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Jewish-Christian Relations Are Suffering

Privileging allyship over understanding injects an unhealthy amount of partisan political strategy into interfaith encounters

Yehuda Kurtzer
April 14, 2022
 Fr. Lawrence Lew/Flickr
Fr. Lawrence Lew/Flickr
 Fr. Lawrence Lew/Flickr
Fr. Lawrence Lew/Flickr

This past week the legislative committee of the Episcopal Church met via Zoom as part of their 80th General Convention. There were 196 resolutions in total; eight were oriented, in one way or another, toward criticism of Israeli policy with regard to the Palestinians. Three were about “apartheid,” variously titled “confronting apartheid,” “recognizing apartheid,” or “opposing apartheid.” A separate resolution was advanced to criticize Christian Zionism. There were more resolutions expressing concern that these forms of pro-Palestinian activism would be misinterpreted as antisemitism than there were actual resolutions dealing with antisemitism in the church.

At the request of a senior Episcopal colleague, I came as a guest to the conference to offer “testimony” to the committee against one of the apartheid resolutions. Resolution C025 wedded the political language it had sourced from human rights organizations and the BDS movement with theological rhetoric from Christian tradition, as though the two originated from the same source. I listened to various testimonies in support of these resolutions that rarely actually described political realities on the ground in Israel-Palestine, but instead leaped to vast interpretive claims. One church leader, for instance, used his two minutes to claim that Jesus hated the book of Joshua, which I think was a way of saying that the State of Israel was a manifestation of the Jewish people’s historical brutality. Another insisted that to Christians, the Land of Israel of the Bible must never be understood literally as an actual place on Earth, only as a metaphor. The language of several of the resolutions nakedly contrasted the actions of the State of Israel as against the ethos of the Gospels. Is there no irony left, such that American Christians—citizens of the largest empire on Earth—can freely lecture the Jewish state for serving as an exemplar of what it means to be the world’s leading antagonist to Jesus’ message?

Meanwhile, it was clear that the main function I was there to serve was to counterbalance the many voices of Jews who were there to give testimony to the church that would give them cover for the anti-Israel rhetoric, and allow some of their adherents to insist—as several did—that they were in no way antisemitic. One rabbi from the Pacific Northwest used her two minutes to apologize to the Palestinians for perpetrating apartheid against them. I did not know there was apartheid in Portland.

Jewish-Christian relations are in real trouble, more than would seem obvious at a moment in Jewish history when American Jews are freely at home as citizens and stakeholders in a majority Christian country, and when the Jewish state is the most popular cause célèbre of that Christian majority. The Episcopalians are hardly the only Christian denomination that has been seized by this kind of anti-Zionist fervor. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church released a brief statement centering the Palestinian struggle as the central issue of concern, depicting the Jews as a people of “humble beginnings” to contrast an essentialized version of Jews and Judaism with the version of state power held today by Jews in Israel, and implicitly characterizing the Jews as the enslavers—rather than as the redeemed—in the Exodus story.

These are just two examples, and they both witness a slippage in Christian liberal rhetoric back toward the forms of Christian anti-Judaism that, for much of the past two millennia, subsumed actual Jews into metaphorical and mythical renderings of the Jew for the purpose of Christian theology and the construction of a moral conscience for the West. These new Christian expressions of anti-Israelism replace “the Jew” with “the Israeli” toward the same end: a form of dehumanization of Jews, layered on very particular forms of political language and activism that claim themselves as allyship with Palestinians.

Alone, these represent political challenges, especially for those inside the church more sympathetic to the Israeli position or at least those who do not want to see church theology used so nakedly to paper over political programs. But the larger concern here is that these efforts are also eroding the enormous progress in Jewish-Christian dialogue and reconciliation achieved over several decades, which was prompted by the post-Holocaust moment and a recognition by the church of the need to reckon with a history of antisemitism.

At stake for Christianity today, and for Jewish-Christian relations, is not just Israeli policy; it is what to make of Zionism. Zionism is a 100-year-old intellectual, theological, and principally political project through which the Jewish people have been renegotiating our place in the world and establishing ourselves as a people within the family of nations. This entails a “return to history” by Jews in engaging with power and as a polity in ways that depart from much of the Jewish historical experience, and in many ways fundamentally transforms what it means to be a Jew, both as understood by most Jews in the world, and as seen by others.

Zionism confuses Christians, as it confuses Jews. Zionism is full of paradoxes: The Jewish people seek both normalcy and exceptionalism in the form of a nation-state, to be a “nation apart” and a “city on a hill.” Zionism also thinks of itself both as a continuation of and a revolution against Jewish history. Questions abound for contemporary Jews that our ancestors would have thought of only as theoretical, especially as they relate to what it means to be a majority ruling over a minority. It is no surprise that these questions pull apart the Jewish community, as the politics of Zionism inherently invite division; and it is no surprise, in turn, that Christians seeking to be our allies do not know how to show up.

