Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Conversations between Jews and Evangelicals

We met at the venerable Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, where, over fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King met with Jewish leaders to develop strategies for the civil rights movement. About 40 of us were crammed into a small basement auditorium around long, thin tables—half of us Evangelical leaders from various churches, organizations and institutions and half of us Jewish leaders from various synagogues, organizations and institutions. The Jewish leaders were Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed and Reconstructionist. The Evangelicals also came from across the spectrum—Baptist, Charismatic, Anglican, and, of course, Evangelical Covenant, among others. The Jewish community has been meeting for years with leaders from mainline and Roman Catholic Churches, but this was only the second meeting of the type with Evangelicals. Over two days we considered how we might have civil but frank conversations. We explored the response of the Christian church to the foundation of the state of Israel. We explored our common commitment to social justice and our common struggle to come to terms with Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.

Some of us had been in conversations with Jews for a number of years. I have met regularly with a Modern Orthodox Rabbi to study scripture and discuss the challenges faced by the Jewish community in the United States and Israel. For many this was a new conversation—and a fascinating one. What did we learn?

1. For the vast majority of Jews the distinction is not Zionist or Anti-Zionist, but Hawkish or Dovish. Even the most liberal Jews support Israel and value it as a place for the Jews to preserve their culture, faith and community. One leader suggested Zionism was a “cardinal tenet” of Judaism. All Jews long for peace and justice for the Jews in Israel. But they differ on how these goals might be accomplished. One Orthodox leader said that although Israel would not be fully realized until Messiah came, “It is better to wait for Messiah in Tel Aviv than Warsaw.”

2. Although much of the world looks at Israel as powerful and dominant, neither American Jews nor the Jews in Israel feel powerful. They feel fragile and threatened. Even the most liberal are discouraged. One person said, “We got out of Gaza and got rockets in return.” They feel like the rest of the world wants them to lie supine in the face of violence and aggression. They were attacked for setting up buffer zones and so they backed away from them. They were vilified for the incursion into the Gaza to halt the rocket attacks. So they set up blockades and check points, perhaps the least violent, if still distasteful, alternative to stop the rockets and other weapons from being brought to Hamas—and there were still howls of protest. What are their options to keep their homes from being shelled and their citizens from being blown up on buses and in cafes? Giving “land for peace” hasn’t really worked so far. Why would they trust their opponents to stop the rockets and suicide bombings if they eliminated the blockade and checkpoints and tore down the wall? There is little evidence to suggest the extremists among the Palestinians would restrain themselves. What would the world have them to do?

3. Nevertheless, every Jewish leader was distressed and frustrated over the suffering of the Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian. Many were unhappy with the heavy handedness of the Israeli government. At the same time they wondered where were their conversation partners? Who was willing in this difficult climate to really work with them to find peace? Many worried that the opportunity for a two-state solution was slipping away.

4. Most of them understood that Christians lived with an obligation to share their faith. But they refused to be in communication with any group that specifically targeted Jews. They were especially distressed by groups like Jews for Jesus, whom they thought were trying to redefine what a Jew was. One rabbi said, if a Jew becomes of Christian we are sad, but such things happen. But we do not like the deception of saying you can be a Jew and a Christian at the same time. Some Evangelical leaders found this difficult to grasp. I suggested that perhaps it was right that we let the Jewish community decide who was and was not a Jew.

5. The Jews have a rich history of social justice concerns, but some in the room felt that of late the word “justice” was being used as a club against them. Why, they wondered, was it peace and safety for Israel and peace and justice for the Palestinians? Didn’t the Israelis deserve justice as well? They were particularly concerned about the nearly universal hostility of the liberal mainline church to Israel. In some cases they thought the line was crossed from appropriate criticism to anti-Semitism. They had no trouble with criticisms of the actions of the government of Israel. They insisted that criticizing the government of Israel is a spectator sport among Jews in the United States and Israel. But for many Jews in this country it has become difficult to raise criticism when they sense the state is always, and often unfairly, under attack. They feel the positive things done by the state of Israel are chronically under reported and generally ignored.

