Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day

In honor of Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am re-posting this article.

Beniko Gihon #137010

Beniko Gihon #137010

Working with tour groups in Israel is [almost] always a blessing. It’s exciting to see visitors’ faces when, as they say in Hebrew, “the coin falls.” In other words, when “the light comes on” or the connection between a certain event and place happens. I love to see the joy of discovery, especially as it relates to the Bible. But my groups generally have modern cultural and historical interests, too. Every group is different, and I’m regularly on the look out for things out of the ordinary and not on the itinerary that will make my group’s visit to Israel more special than it might already be. For this group, I found that special historical gem in the breakfast line.

As I approached the special-order egg line, I noticed the tattoo on his arm, 137010. Immediately, I knew he was a holocaust survivor because I’ve seen these tattoos in the museum, and probably a dozen times in person. However, I never had the nerve to ask the bearer to share his/her story; I just imagined what it might have been.

This time was different. I took a deep breath and asked the elderly gentleman a) if he spoke Hebrew, and b) if I could ask a question. “Yes,” he answered to both questions. I was hesitant, but I proceeded to ask if he would tell me the story of the numeric tattoo that appeared on his left forearm. I was afraid he would be embarrassed, but he wasn’t. In fact, he seemed pleased that I asked.

Beniko Gihon #137010

Beniko Gihon #137010

Interacting with my inquiry about his tattoo, he said, “My name is Beniko Gihon; in Germany my name was changed to 137010. I am a Jew originally from Greece.” He continued with a moving, two-minute version of his story. His family had been rounded up in Thessaloniki, and he was the only survivor. Over the course of five years, he was systematically transferred to/from Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Warsaw Ghetto, and Dachau. He had a variety of jobs, but mainly focused on his work in the crematoria.

I was translating his story for a man from my group and noticed that others had started to lean in closer to listen in on our conversation, which indicated that they found this interesting, too. After a couple minutes, his eggs and mine were ready, so, unfortunately, we had to bring this encounter to a close. I thanked him for sharing his story, we shook hands, and parted ways.

I found a table near my group and sat down by myself. To say that his story was gut wrenching would be an exaggerated understatement. But, his story wasn’t the thing that affected me the most. It was the question he posed: “Why were the Christians so quiet?”

I wanted my group to hear Beniko’s story, but I wondered if that would be asking too much. As I ate my breakfast, I kept an eye on him from across the room and wondered whether I should ask him to speak on the bus. Since he didn’t seem to mind my initial inquiry, I decided to go for it, and the outcome was just what I had hoped.

After my group boarded the bus, I brought them up to speed on what was about to happen, then I introduced Mr. Beniko. He climbed the stairs and stood proudly in the front of the bus and began to share his story.

Beniko, which is the Greek version of Benjamin, started with some details of his family and how the Nazis came to Greece and killed so many. The rest were taken to the labor and death camps in Germany and Poland, which is where he learned to speak German, and where his name was changed to 137010.

His story lasted longer than I had given him, which I knew it would. But, seeing him standing in the front of the bus and hearing his biography was worth every minute.

Some specific details that pierced my heart:

“I saw, with my own eyes, the soldiers toss little children in the air and shoot them like birds.”

“As people were herded off the trains near the crematoria, they pleaded with the soldiers to know where their children or parents were. The soldiers would point to the smoke rising out of the crematoria and say, ‘there they are.’”

“The people were packed so tightly into the ‘showers’ that when the Zyklon B gas was released they all died standing, and only fell to the ground when the doors were opened. As we removed the bodies, we could see the scratches on the walls where those on the outer edges were trying to claw their way out.”

As a worker at the crematoria, “I collected the fat that came from the bodies as they were burned. The Nazis used the fat to make soap for us prisoners, and I bathed with soap that may have been made from the remains of my parents and other family members.”

Beniko’s story, made the horrors of the Holocaust real and personal for us, impacting each in a slightly different way. I tried to give some current perspective to his presentation because the easy thing would be to say, “I wasn’t there” because none of us were. I reminded the group of the words of James 1:27 that pure religion is to care for the widows and orphans, which I understand to mean “take care of those who can’t take care of themselves.” I also think that being born again demands that Christians have an active interest in “the least of these” (Mt 25).

ISIS and the Gospel

WARNING: Links in this post may lead to GRAPHIC CONTENT!

Abu Maryam al-Faransi left France to join ISIS.

Abu Maryam al-Faransi left France to join ISIS.

