WASHINGTON (Jul. 6)
Large Christian conferences have not always been good news for the Jews. There was, for example, the Council of Oxford in 1222, which prohibited the construction of synagogues in Christian Europe. The Synod of Breslau in 1267 required Europe’s Jews to live in ghettos. The Council of Basel in 1434 barred Jews from receiving academic degrees. The list goes on.
But this month, on July 18-19, there will be a Christian conference that is very good news for the Jews and people who care about Israel. On these two days, Christians United for Israel will hold its national summit in Washington. This summit will bring together more than 1,000 Christian activists from across the United States to lobby Congress in support of Israel.
While this outpouring of Christian support for Israel may seem laudable, many in the Jewish community will not cheer the conference. They will instead assert that what seems like support for Israel is merely a conspiracy to convert the Jews and continue the work of Christian conferences past. More specifically, they will claim that the goal of the conference and Christian Zionism in general is to reinstate the edict of the Synod of Breslau and once again place all Jews into a ghetto — one called Israel — so that Jesus can return and convert or kill the whole lot of us.
Why does this conspiracy theory have such a strong hold on the Jewish imagination? Why do thousands of Jews who have never even met an evangelical Christian or read the New Testament know with such certainty that Christians are hiding dark motives under their purported embrace of the Jews and the Jewish state?
The answer is history.
Jews are prepared to believe the worst about Christian motives because this view corresponds with everything they have learned about Jewish life in Christian lands. For almost two thousand years, Christianity was responsible for a series of anti-Semitic atrocities from the Crusades to the Inquisitions to the countless Easter Day pogroms. And during these difficult centuries, those claiming to be the most devoted Christians were typically the ones leading the charge against the Jews. Jews have learned to equate zealous Christianity with mortal danger.
What many Jews fail to realize, however, is that there has been an epochal shift in Christian theology toward the Jews. Because of this shift, evangelical Christians in America today have nothing to do with the Christians who persecuted us in the past.
For most of Christian history, the dominant Christian theology toward the Jews was “replacement theology,” which held that when the Jews rejected Jesus as their messiah, God rejected the Jews as his chosen people. The church replaced the Jews as the “Israel” to whom so much is promised in the Bible. Once the Jews were thus removed from God’s love, the door was opened to man’s hate. And this was a door through which generation after generation of Christians walked. The Christian conferences referenced above were the practical application of this negative theology.
But ever since the Reformation, there have been some small groups of Protestants who have rejected replacement theology and who believe — as Jews do — that the word “Israel” in the Bible means the Jews. Under this reading, the Jews continue to be the beneficiaries of God’s love and promises, and the Bible becomes an exhortation to Zionism and philo-Semitism. If the Jews are still beloved by God, then Christians wanting to do God’s will on earth will likewise want to embrace the Jews.
In early 20th-century United States, the nascent fundamentalist movement embraced this minority view and rejected replacement theology. As this movement grew and spread across the country, the number of Christians who adhered to this theology grew as well, to the point that it is the ascendant strain of American Christianity today.
Thus fundamentalist/evangelical support for Israel is not a continuation of past persecution by other means but an expression of an entirely different view of the Jews. The upcoming conference is the practical application of this new, philo-Semitic theology.
For centuries, Christians insisted on punishing Jews for the alleged sin of their ancestors in crucifying Jesus. And for centuries, Christians spoke with great certainty about the evil contents of a Talmud that they had never read.
We Jews, of all people, should be careful before we make presumptions about someone else’s theology or project onto such people the sins of their ancestors. As the storm clouds gather and new threats to Israel loom, we Jews should get to know our new friends before judging them. We make a mistake when we see echoes of the past in the upcoming conference of Christians United for Israel. Instead, we should see signs of a very different, and very bright, future.
David Brog, a committed Jew, is the author of the just-published book, Standing With Israel: Why Christians Support the Jewish State. He is also the executive director of Pastor Hagee’s group, Christians United for Israel.