Israel & The Church: Antisemitism, Zionism, and the People of God

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. – Romans 9:1-5

There’s nothing Christian about Antisemitism, but there’s always been plenty of Christians willing to embrace it. Sadly, as recent events have painfully reminded us, whether we’re talking about petty stereotyping or wholesale slaughter, Antisemitism has been a besetting sin of Western civilization and Christianity for millennia.

This vile prejudice possesses a long and disgusting pedigree, going back long before there even was a church. Because of this, and because of certain theological ambiguities, many Christians are confused about how they should relate to the Jewish people today and particularly to the State of Israel. While there is room for debate over the nature of the modern Israeli government, there can be no compromise with Antisemitism in any form.

For two millennia, the combination of theological questions and historical prejudices has meant that Jews have occupied an ambiguous place in the Western and Christian imaginations. On the one hand, they are a key fountainhead of Euro-American culture and the ethnic cradle of Christianity. On the other, it would be hard to argue that any group has suffered longer at the hands of Western Christians than the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The first clear example of Antisemitism set the stage for nearly all that would follow. We read in the book of Esther that Haman, a Persian official in the 400s BC, was offended that Mordecai, a Jew, would not bow to him. In his complaint to the emperor, Haman whines that the Jews did not conform to the ways of the nations. This cultural and moral exclusivity was enough for Haman to call for genocide. It was only by the grace of God’s faithfulness to His promises that this proto-Holocaust failed, and the Jews were able to turn the tables on their foes.

Not long later, Antisemitism arose once more, this time in Egypt. As the historian Josephus relates, the tension between Alexandria’s Greek population and its Jews had been simmering since the time of Alexander the Great, as the Macedonian conqueror had granted equality to the Jewish population. By the time of the Roman-Jewish War in the AD 60s, this hostility broke out into riots between the two groups. After the legions restored order, some 50,000 Jews lay dead.

Over the next few hundred years, this pre-Christian antagonism was, sadly, baptized by the emerging Christian culture of the Mediterranean basin. While some of this was little more than crass accommodation to the culture or vendettas for earlier Jewish persecutions of Christians, there were also significant theological issues at stake, issues that continue to affect Jewish-Christian relations to this day.

As the church began to emerge as a group distinct from its Jewish origins in the First Century, its leaders struggled to articulate the new relationship. Much of the New Testament is taken up with this very issue. How much of the Hebrew Scriptures were applicable to Gentile converts? Were the Jews, the ancient Covenant people of God, now lost forever? Did the coming of Christ supplant or undo the promises of God to His people?

Subsequent apologetic interactions became increasing antagonistic. Many Christian writers were frustrated at the Jews’ refusal to accept the Jewish Messiah, seeing this hesitation as more grievous than that of simple Pagans. After all, Pagans declined to follow a God they did not know, but the Jews refused to heed the promises of their own prophets. Christians saw this as not mere unbelief but petty obstinacy. Rather than seeing themselves as “grafted in” to the promises given to Abraham, many Gentile Christians saw themselves as a new and better vine altogether.

Once the Empire and Northern Europe were “Christianized,” the plight of the Jews became far more difficult. Prevented on account of their religion from enjoying the rights and protections of full-citizens, they often could not practice trades open to others. Most Jews, like most Europeans, lived as peasants, but some managed to find a backdoor to relative prosperity. As Christians were prohibited from charging interest, Jewish merchants picked up the slack and offered loans. While this stimulated businesses across Christendom, it was a mixed blessing for the lenders. Some were able to amass fortunes through these efforts, but, as outsiders, resentment grew in the hearts of their neighbors.

In a tragic recapitulation of the persecution inflicted on their forebears by Roman society, Christians used Jews in their midst as scapegoats for bad harvests, plagues, and political misfortune. All across Europe, but most notably in Russian domains, pogroms unleashed the fury and frustrations of leaders and commoners alike on victims who had no hope of appeal and, until the rise of America and Israel, no place to run.

Rather than lessening through the ameliorating effects of the Enlightenment, the sufferings of the Jews, if anything, increased with the dawning of the modern age. As European society evolved in a secular direction, the refusal of the Jews to conform to progressive patterns meant that ancient prejudices found modern incarnations in conspiracy theories held by all segments of society. Jews were thought to be in absolute control of world events yet also bent on world destruction. Logical consistency is not a fundamental tenet of the conspiratorial mind.

This surging bile came to its horrific conclusion in the terrors of the Holocaust. Much to the postmortem chagrin of Nazism, its attempted Final Solution ushered in a great reevaluation by Westerners of the place of Jews in the world. So vile was Hitler’s program and so intense was the global revulsion that for the first time since the Romans banished them from the land in the First Century, the Jews of the world received a home of their own by international edict and their own battle prowess .

