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Lending a Helping Hand to Strangers and Sojourners
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Tomb of Jesus (Maremagnum/GETTY IMAGES)
(GETTY IMAGES)

Lending a Helping Hand to Strangers and Sojourners

Lela Gilbert

About a week ago, I received an email from Mordechai (Moti) Zaken, announcing some rather disappointing news. It was copied to a group of friends and acquaintances who are deeply connected to Israel.

Zaken, a brilliant scholar of Kurdish-Jewish history, is also the founder of Israel’s “Government-Christian Forum.” He has been a longtime adviser – focusing on Israel’s minorities – to the prime minister and the Public Security Ministry.

He founded the forum to assist Christians – whether living in Israel or traveling there – who encounter problems with authorities, particularly regarding their immigration status or their entry and exit experiences at Ben-Gurion Airport.

As a Christian who lived in Israel for the better part of 10 years, I was very much the beneficiary of Zaken’s intervention and efforts.

He assisted me by opening lines of communication through the forum as well as through his personal efforts.

In fact, I came to think of him and his forum as my “court of last resort” when every other avenue – in my case, with the Interior Ministry and airport security – was blocked.

That’s why I was saddened to receive Zaken’s recent email:

“I regret to inform you that we must discontinue the ‘Government Christian Forum.’

“I have been informed that the forum does not fall within the scope of the Public Security Ministry. Therefore, I have no choice but to discontinue the activity of the forum as part of that ministry. However, rest assured that within the scope of my jurisdiction as the head of the desk of minorities affairs, I will continue to work and cooperate with you and with other Christian leaders in Israel and abroad to foster Israeli-Christian friendship. I do believe that in due time, we shall form an alternative structure or program for the forum’s activity.

“Thank you for your partnership and support of many years.”

I WAS INTRODUCED to the forum in 2016. When I arrived as an invited guest to one of their meetings, I was amazed to see recognizable representatives from Israel’s most powerful agencies, including the Foreign Ministry, the Interior Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office.

There were also a number of Christian leaders and other interested parties, a group of maybe three-dozen attendees. This included a handful of border control officials from Ben-Gurion Airport. That was encouraging to me personally, and for good reason.

After years of international travel in and out of Israel, my documents were always current, legal and in order.

Yet on several occasions, both upon departure and arrival, I was treated with suspicion and even insolence. Particularly after long-haul flights from Los Angeles, that kind of reentry was chilling and even frightening.

Would I be put back on a plane for a return flight to Los Angeles International Airport? If so, I knew very well that I wouldn’t be the first one.

Zaken’s Forum was meant to assist people like me, and so it did. And as I recently learned, the forum has been especially helpful to Christian tour groups bringing pilgrims from countries all around the world to experience Israel for the first time.

In response to the shuttering of the forum, the Christian Broadcasting Network recently published a letter from David Pileggi, rector of Jerusalem’s historic Christ Church, to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His words sum up what I and so many others have faced. Rev. Pileggi wrote:

“In my time here [39 years] I have found a lot of local enthusiasm for Christian support of Israel but very few officials who are willing to help our community in a practical way.

Only Dr. Moti Zaken, the head of the minority affairs desk at the Ministry of Public Security, has been consistently helpful. [The forum] meets to find practical solutions to the problems of the Evangelical community here in Israel: issues such as visas, harassment at the airport, finding ways for young Christians to serve in the IDF and more. Unfortunately, this forum has been terminated…”

IT IS TRUE that there has long been much applause from a number of Israeli politicians and diplomats for American Evangelical support. And, to my knowledge, the support continues and is heartfelt.

Meanwhile, in my view, the loving and warmhearted Israeli people is one of the wonders of the world.

My own contribution – a book titled Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel Through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner – remains a tribute to a beautiful country and some of the most remarkable men and women I’ve met in my life.

Yet there’s a shadow that has inevitably fallen across the beauty of my experience. And it surely darkens the joy of all who seek to continue their relationships with Israel, whether coming and going, or living in the country full-time.

Of course, Christians understand the threat of terrorism and the close scrutiny that is necessary to protect Israel and her people. But our sense of vulnerability while making innocent passage in and out of the country, and our need for an ally who understands our circumstances, led more than a few of us to Zaken and his forum.

I am not only grateful for the efforts he and his team made on my behalf, but I am also deeply respectful of those efforts.

It will be a sad day for Israel and its Christian allies if our “court of last resort” is no longer available.

I hope the national leaders, who praise Christians so openly at Christmas and offer condolences following terrorists’ deadly attacks on Middle East churches, will also take a second look at this situation.

Will they choose to be respectful enough to assist the strangers and sojourners in their own country?

One step in the right direction would be to support Zaken’s tenacious efforts by breathing new life into his Government-Christian Forum.

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