The news coming from the Islamic State is, at best, unsettling. As a result of effective recruiting, foreign fighters from both Muslim countries and the West are swelling the ranks of the ISIS army (see here, here, and here). In addition to the West’s apparent failure in turning certain of their citizens away from jihadi ideology, or western nations’ apparent failure to prevent these same people from making their way to Syria to join the battle, several elements of the ISIS jihad story lead observers to conclude that the situation in Syria/Iraq is hopeless. Two of those elements are martyrdom and brutality.

Martyrdom: A Desire to Die

“We love dying for God as much as you love life.” ISIS fighter, Rabie Shehada

That they are likely to be killed in the battle to expand the boundaries of the Islamic State doesn’t seem to dissuade the recruits. In fact, the prospect of dying as a martyr for Allah seems to be a draw (see here, here, and here). Targeting this element of jihadi ideology – the desire to die for the cause – recruiters are using social media to publish photos of many of their soldiers who died with smiles on their faces (see here, here, and here), which suggests they died happy martyrs.

With every new conflict comes imaginative new methods to recruit fighters and soldiers on all sides. While the US Military uses high budget television adverts or internet campaigns designed to show off the superiority of their forces, the propaganda wing of the Islamic State has taken to posting and sharing pictures and videos of dying and dead “martyrs”, all smiling. najemoi.com

 Brutality: Glorifying and Defending a Way of Life

The brutality of ISIS – which includes, among other things, hanging captives from their feet, repeated mock executions, extra-judicial mass executions, rape, sexual and physical enslavement, beheading, and the public parading of heads and decapitated bodies – has been widely reported by released hostages (see here, here, and here) and/or confirmed by video, photos, and commentary released through ISIS channels (see here, here, and here).

ISIS has successfully utilized the brutality of their movement to recruit the discontent or wandering souls (both males and females) who seek purpose and meaning in life (see here, here, and video here).

“For many people who are lacking a strong sense of identity and purpose, their violent radical global narrative provides easy answers and solutions: it can be very powerful message for people who are looking for answers,” … “Their online material shows capturing territory, establishing states, beheading enemies: they show that they are the sexiest jihadi group on the block.” Matthew Levitt, Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Not only has brutality been an effective recruiting tool for ISIS, it is also intended to bring into submission those whom ISIS deems to be enemies. In the Islamic State, submission takes different forms: forced conversion to Islam, evacuation to safer locations (see here and here), or paying a security/protection tax.

Those who are concerned that the gospel be effectively taken to all, have to wonder if it is possible to get the gospel to people within ISIS. And, even if one succeeded in getting it there, is it possible for a person that glories in beheading aid workers, a person that appears to glory in evil, to believe the gospel? My answer: There is hope. Even ISIS fighters and their brides can be reached with the gospel.

Below, I offer two lines of evidence that give me gospel hope for those who are engaged in this type of jihad with ISIS or any other group that seems too radical to be redeemed; one is biblical, the other is research based.

Biblical Evidence: ISIS Fighters Can Be Saved

The first source of hope is Paul’s inclusion of the “Scythian” in Colossians 3:11 (ESV): “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” In this verse Paul provides a list of four pairs of identities that are not to be given preference in Christ: Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian and Scythian, and slave and free. Although it isn’t Paul’s primary point, his use of each of these pairs suggests that people from each background or identity can be found within the faith community.

To be clear: I’m not making the argument that ISIS is a descendent movement or ideology of the Scythians. I am suggesting the extreme cruelty of both groups, which some think reflects an unredeemable spirit, is similar. For example, Yamauchi (Biblical Archaeologist 46:2, p. 98) provides a description of the Scythians, which compares to the actions of ISIS today:

“[The Scythians’] reputation for ferocity, their scalping of captives, and their other barbarous customs made their name synonymous with savagery down into the Christian era…”

According to Encyclopedia Britannica:

The Scythian army was made up of freemen who received no wage other than food and clothing but who could share in booty on presentation of the head of a slain enemy.

Again, I am not saying the Scythians are ISIS; I am recognizing their similarities and suggesting that if members of one group can be reached for Christ, we should have hope for members of a very similar group.

The next line of evidence illustrates that committed jihadis can be converted to Christ.

Research Evidence: Radical Muslims Can Be Saved

In my doctoral research (PhD, University of Pretoria), I interviewed twenty-four Palestinians who had left Islam for Christ. Respondent Four is evidence that a radical Muslim can meet Jesus Christ. Read his testimony summary here.

