Engaging Israel's Disengagement

Jill Nelson

Jill Nelson contributes to World magazine.

Israel begins a historic withdrawal from Gaza and U.S. Christians prepare to disagree over it.

Along the streets of Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv, Israelis are displaying their "team colors" by wearing ribbons—orange if you're against the removal of Israeli settlements from Gaza and the West Bank and blue if you support the withdrawal. Placed in the center of morning newspapers and peddled on street corners, the ribbons are everywhere—on strollers, backpacks, belts, and even wedding bouquets.

Many Christian churches are also displaying "team colors" in this contest for land, and a closer look reveals three camps. Those on the "orange side" display the Israeli flag in their sanctuaries or place Israel links on their websites. Christians on the "blue side" promote corporate divestment from Israel—usually under the banner of "liberation theology." The third camp combines both colors—"blue" in its support for the withdrawal and "orange" in its empathy with Israel's struggle as a democracy.

On Aug. 15, evacuation teams are expected to go door to door in Gaza and the West Bank asking Israeli settlers to leave the territories, which were captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The operation will likely take three or four weeks, and those who do not comply within a few days will be forcefully removed. The withdrawal will offer compensation packages to some 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip and hundreds more from four settlements in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced the move in February 2004 and quickly won the backing of President Bush.

However, not all Israelis are on board with the plan. In protest, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resigned Aug. 7 from his post as minister of finance. "I am not prepared to be part of this irresponsible act that threatens the security of Israel," he said. His Likud party opposes the withdrawal, but the resignation hasn't changed the minds of the remaining cabinet members.

Settlers have not been idle either, organizing protests and urging Israeli soldiers—55,000 total in the pullout operation—not to evict them. Posters displayed countrywide read, "Brother, don't expel me." The pullout has also incited Jewish terrorism: A 19-year-old army deserter killed four Israeli Arabs when he opened fire on a bus Aug. 4. An angry mob killed him. Israeli authorities, meanwhile, have to worry about weapons smuggling through Gaza once security forces leave. A potential nightmare, say critics, is terrorist rockets aimed at Israel and a weak Palestinian Authority unable or unwilling to rein in militancy.

Like Mr. Netanyahu, some Christians are equally opposed to the withdrawal, but for theological reasons. Leo Giovinetti, pastor of Mission Valley Christians Fellowship in San Diego, Calif., is one such person. Pointing to Joel 3:1 in his well-worn Bible, Mr. Giovinetti contends that the withdrawal is against God's intended plan for Israel: "It says, 'They've parted My land.' I believe our country, with the poor leadership of our president in the Middle East, is bringing us to a position where we're going to be one of the nations that's going to be judged."

During a recent trip to Israel with listeners of his nationally syndicated radio broadcast, Mr. Giovinetti and his fellow travelers joined the Israeli settlers in their protests. They met and prayed for settlers in Gaza and donated $15,000 for anti-pullout materials aimed at swaying pro-pullout Israelis. Dispensationalists, such as Mr. Giovinetti, believe Israel is a central focus of God's overarching plan, one currently unfolding into a dramatic finale slated to take place on the ground Israel occupies.

Dispensationalists cite numerous Scriptures in support of their view, including Genesis 17:8. In this passage, God gives Abraham and his descendants the land of Canaan for an "everlasting possession," and dispensationalists contend that Abraham signifies natural Israel of the past, present, and future. As a result, most dispensationalists are against the withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank—land they believe is the biblical land of Canaan given to the Jewish people.

Many dispensationalists are offering support to Israel through their checkbooks. Mr. Giovinetti and his congregation have given sizable donations to the Israeli Ministry of Defense and the Russian Absorption Program of Ariel, among other Israeli organizations. They recently gave $100,000 to the mayor of Jerusalem to help fight terrorism.

Pointing to Genesis 12:3, Mr. Giovinetti believes God will bless those who bless Israel, and notes specifically the portion that reads "In you [Abraham] all the families of the earth will be blessed."

While many evangelical churches are pumping support and money into Israel, John Andrew Dearman, professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, empathizes with the Palestinians, Christians in particular. Mr. Dearman's denomination, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (PCUSA), announced this month its intentions to initiate corporate divestment from Israel, a move based on what assembly members view as an unjust "occupation" of land sought by the Palestinians.

This act is one part of a wave of declarations that has spread through many left-leaning denominations in recent months, including the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church U.S.A., two regions of the United Methodist Church, and several international groups. But why are these measures necessary when Israel is actively engaging in withdrawal initiatives? Mr. Dearman says the withdrawal lacks sincerity: "I have not seen the evidence that Israel's government is for a two-state solution."

More "progressive elements of the PCUSA" support the Palestinians because "it fits with their understanding of liberation theology," Mr. Dearman said. "I think the Palestinians need liberation theology. I would be disagreeable if someone took my property."

Liberation theology emphasizes the poor as channels of God's grace and focuses on social justice and human rights in politics. Often criticized as Christian socialism, liberation theology centers on the needs of the economically poor and oppressed.

Many leaders in left-leaning denominations believe the Palestinians are far more oppressed in this conflict than the Jewish people. "Israel is the Goliath militarily," Mr. Dearman said. Although he acknowledges that he is more conservative than his colleagues in the PCUSA and labels its divestment proposal as one-sided, Mr. Dearman believes the Palestinians are receiving the short end of the stick.

The conservative, evangelical Reformed mindset offers the third perspective on the withdrawal. While dispensationalism holds to a clear distinction between the old and new covenants, Reformed theology emphasizes continuity between the two. Rather than God having two separate plans (one for Israel and one for the church), Reformed theology says all covenants in the Old Testament were preparing for and pointing to their ultimate fulfillment in Christ, a covenant that includes all believers.

Christians falling under the Reformed umbrella believe Jesus Christ is the Seed of Abraham, bringing ultimate fulfillment to the Abrahamic Covenant of Genesis 12 and 17. They base their conclusion upon Galatians 3:16: "Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, 'and to seeds,' as referring to many, but rather to one, 'And to your seed,' that is, Christ."

This belief has a profound effect on how the Reformed Christian approaches the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: "The boundaries that Orthodox Jews and dispensational Christians still regard as intact were abolished," says Michael Horton, professor of apologetics and theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, Calif. "In the new covenant, He is the Holy Land—Christ and His church."

Mr. Horton believes unyielding Christian support of Israel denies the Palestinians a chance at their own democratic state: "Unqualified support for whatever policy Israel creates only helps fuel the conflict and the sense many Muslims already have that there's a holy war going on here." Most Reformed Christians support the withdrawal of Israeli settlements from Gaza and parts of the West Bank and view it as a potential avenue for peace. But underlying their understanding of the conflict is also a belief that the Palestinians and many Arab factions have instigated the majority of the conflicts historically.

Reformed Christians such as Mr. Horton do not hesitate to express their concern for the Palestinians and Christian Arabs, but acknowledge an affinity with the Jewish people both in their effort to sustain a democratic state in a hostile region and in their common heritage: "I believe there is a special celebration when a Jew becomes a Christian, because it is the re-grafting of a branch that has broken off."

As the withdrawal unfolds, the vivid display of orange and blue ribbons along the streets of Israel confirms the complexity of the conflict. The orange ribbons worn by the settlers and their supporters symbolize the citrus groves they leave behind. The blue ribbons resemble the Israeli flag and tell of its survival against the odds and its democratic principles—principles its wearers want extended to Palestinians in an attempt for peace in the region.