"Zionist" is not a term I would use to describe myself, at least, not before last Tuesday. As I found myself huddled and shaking in a bomb shelter along the Israel/Gaza Strip border as missiles fired overhead, my perspective started to change.
Last week, I participated in a "Solidarity with Israel" trip hosted by the National Religious Broadcasters and hosted by the nation's Ministry of Tourism. The trip served not only as a pilgrimage of personal faith renewal, but my life-changing encounter with a nation I have always supported but never fully understood why. Until now.
Tours of Jerusalem's Old City were thrilling, the delicious Middle East foods were unending, and the Israelis I met were warm and welcoming to everyone who came in peace. As I stood on a balcony overlooking Jerusalem, I cried as my visual senses absorbed the Garden of Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives reminding me of the ransom Jesus Christ had paid for my sins.
Reality hit me hard on Tuesday morning. Not only was walking where Jesus walked, but I was also walking in modern-day Israel. By the time I sat down for breakfast at my hotel, Hamas, a terrorist organization elected by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, had broken a cease-fire agreement and launched 12 rockets at Southern Israel. Understanding the danger, our group of Evangelical leaders determined to continue our itinerary and travel to Southern Israel along the Gaza Strip. Admittedly, my fellow Evangelicals were fearless. I was anxious.
Sirens sounded just as we arrived in Ashkelon, which Christians recognize as the ancient land of the Philistines. Believe it or not Israeli's along the border have about 15 seconds to run to a bomb shelter as soon as they hear the sirens before Hamas' rockets either land or the Iron Dome intercepts the attacks. This time, the Iron Dome was successful.
"It's not normal. It's not a game," said seventeen-year old Yuval, head of Ashkelon's youth council. "It's our vacation. And [Hamas] took that freedom from us because we have to stay 30 seconds away from the shelter. So as teenagers in Ashkelon, we try to do our best." According to Yuval, teens in the region have spent their summer and the conflict playing games with young children in the bomb shelters and providing food for the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Admirable, to say the least.
Later in the day, a mortar hit a house in the moshav, or settlement, we were visiting on the Gaza border. All we knew was that a young couple and their infant lived in the home. I was shaking. But for me, departure from the border region was only 15 minutes away. For the Israelis we met, this was home.
Remarkably, Israelis do not live a lifestyle of fear thought their neighbors seek to "push them into the sea." Staff at Bar Zilay hospital cared for the sick and injured — both Israelis and Palestinians alike. The hospital houses the pre-mature babies in the only bomb shelter on its premises. This is compassion and democracy in action.
On the other hand, Hamas shows little compassion in their pursuit to destroy a nation that stands up for democracy and human rights. So instead of putting their materials and resources towards education, manufacturing, technology, arts and sciences, Hamas builds rockets and bombs in the Gaza strip and aim them at Bar Zilay hospital. Meanwhile, Bar Zilay hospital keep its doors open to any suffering Palestinian.
By lunch I was still shell-shocked. While my brave fellow Evangelicals chatted with our Israeli hosts and enjoyed the delicious spread of salmon and buttery breads, I was asking our waitress where the nearest bomb shelter was. Just in case. I also asked her, a young woman no older than twenty-five years old, how she could stand to work as the rockets fired the restaurant. "Because I'd rather be working as a waitress than sit at home afraid," she replied.
Dodging rockets was challenging, but the biggest trial came once I landed back in the United States and shared my experiences on social media. Fellow Christians were apparently angered by my passionate support of Israel and denouncement of Hamas. The most hurtful was an accusation by Carl Medearis, Christ-professing author of Tea With Hezbollah, who took to Twitter because he was "embarrassed by such Zionist propaganda."
Yes, there are innocents hurt in this terrible conflict on both sides, but Hamas is not shy about their end goals. Article seven of Hamas charter even reads, "The Day of Judgment will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The fact that American Christians are choosing to support Hamas, a terrorist organization against everything their faith stands for is beyond laughable. It's just sad.
Hamas' goal is destruction, conquest, and death. Israel's goal is to protect its citizens—Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Atheists alike. If standing in solidarity with Israel as it defends lives and liberties makes me a Zionist, then so be it.