Monday, August 15, 2011

Jews and Evangelicals: Head vs. Heart

The other day I discussed Ben Shapiro's column about Rick Perry's "The Response." In that column, Shapiro claimed that, among other things, "public displays of faith strengthen the unity of our nation."

Only problem is, when your religious display has fundamentalist preachers with exclusivist views of salvation, it kind of brings the unity down.

For instance, John Hagee, who gave a prayer at Perry's rally. Yeah, that guy. The guy that was so nutty John McCain was forced to disavow him (after toadying up to him) during the last election. Swell.

It's interesting to follow some of the threads here. Hagee runs Christians United For Israel, an organization that many Jews are a tad wary of. Of course, some think CUFI is just great, like the self-proclaimed "America's sellout rabbi" Shmuley Boteach, who liked the CUFI dinner he went to in July so much he sang its praises in his op-ed column.

The Christians United for Israel dinner in Washington, DC was an experience I won’t quickly forget. Until you sit in a room with five thousand Christian lovers of Israel and absorb their enthusiasm for the Jewish state and the Jewish people you would be hard pressed to think it possible. But there I was, surrounded by Christians from all over the nation waving Israeli and American flags, pledging eternal love and support to the most vilified country on earth. The speeches came fast and furious. The statements bold and unapologetic. Israel must never trade land for peace. Every attempt to do so has led to terror bases for Hamas and Hezbollah. Israel is one of the freest and most democratic nations on earth. President Obama better stop pressuring Israel or pay for it at the polls. Iran is an existential threat to both Israel and the United States. Those who treat the Jews poorly are abandoned by G-d, as history has shown time and again. The American University campus has become a hub of anti-Israel hatred. We’re deploying our legions to fight it.
Sheesh. I could scarcely sit down. Nearly every line deserved an ovation.

What? I can see how statements of support are good, but these are specific policy positions being phrased as moral absolutes. "Israel must never trade land for peace?" If Israelis get pissy about Diaspora Jews dictating terms to them, why would a bunch of US Evangelicals be any better? And "deploying our legions to fight it?" Wow, nothing like some fun holy war imagery to warm the cockles of the heart.

Lest you think it was just Hagee's people at this thing, Shmuley sets the record straight:
The crowd was anything but monolithic. The head of CUFI’s campus operations is a young African-American student who pledged his life to fighting for Israel. Shades of all colors were to be found in the audience with a smattering of yarmulkes dotting the landscape as well. Glenn Beck, the keynote speaker, is a Mormon even though the vast majority of participants were evangelical Christians who are often suspicious of Mormonism. An orthodox Rabbi gave the opening benediction. My friend Dennis Prager addressed the crowd the night before the banquet, and my friend Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, gave a moving historical account of Christians over the last century who were moved to support Israel based on Biblical teaching. 
That's right, people. Count it, that's four whole Jews including Shmuley including a "smattering" of yarmulkes! Bam. Diversity, baby. Right there. (Ok, to be fair it seems like there were some others, too. Not sure why Shmuley didn't mention them. Maybe they weren't famous enough?)

Incidentally... if broad support is good for Israel, wouldn't it be really, really great to try to have a wider swath of Christians (both denomination and political orientation-wise) be included in CUFI? I mean, it's cool that they had evangelicals AND a Mormon, but given that evangelicals are only 26% of the population, it might be good to try to encourage the CUFI folks to have a big tent. As opposed to, you know, consigning everyone else to hell. Just a thought.

And here we get into some of the weirdness:
 “I am an Israeli,” declared CUFI founder Pastor John Hagee, swearing to forever defend Israel against attack at the risk of life and limb.
Right, except you're actually not. Just like Glenn Beck isn't a Jew. No, really, apparently this needs to be clarified:

But what brought the crowd to its feet for a lengthy standing ovation, which included the waving of the Israeli and American flags and the blowing of the shofar, was Beck’s pledge to stand by Israel at any cost. “Today I declare: Count me a Jew, and come for me first,” he told the cheering crowd. “Let us declare: I am a Jew.”

