Christian tourists say Israel misunderstands millennialists


JERUSALEM, Nov. 15 (JTA) — Melodic harmonies echo through Dominus Flevit, a small-but-quaint church on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, as a group of 30 Christian Bible scholars and pastors sing “Hallelujah to the Lord,” first in English, then Hebrew.

Built in 1955 on the ruins of an ancient church, the teardrop-shaped structure commands a breathtaking view of the eastern walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. According to Christian tradition, Jesus, knowing his prophetic message would be rejected, wept here as he viewed the illusion of a tranquil city that, in fact, was bitterly divided, its Jewish population suffering under a brutal Roman occupation.

Outside the church, tourists lower their heads in quiet prayer for peace in Jerusalem.

The scene contrasts sharply with images in the Israeli and international media that have regularly reported millennium celebrations with sensational stories about deranged Christian tourists or fringe groups who may carry out violent acts to hasten Jesus’ “second coming.”

Yet this group of Christians, who have come to Israel on a combined pilgrimage and study tour organized by the California-based Centre for the Study of Biblical Research, were surprisingly undeterred by Israel’s recent crackdown and deportation of some fringe Christian groups. Some even defended the government’s actions, but warned that Israel must be careful not to stereotype all 2.5 million Christian pilgrims expected next year as dangerous.

“This is a Jewish state, and we are guests in the Jewish state,” said Bill Bean, an ordained minister and director of the center. “Christians are invited to this land if they don’t break the law. If Christians are going to come here and break the law, then they shouldn’t be here.”

For many, the main concern about the way Israel is handling millennialist threats is that Israelis do not really understand the differences between Christian denominations.

“As you have Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jewry, we have many, many denominations,” Bean said. “It would be nice if someone in the government or the Ministry of Religious Affairs would take time to talk to people who really are legitimate in this field to learn from them about the different groups.”

Although millennium observers and experts acknowledge that Israel must take threats of fanaticism seriously, some are concerned about the way Israel has handled the situation so far.

Earlier this month, Israel deported a group of 20 fundamentalist Christians led by Brother David, a colorful character who lived in Jerusalem for many years and whose followers were anticipating what they believed would be Jesus’ imminent second coming.

Brother David was in Israel illegally, having destroyed his passport several years ago. But despite his offbeat religious beliefs, he spent most of his time doing charitable work — and his peaceful followers showed no signs of violence.

Rabbi David Rosen, director of the Israel office of the Anti- Defamation League and an interfaith activist, said accusations by Israeli police that Brother David’s followers had planned a mass suicide demonstrated an “abysmal ignorance” of the differences between mainstream Christian believers, fringe nonviolent groups and radical cults.

“There may be a failure to distinguish violent from peaceful Christian millennial groups,” Rosen said. “Such confusion will prove to be a serious boomerang for Israel. Aside from the damage to Israel’s international image, such actions may have wider-range deleterious effects on potential pilgrimage to Israel, depriving the Jewish state not only of the benefits of tourism, but also of the enormous amount of goodwill that is offered by the pilgrimage of millions for the new millennium.”

Rosen says that since the expulsions, he has seen encouraging signs that the police may try harder not to generalize about Christian tourists. Indeed, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel’s public security minister, told JTA through a spokesman that Israel “wants to carry out a policy of keeping its gates open and encouraging tourists to come to Israel.”

Israel’s Ministry of Tourism insists the recent expulsions will not hurt tourism. Nitsan Ilan, a spokeswoman for the ministry, said it recognizes that policemen dealing with millennial threats need a better understanding of Christianity.

“The Tourism Ministry is working with the police to give seminars to policemen,” she said. “This month 700 Jerusalem-based policemen will be participating in lectures given by experts on Christianity.”

For his part, Steven Notley, a Christian scholar and licensed tour guide who has been in Israel for 14 years, is not worried about the crackdown.

“I do not think it will affect tourism one way or another,” he said. “But I would like the government to make sure that whoever they get rid of is clearly breaking the law. It should not be some sort of hysteria that you are getting rid of anybody who dares to suggest that they believe in the second coming.”

As Notley led the California group though the Old City, hordes of tourists in dozens of groups at the most famous Christian sites appeared to signal that little damage has been done so far.

One group carries a large wooden cross, walking in the footsteps of Jesus as they chant hymns in unison.

Jeanne Miterko, director of the New England branch of the center, said she has been to Israel four times and has never seen so many tourists.

“I don’t blame the Israelis for being concerned,” she said. “The big question is how they act on that. The best prophylactic measure is to know where these people are coming from before they board the plane.”

To do so, Israeli security services are cooperating with foreign secret services such as the FBI. However, the problem is how to finger potential threats without undermining the “open gates” policy and frightening away tourists.

“In America you just cannot tell people they cannot come in because they are associated with this or that group,” Miterko said. “That could really create a problem of public perception of Israel.”

Some say the media fuss over potential millennium madness is counterproductive. “If they talk about it in the news media it becomes a magnet for meshugenahs,” says Larry Hirsch, a “messianic Jew” from California. “The fact that some Americans were kicked out doesn’t bother me, but keep it low key.”

Hirsch — and veteran Christian tour guides — say the real threat to millennial tourism will be the fear that Israel will simply be too crowded. “People will be deterred from coming because there is no room at the inn,” Hirsch said.

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