It was a fascinating, provocative, and at times passionate conversation. I think we all had a sense of camaraderie and even common purpose. We all want Israel and the Palestinians to live in peace and safety and with justice. Many of the Evangelicals were involved in ministries to build bridges between the two groups. We also all wanted healthy and positive relationships between Jews and Evangelicals. We want to be able to call each other when there was a difficulty, question, or opportunity for collaboration. I think we also found common ground as believers in God who take our faith commitments very seriously. These conversations are important and will continue. I hope to be a part of them for years to come.

John E. Phelan, Jr.
North Park Theological Seminary


  1. How wonderful, Dr. Phelah, that you can be a part of this discussion. I am glad Evangelicals are now part of this discussion. Thanks for detailing their concerns.

    One year I had the privilege of teaching English subjects in an Orthodox Yeshivah in Miami Beach, Florida and was so impressed with the education in that Yeshivah and then in the homes of the Lubavichers. In the morning I taught first grade girls, who were already reading Hebrew, to read English. In the afternoon I taught second grade boys. Half a day those girls and boys had religious instruction--but only with their Rabbis. One summer I was an art coordinator for a Jewish day camp. It was such a privilege to observe their culture and exuberance.

    Sometimes, however, it is hard to really get to know our Jewish neighbors, probably because of organizations such as Jews for Jesus and Messianic Synagogues. We have such a bad press with them or is it we are afraid to maintain contacts?


  2. Jay,
    Thank you for this summary of such an important meeting. Not surprising that Isreal and Zionism was upfront in this conversation. It does occur to me though how strange it is that such dialogs between Evangelical and Jewish leaders haven't really taken place given that so many Evangelicals are very pro-Isreal (though perhaps for dubious theological reasons that would be unpalatable to Jewish dialog partners).

    I am in conversation with members of an Arabic speaking church and know some activists who work in Palestine, and the contrast between what I hear and know in terms of the ground from the Palestinian perspective seems irreconcilable with the perspective of the Jewish perspective you presented here. It seems we have the situation you describe in a previous post of how we talk past each other and don't really listen on hot button topics.

    I struggle with how to listen to both and to take seriously that some of this isn't just perspective or difference of opinion but actual suffering. Don't want to minimize the suffering and tragedy of rockets launched, or the devastation of suicide bomber and other attacks on Israel, but is really the suffering commensurate? The numbers of dead would indicate that the effect of this conflict largely falls on the Palestinians. Sure Israel is not in a secure position, but it has a state of the art modern military, it has soldiers occupying the West Bank. Palestinians do not have an analogous presence in Israel. Palestinian armed soldiers are not systematically destroying Israeli homes. Palestinian settlers are not setting up compound in Israel and then attacking on a regular basis those in the Isreali village near by.

    On some level perhaps Hamas and the PA may have allies and support in the Arab world as Israel has support from the U.S. but is that really an equal and commensurate reality internationally? I don't think so, Israel's Alie is the most powerful nation (at the moment). but my point is that it seems to me on the ground the average Palestinian has no security, while most Isreali's may live in fear and anxiety but their daily lives on the ground aren't facing regular harassment from settlers and an occupying army.

    This is relevant when talking about dialog because I want to listen and hear and accept the Jewish and Isreali perspective and yet, the actions not only of its government but its occupying army in the West Bank as well as the tolerance and support of vigilante violence by the settlers, are simply unjust, there is no way to justify the reports on the ground of those who live in the West Bank.

    I don't know how to get beyond this impass, but it is unfortunate that I think Christian actions and attitudes I think perhaps keep us from asking difficult questions to both sides, and perhaps also as Americans we are to intertwined in the reasons the powers that be allowed and used Zionism for their own unjust ends in the first place. I wonder can dialog happen around this issue really?
    It is disheartening.