RT Kendall describes the unlikely true-story of how a meeting with Yasser Arafat led to the development of a friendship with an orthodox rabbi.
Would you predict that a relationship with the late Yasser Arafat could lead to a friendship with an orthodox Jewish rabbi? Strange as it may seem, that is exactly what happened. As a result of meeting Yasser Arafat, I met Rabbi David Rosen and have co-authored a book with him called The Christian and the Pharisee – Two Outspoken Religious Leaders Debate the Road to Heaven.
During my twenty-five years at Westminster Chapel I always prayed publicly for ‘peace in the Middle East and for the peace of Jerusalem’. In l982, due to the impact of Arthur Blessitt (the man who has carried a cross around the world), I began praying every day for Yasser Arafat.
While in Israel with Lyndon Bowring and Alan Bell in July 2002, Andrew White, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy to the Middle East, heard I was there and that I prayed for Arafat. Andrew later said to me: “Yasser Arafat will see you in Ramallah tomorrow night at 6 p.m.” This began one of the most intense eras of my life, and led to a warm personal friendship with both the late president of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) and Israel’s most honoured orthodox Jewish rabbi.
Andrew White risked his relationship with the Israelis and Palestinians by taking an American Evangelical into Ramallah. This took place when Ramallah was under siege by the Israelis and utterly shut down to visitors – including journalists. I did not know it then, but Andrew was the only man on the planet who had the trust of both Arafat and the Israelis. He received special permission to take us in. Alan and Lyndon were also invited, but none of us grasped the significance of the visit at the time.
For some reason I bonded with Arafat. When I told him I have probably prayed for him more times than any church leader in the world, tears filled his eyes. And when I told him, “I do not come to you as a politician but as a follower of Jesus Christ” – and said to him “I love you”, tears filled his eyes again. The conversation, with three members of the P.L.O., focused on Jesus Christ. Knowing something of Islamic teaching, I stressed to Arafat that Jesus died on the cross, that he is more than a prophet; he is the Son of God, and that the most important question ever put to him is ‘where will you be 100 years from now?’
What normally would have been a 20-minute visit lasted one hour and 45 minutes. It was the first of my five visits to Ramallah. These visits included my presenting the Gospel to him, watching Mel Gibson’s film ‘The Passion of the Christ’, always praying with him and twice anointing him with oil. A sixth visit was actually planned – he invited my wife Louise to come over and celebrate her 65th birthday with him. But he became seriously ill while we were there. He died a few days later.
In the meantime, I became involved with the Alexandria Peace Process – an unprecedented effort to make peace via the religious track - of which Dr George Carey, now Lord Carey, is the architect. In November 2003 I accompanied Andrew to Baghdad, but we stopped to visit Arafat in Ramallah on the way. This was my second visit with Arafat. One church fasted and prayed for us that day.
But I almost crossed over a line. I may have pushed too hard; I challenged Arafat to confess that Jesus died on the cross. Islamic teaching states that Jesus never actually died on the cross but that Allah delivered him from the cross. I knew that for Arafat to confess that Jesus died would be a major, major matter. As I spoke the translator (needed not for Arafat but for others in the room) shouted, “STOP! You cannot do this. You are trying to convert him!” He pointed out that I had touched the very issue that divides Islam from Christianity. This exchange went on for several minutes. I turned to Arafat and said, “Rais [the Arabic word for president], you are one of the most courageous men in the history of the world, but what I am asking you to do will take more courage than anything you have done – to say that Jesus died. I will stand with you and die with you.” The translator interrupted again – “STOP!” but Arafat motioned for him to let me continue. I feared an international situation. Andrew changed the subject. Although Arafat smiled very kindly at me, as if to put me at ease, I wondered if it could be the last time I would be in Ramallah.
To my surprise, Dr Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator for the Palestinians (who had been present at both previous meetings}, wrote me to say that President Arafat wanted to have lunch with me when I would be in Israel. I accepted and went to see him for the third time. Alan and Lyndon came with me. During lunch there was considerable interest in Mel Gibson’s film and I knew it would demonstrate graphically that Jesus died on the cross. I managed to get a copy, took it into Ramallah a few weeks later – this being my fourth visit, and showed it to Arafat with some 30 members of the P.L.O. Arafat wept through the whole film. I prayed with him at the end of the film.
I met Rabbi David Rosen during the time of this fourth visit. It coincided with my being a part of a small group coming to Israel, led by Lord Carey and Andrew White, to participate in the Alexandria Peace Process. David Rosen hosted a Shabbat Meal for us on the Friday night. It was a memorable evening. Rabbi Rosen, with his wife Sharon and two of his children participating, explained the historical and theological significance of the Shabbat Meal. It moved some of us to tears.
