Jewish-evangelical Christian alliance good for Israel
By Robert Horenstein
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Of all the other faith communities with which American Jews partner on a wide range of issues, none generates more internal discord than evangelical Christians.
There are those on the left who hold common misconceptions about the evangelicals’ true aims and are therefore extremely reluctant to work with them while others approach them with blinders on, embracing their support for Israel and ignoring significant differences of opinion over advocacy goals.
The Jewish community long ago developed prudent strategies for engaging mainline Protestants and Catholics, but we have largely misunderstood the 52-million-strong evangelical community. The result is that there’s a tendency among Jews to apply a double standard when considering whether to establish a partnership with Christian Zionists as opposed to, say, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Lutherans.
Those who oppose an alliance between Jews and the Christian right see it as shortsighted and dangerous because the two communities are generally on opposite sides on abortion, school prayer, and gay rights.
But the argument that Jews shouldn’t partner with evangelicals on Israel due to these disagreements goes against the notion of issue-based coalition building.
The nature of politics is such that disparate groups band together to advance their common agendas. It’s not at all incongruous for the Jewish community to work with evangelicals on Israel, divestment from Iran, or religious accommodation in the workplace while simultaneously opposing their efforts to ban abortion or lower the wall separating church and state.
Nor has it ever been a case of quid pro quo—Christian Zionists have never conditioned their support for Israel on Jewish support for their “family-values” agenda.
Indeed, this is how Jewish community relations councils and other advocacy groups routinely operate with other non-Jewish partners.
For example, progressive Jewish organizations tend to be strong advocates of Jewish-Muslim dialogue and partnership despite the fact that on social issues, American Muslims, on the whole, are nearly as conservative as evangelicals, and on Israel there’s hardly any common ground at all.
Similarly, Jewish groups have routinely collaborated (without a peep of protest) with local Catholics in anti-poverty campaigns despite such prominent disputes as the beatification of the anti-Semitic 19th–century Pope Pius IX and the failure of the Vatican to open its Holocaust-era archives.
And no coalition partner has worked more closely with the Jewish community than the mainline Protestants, together combating hunger, safeguarding civil rights, protesting genocide in Darfur, and protecting the environment. Yet, it’s from within these liberal denominations—in particular, their national bodies—that the insidious movement to divest from Israel has surfaced.
So why is the evangelical community looked upon differently in terms of a potential coalition partner?
Perhaps it’s the widespread belief among Jews that evangelical support for Israel is entirely predicated on “self-serving” theological considerations, i.e., the acceleration of the Second Coming of Jesus (something that the pre-millennial dispensationalists among them believe will happen only when all the Jews are in Israel).
According to the available survey data, however, while the vast majority of evangelicals possess a biblically-inspired sense of empathy with Israel, only about 10 percent are hardcore pre-millennial dispensationalists. Moreover, most evangelicals support Israel because they see it as an important ally in the war against radical Islam and because Israelis share their democratic values.
Such arguments may not persuade those who suspect that evangelical support for Israel is a subterfuge for conversionary activities. Yet, ironically, Christians involved in pro-Israel advocacy are precisely the ones who don’t engage in proselytization because by partnering with the Jewish community, they have gained an understanding of Jewish sensibilities. (It should be noted that an offensive full-page ad by an international group of evangelicals in the New York Times on March 28 pledged support for efforts specifically aimed at converting Jews. However, noticeably absent were the signatures of the leaders of nearly all of the major evangelical churches, organizations, and seminaries in America.)
To be sure, evangelicals believe that acceptance of Jesus is the path to salvation, but so do Catholics. Witness the new version of a Latin Catholic Good Friday prayer expressing hope that Jews will recognize Jesus, whom it characterizes as the savior of all people. Still, we continue to collaborate with Catholics on shared concerns.
None of this is to suggest that the Jewish community should blindly engage evangelicals without an awareness of the fact that even regarding Israel, their agenda diverges from ours.
Christian Zionist love for Israel sometimes translates into support for polices with which the majority of American Jews—or for that matter, the majority of Israelis—don’t agree. Evangelicals generally oppose any division of the Land of Israel while most American Jews support territorial compromise and a two-state solution assuming a trustworthy peace partner were to emerge one day on the Palestinian side.
Nonetheless, disagreements on specific policy questions shouldn’t preclude the establishment of partnerships with evangelicals.
When it comes to supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, fighting efforts to demonize Israel on university campuses, and assisting the besieged resident of Sderot, we need to take our allies when and where we can get them.
This article was originally published in the April 28, 2008, edition of the Jerusalem Report. Robert Horenstein is the staff director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland Community Relations Committee.