family, even when it’s not comfortable. Even when it might be a little scary.
“Love is about giving something of ourselves, in this case at least putting in the effort to try to build relationships and understand the other side. To listen to the other side’s grief. To know their heart, because we are a part of each other.”
Some people think I’m crazy for going to Bethlehem to see friends. It’s against the law, and they think it’s dangerous. For a time I was scared, but I can’t live in fear and let the situation keep me from having relationships. If we don’t build these relationships, it just separates us more. So we have to fight against that—together. Jewish Israelis are not allowed to go into Palestine, and Palestinian Christians are only allowed to come to Israel at Christmas and Easter for a few weeks at a time. Last December, a few months after starting my work in Musalaha, I thought, I have no excuse in the world for not inviting a Palestinian to my house. Really, it would be pathetic. So I invited some Palestinians to a little get-together at my house with my Messianic Jewish Israeli roommate. Maybe they were scared. A lot of them didn’t come. But two girls did, and one of them said, “Wow, this is the first time I’ve been in a Jewish person’s house.”
I realized it was a lot easier than I thought to break down all these little barriers. I guess it’s not that significant that now she’s been in a Jewish person’s house, but if you add up all these things, they lead down a certain road. I feel like I’m a lot further down that road than I was a year ago. Of course, my involvement in this organization and my theological and political views have brought a bit of controversy into my life. Some of my friends think I’m disloyal. I’ve been called anti-Israeli just because I don’t feel the same way about the situation they do.
I’m indeed pro-Israel. I believe in this country. I live here. I believe in defending it, physically as well as ideologically. But I don’t agree with all of its policies, and if I’m going to truly love Israel, I will help hold it to a high standard. I will speak up when I think there’s something wrong. If you love your friend, you will confront him when he’s doing something you think is wrong. It’s the same thing with your country.
People think you have to be either radically pro-Israel or uncompromisingly pro-Palestine, as if only one people can exist and the other has to lose everything. But you can acknowledge that both Israel and Palestine should have the right to exist. Or, you could acknowledge that this should all be one state. Or you might have some other solution. The point is to acknowledge that God loves and has a plan for both peoples and that he wants to see both peoples prosper—and all of us should want the same.
When I think of evangelicals in America I think of a blindly pro-Israel population for the most part. I think it’s fantastic that they care, but it becomes a problem when your love for one side takes you to a place where it blinds you from loving the other side, or from seeing the greater reality of the situation. We need to filter our theology through Yeshua’s words and not the other way round. Those organizations whose whole idea is to build up settlements and support Israel without question are hurting the Palestinians and, in my opinion, ultimately hurting Israel as well.
You have to step back and question: Does it line up with what Yeshua teaches to have an entire population that doesn’t have the same rights as others? If not, then you have to change something. You can’t just ignore it. They say it’s because of terrorism, and I see there a legitimate point. I’m not saying that if Israel gave up everything all of a sudden there wouldn’t be any threat—there will still be radical people and groups that want us dead no matter what. But I think if both the Israeli-Palestinian population and the Palestinian population felt more freedom, if they felt they had a country and were important, they might be more inclined to be a peaceful partner.
“You have to step back and question: Does it line up with what Yeshua teaches to have an entire population that doesn’t have the same rights as others? If not, then you have to change something.”
So the issue is: Where do we put justice versus security? I hope that we can aspire to both. Take the security wall. My main problem with the wall isn’t that it’s ugly and separates us. If there were two different countries a wall between them wouldn’t matter as much. The real issue for me is where the wall is built. They’re building it through people’s neighborhoods and not on the ’67 border. They’re using the wall as a way of cutting into territory that doesn’t belong to us, because they’re trying to include the settlements. Also, logically you can’t just build this wall saying that you’re separating two entities and not acknowledge that there are two entities. If you’re separating Israel from Palestine, you have to acknowledge Palestine.
On the other hand, it annoys me when people call it an apartheid wall, or a racial segregation wall. It’s not a racial segregation wall because there are plenty of Palestinians on both sides of the wall. It’s not an apartheid wall, because if you’re using the word apartheid, you automatically imply that it’s one place, one entity, and that you believe in a one-state solution. You can’t have an occupation and apartheid at the same time. It’s one or the other.
If there’s hope for anyone making a difference here, it lies with the believers. It’s not just that we want to get along for the sake of politics, or security, or freedom. It’s that we have to get along, because God commands us to. However much of a hassle it might be, we have to do it. It would be wonderful if we could be where peace starts. Believers on both sides are such a small portion of the population. Out of 7 million people in Israel, there are maybe 10,000 Messianic Jewish believers. In terms of Palestinian Christians, about 4 percent of the population in the West Bank and Gaza is Christian—about 90,000 people. Ten percent of the Palestinian-Israeli population is Christian—maximum 200,000 people. That’s less than 300,000 Palestinian Christians in Palestine and Israel combined. From what my friends and co-workers tell me, all but approximately 15,000 of these people are what one would call cultural Christians. Believers here are such a small sector of the population, so while we have many differences, we have brothers on the other side who not only follow God as we do but also understand what it feels like to be a religious minority. It would be amazing if we could someday lead the way through our unity. The situation is complex, and the road ahead will be filled with difficulties, but the obvious next step is that we get to know each other and that we come together as one unit in some way. I mean, they’re right next door. It just seems so obvious to me now.
These interviews were made possible by a grant from the Flame of Love Project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Paul Alexander is professor of Christian Ethics and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary as well as director of public policy at the Sider Center on Ministry and Public Policy. He edited Christ at the Checkpoint: Theology in the Service of Justice and Peace (Pickwick Publications, 2012) and is producing a film about Palestinian Christians titled With Love from Palestine.
Also read “Muscular Love,” an interview with Palestinian evangelical, Rev. Dr. Yohanna Katanacho, Academic Dean of Bethlehem Bible College and the author of The Land of Christ: A Palestinian Cry.