In this respect, we should also be troubled by the philosemitic expressions of this kind of Christianizing of Jewish morality as well, especially in the forms of Christian Zionism that displace actual Jews with a theological function that Jews are meant to serve. This includes reading the Bible literally and then rendering service and kindness to contemporary Jews as a means of enacting divine promises. Some politically conservative and pro-Israel Jews happily accept these gestures, as they are often accompanied by political support and philanthropy for the State of Israel. Sometimes this is done with sincerity and sometimes people just like having allies and friends. I am less sanguine: I identify neither with the imagined Jew of the evangelical prosperity gospel of Genesis 12:3 nor as the moneychanger object of Jesus’ scorn in the Temple, as many progressives seem to want to see Zionists.

It is striking how quickly the gains in Jewish-Christian relations gave way, and the failures on this front validate some of the trenchant criticisms that were leveled against the major dialogue efforts in their time. Back in 2001, in response to the cri de coeur “Dabru Emet,” authored together by Jewish and Christian theologians as a statement of understanding between the two faiths, Jon D. Levenson argued that these efforts effectively reduced the gap between Judaism and Christianity to “the narcissism of small differences.” This happens, I would argue, because most efforts at interfaith engagement seek commonality as their objective: They orient themselves toward building social and ideological fabric between their participants. This kind of commonality can be universal in nature, seeking to remind the participants of their shared humanity, which should then transcend the messy particulars of difference; or, more commonly, it is particular in nature, attempting to show the ways in which a serious commitment in Judaism or Christianity finds echo or resonance in the tradition of the Other.

Sometimes these commitments to commonality are banal (we are all children of Abraham!) and sometimes trivial (look, both Jews and Muslims detest dessert hummus!); but sometimes they are profound, and this is where the problem lies: When people of different faiths become so eager to find spiritual and theological connection that they reduce the commitments of the other to caricature so that it might find echo in their own.

This is what is happening all over Jewish-Christian relations, mapped onto Zionism—the versions of Zionism that are anathema to the politics of the left get maligned theologically by churches on the left, and the versions of Zionism that resonate with the politics of the right get championed by churches on the right. Lost in all of this is that Jews are still working out the relationship between our own Judaism and our Zionism, and the conflict that manifests in our community on Israel should be ours to navigate without these monkeys on our back.

This theologizing of the politics of Israel-Palestine is also bad for Palestinians. The churches engaged in criticizing Israel do so ostensibly as an act of allyship, though it is hard to understand how the use of theological antisemitism in service of their cause will help the Palestinians in their struggle for justice and reconciliation with their Jewish neighbors. Christian Zionism, in turn, positions itself against the Palestinians as their theological and political enemy, and for Jews to embrace these views is to become complicit in making the Israel-Palestinian conflict more of a holy war than it needs to be.

And there is an alternative—slower, less politically popular, but more urgent now than ever before. Bishop Krister Stendahl pioneered several key principles for interfaith encounters: the idea of “holy envy,” that we cultivate an appreciation for aspects of other religious traditions not found in one’s own; a commitment to not compare the worst adherents of another faith to the ideal type in one’s own; and most saliently, that when seeking to understand another religion, you ask the members of that faith and not define them based on your own criteria (or based on how they are defined by their enemies).

Christians bear the responsibility to exhibit the humility of not casting as protagonists and antagonists the real human beings between the river and the sea.

Stendahl’s approach, in other words, was not interested in commonalities: It was interested entirely in inquiry, with an end goal of understanding.

The privileging of understanding as the goal of the interfaith encounter—not allyship, which is a political strategy, and not common fellowship, which excises difference—is an increasingly lost art in our partisan political era. I suspect it is viewed as a luxury in interfaith work when so many religious leaders feel inclined to leverage religious faith toward urgent and concrete political ends; it seems to me that instead of trying to defeat the religious right through secular political means, the religious left is trying to compete on their own terms. In such a climate, the politics of allyship—and the accompanying theologies of commonality—are going to reign, and all the hard and slow work of listening for the exotic and the foreign will give way to political expediency.

But this is a loss, and I fear that the growing number of Christians who believe their activism on Israel-Palestine is in service of what they think is good for Jews and representative of Judaism is a long-term existential threat to the capacity of the Jews to accomplish something it took thousands of years to do, which is to stop being a metaphor. We are not a metaphor. As messy as Zionism is, it is a story of the present, and no past template can be effective. When it comes to Jews—more than half of whom are Zionists, and who are in open conflict with one another about these commitments—Christians bear the responsibility to exhibit the humility of not casting as protagonists and antagonists the real human beings between the river and the sea. It is for the benefit of our bodies, as well as our beliefs.

On Passover this week, the Jewish holiday of freedom, we Jews will debate around our tables the proximity, the limit, and the cost of our freedom; and Israelis and Palestinians will continue to seek permanence and peace in their shared promised land. American Christians, in these stories, are now invited to be curious listeners, and to resist the temptation to wed their theological interests to tendentious political positions. We all deserve the right to be the narrators of our own redemption.

Yehuda Kurtzer is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and host of the Identity/Crisis Podcast.