“He [Respondent Four] was satisfied with his life as a Muslim. In fact, after returning from a lengthy stint working in the Arabian Gulf, he was involved in a religiously motivated political group that he described as actively seeking the establishment of a truly Muslim nation beginning in all of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean [i.e., modern Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza] and spreading throughout the region.”

ISIS isn’t a new idea. In fact, there have been a number of groups in the region who have espoused a similar ideology; the distinction simply being one of nuance or opportunity, not kind.

Lessons Learned

Below are some lessons that can be learned from Respondent Four’s testimony:

1. This testimony is an example of how God uses crisis to draw people to himself, even radical Muslims. Therefore, Christians should seek to help Muslims who are in crisis.

2. This testimony is an example of how a medical need was the catalyst for a radical Muslim to meet Christians who loved him enough to tell him about Jesus. Therefore, Christians should seek opportunities to provide medical aid when possible. Here is an example of Christians providing medical aid.

3. This testimony is an example of how Christians maintained a Christian identity and took the risk to share the gospel with a radical Muslim. Therefore, it is important for Christians to risk sharing the gospel with Muslims.

4. This testimony is an example of how the Holy Spirit uses Scripture to draw radical Muslims. Therefore, Christians should:
a. be intentional in seeking opportunities to share God’s word with Muslims.
b. encourage Muslims to read the Bible for themselves.
c. be patient and forgiving when a Muslim becomes angry and argumentative while resisting God’s Word.

5. This testimony is an example of how it’s possible to engage a radical Muslim for the gospel outside the battle zone. Therefore, in the case of ISIS, Christians should seek opportunities to engage potential radical Muslims who may be considering going to the Islamic State. Although it’s not impossible for a member of ISIS to come to faith within the Islamic State, it is no doubt more challenging to access the gospel there.

Shalom, My Brother and Friend

ברוך דיין האמת

zvi-50 yearsZvi Kalisher, a man I truly admired for all the right reasons, now stands in the presence of the risen Christ. This day was inevitable, but one which, in an earthly way, I hoped would never come.

Countless stories of Zvi’s exploits will be shared among friends over the next week, and there are many great stories that should be told. But here, I want to remember the simple man behind those stories of heroism, whether they be stories of the holocaust or of sharing his faith in Israel. He was not flashy. He didn’t seek to own stuff. Though he was famous in some ways, fame and fortune were not his goals in life. He wasn’t an intellectual; he loved and lived the simplicity of the gospel and knowing Jesus as Saviour! He often said, “I don’t need a train to carry all the books to explain God and faith. I just need this one book.” Then, he would hold up his Bible for all to see which book he referenced. He was a simple man in the best ways.

I met Zvi almost 25 years ago, and I’m thankful that was not a one-off meeting. By God’s grace, I was able to get to know him personally and have him in my home on a regular basis. I learned much from Zvi, but the thing he modeled most for me was consistency. He consistently came to congregational meetings on shabbat. He consistently came to weekly evangelism outings. He consistently came to Wednesday night prayer meeting. He consistently carried his Bible. He consistently shared a testimony for the Lord. He consistently told me (and anyone who would listen!) about his kids and grand kids.

Consistency: such an important lesson for a young man to learn. Thank you, Zvi, for the lesson learned: ברוך דיין האמת.

Here are a few photos I recently inherited from a pastor who loved Israel.

zvi-family1

zvi-family

zvi-shul

I know it’s just Twitter, but …

I know it’s just Twitter, and people say all kinds of “brave” things from behind a computer monitor, but these tweets accurately reflect the feelings/thoughts of a number of people in parts of the Middle East.

There is hope for a changed perspective, though; these were also the feelings of Respondent Four, who participated in my research. See his story here.

Screenshot 2014-09-26 06.28.32

Screenshot from https://twitter.com/abuaminah_

Palestinian Muslims Coming to Christ, Story #24

This excerpt from my dissertation is the conversion-story summary of Respondent Twenty-Four, a female from Hebron. Feel free to interact in the comments or download my dissertation as a free PDF!

The following is ©2014 University of Pretoria and Craig Dunning, and if used elsewhere, should be cited as:

Dunning, CA (2014) Palestinian Muslims converting to Christianity: effective evangelistic methods in the West Bank. Pretoria, South Africa: University of Pretoria, PhD thesis, pp. 388-390.