I was surprised however to hear David speak as he did about Pharisees. He actually spoke of them in a complimentary way. Was I really understanding him? When he took questions, I said, “Rabbi, you are speaking of Pharisees in a complimentary way. You realize, don’t you, that we see them as the ‘bad guys’, and I thought I even discerned that you see yourself as one of them?”
“Absolutely”, he replied. Rabbi Rosen made it clear that he is indeed a Pharisee and understands exactly how Christians feel about them. I did not push the point, but he came up to me afterwards and spoke most warmly to me. A few weeks later Rabbi Rosen kindly emailed me and attached some literature on Pharisees. This was timely because I was then writing my book ‘Out of the Comfort Zone – Is Your God Too Nice?’ which includes two chapters on Pharisees.
My second time to meet Rabbi Rosen – and fifth time to see President Arafat - was in September 2004. Dr. Michael Youssef, the Rector of the Church of the Apostles in Atlanta, Georgia, accepted my invitation to meet Arafat, so we flew over together. I did not know of course that it would be my last time to see Arafat. Fortunately for me, thanks to Dr. Youssef, much of this visit was videoed and I have this as a memory. Andrew White introduced Michael to some Israeli leaders too. When we walked into the Chief Rabbi’s office I clearly heard, “Hi RT” from across the room. It was David Rosen. I was thrilled again by his warmth. He suggested we meet early for breakfast the next morning.
During my quiet time at the Mount Zion Hotel the next morning, moments before my breakfast with David Rosen, I felt a very unusual prompting – that I should invite David Rosen to write a book with me. This can’t be the Holy Spirit, I feared.
After a pleasant conversation over breakfast I suggested that we do a book together, one comprised of letters to each other in which we explain our positions, hold each other’s feet to the fire and see what it led to. Each chapter should begin with Dear David, followed by a chapter Dear RT. etc. I added, “Don’t say ‘no’ yet. Take six months.” To my delight he immediately said, “Let’s do it.” At that moment Andrew White joined us at breakfast. We told Andrew what we had just decided. “This is fantastic – each of you has met your match,” he commented. We have never looked back from that day.
However, knowing I was set to meet Arafat again later that morning, I felt I should come clean with David, knowing he is not only Israeli but also an orthodox Jewish rabbi. “I’m going to see Arafat today.” I thought David might want to change his mind about being linked with me and doing the book. “I’m trying to convert him,” I said to David. “Good luck”, he replied. So at least he knows, I said to myself.
What perhaps amazed me most was that I had feared I would never – ever – have a relationship with a Jew after my friendship with Arafat. ‘You should be engaging with Jews – God’s chosen people – not their enemies’, was the feeling some Americans had. . They therefore warned I would never have a relationship with a Jew after spending time with Arafat and Palestinians. Indeed, I received a bit of negative mail as a result, some Jewish Christians even distancing themselves from me. ‘May God have mercy on your soul’, one angrily wrote. But I knew Jesus would go into Ramallah.
And yet I might engage with more Jews than ever. The book will be reviewed in Israel and may even be translated into Hebrew. It took a good while to agree on a title. We finally agreed that our book should be called ‘The Christian and the Pharisee – Two Outspoken Religious Leaders Debate the Road to Heaven’because it best summarizes the contents. The way to Heaven is the real issue. David says it is by good works. I say it is by faith in the blood of Jesus, Israel’s promised Messiah. The contents are candid and frank letters we have written to each other – unedited! David begins in Chapter One witha defence of the Pharisees. My letters are not only replying to what he has said, but also focusing on Jesus and Old Testament prophecies. I admit, it gets pretty hot in places! It is likely that more Christians than Jews will read our book, but who knows? Our book has just been chosen by Jews as their focus for Jewish Book Week. Lord Carey and the Chief Rabbi of France have written Forewords.
Why would David Rosen agree to do this book? First, I should tell you that he is a very unusual orthodox Jewish rabbi. He was a signer of the Alexandria Declaration and the first rabbi brought in on the process that led to it. He is no isolationist but a lover of peace. He has recently been awarded a papal knighthood by Pope Benedict. Second, he wants everybody to understand Pharisees and especially wants to help Christians see them in a better light. He thinks the New Testament depicts Pharisees unfairly. Third, he wants Christians to understand and appreciate that Jews resent people trying to convert them to Christianity. He has therefore made himself extremely vulnerable in this book because he knows that I have tried to do with him precisely what Jews do not like.
“Are you still friends?” people ask after reading the manuscript! Answer: yes. More than ever. As William Cowper put it, ‘God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform’. What the end of this relationship will be, I don’t know. But if it leads to a better understanding between all of us – Jews, Christians and Palestinians, that must be good.