By itself, this was quite something, but it could also be nothing more than the birth of yet another new nation in the aftermath of World War II. Yet again, a theological development combined with these historical events to alter the situation. Particularly in America, the creation of the State of Israel led many Christians to reconsider their views on the Jews. Many saw this as the sign of Christ’s return and that this new nation had to be supported so as to speed the restoration of all things. Others simply saw this as a long-oppressed people finally finding shelter in a dangerous world.

At first this was non-controversial. After President Truman recognized the new nation in 1948, Christians, from prominent mainline theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to evangelical rising star Billy Graham, could support it. Not everyone who backed the Jewish state did so with an eye on the End. Some, like Carl F. H. Henry, broadly supported the Israelis but left his eschatological understandings in the background. However, as time went on and the State of Israel defied expectations by not only surviving but thriving, more and more Christians saw its continued existence as proof of biblical prophecy.

This trend only accelerated as the 1960s drew to a close. In that decade, two things happened which encouraged this momentum. One thing was the Israeli success in the Six Day War. Not only was this a dramatic victory by the outnumbered Jewish state, but also it ended with the Jews in possession of the whole of Jerusalem for the first time in 1900 years. It also meant a great increase in the number of Arabs now living under Jewish rule, a rule that was not always so kindly as it could have been.

The second thing, and which flowed in part from the first, was that the United States replaced Britain and France as the primary patron of the Israelis. For over forty years, American gold and guns have stood behind the State of Israel, making American Christians a key factor in Israel’s relative fortunes.

Recent years have seen two polarized attitudes towards Israelis and Jews. Some seem willing to grant the Israelis a blank check and only seem to become upset when they don’t push their Arab neighbors hard enough. Others, of the same mind, come close to or cross the line of saying that we shouldn’t try to evangelize the Jews since they’ll be saved without Christian conversion. This has led such Christians, at times, to turn a blind eye to unjust practices by Israelis and atrocities committed upon Arabs under their control.

At the other extreme, some Christians, disenchanted with that first group’s excesses and sensitive to the fallibility of the Israelis, have become increasingly pro-Arab and pro-Muslim. Generally less interested in eschatology than in healing the world of today, these groups tend to highlight the suffering of Arab peoples in Israel. Reciprocating the error of their opposite numbers, they have often looked the other way when Arabs have been the ones acting unjustly or committing atrocities.

So, where does this leave us? On the general question of Antisemitism, few will openly espouse this ancient sin. While survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen remain yet among us, portraying “the Jews” as the enemy of humanity continues as a forbidden flaw in polite society. Yet, not all society is polite. As memories of the Holocaust fade, the Antisemitic fringes, both Left and Right, are regaining a foothold.

Those on the Right do little than regurgitate the old tropes of global domination and “Christ-killers.” It would be tempting to say that these are the less dangerous, being, as they are generally outcasts and denied any formal prominence. However comforting that might be, it cannot be sustained as wounds still mend in Pittsburgh hospitals.

Those on the Left are rather more complicated, if for no other reason than they deny being Antisemitic. To be technical, this is true. They are not anti-Jewish but anti-Israeli. However, they have all too often let their theoretically legitimate complaints about Israeli flaws spill over so that they now echo Muslim Antisemitism rather than the Right’s European version. Bewailing the presence of “Zionist” occupying forces, they’ve harassed Jewish students at Western universities, made common-cause with overt Antisemites, and granted cover to anti-Jewish terror.

The Jewish people have suffered at the hands of others for thousands of years, and this is to our shame, as many of those hands were also folded in prayer to Yehoshua ben Dawid, Jesus, the son of David. Few today adhering to classical Christianity would legitimize this behavior, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t anything to worry about. We must do more than be not-bad; we must be good. The temptation to indulge or ignore Antisemitism in our midst must be opposed at every turn, whether it’s the ancient hatred of Haman and Hitler or the newer incarnations in the name of liberation of the oppressed.

Christians of good faith will continue to debate the place of ethnic Jews in the plan of God, and these disputes will outlive any now arguing one side or another. Whatever role Jews have play in the providential drama, they are human beings made in the image of God and should be treated with all accompanying dignity. At the same time, they are sons of Adam and are as much in the need of the blood of the Messiah as anyone. They are neither beyond the reach nor need of grace.

For the sake of their place as the ethnic kin of Christ and for the sake of their place as the ethnic kin of us all, we must seek the well-being of the Jewish people here on Earth and long for their presence with at the court of the King of the Jews in heaven.


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