A Christian in the Jewish state: “For Zion’s Sake”

At work: Colin Nevin as a chef in Israel
At work: Colin Nevin as a chef in Israel


       Colin Nevin,  a chef from Bangor in Northern Ireland, spent 10 years working in Israel. Here he shares some of his thoughts and experiences as a Christian living in the Jewish state (a version of this article was originally published in the Christian edition of the Jerusalem Post).
    Christians around the world are known for their tolerance, pacifism and the New Testament mandate of ‘turning the other cheek’. It has been quoted however that ‘meekness’ is not always ‘weakness’. In the case of Christians showing their support for Israel, often termed as ‘Christian Zionists’, suddenly the world views us with contempt or as some kind of deluded, marginalised sect ‘aligned with the Zionist entity’! In such light we are deemed as guilty by proxy in all of Israel’s actions and therefore judged as supporting ‘aggression’ and ‘wanton destruction of Palestinian homes’, and even of re-igniting Apartheid! Is this an accurate summary of Christians who support Israel? In some cases even Israelis have fault with our motives, often suspecting us of proselytising or missionizing vulnerable Jews.
   Having worked for several years as a Chef for the Tel-Aviv Hilton until 2002, I learned a lot as a Christian about Israel and the Jewish people. I often equated the situation in Israel with my experiences growing up in the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland. However, nothing had prepared me for the evils of unbridled anti-Semitism in its many forms.
    I attended weddings and funerals of my many Israeli friends. I was invited to Brit Milahs (circumcision ceremonies) and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and I also joined in celebrating the Biblical Jewish feasts of Passover, Purim,  Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot (The Feast of Tabernacles). I even fasted on Yom Kippur. I learned as a Chef under the watchful eye of a team of Rabbis in the Hilton in Tel-Aviv the rigid strictures of Kashrut (Kosher food laws) and helped to prepare Jewish culinary delicacies which I have since demonstrated here in Northern Ireland!
I grappled with Ulpan (Hebrew Language classes) and eventually grasped enough working Hebrew to converse reasonably fluently for a ‘Goy’ and described frequently by my co-workers as an ‘oved zar’, or ‘foreign worker’ would be the kindest way to define it in English. I remember never really liking the term ‘Goy’ or ‘Gentile’, literally a ‘non-Jew’. I later found the term in the Hebrew Bible which is used to also describe the ‘nations’. In fact when God promised to make Abraham’s descendants into a great ‘nation’ He uses the word ‘Goy’! This gave me a little comfort. The term ‘zar’ used for ‘foreign’ also means ‘alien’ or ‘strange’ and I had difficulty with that too! I did however enjoy learning the depth of the Hebrew language and its unsurpassable beauty in reading the original Bible texts. How much more meaning was available I discovered reading in Hebrew than in the rather plaintive English Bible versions that I was familiar with.
I made many mistakes though! I could never forget the look on one Rabbi’s face when he entered the hotel kitchen as usual to check up on things. He was called the ‘Mashgiach’ which meant ‘checker’ or ‘one who monitors’, but I with my still formative Hebrew exclaimed “Ha Mashiach ba!” or “Here comes the Messiah!”. Needless to say I never got those two words mixed up again! Another similar incident happened in the famous ‘Shuk Hacarmel’ or Carmel Market just off Allenby Street in Tel-Aviv. I attempted to purchase some fruit with my still newly emerging Hebrew. “Shtei kilo Ganavim, B’vakashah,” I requested, indicating that I wanted two kilos of grapes. An extremely irate vendor immediately blew up in my face in a typical middle-eastern frenzy and I was bewildered. “Anachnu lo ganavim!” he yelled. I assumed he did not want to sell me any grapes and left the scene post haste. It was not till I got home and looked up my Hebrew dictionary that I realised my mistake. I had asked him for two kilos of thieves! No wonder he expostulated in return “We are not thieves!” The word for grapes was ‘Anavim’ and I had said ‘Ganavim’! No wonder the poor man nearly blew a gasket. Such are the vagaries of the Hebrew language for the foreign worker!
    More poignantly I remember the difficult times in Tel-Aviv when suicide bombs were a diabolical scourge in many parts of the country.
I witnessed the terrible attack on a queue of teenagers outside the Dolphinarium discoteque on Tel-Aviv promenade whilst I was having a barbecue on the adjacent stretch of beach with staff from the hotel just meters away. I can also recall the British Embassy in Tel-Aviv writing to me on more than one occasion advising all foreign nationals to leave the region due to the sabre-rattling of Saddam Hussein. Many left Israel at that time and 11 out of 17 floors of the Hilton were closed and staff were reduced as a result. Those were dark days in Israel then. “Why don’t you go home like all the do-gooders do eventually?” one person said to me. I realised that many of the foreign workers and tourists were in reality only ‘fair weather friends’ in the eyes of the Israelis, most of whom had no alternative but to remain in the eye of the storm. I also vividly remember being moved at that time by the song sung poignantly by an Israeli singer, “En-li eretz aheret” (I have no other country). This was the sentiment of many of my Israeli friends.
