Rockower Archive: Presecution in Israel? (December 1997)

(Editor’s Note: This column, which was published in December 1997, won the Rockower Award for Excellence in Editorial Writing from the American Jewish Press Association).

Persecution in Israel?

Last month, I mentioned that the editor of the Alabama Baptist, a weekly newspaper for the state’s Baptists, wrote a lead editorial with a very moderate tone in response to Judge Ira DeMent’s school prayer ruling and the extreme reaction to that ruling in some parts of our state.

Over the years, I’ve had some wonderful conversations with the staff of the Alabama Baptist. Our newspapers are printed at the same plant.

Of course, we don’t always see eye-to-eye on issues. Below is a response I wrote to a four-page series of articles in the Oct. 9 issue. The first article was entitled “Israel: Christians struggle to spread gospel amidst persecution.” On the paper’s cover was a full-color picture of a man blowing a shofar, with the header “Persecution in Israel.”

One article dealt with a pending “anti-missionary” bill in the Knesset, while others spoke of the struggles facing Christians and “messianic Jews” who try to share the gospel in Israel.

Over the years, I have enjoyed reading the Alabama Baptist, and the relationship between our two publications. Your pages have often sparked ideas for me and my publication, and I always enjoy reading other perspectives on issues.

That is why I am writing in response to the four pages on Christian persecution in Israel, from the Oct. 9 issue — conveniently timed during the Jewish High Holy Days.

Your articles routinely mention 5000 “Jewish believers” in Israel. That term, to a Jew, makes no sense. All Jews are believers — we believe in the One True God, which Christians refer to as the Father, and Moslems refer to as Allah (though Judaism places more emphasis on actions than beliefs). Of course, your use of the term refers to the so-called “Messianic Jews” who accept Jesus as the messiah. Again, to a Jew that makes no sense.

Every Jewish organization — religious and secular, right-wing to left-wing — states what to us and to many Christian denominations is plainly obvious. The so-called “messianic Jews” are Christians who, for whatever reason, feel most comfortable expressing their Christianity using Jewish symbols and cultural icons. No Jew recognizes “messianics” as Jewish. They can not be counted in a quorum for public prayer, buried in a Jewish cemetery or have a rabbi officiate at life cycle events — just as no Christian can have any of that. They are Christians and should be proud of that, but they have left the Covenant of Abraham.

For the Christian world to make the determination of who is a Jew, and to tell us that we are “incomplete” or have a “spiritually blinded faith” is the height of arrogance. And thus, the friction between missionaries and Israeli citizens, both Jewish and Moslem.

Now, regarding the persecutions you mentioned in the Oct. 9 issue.

Two months ago, I wrote an editorial stating that the anti-missionary bill being considered in Israel was the wrong response, and went too far. I also decried persecution of Christians in the land where Jesus walked. Arson attacks and threats against one’s personal safety are simply wrong, no matter who is being targeted.

There are a great many Christians in Israel who are there because that is where their savior lived and ministered. They maintain the Christian holy sites and keep them open and accessible to all. They want to live side by side, as equal citizens in the land of Israel, and I applaud them for that.

However, there are also many Christians who seem to think that we Jews established Israel merely to make it easier for missionaries to find us and save our souls. Sorry to disappoint, but after being kicked out of most countries in Christian Europe because we refused to abandon our faith, we established Israel so we could live as Jews among our brethren.

With that history, for missionaries to then come into Israel and whine about our reluctance to accept those who would turn us away from the religion of our forefathers is mind-boggling.

I am certain that if anti-missionary organizations set up shop next door to your churches and started leafleting outside your doors on Sunday mornings, you would not be very receptive. How can you expect us to welcome you with open arms if your purpose is to convert us? And what effect does this have on your Christian brethren in Israel who are caught up in guilt-by-association though they have no interest in missionizing and seek to maintain good relations with the other faiths there?

One of the articles claims that peace would come to the Middle East, as the old joke goes, if the Moslems and the Jews would sit down like good Christians. The suggestion that peace could come through Jews and Moslems accepting Jesus is a non-starter. First of all, it insults the integrity of two religions. Second, we could just as easily say that peace would come if everyone became Jewish, or became Moslem.

Or one could even say that the persecution of Christians in Israel would end if the Christians all became Jews. I’m sure you would not find that a tenable solution.

There is also a cultural clash evident here. Over the years, I have come to understand the Christian burden for sharing the gospel. For Jews, that notion is foreign. In our tradition, the righteous of all nations — Christian, Moslem, Buddhist, whatever — have a share of the World to Come. We find that there are many paths to God, and the Jewish faith is our path. To us, the idea that God would have one all-or-nothing litmus test (namely, faith in Jesus) goes completely against our concept of a merciful God, and our interpretation of Scriptures.

Judaism views Christianity as a path to God (though not our path), and admires its efforts to spread the idea of the One True God to the rest of the world (though not when accompanied by physical force or coercion). The typical Jewish response to missionizing is “why come after us? Go after those who have no religion.” And many Christian denominations have adopted that idea and ended missions to the Jews, affirming in their own theology that God still has a special relationship with the Jewish people. That affirmation, incidentally, was denounced by the Southern Baptist Convention last year.

Sadly, some Christians still target us in the most insidious of ways, be it through messianic churches dressed up in Jewish clothing, or through statements by the Southern Baptist leadership last year that promoted the idea of breaking the trust engendered through interfaith dialogue and using such dialogues as an opportunity to witness. While your articles seem to belittle our fears of Christians coming to “steal our souls,” there is no other way, in our perspective, to describe it.

In a few months, I will make my seventh trip to Israel. It is a wonderful, complex place. I have walked the Via Dolorosa with Christian friends and witnessed Baptisms in the Jordan. They have come to the Western Wall with me and climbed Masada. It is wonderful when, in the words of the Hebrew song, we can join hands as brothers. I have attended services and spoken in many churches across Alabama, and many of my non-Jewish friends have visited my synagogue and celebrated our holidays with my family.

But when my beliefs are attacked, I make no apologies in defending them. That is something anyone should be able to understand, even if we disagree.