Now, Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg points out that this is meant to be an act of solidarity against Jew-haters, in the same vein as the (apocryphal) King-of-Denmark-wearing-a-yellow-star-story. Fair enough. But again, I personally find that there's something a little disconcerting about such a passionate embrace of Jews and Israel by evangelicals-- to the point of claiming those identities and labels for themselves even when they aren't true. Maybe it's a style thing, maybe it's an intellectual thing, but it rubs me the wrong way. It feels over the top. It feels disconnected from reality. Which, given that issues of fantasy vs. reality, the true meaning of words, and of course, who are the "real Jews" are all big issues dividing Jews and conservative Christians already, is maybe not the smartest rhetorical style to employ.

In fact, this may be the key to understanding some of the fundamental differences between Jews (certainly liberal Jews) and their would-be conservative Christian allies. In a sense, Jews are the intellectual Yeshivish to the Christians' more folksy, heartfelt Hasidim. Head vs. Heart. (While the "liberals think they're smarter than everyone else" trope is a longstanding cultural jibe, anyone who has spent time with or studied populist religious movements such as Hasidim or evangelicalism knows that these groups have plenty of elitism in their own way.)

The reality is, most Jews, certainly in America, tend to connect with their religion on a level that is more intellectual than mystical. Ditto for personal identity, relations with Israel, etc. Mystical and spiritual levels may exist as well, but for the majority, these are intellectual matters, approached in a serious manner. Hearing about Christians dancing the hora, blowing shofars, talking about defending Jews from a future Holocaust and proclaiming themselves Jews and Israelis by virtue of the fact that they think we're cool-- this does not come across as serious, but as pageantry. And to the degree it is taken seriously by the participants, it's actually kind of distressing as it shows how far the gap between the two cultures is.

As I've said previously, I don't think Christians supporting Israel is bad. Certainly it's preferable to hatred or animus. But the kind of support CUFI seems to want to offer, the kind of relationship they are cultivating, which views everything within a specific political and religious lens, is somewhat alarming. Because Israel does not seem to be appreciated or related to on its terms, but CUFI's. Granted, this is something many American Jews may also be guilty of, but, not to seem self-centered, I feel that as Jews, our investment in what happens there, at least on the level of collective Jewish engagement, is somewhat higher than your average American Christian. At the end of the day, I don't think CUFI cares about-- or understands--  the modern, secular-ish, Green Line part of Israel. When people like Glenn Beck or John Hagee say they love Jews and Israel, exactly who are they talking about? All the attention seems to go towards the quasi-Messianic vision articulated by Likud and other parties to its right. I would feel much more comfortable with CUFI if its policy was to support Israel, period, not agitate for specific political policies that they think its government should stick to.

Shmuley writes about Beck's speech specifically addressing the often-repeated concern that Christian support of Israel is primarily focused around End-times theology:
“It’s not only the support we offer Israel,” said Beck, “that matters. The reason for doing so is also important. We can’t do this because we think it will bring final salvation or for any other reason. Rather, it’s about love. Why did Ruth declare to Naomi, “Where you go I’ll go. You’re G-d is my G-d. Where you die I’ll die, and there I’ll be buried. Because she loved her. This has to be about love.” His words directly addressed the discomfort some Jews feel with Christian support for Israel as being based on end-of-days prophecy and a necessary precursor for the return of Christ.
There is nothing wrong with love, but this is love coming from strangers. Before you say you're Israeli or you're a Jew, show us you understand what that means. Do you even know the people you claim to love/identify with? I'm going to go out on a limb and say that most of CUFI's supporters and participants are really fans of Jews who fit into their cultural reference-point: religious and politically conservative. This poses something of an issue, as most of the world's Jews are not Orthodox (at best, the Orthodox are a third, at worst, a seventh), and the vast majority are politically liberal. Given how fond evangelicals seem to be of using holy war language, I have to say, it's a little tricky to square away how they can dislike us so much when discussing anything else, but we're supposed to take their word for it that they actually really, really like us because we happen to be Members of the Tribe. Again, it comes off as either disingenuous or verging on psychotic.

I guess what I'm saying is, show us you guys aren't nuts. Sorry if that sounds mean, but I don't think I'm alone when I say that when first meeting someone I'd much rather start with a hello and a handshake than getting a bearhug and being told that we're long-lost twins.


