Passover & Holy Week in Jerusalem: Remembering miracles

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During the sacred week of Easter and Passover, Jerusalem’s streets are swept, sun-washed and graced by flowers of every color and fragrance, and celebrations embrace both Jewish and Christian traditions, marking a season of miracles.

Ancient stories are told and retold, putting smiles on the faces of children and grownups alike, recounting freedom from enslavement, the triumph of life over death, and God’s intervention into a world of trouble.

These are days when exuberant hope carries the whole city along in its excitement.
These are days when exuberant hope carries the whole city along in its excitement.

Palm Sunday saw the pathway from the Mount of Olives to the Old City teeming with joyous Christian pilgrims from all around the world, singing, chanting and waving palm fronds in remembrance of Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem.

At the same time, Jewish families and friends were arriving in Jerusalem from near and far by the tens of thousands. And at sundown on Monday, they congregated for the Seder – the deeply symbolic Passover meal that recounts the Israelites’ ancient flight from Egyptian slavery. The sounds of singing, storytelling and Bible recitation wafted from neighborhood windows.

The Passover story culminates, of course, in the miraculous parting of the Red Sea. And lest they forget the drama that led up to it, Jews continue to eat unleavened bread – matzo – for the rest of the week, recalling their hasty flight.

Meanwhile, Christians enter Holy Week reflecting on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Rituals of sorrow, repentance and loss represent myriad Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant traditions.

Then every imaginable Christian custom converges into Easter, when the miracle of the Resurrection – the cosmic triumph of life over death – is spoken and sung and shouted inside sanctuaries and echoed in the ringing of church bells across the Holy Land.

For an entire week, both Jews and Christians remember, rejoice and return to the foundations of their faiths, both of which are deeply rooted in the miraculous.

But this year, the radiance of the holidays has been darkened by violence. On Sunday, the eve of Passover, a Kansas City Jewish Center and Jewish retirement home were attacked, allegedly by a former KKK “Grand Wizard,” and three people were killed. Ironically, all of the victims were Christians. The killer’s poisonous venom sickened both communities.

Also on Sunday, Nigeria’s infamous terrorist group Boko Haram murdered at least 200 Christians in attacks on several towns in Borno State.

And on Monday, just minutes after the Jerusalem siren heralded the Passover feast, a terrorist shot and killed an Israeli father near Hebron. The victim’s family also suffered gunshot injuries, and two were hospitalized.

Despite the millennia of their survival, Jews are never allowed to forget for long the anti-Semitic hatred that shadows them. And as the most persecuted religious group in the world, Christians also face unprecedented dangers.

The 20th century saw 850,000 Jews expelled from Arab lands between 1948 and 1970. Today, fewer than 5000 Jews remain in those Muslim countries, where Christians now face the same violence, pogroms, rapes and murders that drove out the Jews. As the jihadi saying goes, “First the Saturday People, then the Sunday People.”

Not many miles to the north of Jerusalem, Hezbollah’s spiritual leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has summed up his malignant worldview: “We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable. The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win because they love life and we love death.”

But we “People of the Book” share a happier alternative. In the words of Moses, “… I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” (Deut. 30:19)

It is true that Christians and Jews have significant religious disparities, and for the sake of mutual respect, we sometimes have to agree to disagree. Meanwhile, the tragic history of pogroms and anti-Semitic abuses, in the name of Christianity, has led to widespread mistrust.

But these days, we are learning to find common ground and to stand together on it. And it’s about time we did.

When Christians contemplate the oft-painted “Last Supper,” they don’t always recognize that it was a Seder, shared on the eve of Passover. Jesus broke the bread, blessed the wine, and at the end, as traditional Jews always do, he and his friends sang a hymn before they went out – to a Roman crucifixion.

For millennia, people have discovered and deepened friendships around dinner tables. And during this sacred season, Jews and Christians are sitting down together simply to break bread, enjoy good company, and invoke God’s blessing on one another.

Because, in reality, we are natural allies in an increasingly dangerous world. And we have good reason to join forces.

For one thing, whatever our challenges, we have not forgotten how to pray.

For another, when in comes to matters of life and death, we can count on each other to choose life.

And most important of all, we still believe in miracles.

Intermingling in Mamilla

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Summer was in the air at Jerusalem’s Mamilla Mall, where the open-air pedestrian walkways, shops and outdoor cafes were crowded with shoppers of all descriptions. Weeks of clouds and rain had passed. A warm sun gleamed onto palegold Jerusalem stone, providing a stunning backdrop to an unusually colorful and bustling scene.

