‘Mr Archaeology’ is a treasure himself

CHRISTIAN archaeologist Dr James Fleming is hooked on Israel. After living all of 37 years in the country – deliberately dividing his years of residence between Jewish, Muslim and Catholic areas – he now tours on behalf of the Israel Ministry of Tourism lecturing to Christian audiences on the archaeological treasures of the Jewish state.

I met him in Manchester recently before he lectured on the New Testament Marys at Manchester Cathedral and then went on to a similar lecture in Glasgow and I was struck by the gentle warmth of this man who lived for so long as a member of a religious minority in the Jewish state.

Describing himself as a “Christian Zionist” because he believes passionately that the Jews have a historic and religious tie to their homeland, he is not your typical right-wing Bible-bashing American evangelist.

He said: “It’s very important to try to have a balanced view on the Middle East.

“I have always had Jewish and Palestinian friends. When I lead tour groups I alternatively hire Jewish and Arab bus companies.”

Having deliberately set a quota of equal numbers of Jewish, Christian and Muslim students in his Israel government tour guide courses, he told me: “The terms ‘Jew’ and ‘Arab’ are adjectives and not nouns.

“They are modifiers, not stereotypes. I treat them all as human beings.

“Out of the 45 students in my class, 15 would be Jews, 15 Christians and 15 Muslims.

“Before accepting students on the course I would ask them if they were prepared to show the same respect to another religious tradition as they would want shown to their own.” Dr Fleming would like to see the Jewish state become more democratic so that non-Jews would have full voting and civic rights.

He is wary of the political influence of Israel’s religious parties because they are less “sensitive to minorities”.

But although there were two attempts by Orthodox yeshiva students to burn down his Jerusalem Biblical Resources Centre out of unjustified fears that he was involved in missionary activities, Dr Fleming has suffered little discrimination from Jews in Israel.

He admits: “Holocaust survivors have every reason to struggle with some anti-Christian feeling. But it is nominal.

“There is more interfaith activity between Jews and Christians than there is with Muslims.

“It is hard to find the latter who feel secure enough to stand up against the radicals.

“I sometimes speak in mosques, but have never been invited to an extremist one.”

He added: “I feel it an honour to be asked to speak in the place of worship of another tradition.”

Dr Fleming first set up his Biblical Resources Centre in the Jewish Jerusalem area of Katamon where he stayed for five years.

He said: “I wanted to be close to Jewish culture. Most of my neighbours were quite Orthodox.

“It came in useful on a Shabbat. I knew that they could not directly ask me to help but just make suggestions. A friend would knock on my door and remark that I had plenty of light.

“I understood that he wanted me to volunteer to switch on his light.

“Or someone would take me for a little walk to where a car with its headlights still on was parked.

“I understood that he wanted them turned off.”

Dr Fleming had quite a different experience when he moved his centre for five years to the Muslim quarter of the Old City.

There it was his American accent which caused him problems.

He said: “Some Muslims were anti-American because the USA was so pro-Israel. But once they got to know me it was OK.”

The carefully nurtured relationships were abruptly ruptured when, during Easter 1983, a “crazy” American perpetrated a shooting at the Dome of the Rock.

Dr Fleming said: “People I had been talking to for three years suddenly stopped talking to me.”

Then Dr Fleming, the son of a Baptist mother and a secular father who became a committed Methodist, took his Biblical Resources Centre to an ecumenical institute in a Catholic monastic compound near Bethlehem.

He said: “I was one of the few non-Catholic teachers there.”

It is possible that Dr Fleming is so open to other cultures and traditions because he grew up travelling Asia and Africa where his father, a Pan Am Airlines employee, helped to set up 22 national carriers.

One of the perks of having his dad working for an airline was that he got free flights as long as he was a student. This, in itself, was an incentive for him to prolong his education.

Having become a committed Christian with a special interest in the Jewish roots of his religion, in 1969 Dr Fleming took a year’s graduate course in the history, geography and archaeology of the Bible at the Hebrew University. That was when he became “hooked” on Israel.

He said: “I am a very visual person. In Israel you can really see archaeological history which made ancient events.”

With free travel still available to him while a student, Dr Fleming returned to the USA to gain his doctorate in the philosophy of education.

With his flying wings now clipped, he decided to settle down and become a teacher of biblical history.

Drawn again to the Middle East, he was invited to teach archaeology at the Hebrew University School for Overseas Students, which he did until 1984.

Dr Fleming explained: “Having gained my doctorate in education rather than in theology, I had more flexibility in a Jewish country, as those with theology doctorates are sometimes suspected by the religious parties of being missionary.”

He also taught Israel Government Tour Guide courses, which he still does although nowadays Dr Fleming divides his time between the USA and Israel, as well as travelling elsewhere to lecture.

He set up his Biblical Resources Centre in 1975 to produce educational aids in Bible teaching. But unfortunately it was badly hit by the sharp fall in Christian tourism during the second Intifada.

He said: “Christian tourism bottomed out. I had to close the centre as I owed my landlord $6,000.

“As I wanted to honour my debt, I moved the museum to a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, and called it the Explorations in Antiquity Centre.”

But although Dr Fleming still returns to Israel four times a year – twice leading tour groups there and twice to teach tour guides – he still misses living in Jerusalem where he hopes to settle after he retires.

He said: “I miss being around old things. In Atlanta anything over 80 years old is old!”

After all these years as a non-Jew living in Israel, Dr Fleming’s legal status is as a “permanent, temporary resident”!

© 2010 Jewish Telegraph