Jews and Evangelicals: it’s Complicated

I have lived a large part of my life outside the Jewish bubble. I have known many Evangelical Christians, and some of them have been good friends. So I wasn’t surprised to hear about “God TV” and its attempt – which apparently did not succeed, although it came very close – to initiate a Hebrew language TV channel on HOT, Israel’s largest cable provider, that is an unabashed attempt to “broadcast the gospel of Jesus Christ – Yeshua the Messiah – in Israel on cable TV in the Hebrew language” (video here). The channel is called “Shelanu” [ours] to remind us that Jesus was one of us, a Jew – as if this is an argument for Jews to adopt Christianity!

Many Israelis and Jews are outraged by missionary activity aimed at us. From our point of view it is deeply insulting. How dare they try to subvert Judaism, especially considering the history of Christian (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) Jew hatred? Arguably, the very wellspring of all antisemitism is the response of non-Jews – leaders of the early Church, Mohammed, Martin Luther, the Inquisition, et al – to the stubborn refusal of Jews to replace their traditional beliefs and rituals with the “better” ones proposed by the various religious innovators. So naturally we vehemently reject modern-day attempts to convert us.

Jews are generally not judgmental toward those who practice other faiths (they specialize in criticizing other Jews). We do not go around telling Christians that they are practicing idolatry, nor do we attack Hindus for their polytheism. In modern times, most strains of Judaism do not engage in proselytizing. And so we have little patience when it is directed at us.

The legal discussion concerning whether the channel should be permitted will be interesting. Israel has freedom of religion, as indicated in the Declaration of Independence. The courts have upheld the right of free expression of religious beliefs, on the basis of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. There are, however, laws forbidding anyone from providing material benefit to someone for changing their religion, and forbidding attempts to persuade a person under 18 to change religion. Tourists can be prevented from entering the country or even deported for missionary activity.

Religious programming on TV is permitted. Even, theoretically, proselytizing programming. But if it is determined that it may influence young people, then it may not be allowed.

In order to understand why Evangelical Christians – who are otherwise supportive of Israel and may be quite friendly with Jews as a people and as individuals – would do something that is guaranteed to anger Jews and damage their relationship with them we need to look at some of their beliefs.

There of course is no one “Evangelical Christianity.” But Evangelicals generally believe that salvation requires an act of “conversion” or acceptance of Jesus as one’s savior and a renunciation of sin. The sometimes sudden life-changing experience is what some call being “born again.” Unlike Judaism, which requires above all observance of mitzvot [commandments], Evangelicals emphasize a radically powerful belief, which completely changes a person’s relationship to this world as well as his future in the world to come.

Along with the personal aspect of belief is the universal aspect, by which Evangelicals believe that one of their most important personal tasks, indeed one of the morally best things that they can do, is to bring others to the realization of the “good news.” If someone is resistant to the message, it can only be that they simply don’t understand what the stakes are; they don’t know what they are missing in this life, nor what will happen to them when they die, if they don’t accept Jesus while they still can.

Evangelicals believe that the Bible, including the Jewish Tanach, is the Word of God, either literally or by divine inspiration; and they study it carefully for guidance in all matters. Many Evangelicals are much more familiar with the Tanach than Jews, even Jews that have had Jewish educations. This naturally leads them to believe in the spiritual importance of the Jewish people. Often they quote biblical passages as the justification for their support and even love of Israel and the Jewish people. And how better to show your love for someone than to try to give them a better life, and save them from a horrible, eternally painful, doom?

It’s often said that Evangelical support for Israel, as well as their desire to convert Jews, is based on a belief in certain prophecies about the “End Times,” and they are acting in ways that will bring it closer. Some may believe this, but most of those who do accept such prophecies believe that the great upheavals and mass conversions that will mark the End Times are predestined, and not affected by human actions.

I think it should be clear that trying to explain to Evangelicals that it is inappropriate to proselytize among Jews will not be successful. Sharing and spreading their faith is a fundamental part of that faith itself; we can no more get them to renounce it then a Christian could get us to accept the Trinitarian nature of God.

At the same time, Jews have a right not to be bombarded with attempts to persuade them to abandon their own faith (I know Christian missionaries say they are just adding something to it, but that is disingenuous). The people behind the Shelanu TV channel are guilty of what popular psychology calls “bad boundaries.” One of the reasons for the existence of a Jewish state is to provide a place in which we can fully realize the Jewish dimension of our personal identity, something that is difficult or impossible in the diaspora. Part of the problem is the continuous pressure, even coercion, by the majority population, to give up our spiritual uniqueness. Missionary activity reintroduces that pressure. And the fact that it happens here in our own country diminishes our sovereignty.

Although it is important to protect the rights to freedom of expression and religion, no rights can be absolute, because of conflicts among them. Here in the Jewish state, unlike in the diaspora, there are special rights, or privileges, or benefits, for Jews and Judaism. We’ve tried to express some of this “specialness” in the controversial Basic Law: Israel – the Nation-State of the Jewish People.

So I think that if it becomes necessary to limit some of the rights exercised by those who love us so much that they find it acceptable to trespass on our boundaries, we might look to this law as a justification for that limitation.

That’s a job for the lawyers and judges. Meanwhile – and I really mean this – with the utmost respect for my Evangelical friends and strong supporters of Israel, I would like to see “God TV” out of the Jewish state.

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2 Responses to Jews and Evangelicals: it’s Complicated

  1. Hava Goldman says:

    Thank you so much for writing this! I have a more negative view towards Christians than you do. I find that they don’t really respect boundaries as you said; so we must at some point act to block them. It may not end in a friendly manner, but too bad.

    My answer to the question of whether it is a good thing to convert to Christianity is: I don’t accept a god who is any percent human, not even a baby fingernail’s worth, or is material in any way; nor do I convert to its religion. That’s it!

  2. Pinchas Baram says:

    spot on, Vic. send this essay to Rev. John Hagee, Michael Evans and other evangelicals. We appreciate their political support and personal friendship, but they should know by now that we are already married, as it were, and don’t want to divorce our Jewish wife.

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