I was about to have brunch with a friend; we were waiting to be seated on a terrace where tables overlooking the Old City were in great demand. All at once the spot we had our eye on was snapped up by two chic young Arab women. Their heads were covered in designer scarves and their wellfitted jeans and accessories were upscale.

They were seated next to a haredi family in their own distinctive attire. And next to them was a table full of middle-aged American tourists in cargo shorts, souvenir Tshirts, and a clutter of cameras, GPS gadgets and fanny-packs.
I glanced around and saw that no one was paying attention to the Muslim women or to the many Arab shoppers passing by. Nor did anyone stare at the haredim – men in black hats or black yarmulkes, women in long skirts, with wigs covering their hair. In Jerusalem, like nowhere else, you can figure out what people believe in by the way they dress.

But no one around us seemed to notice or care what anyone else was wearing – or believing. Jimmy Carter’s pejorative phrase for Israel, the “apartheid state,” flashed incongruously into my mind.

THAT SAME night it was my good fortune to have dinner with some South African friends including Rev. Malcolm Hedding, executive director of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. Hedding actually fled South Africa in the 1980s when the government was on the verge of arresting him for his outspoken opposition to its racial abuses. He quickly moved his family to Israel.

I described the scene at Mamilla and asked, “So could that have happened in South Africa during the apartheid years?” “No way,” he laughed. “Everything was separate. The blacks had separate toilets, separate drinking fountains, separate benches. In some places there was a curfew, so they had to get out of sight and leave the town to the whites after sundown. It was like the American Deep South used to be.”

“Could blacks eat in the same restaurant as whites?” “Never! When we traveled with a black man who was part of our church, one of us had to go inside the restaurant and order take-out food so we could all eat together in the car. Otherwise he would have to eat alone.”

“So what about Israel? What’s your reaction to the ‘apartheid state’ label?” “When I hear apartheid used in regard to Israel, I think it trivializes the word. In fact, the harsh reality was that 40 million black people were dehumanized, robbed of their dignity and treated like absolute dirt.” He shook his head in frustration.

“They had no rights and no representation in the government. To trivialize apartheid like that is an insult to the black people of South Africa.”

On the way home, I suddenly remembered another vignette from Mamilla. I had rushed into the cosmetic store to make a quick purchase before leaving. I was in a hurry and there was only one clerk – a pretty Jerusalem girl wearing rather dramatic makeup. She was assisting two fashion-forward Arab women in silk head scarves, stylish trousers and well-tailored jackets. The three were having an animated discussion – in English – about eye shadow and eyeliner colors. The only disagreement between them had to do with hues: teal or olive green? Luminescent or matte? There was no way I was going to be waited on anytime soon. The clerk was trying out a new spring palette on one of them, testing the colors on her hands as she applied them while they all chattered nonstop.

As I left, I encountered a group of African pilgrims whose identical yellow caps told me they were from Nigeria. They burst into a gospel song as they made their way to the Jaffa Gate. People smiled and took their picture. An art display of Bible-story sculptures graced the plaza. Cellphones rang, horns honked on the nearby street and people of every age and description laughed and talked and celebrated the glorious weather.

And so it was, in the charming and controversial city of Jerusalem, eternal capital of the land of Israel. Many who love the little Jewish state rejoice in her goodness and beauty. Many who seemingly hate it, participate in events such as the global annual Israel Apartheid Week.

You’d think the hate-mongers would shop around for a new label. “Apartheid state” is so 1980s.

First Published in the Jerusalem Post

The writer has authored and co-authored more than sixty books, is an Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute and lives in California and Jerusalem.

Did Nobel Committee snub Malala Yousafzai because it was afraid to confront radical Islam?

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    Oct. 10, 2013: Malala Yousafzai poses for photographs in New York. Yousafzai, was shot by the Taliban for her advocating education for girls. (AP)

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    Sept. 27, 2013: Malala Yousafzai listens as Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust introduces her to reporters at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

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    Sept. 27, 2013 – Malala Yousafzai addresses students and faculty after receiving the 2013 Peter J. Gomes Humanitarian Award at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. The Pakistani teenager, an advocate for education for girls, survived a Taliban assassination attempt last year on her way home from school. (AP)

Thanks to Facebook I watched the unforgettable clip of Jon Stewart’s touching interview with Malala Yousafzai this week on “The Daily Show” just this morning.

I was reminded of Malala’s story — she became a well-known champion of women’s education as an eleven-year-old child in Pakistan, writing her own blog and demanding education for girls in her Swat Valley community.

Then almost exactly a year ago, she was rewarded for her efforts with a Taliban bullet to the head. For a few days her life hung in the balance. She survived, thanks to a gifted British medical team.


