I recently had lunch with my family when my sister-in-law told me that Hillsong would be performing in Israel. I’ve always enjoyed their music and performance, which enables me to dial down the outside distractions and focus on what’s inside, dwelling in God’s presence in a way that only music can take you.
My sister and I wanted to see them, so we bought tickets with my sister-in-law to attend their second concert in Caesarea. During the drive there, we brushed up on our familiarity with Caesarea and its biblical significance. As locals, we usually visit holy sites when we have friends or relatives come from abroad, and we try to show them some of our country’s famous locations. The visits entail physically taking our cousins to the site, but not really giving them all the information that tour guides do. So on the ride to Caesarea, we turned our drive into a biblical history lesson about the city.
“Wasn’t it the place where the first non-Jew becomes a Christian?” I asked my sister-in-law, “Maybe a Roman soldier or something?”
“I don’t quite know,” she answered, “We usually go there to walk along the beach. The scenery is beautiful with the Roman ruins and all.”
“I’m sure the hosts of the concert will let us know,” I responded.
We followed the crowds, and there were more than 20 buses of people also waiting for the gates to open. As we found out, the concert was part of a 2017 Hillsong Tour to the Holy Land, and tourists joining in this pilgrimage get to hear their favorite band perform in the Holy Land. What a great marketing idea! Locals certainly would not be able to fill the Roman amphitheatre there. I expected a few hundreds locals would come, and along with the thousands of tourists, the venue filled up quickly.
As we waited for the concert, a couple named Matthew and Laurie Crouch, whom I had never heard of but the audience seemed to know, cheered favorably. The Crouches welcomed everyone and the viewers on TV. As I watched the logos on the screen, I learned that the Trinity Broadcasting Network was a co-host of the event along with Hillsong.
The hosts seemed to know what they were doing and got the audience in a good mood by welcoming those coming from Australia, the U.S., Canada, Singapore, the U.K., and Mexico. Matthew was delighted by the various nationalities present that he jokingly invited anyone from Madagascar to come on stage. There was no one from Madagascar.
Then Matthew welcomed a special group among the audience by saying, “We are delighted to welcome Israeli Messianic Jews that are here with us.” The crowd cheered and others stood to indicate they belonged to that group. I thought the host would continue to welcome other locals, but he stopped there.
I felt unrecognized as a local and a non-Israeli Messianic Jew, and I knew other Palestinian Christians were among the audience. I shrugged at the irony of welcoming a Madagascan but not the Palestinians who were present.
The hosts continued to invite another special guest who was also there with the tour group and seemed to be well-known: Mike Huckabee. I had no idea who he was, and as soon as I Googled him, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Huckabee was described as an ardent Christian Zionist, who, among other things, denies the existence of Palestinians. How awkward!
My mind started questioning my attendance. I wondered if the hosts didn’t welcome Palestinians simply because they don’t believe we exist at all. I couldn’t believe it. Why didn’t the Hillsong website have this information online so that the audience would have all the relevant information before attending? I could have spared myself the rush of anger, repulsion, and rejection that coursed through me at that time.
How naive of me to think this concert wouldn’t be one-sided, that I would be welcomed to worship God in a place of mutual recognition. Perhaps I should have known that Hillsong was only performing in Israel and not in Palestine. They sought to perform in leading holy sites and venues in Israel without making any political waves.
I don’t know about your city or country, but famous artists/musicians do not come to Israel and Palestine very often. And when they do, the local communities jump at the opportunity to go to their concert. We’ve had artists like Alicia Keys and Lauryn Hill cancel their concerts due to political reasons.
From my experience, every artist who comes to either Israel, Palestine, or both pays a political cost. Their choice of location is perceived as a binary view of their support to either Israel or Palestine. In the case of Alicia Keys and Lauryn Hill, they were unable to satisfy their Palestinian and Israeli fans and preferred to cancel the whole show rather than come at all. Very few manage to maintain a win-win situation for both their Palestinian and Israeli fans, and this reflects the situation on the ground. You cannot perform for an audience of Israelis and Palestinians without being sucked into the zero-sum mentality.
I wanted to leave the concert before the Hillsong band even got on stage. I hated these discoveries. Why can’t we just go to a concert and enjoy the music? Had the organizers been open about their theological and political views, some locals would not have attended. But by the time I realized this, I couldn’t leave. I was the driver and had passengers who weren’t bothered by all these discoveries.
Finally, the band came on stage and started performing. I struggled to sing along:
What fortune lies beyond the stars
Those dazzling heights too vast to climb
I got so high to fall so far
But I found heaven as love swept low
How can I sing these words when that love has been hijacked by exclusive support and denial of brothers and sisters created in God’s image? My heart was beating, and my soul longed to feel God’s love despite the rejection I had just experienced. I laid out my anger and repulsion and prayed for wisdom.
For me, the words of the songs resonate with a yearning for God’s dwelling among us, and I write this letter not in a spirit of division but in a spirit of love. I am extending an open invitation for Taya Smith, Joel Houston, Jonathan Douglas, Jad Gillies, Matt Crocker, and the musicians to come and visit with local Palestinian Christians. We want to exchange with you the treasures and freedom God has given us in our context.
What treasure waits within Your scars
This gift of freedom gold can’t buy
As the sun set and the band came close to finishing the concert, I looked around me and wondered what others were thinking or praying. I came to the concert to be refreshed, and instead found myself struggling to exist in the same place where Christianity became a faith extending across ethnic and racial divides.
This article originally appeared in Come and See.