Respondent Twenty-Four began studying Islamics in school at the age of ten. Her teacher was very firm and somewhat persuasive as she explained all the “bad things about Christianity.” Each day the respondent would return home and tell her mother, who was a MBB (See Respondent Twenty-Two), the bad things she learned about Christianity that day. Her mother tried to counter the charges from the New Testament, but never pushed Christianity on the respondent. She said her mother’s approach was more of “allowing everyone to decide for themselves without pressure.”

Some of the things the respondent learned in school were that “Hell is mostly full of women,” and that “in Hell, Allah will hang women by their hair or eyebrows, especially those who were not interested in being good Muslims.”

For many years the respondent lived next door to a mosque, and countless times heard these and similar things being broadcast from the mosque during the weekly Friday sermon. Eventually, during her mid-teen years, the respondent lost interest and grew very passive about religion, though her mother continued to occasionally share thoughts from the New Testament. This was her mother’s way of keeping the door open, and it was the only opposition she ever heard to what she was told in Islamics class at school and what she heard broadcast from the mosque next door.

In her late teen years, the respondent grew weary of the constant denigration of women that was generally present in her surroundings, but particularly offensive, she said, was the repeated message of “hate toward women” that she could not avoid hearing through the broadcasts from the mosque. The continual bombardment of hate caused the respondent to grow more and more concerned for her personal safety, eventually resulting in emotional problems and panic attacks.

The feelings that were being generated inside her brought her from a passive position about Islam to a very negative opinion. She definitively transitioned from “Islam is not for me,” to “Islam is wrong.” Even though the process was slow, due to the pervasive and negative presence of Islam in her surroundings, it was ultimately unavoidable.

At the same time her feelings about Islam were changing, Her mother tried to calm and comfort her by sharing things from the New Testament with her, especially the love of Jesus. Her mother focused on how much Jesus loved the respondent, so much that he died for her sins. In contrast to what she deemed “hate flowing from the mosque next door,” the respondent started to appreciate the love her mother shared from the New Testament. “In Islam, they want you to die for Islam. In Christianity, Jesus loved us and died for us” she added.

In addition to the love her mother was regularly sharing with her from the New Testament, local believers demonstrated much love toward her brother (See Respondent Twenty) by coming to their home to pray for him when he was sick. This kind of love affected her strongly: “When I saw this, something went out of me and joy came in. Real joy.”

Eventually, as an unbeliever, she attended a MBB family conference with her mother. At that conference, she saw MBBs as a community for the first time. She watched the people sing and pray together. The way they loved each other was impressive and instrumental in her consideration of the gospel. She had never seen anything like that before and was drawn toward them. She was impressed that “this was the real thing.” And that point became more clear when the worship leader stopped in the middle of a song to pray for “someone who is here today questioning whether they should believe in Jesus.” Though he did not call her by name, she said “I knew he was praying for me.”

At that moment, she trusted Jesus and realized that she was no longer a Muslim. She immediately told her mother that she “believed in Jesus as Lord.” Of course her mother was ecstatic, but was also concerned that her own witness to the respondent was not sufficiently clear. So, she asked the respondent to speak with a pastor to make sure she “understood everything.” The respondent was already convinced that Jesus had died for her sins and that she believed in Jesus, but she accepted her mother’s request to “make sure.”

When asked to fill in the blank: If it were not for ____________ I do not think I would be a believer,” she answered thoughtfully and deliberately, “Love. My mother. Prayer.”

Since she had only mentioned prayer in relation to her brother’s illness, she was asked for more clarification: “What do you mean by prayer?” She said that she knew her mother had been praying for God to open her eyes for many years. The respondent was asked for further clarification, “How do you know that she had been praying for you?” “She told me and she prayed for me while I was sitting in the room,” she answered with a frustrated tone that suggested the question was unnecessary because the answer was self-evident. Apparently, in an effort to tie all her answers together, she voluntarily explained, “If my mother had not been praying for me, and she had not kept telling me how much Jesus loves us, and I didn’t see the Christians loving each other and me, and I didn’t go to the conference to see all of this come together at the same time – love and my mother and praying – I don’t think I would be a believer today. Maybe God would have shown me some other way, but that is how it happened for me.”

Themes that emerged in this interview: “Drawn/compelled,” doubts about Islam/Qur’an, the kindness of Christians, prayer, retreats/conferences/special events, crisis, meeting Christians/MBBs, and an open witness.

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