At a recent gathering of the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States, thousands join in Jewish/Israeli dancing and singing, cheerily wave Israeli flags, speak a fair amount of Hebrew, and express a great love for all Jews.
They also praise Jesus, baptize their children, and cite the New Testament, because they’re evangelical Christians.
The potential impact of Christian Zionism in the coming years is hard to overstate. Christians United for Israel claims more than 400,000 members—and as the Jewish Telegraph Agency noted, that’s just “the largest organization representing what are believed to be tens of millions conservative evangelical Christians who support Israel.” At their annual gathering, you can take in utterly surreal scenes: Young, black Southern Baptist women join white, old Minnesota Lutheran church ladies in hora circles; high-on-life college boys don talises and blow shofars; Texan church choirs lead the crowd in singing Israeli folk songs in their original Hebrew. For a Jew like me, the experience is very, very weird: It’s like any Jewish event of my youth, but in an alternate dimension. Everything’s familiar, yet eerily different.
But weird adoptions of our culture aren’t what have Jews really concerned.
Jews have long expressed strong reservations, even suspicions, about the Christian Zionist agenda: They frequently claim that Christian Zionists want us—in which I include circumcised, yarmulke-wearing people like me—in Israel as part of a scorched-earth Armageddon policy; that they’re only supporting Israel to further a right-wing anti-Muslim agenda; that they’re trying to convert Jews through this activity; or that they can’t be partnered with because of their other right-wing policies.
Sometimes this expresses itself in blanket condemnation of Christians, as when former New York mayoral candidate Ruth Messinger declared to much audience applause at an event in 2003, “A Christian president with a Christian agenda, and a Christian approach to Israel will never gain the majority vote of the Jewish community.” And sometimes it’s targeted directly at the perceived conflation of End Times Theology with pro-Israel advocacy, as when one rabbi declared of CUFI in 2007, “The real bottom line is the fact that this organization would like to exacerbate tensions in the Middle East so it will lead to Armageddon.”
But Jews should begin to check the accuracy of their assumptions against the actual beliefs and statements of Christian Zionists.
Are Christian Zionists merely out to convert Jews? Christian denominations that frequently protest Israel are actually the ones more likely to engage in deceptive proselytizing, as I found out while reporting on anti-Israel divestment campaigns within the Presbyterian Church (USA), where the very same factions voting for divestment were also voting to continue funding for messianic Jewish congregations—Christian-led groups that deceptively bring Jews to Jesus by claiming to represent Jewish tradition, like holding free Passover Seders where Moses isn’t the only one who saves Jews. On the other side, the leading force in Christian Zionism today, CUFI Founder and National Chairman the Rev. John Hagee, has denounced replacement theology and said in 2006 that he has “made it a practice for 25 years not to target Jews for conversion” at CUFI events. CUFI’s loudest Christian critics are probably members of Jews for Jesus, who hate that rule.
Christian Zionists also receive plenty of scorn from a very liberal Jewish community for allegedly trying to push a right-wing agenda on Israel. But CUFI’s official position, like that of the AIPAC, the main Jewish-run Israel lobbying group, is to support the decisions of the Israeli government, whatever they may be. CUFI seems to be sticking to that claim: Since its founding four years ago, it hasn’t expressed disagreement with any of Israel’s governments—even when many American Jewish groups have.
Then there’s the real biggie: Are Christian Zionists just looking to gather Jews in Israel to bring back Jesus, get the rapture rolling, and engage in mass slaughter of those who won’t be saved? Many Jews who embrace Christian Zionists’ political advocacy without much theological investigation answer in semi-jest that we’ll deal with that problem if Jesus ever actually shows up. But that approach betrays a lack of understanding of what’s really going on in Christian theology. That belief introduced Christian Zionism to many in America—but it’s not accurate.
All of which begs the question: If they’re not doing it for a right-wing agenda, a missionary agenda, or an apocalyptic agenda, just why are Christians uniting for Israel?
It’s because they love Jews. When I went to cover 2008’s CUFI Washington Summit, the first person I met shook my hand and told me she loved me for being a Jew. It’s happened to me at least dozens of times since. Ask any cross-section of Christian Zionists why they support Israel, and most of the time the first line out of their mouths will be citing Genesis 12:3, in which God says to Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.”
The more you dig into Christian Zionism, the more you realize it’s less about Israel than it is about the Jews. There’s plenty of talk about current events and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but the repeated mentions of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and other episodes of Jewish persecution are often more prominent. In fact, Christian Zionists say they are primarily concerned about Jewish welfare and have tackled Israel advocacy simply because it’s the issue on which they feel their political assistance is most valuable.
Jewish readers may be wondering how I could be so credulous. I’ve thought about that question a lot; there’s certainly plenty of history of Jews being told one thing only to get slammed in the other direction. The simple reality of Christian Zionism is that the facts are different from many Jews’ assumptions (and then for some Jews aware of the facts, there’s still a tendency to resort to extreme conspiracy theories or strained arguments about Jewish continuity). There’s no question that they have different politics, rhetoric, and even culture from what we’re used to seeing in the Jewish world. But they do seem to express a genuine love and care for Jews. “Being loved” is not something Jews take to easily (or, at least, this Jew doesn’t), and it’s still pretty awkward for me in personal conversations with Christians—but, awkwardness aside, this palpable sense of concern for Jewish welfare is the first that Jews have felt from such a large religious group in their history.
Christian Zionist theology aside, there’s still the controversy over Hagee himself, appropriately summarized by the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait. Hagee’s said a lot to infuriate Jews: that the Holocaust was God’s way of promoting Zionism and that Jews brought anti-Semitism upon themselves through their own faithless actions. I’m not going to defend Hagee’s words here, because I don’t agree with them and think he should never have said them. As a descendant of survivors of the Holocaust and pogroms—and, more importantly, of many nonsurvivors—I find them offensive.
But people say and believe a great many things I find offensive all the time, from pulpits Jewish and otherwise. What those people don’t do, but Hagee does, is transform millions of people into lovers of the Jewish people. While watching Hagee speak live at the CUFI summit, inveighing against anti-Semitism and declaring, to the applause of thousands of Christians, “If a line has to be drawn, then draw it around both Christians and Jews, around Americans and Israelis,” I got chills.
Yes, I’m cautious about their plans. I’m also concerned that evangelical Christians could end up dropping the Jews as quickly as they’ve picked us up. After all, that line in Genesis has been there for thousands of years, through the Holocaust and pogroms. But they say they want to help and have acted in ways that suggest they’re sincere; it’s not enough to erase thousands of years of persecution, but it’s certainly a start in what could be a healing process, if Jews become willing to engage them.
It’s enough to make me want to count my blessings.