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