In keeping with his long tradition of using his op-ed columns to pimp himself out, Shmuley has a new book coming out. This one's about Jesus, and in keeping with his long tradition of having zero creativity, he's calling it Kosher Jesus.
The book seeks to offer to Jews and Christians the real story of Jesus, a wholly observant, Pharisaic Rabbi who fought Roman paganism and oppression and was killed for it. While many Christians will be confused by its assertion that Jesus never claimed divinity and not only did not abrogate the Torah but observed every letter of the Law, they will find comfort in my tracing most of Jesus’ principal teachings back to Jewish sources, this before he was stripped of his Jewishness by later writers who sought to portray him as an enemy of his people.
...But the book is also for Jews who remain deeply uncomfortable with Jesus because of the Church’s long history of anti-Semitism, the deification of Jesus, and the Jewish rejection of any Messiah who has not fulfilled the Messianic prophecies... But as Christians and Jews now come together to love and support the majestic and humane Jewish state, it’s time that Christians rediscover the deep Jewishness and religious Jewish commitment of Jesus, while Jews reexamine a lost son who was murdered by a brutal Roman state who sought to impose Roman culture and rule upon a tiny yet stubborn nation who will never be severed from their eternal covenant with the G-d of Israel.
As always, I'm totally unclear who Shmuley thinks his audience is. Lord knows it's sure not anyone in my house.

Hat-tips: Dovbear and JewishIsrael.


JRKmommy said...

I had some encounters with the ultra-Zionist, Jew-loving evangelicals.

They are quite sincere. It's not an act, and when evangelicals get passionate, they far exceed your typical Jewish activist.

You are quite right, however, that it can feel weird. On one hand, when you are used to anti-semitism, it feels nice to get support from somewhere, anywhere. OTOH, I remember getting seriously creeped out by a former boss, 25 years ago, who told me "we love the Jewish people" as soon as she found out I was Jewish. Hello, you've only known me a few days, I wanted to say to her.

I was also amused by a surreal scene at a Labour Zionist summer camp near us a couple of years ago. There was an evangelical farmer family that lived not too far away. They looked vaguely Duggar-ish, with the girls having long hair and long skirts, and they were very excited about visiting a camp with Real Live Jews. I doubt that the camp director, of Israeli-Yemenite descent, had ever met Christians like this before, but he welcomed them as guests. They were very nice, but thoroughly confused as they watched the Friday night Israeli dancing by boys and girls in shorts, and I found myself in the role of cultural interpreter.

Personally, I can't stand the amount of mindless anti-semitism from former allies on the left, so I understand the allure of this love. However, I also remember how Jews once thought that those on the left were our allies and how we were betrayed (my bubby was actually part of a Jewish organization that supported the Soviet Union until revelations of Stalin's anti-Jewish atrocities emerged in 1956), so in some ways this feels like hooking up on the rebound.

For some Jewish-loving from non-Jews with no religious agenda - talk to Indians! They tend to like Israel, hate terrorism, and India has NO history of anti-semitism!

Friar Yid said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, JRKmommy. Yes, I think in some ways the cultural and personality divides are a much better way to understand and explain the longstanding Jewish apprehension about "Jew-loving evangelicals."

For a long time I was convinced it was just about the Armageddon stuff, but I think actually the Armageddon framework is only an aspect of this larger dynamic: to speak in generalities, Jews on the whole tend to be more intellectual, more reserved, and more practical than the charismatic, "on fire with the lord" evangelicals we've become used to hearing and reading about. To a large degree, I feel like part of the discomfort has to do with the fact that other than the fact that we agree that there should be an Israel in the world, I (and other liberal Jews) have little to nothing in common with these folks, and certainly would not choose to have them as friends or allies. That's not even getting into the reality that we tend to be at polar opposites on most other political issues. That's a big piece, as well as the ongoing feeling that when the Christian Right talks about Jews and Israel they are talking about imaginary or romanticized versions of these things as opposed to the real people and country on the ground.

Maybe it's also a knee-jerk reaction to hearing people talk in moral absolutes of black and white. Jews (particularly liberal ones) love nothing more than playing devil's advocate and getting all up in those shades of gray.