“Saturday People, Sunday People” is the title of a new, mesmerizing book by Lela Gilbert, an adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute and author of 60 books, including several on the widespread persecution of Christians in Muslim countries, a phenomenon that is reaching epidemic proportions with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.
The subtitle of the book, “Israel Through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner,” is appropriate to the construct of the book, a highly personal memoir of a Christian from southern California who was drawn to Israel. Gilbert, who six years later remains in Israel as a reporter and visitor, is able to pierce a number of myths about the Jewish state and find the essence of a country that is not, contrary to the popular perception, consumed by war and death. On one level it is a travelogue, archaeological guide and history lesson revealed through Gilbert’s day-to-day experiences. It is sometimes funny, sometimes poignant and elegantly related with a mix of humor and even some of her original poetry. In a brief interview last week, Gilbert laughed when I asked her what Israelis think of the U.S.-Israel relationship: “It is impossible to say what Israelis think about anything,” she said — an important reminder that Israelis are as heterogeneous and politically opinionated as any people on Earth.
She delves into the controversy over the Temple Mound and the new phenomenon of Temple Denial, the cousin of Holocaust Denial, which radical Muslims are perpetrating to declare the presence of Jews in the land of Israel to be a myth.
The first third or so of the book is a lively account of her experiences in Israel, providing a valuable account for Christians and Jews alike who are less than familiar with Jewish religious practice and daily life in Israel. She is transfixed by the celebratory spirit, the national love affair with music and the gritty determination to build, rebuild and thrive in spite of wars, terrorist attacks and, as she vividly describes, shelling by rockets. Through interviews (including an encounter with South African Malcolm Hedding, who was forced to flee to Israel for heading a mixed-race church in his homeland) and personal experience, she demolishes the notion that Israel, as Jimmy Carter infamously declared, is an apartheid state. Indeed it is one of the few places in the Middle East in which Arabs and Jews intermingle in everything from politics to shopping.
Gilbert acknowledged to me that war and politics obviously play a huge role in the lives of a small country in which everyone is only one or two degrees of separation from everyone else. Of life in the military she explained, “One of my friend’s sons served in 2009 in Gaza. He came back . . . troubled. He was well trained; that is why he was sent. But he hasn’t quite been at peace with himself since.” She continued, “The big issue is that we are all in this together. If you hear an explosion, the phone is going to ring.” The contrast to America, with its volunteer military in which a sliver of the population serves or is connected to, could not be greater.
But if that were all, the book would merely be a fine read and not an important one. She writes that “even when Israel is under constant threat of war, the real substance of the land and its people is not compromised.” And that peoples another strand in the book that goes beyond Israel, the Middle East and politics: How does one live life on the precipice of death? In Israel the question is as immediate and constant as is the shelling from Gaza (which is rarely explained in graphic detail) that traumatizes old and young and wreaks havoc on the daily rhythms of life.
Israel’s answer, and Gilbert’s by extension, is to defy death by living joyously and intensely. She writes, “Despite the constant threats it receives, Israel is one of the liveliest places in the world. Israelis cherish life dynamically and celebrate it with zest at every opportunity. I’ve often wondered if this is because they have experienced so much more than their fair share of death. Even a memorial service for Yoni Netanyahu, the Entebbe Raid war hero and brother of the current prime minister, she explains, is a “celebration of his life and not a glorification of his death . . . Military heroes like Yoni remind us that freedom is not free and that to love life means, paradoxically, to be willing to die for what we love the most — our loved ones, our faith , our nation and our liberty.”
The meat of Gilbert’s book and its uniqueness among hundreds on the Middle East published every year, however, documents the virtually ignored Jewish “nakba,” a world used mostly by Arabs to described the “tragedy” of Israel’s birth. The nakba she describes is the largely untold story of approximately 1 million Jews who were harassed, discriminated against, killed and ultimately forced to leave Arab lands between 1948 and the mid-1970s. These countries largely achieved what Hitler could not: Judenfrei, or countries cleansed of Jews who once formed vibrant and affluent communities in Iraq, Egypt, Morocco and elsewhere. Here there is no ambiguity as to whether the chaos surrounding war (e.g., either the 1948 or 1967 wars) caused them to flee. These were countries not at war in which the systematic effort to rob, rape, kill and expel Jews was undertaken sometimes in concert with the infamous Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a devotee of Hitler, but more often by the regimes themselves.
The media of course have virtually forgotten (or hidden) this expulsion, preferring to fixate on the Palestinian refugee problem and the so-called “right of return.” That imbalance in the historical record and journalism of the 20th century goes hand in hand with coverage of the Gaza wars that focuses on the Israeli strikes on terrorist leaders and ignores the thousands of rockets fired at Israeli civilians.
But in this nakba the Jews now, tragically have company. The title of the book on one hand describes the intertwined history and tradition of Jews and Christians, but it also has become a description of the deadly agenda of Islamic fundamentalists: First, the Saturday people, second the Sunday people. In other words, first rid these countries of Jews and next go after the Christians. This they do with near international impunity. In Gilbert’s vivid and at time (appropriately) gruesome account of murders, church bombings and other anti-Christian atrocities she paints a portrait of a human rights catastrophe playing out before our eyes and a world gone mad, indifferent to and largely unaware of the plight of Christians. She meticulously documents the atrocities against the Egyptian Copts and other Christians from Nigeria to Iran to Indonesia and Afghanistan.
Her message is poignant, namely that Jews and Christian share a common tradition and faith, founded on ” biblical principles, founded on the sanctity of life, affirming that humans are made in the image of God . . . Our roots are firmly planted in common ground. … We have chosen life and we deplore the Islamist culture of death. We needn’t fight our battles alone.” That’s an optimistic note for a tragic story in which Christians and Jews, who certainly have at times not been on the same side, have a new brotherhood of faith, forged in the fire of Islamic fundamentalism. It is a timely reminder of the nature of our shared enemy and the obligation for shared defense in the cultural, ideological and military war against the jihadist culture of death.