The May 2012 issue of Commentary (the generally conservative monthly with a strong Jewish focus) carries an article by Michael Medved, entitled “What the Evangelicals Give to Jews”. Medved is a highly productive writer and television personality, very articulate and almost always interesting. Based in California, he is an observant Orthodox Jew, who has moved politically from left to right (he started out in politics as a speechwriter for Joseph Duffey, who ran in 1970 as a Democratic candidate for the Senate from Connecticut). His article discusses the “controversial relationship” between Jews and Evangelical Protestants, who contain more vocal supporters of Israel than any other non-Jewish group. In this Evangelicals differ considerably from mainline Protestants, whose organizations (though not necessarily their members) have been more inclined to be critical of Israel. The Jewish reaction to the Evangelical love offensive has been ambivalent. Some Jews have reacted like someone receiving an unexpected inheritance from a least favorable aunt. They are suspicious of the Evangelicals’ philo-Semitism because they attribute it to the openly admitted desire of converting Jews to Christianity (Jewish historical memory has good reasons for disliking this desire), also because in the Evangelical imagination the return of the Jews to the Holy Land is often seen as a prelude to the Second Coming of Jesus (which presumably will result in the demise of Judaism as a separate faith). Medved calls this group “Rejectionists”. They remind me of an old (Jewish) joke: A philo-Semite is an anti-Semite who likes Jews. The other group, whom Medved calls “Collaborationists” (a rather unfortunate choice of a term), welcomes and courts Evangelical support. Its attitude can be summed up in the adage that one should not look a gift horse in the mouth. Not surprisingly, the Israeli government has enthusiastically embraced the Christian Zionists (as they proudly call themselves). In addition to the obvious political reason for the enthusiasm, there is also an economic reason: Evangelicals are prone to be pilgrims to the Holy Land, and Israeli tourist promotion has made a special effort to encourage such pilgrimages.
Medved takes a strong position in favor of “collaboration”. Writing as an Orthodox Jew, he notes, correctly, that Evangelicals share a strongly conservative morality with his own community. Writing as a person who is politically right of center, he notes, again correctly, that anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic sentiments are today more prevalent on the left than on the right. He also makes the point that Christian Zionism, albeit under different names, has a long history. It dates as far back as the Puritans, but became a strong phenomenon in the nineteenth century, particularly in Britain and America. Protestants not only endorsed but propagated what they called the “restoration” of Jews to the Holy Land (the wording may well be called proto-Zionist). For example, in 1839 the Church of Scotland sent a study group to the Holy Land, which a year later issued its report under the inspiring title “Memorandum to the Protestant Monarchs of Europe for the Restoration of the Jews to Palestine” (apparently, Catholic monarchs could not be trusted to agree). Such proto-Zionism was apparently widespread in the British upper class (in some cases probably due to a belief in Jewish power rather than to sympathy with Jewish afflictions, in accordance with the above-mentioned joke about the true nature of philo-Semites). Simon Sebag Montefiore, in his wonderful book Jerusalem: The Biography (2011), suggests that this upper-class proclivity helps explain the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which the British government endorsed “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”—an action with unanticipated and immense consequences still reverberating today.
The controversial character of the relationship between Jews and Evangelicals was recently illustrated by the fierce Jewish reaction to a statement by the Southern Baptist Convention, the Largest Evangelical denomination in America, reiterating the Christian mandate to convert Jews. Belief in this mandate is undoubtedly held by most Evangelicals, though it is a big error to equate this with anti-Semitism: It is based on the core conviction that (in Evangelical language) “accepting Jesus as lord and savior” is necessary for eternal salvation—excluding Jews from the missionary mandate, and thus relegating them to eternal damnation, could well be called the most radical anti-Semitism imaginable. As to the apocalyptic imaginary associated with the return of Jews to the Holy Land, Medved is right in deprecating this as an important cause of Evangelical support for Israel. But what, I think, he misses is a more basic factor: Most Evangelicals hold to a quite literal understanding of Scripture, including both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. They therefore believe that God’s covenant with the Jews, including their right to historic Palestine and the blessing promised to those who do good to the Jews, still holds today. Also, Medved makes the point that Evangelical support for Israel is not uniquely important in America. A majority of Americans supports Israel, with Evangelicals only somewhat ahead of other non-Jews. This is not the place to enlarge on the reasons for this general American support, which has steadily increased since 9/11. The major split is political rather than religious—thus 80% of Republicans are pro-Israel, only 57% of Democrats. As to anti-Semitism, it has steadily decreased, until in a 2009 report the Anti-Defamation League, which keeps a careful and continuous look on this, stated that anti-Semitism in America is at the lowest level ever recorded. This should be seen against the background of a society becoming ever more tolerant—a development convincingly described by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, in American Grace (2011). About 59% of non-Jews have a favorable view of Jews—at the top of a list, with Catholics and mainline Protestants, of how Americans view religious groups to which they do not belong (Muslims, by the way, are at the bottom of the list).
I think that one of the more interesting points here is the shift from right to left, both politically and religiously, in negative attitudes to both Jews in general and Israel in particular. In Jewish memory anti-Semitism is associated with conservative Christianity, epitomized by Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition. Today’s American Evangelicals are hard to squeeze into this scenario. Also, anti-Semitism has been traditionally associated with conservative politics. It still is so allied in some places, but it is now more commonly to be found on the left. This is also the case in Europe, though there, unlike in America, anti-Semitism has been increasing rather than decreasing. This was reported on, country by country, in a March 2012 report by the Anti-Defamation League. The United Kingdom, Spain and Hungary topped the list. In Hungary the old correlation of anti-Semitism with right-wing politics still holds. I don’t know about Spain, but in Britain it is on the left that one finds the most blatant manifestations. Thus, while leftist intellectuals in Europe join campaigns to boycott Israel, right-winger Geert Wilders in the Netherlands is vocally pro-Israel and made a demonstrative visit to Jerusalem. Marine Le Pen, whose right-wing party came in third in the recent presidential election in France, has decisively distanced herself from the anti-Semitism of her father who had founded the party. (Not so incidentally, both she and Wilders are fiercely anti-Muslim.)
American Evangelicals are both philo-Semitic and pro-Zionist. There are few Evangelicals available for comparison in Europe. But is anti-Zionism a cover for anti-Semitism on both continents? The Anti-Defamation League seems to think so. I am sure that this equation is correct in some cases. One must wonder why European activists, who routinely protest again Israeli policies toward the Palestinian territories and the Arab minority within Israel, are silent in the face of the enormously more egregious violations of human rights across the Middle East, notably the massacres currently perpetrated by the Syrian regime. Is there an unconscious anti-Semitic DNA in the European psyche? I doubt it. And the policies of the Israeli government toward the Palestinians, especially in the West Bank, have caused revulsion by even committed friends of Israel (not a few Jews among them). In any case, American Evangelicals are exceptionally friendly to Jews and (sometimes uncritically) supportive of the state of Israel. American Jews have every reason to reciprocate.
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