Iraqi Christians who fled the violence in the village of Qaraqush, about 30 kilometres east of the northern province of Nineveh, rest upon their arrival at the Saint-Joseph church in the Kurdish city of Arbil, in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, on August 7, 2014.(SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
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Listen to Jews, Not Just Ted Cruz, on Middle East Christians

Controversy over the senator’s remarks has distracted from the real issue

Yair Rosenberg
September 17, 2014
Iraqi Christians who fled the violence in the village of Qaraqush, about 30 kilometres east of the northern province of Nineveh, rest upon their arrival at the Saint-Joseph church in the Kurdish city of Arbil, in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, on August 7, 2014.(SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz walked off the stage at a dinner supporting Middle Eastern Christians, after the pro-Israel portion of his remarks drew heckling from some in the audience. “If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews,” he declared, “then I will not stand with you.” The incident has sparked a heated but thoughtful debate among conservatives about the moral complexities of supporting both the Jewish state and persecuted Middle East Christians, given that the latter are not always favorably disposed towards the former. While this conversation is important, and Christians, Jews, conservatives and liberals alike could benefit from reading some of the sharper takes on the subject, the firestorm over Cruz’s walkout has had several less salutary consequences.

First, it subordinated the dire plight of the Middle East’s Christians–who are being brutally cleansed from the region–to a partisan squabble. And second, it has turned Israel into a litmus test over whether those Christians deserve outside support, when in fact Jews and the Jewish state have been actively working to bolster that support, without making any such demands. Whether one agrees with Cruz’s actions or not, then, it is important to refocus our attention on those in desperate need, and to emphasize the many Jewish efforts to assist them. Here are some of them.

On August 19, as war was still raging between Israel and Hamas, Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, took to the pages of the New York Times not to advocate for Israel, but to advocate for the Middle East’s Christians. In an op-ed titled “Who Will Stand Up For The Christians?” Lauder wrote,

We share much more than most religions. We read the same Bible, and share a moral and ethical core. Now, sadly, we share a kind of suffering: Christians are dying because of their beliefs, because they are defenseless and because the world is indifferent to their suffering.

Good people must join together and stop this revolting wave of violence. It’s not as if we are powerless. I write this as a citizen of the strongest military power on earth. I write this as a Jewish leader who cares about my Christian brothers and sisters.

The piece has been shared on social media more than 110,000 times. In an earlier June speech in Budapest, Lauder told a gathering of Christians, “We will never tolerate any kind of anti-Christian threats, just as we will not tolerate anti-Semitism,” adding, “Your fight is my fight.”

Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi Emeritus of the United Kingdom and one of Europe’s leading public intellectuals, has also been outspoken on the subject long before it was on much of the Western world’s radar. In August 2013, he told the Telegraph that the persecution of Middle Eastern Christians was “the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing.”

We are seeing Christians in Syria in great danger, we are seeing the burning of Coptic churches in Egypt. There is a large Coptic population in Egypt and for some years now it has been living in fear. Two years ago the last church in Afghanistan was destroyed, certainly closed. There are no churches left in Afghanistan.

Between half a million and a million Christians have left Iraq. At the beginning of the 19th century Christians represented 20 per cent of the population of the Arab world, today two per cent. This is a story that is crying out for a public voice, and I have not heard an adequate public voice.

Being Jewish and having experienced the trauma of persecution and genocide, Sacks said, “you cannot but feel this very deeply and personally.”

And the list goes on. Tablet contributor Eylon Aslan-Levy has written in support of the Middle East’s beleaguered religious minorities in London’s Jewish Chronicle, calling on Jews to donate to charities devoted to assisting them. During the fighting in Gaza, Canada’s Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs marched in solidarity with Middle Eastern Christians. And Israel itself has quietly been helping refugees fleeing through Jordan and Syria.

The takeaway from all this should be clear: Whether or not one thinks Cruz was justified in his walkout, the tempest in the tea party over his actions must not be allowed to obscure the pressing plight of Christians in the birthplace of their faith, and our Jewish obligation to stand in solidarity with them.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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