Sign Up

Strange Bedfellows, Part II: Israel and Christian Fundamentalists

What do Jews think about U.S. fundamentalists’ strong support for Israel?

January 21, 2003

What do Jews think about U.S. fundamentalists' strong support for Israel?

The ambivalence of Jews towards fundamentalist support is underlined by the general relationship between Christians and Jews in the United States. The Christians that are most comfortable with Jews and Judaism — both theologically and politically — are the liberal and mainstream groups.

But when it comes to Israel, it seems that the most faithful Christian friends are folks who — on a large variety of other issues — would almost never find themselves in agreement with most U.S. Jews.

Mainline Christian churches in the United States long ago abandoned the idea that efforts to convert Jews are worthwhile. In their churches, the old battle cry of "convert the Jews" has long since been abandoned.

And in many of the areas of the "culture wars" that beset the United States — ranging from abortion to the roles of the public schools — Jewish opinion and voting patterns are closer to the mainstream Protestants than any other religious group in the United States.

But these same mainline churches have taken up the cause of the Palestinians. To the Jewish community, they seem to be engaged in an unfair — and even at times — vicious attack on the Jewish state.

In contrast, the more conservative Christian fundamentalists profess great support for Israel. But when it comes to just about any other political issue, Jews are likely to be on the opposite side of the fence.

Beyond those political differences, the conversion issue remains as a major irritant. The Southern Baptist conference can still stir up the Jewish community.

It did so very prominently in 1996 — by pointedly adopting a resolution in which the Baptists promised to "direct our energies and resources toward the proclamation of the gospel to the Jewish people."

As the largest "sect" of Protestant fundamentalist Christians in the United States, the Southern Baptists sometimes seem (if one might excuse the phrase) hell-bent on insulting and alienating Jews.

Now, admittedly very few Jews are actually becoming Southern Baptists these days. But such things play directly into Jewish insecurities — and fears about Christians. After all, conversion (often forcible) was on the agenda for too many years in Europe.

Very little gets the American Jewish community as upset as the representatives of the "Jews for Jesus" movement (many of whom are not actually Jewish — by Jewish standards).

In fact, there is a wide range of Jewish attitudes towards Israel's fundamentalist supporters — despite these concerns.

Among more "liberal" Jews — those who belong to Reform and Conservative synagogues, or no synagogue at all — the innate Jewish suspicion of Christians is strengthened by the strong political differences.

Reform and Conservative Jews are more liberal (in U.S. political terms) than Orthodox Jews — and, of course, famously more liberal than most U.S. voters.

Orthodox Jews differ widely in their approach. Some have worked with the fundamentalists on neutral issues of common concern, such as funding for private schools — and abortion.

Since they are more inclined towards the right in U.S. politics than other Jews, fundamentalist Christians appear to be their natural allies.

Other Orthodox Jews, however, retain a stronger suspicion of the non-Jewish world. Many Orthodox Jews are in the forefront of what they perceive as a key battle against conversion. For this segment of the Orthodox Jewish community, fundamentalist Christian support for Israel is nothing less than another trick to convert Jews.

To them — and to some liberal Jews as well — the Southern Baptist approach is simply another version of the many historical attempts by Christians to obliterate the Jewish community and force or entice Jews to become Christians.

The Southern Baptist call rings in the ears of these folks as an echo of the Spanish Inquisition.

Or, the even worse memory — (for the Eastern European Jews who flocked to the United States) — of the attempts of the Russian Czar to forcibly assimilate young Jewish men by drafting them into the Russian army for 20 years.

From this vantage point, the Southern Baptists (and, by extension, other fundamentalist evangelicals) are as dangerous to the Jewish people as Yasser Arafat himself.

Israelis, on the other hand, are a bit more likely to appreciate the extra support of these surprising U.S. allies. Even here, however, there are key differences.

Some Israeli politicians, like former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, enthusiastically welcome the support of foreign Christians. Others, like Ehud Barak, keep their distance.

And Israeli newspaper accounts veer back and forth between wonderment and admiration for these allies on the one hand — and suspicion on the other.

After all, it is rather easy to obtain statements from the Christians implying that their reason for supporting Israel is to convert Israeli Jews to Christianity.

The resulting juicy headlines in Israeli newspapers help to ensure that Israeli Jews feel the same ambivalence towards the fundamentalists as U.S. Jews.

But the tone of admiration and wonder in such newspaper accounts is genuine, too. And that brings us to the primary reason why the Jewish response to the Christian support is more positive — given the long and bitter history of Jews and Christians — than might be expected.

In the ultimate analysis, Israel — and the Jews — view themselves as an embattled minority with few supporters in the world.

This is not just the result of the Holocaust. It runs throughout the history of the State of Israel — and, for that matter, Jewish history prior to the Holocaust as well. The sense of isolation is, in Jewish eyes, continually fed by lop-sided UN resolutions — and clumsy European attempts to be "even-handed."

That leads Israel and its Jewish supporters to the point where they are willing to accept just about anybody outside their own community who views the cause of the Jewish state sympathetically. From Israel's perspective, potential allies — any allies — are not easily ignored or discarded.

The long-term Israeli attitude is best summed up by a famous — although possibly apocryphal — remark by former Prime Minister Golda Meir. In the 1960s, when she was Israel's foreign minister, she was criticized by some right-thinking leftists.

Why? Israel's weapons were being supplied by the French — who, as any good leftist knew at the time, was in the doghouse for its actions in Algeria, then a French colony.

How could Israel — still generally in good odor with the left at the time — bear to be associated with the French? Golda was said to have responded that "to defend my country, I would buy arms from the devil himself."

An old Jewish joke has Jews interpreting every item in the newspaper — ranging from the weather forecast to the football scores — according to a single question. "Is it good for the Jews — or bad for the Jews?"

Whether Christian support for Israel is "good for the Jews or bad for the Jews," Israelis — and Jews around the world — are understandably cautious about alienating the few people who claim to be willing to stand by them in an hour of danger.