I resolved to remain in Israel alongside my friends and colleagues. I had to don a gas mask like my neighbours in the Yirmiyahu district of Tel-Aviv and I had to familiarise myself with the underground bomb shelters both at work and underneath my apartment. This was more critical than any situation I had known in Northern Ireland.
    When my work permit expired in 2002 and was not renewed, I planned a farewell bash for all my friends I had come to know over the years in Israel, however, due to yet another suicide attack in the city that weekend, I understood that many people would just prefer to stay at home, even though I had thought it wiser to meet on the banks of the Yarkon River just behind my apartment on Yeshayahu Street. I particularly liked the name of my street which was named after the Biblical prophet Isaiah which meant ‘Salvation of God.’ These were times when even small things like that were of comfort in all the uncertainty of everyday life in Tel-Aviv. Having decided the venue rather than in a crowded restaurant or cafe which had often been the target of such attacks I sent out invitations to my friends. I did not expect many to turn up as the mood generally in the city was very low and not the time really to be having parties, but I just wanted to say ‘Farewell’ or ‘Shalom’ one final time. Many families were resorting to ordering pizza deliveries as opposed to going out for a meal and were opting for home video rentals rather than going to the cinema, such was the trauma felt at that time.
The night finally arrived and I set up a small barbecue on the riverbank hoping for a few loyal friends. To my utter amazement over 100 people showed up from all walks of Israeli life, from the hotel to shopkeepers, to neighbours and other foreign workers from as far as Thailand and the Philippines! I was given Mezzuzahs, Hamsahs and Brachot-Habayit (House Blessings in Hebrew) and other souvenirs to remind me of Israel. It was a most memorable night that I will probably never forget. A few days later as I bade Tel-Aviv goodbye I was fighting back the tears in the taxi as I passed all the familiar buildings and landmarks. Israel had undoubtedly made a great impression on me. What would it all mean to me now after I returned home to life in Northern Ireland?
    Upon arriving back in my hometown of Bangor, County Down, I noticed a Northern Irish nurse had written a very scathing feature in the local newspaper about Israel based on her time spent in the ‘West Bank’ and she accused pointedly the Israelis for the ‘massacre’ in Jenin at that time. (Those figures were later refuted as being grossly over-exaggerated.) Something in me welled up, remembering all my dear Israeli friends. How could I keep silent? (As it says in the Bible, “For Zion’s sake, I will not keep silent.”) At any rate I ended up writing a letter to that newspaper in response to the nurse’s anti-Israel critique. The newspaper telephoned me and said that they wanted to make my letter into an article and they sent out a photographer to take pictures (of me wearing a Coca-cola tee-shirt in Hebrew!). The article was a full page broadsheet which appeared that Thursday which I subsequently sent to my colleagues in the Hilton and other friends in Tel-Aviv. They said I was their ‘Ambassador of goodwill’.
From that point I realised that I could help represent misunderstandings about Israel in the press and media and help offset imbalanced propaganda and lies surfacing in the headlines just from what I had learned during my time in Tel-Aviv. 
    Since that time I have written many letters and articles in the Irish and British press in defence of Israel from a personal point of view of having actually lived there. I was appalled by the extent of anti-Israel bias in the world media and on television. I really wanted to re-address the balance, not an easy task with so much pre-conceived prejudice around. In December I was asked to do an interview for the BBC about Bethlehem at Christmastime. The interviewers tried to lure me into the subject of ‘occupation’ obviously implying Israeli security measures thrust upon the local population as result of  Islamic suicide bomb infiltrations but I was not having any of it. I knew the BBC could easily try to twist what I said to have a bash at Israel which they do every Christmas concerning Bethlehem. I answered very carefully and was the only interviewee who spoke positively about Israel in the whole programme.
    More recently since Gaza the anti-Israel or anti-Zionist sentiment has spilled over to outright anti-Semitism targeting Jews and Synagogues with impunity here in the UK and Ireland. The atmosphere is not unlike that of Nazi Germany just before the Holocaust. Of course misunderstandings about Israeli aims and actions in Gaza is responsible for most of the incidents, yet most of these Jews targeted are not Israeli. I witnessed a pro-Palestinian  ‘Peace’ rally for Gaza in Belfast whose speakers called for boycotting of all Israeli goods and for the expulsion of the Israeli Ambassador in Ireland. Some Israeli vendors selling Dead Sea products were surrounded in a nearby shopping mall by dozens of the demonstrators who chanted “Boycott Israeli Goods” into their faces. Thousands of leaflets of pictures of ‘atrocities’ in Gaza were tipped onto the stall from the upper level creating a very frightening if not dangerous situation for these young Israelis who were of course terrified. I had spoken to members of their staff on several occasions and they were surprised to hear someone speaking Hebrew in Belfast! I have since written to the main local newspapers about this outrage on their behalf and also in response to anti-Israel rhetoric during the war in Gaza. A representative from the Board of Deputies of British Jews wrote to thank me for my efforts which he had observed in the Northern Irish press.
With this in mind, I thought it would be fitting to share with readers of the Jerusalem Post of the uphill battle which even we Christians can help to combat in the media and which I sought to do with deep conviction since I returned to the UK six years ago. My thoughts are still with my many friends in Israel and I will never give up speaking out “for Zion’s sake.”
Colin Nevin, Bangor