Is it safer for the Nobel Committee to ignore the reality of radical Islamist violence than to risk putting a spotlight on it?


And now on Wednesday – sixteen-years-old and gracefully garbed in a sparkling orange veil – Malala left the irrepressible Jon Stewart speechless.

The audience couldn’t stop applauding.

We were all captivated. This amazing young woman was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

She had to win!

Only a few minutes after watching the clip, I got an email announcing the Nobel Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision: the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), located in The Hague, had been awarded the 2013 prize.

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only person whose first reaction was a disappointed shrug.


How could that brilliant, courageous Pakistani girl be overlooked in favor of some faceless, virtually anonymous agency?

Questions linger. While we can only speculate one can’t help but wonder if there is a political reason why the secretive Norwegian Nobel Committee turned a blind eye to this daring young woman, a target of radical Islamist terrorists?

Scandinavia has certainly seen its share of Muslim rage. Riots raging in Malmo, Sweden. An epidemic of rapes in Norway. Seemingly endless threats and attempted assaults over the publication of cartoons depicting Muhammed in Denmark.

Meanwhile, the progressive leadership in the region has persistently clung to the idea that these events have been symptoms of economic inequality, not of any politico/religious agenda against western culture.

Is it safer for the Nobel Committee to ignore the reality of radical Islamist violence than to risk putting a spotlight on it?

Is it more comfortable to brush off Malala Yousafzai’s story as an unfortunate but isolated incident in some remote village?

Or is it simply politically incorrect to applaud her?

Malala has, indeed, put a face on the threat of terrorism, on the absence of women’s rights in radical Muslim countries, on the bloodthirsty mindset of those who hate western ideas – such as education – and on the indomitable courage of a real, modern-day heroes.

It’s true that the Nobel, once the gold standard for international achievement, has lost some of its luster in recent decades. But it still retains prestige, having once rewarded such giants as Andrei Sakarov,  Martin Luther King, Jr., Lech Walesa, Aung San Suu Kyi, Elie Weisel and more.

So why not Malala?

Naturally there are those who approved of this year’s decision.

The Guardian praised it, calling the OPCW “an unshowy agency” with a “striking success record.”

The immediacy of the Syrian crisis over chemical weapons and their destruction, which is now reportedly underway, could explain the focus on this otherwise obscure group, implying that the decision was made quite recently.

Even before the decision was announced, Tilman Brueck, head of the Stockholm Peace Research Institute, stated that the prize should not go to Malala. Brueck told Norwegian news agency NTB that, “I’m not sure it would be suitable, from an ethical point of view, to give the peace prize to a child.”

Never mind the oft-repeated prophecy of future world peace in‪Isaiah 11:6 “The wolf will live with the lamb; the leopard will lie down with the young goat. The calf and the lion will graze together,and a little child will lead them.’

Asked by host Jon Stewart what she would do if confronted by attackers, Malala explained why she should not use violence:

“If you hit a Talib, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty…You must fight others through peace and through dialogue and through education.

“I would tell him how important education is and that I would even want education for your children as well. That’s what I want to tell you,” she imagined telling her assailant, before adding, “now do what you want.”

If that’s not the embodiment of “peace,” I don’t know what is.


Lela Gilbert is author of “Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner” and co-author, with Nina Shea and Paul Marshall, of “Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians.” She is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Instituteand lives in Jerusalem. For more, visit her

Jerusalem book launch of SATURDAY PEOPLE, SUNDAY PEOPLE

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Begin Center logo

Book Launch

Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner

By Lela Gilbert

A new, mesmerizing book by Lela Gilbert” – Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post

Saturday People, Sunday People is elegantly written, historically important, and politically relevant.” – Shoshana Bryen, Jewish Policy Center

“Lela Gilbert’s is a voice that deserves to be heard. If “progressive” Westerners could set aside their anti-Israeli and anti-evangelical biases long enough to read her book, they would learn (and, more importantly, unlearn) a great deal about an important yet chronically misunderstood part of our world.” – Joseph S. Spoerl, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs/Jewish Political Studies Review

Sunday, October 6, 2013

5:30pm Reception

6:00pm Event


Opening remarks: Yisrael Medad, Begin Center

Introduction: Daphne Netanyahu, editor-in-chief of the on-line Hebrew weekly Maraah

Author Interview: Lela Gilbert with Ruthie Blum, Columnist for Israel Hayom; author of To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama and the Arab Spring

RSVP: 02-565-2011

Free of charge.  Event will be in English.

Books will be available for sale at significant discount.