Zev Chafets is an author and columnist who just published the book A Match Made in Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists and one Man's Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Christian Alliance. Born and raised in Pontiac, Michigan, he moved to Israel in 1967. After a decade in the army, government and politics, he was appointed Director of the Government Press Office, a post he held for five years under Prime Minister Menachem Begin. More recently, he is the author of ten books, both fiction and non-fiction, the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report, a columnist for the New York Daily News and, most recently, a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine and other international publications (more bio here).
A Match Made in Heaven is a funny, readable, book. It is the most entertaining way to struggle with questions such as "Why do evangelicals support Israel so strongly? Is their philo-Semitism just a front for their true purpose to convert Jews? Do the evangelicals, as their opponents charge, really want to use the Jews as cannon fodder at the battle of Armageddon? Or are they simply responding to the biblical commandment to love Israel? Finally, is the American Jews' fear of fundamentalist Christianity based on constitutional principle, or social and cultural snobbery and political partisanship?"
A couple of readers asked this question in a variety of ways: Can you please specify the actions you think the Jewish community should take if it wants to adapt a more conciliatory approach toward the Evangelicals?
First of all, the Jewish community needs to change the way it disparages Evangelicals. You can disagree politically or culturally without ridiculing your opponents as bumpkins, bigots, anti-Semites or dunces. Jews don't want to be defamed, and they need to be a little more careful about defaming others. Especially people who want to be their friends.
Secondly, Jews need to look for opportunities to build coalitions with conservative Evangelical Christians where they have common interests. A number of issues come to mind: Darfur, AIDS in Africa, religious freedom in China and the Muslim world, opposition to the reflexive anti-Semitism of the UN, pornography and sexual trafficking and the environment.
Finally, Jews should spend some time and effort in getting to know Evangelicals. I wouldn't say that to know them is to love them (and I wouldn't say that about Jews, either) but a lot of misunderstanding and animosity would be avoided by simply talking and listening. In the course of writing "A Match Made in Heaven" I was astonished by little contact there is between liberal Jewish and conservative Evangelical leaders.
You say that: "When Jews do convert [sic] to Christianity, it is ordinarily to more upscale (and increasingly anti-Israel) progressive denominations."
I am curious as to what this statement is based on, since the most visible Jewish converts are those who join Evangelical churches, and the Mainlinechurches are generally in decline.
In the past, most Jews who converted joined mainline churches or denominations, including the Catholic church.
These days, when Jews drop out of the community, its more likely that they become "nothing" than officiallyconvert. But in America, "nothing" is a form of generalized non-Evangelical cultural Christianity.
As for Jewish Evangelicals, they are far more prominent than their numbers because they are anxious to advertise. Other Jews who convert (or allow their kids to be raised as Christians) tend to do it more quietly.
Isn't it also true that evangelicals support Israel's right-wing parties and policies, most notably the settlers? American Jews who disagree with the "land of Israel" concept have good reason to distrust evangelical support, when it targets the most extreme factions of Israeli society.
Probably a majority of conservative evangelicals support the Israeli right-wing and its settlement policies. A fringe actually contributes to the settlements and has a special relationship with the settlement movement.
But most conservative Evangelicals support whatever Israeli government is in power. Every Israeli prime minister, left and right, since Menachem Begin has cultivated the Evangelicals. And the major Christian Zionists have usually adopted the attitude that the ultimate decisions about land will be made by God, but in the meantime the people of Israel have a right to choose their own government and policies.
The major Jewish-Evangelical organization, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, is scrupulously non-partisan in Israeli political affairs.
How do America's Orthodox Jews relate to Zionist Evangelicals?
Paradoxically, Orthodox Jews have the fewest problems with a Jewish-Evangelical relationship.
For one thing, a lot of Orthodox Jews and Evangelicals share conservative social and political positions. Orthodox Jews, for example, are rarely troubled by church-state separation issues. They send their own kids to parochial schools; they're glad to get government money via faith based programs; many are opposed to abortion, and they tend not to be too concerned about the good opinion of the "international community" - ie, Europeans.
Most Orthodox Jews also have a stronger connection to, and concern about, Israel than the secular or liberal majority. Orthodox Jews are more likely to care about a candidates' position on Israel. As a Democratic activist told me, if Cynthia McKinney ran for President as a Democrat, she'd get fifty percent of the Jewish vote.
Some Orthodox Jews are opposed to any dealings with Evangelicals. A few years ago Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, an Orthodox Rabbis himself, was almost excommunicated by a rabbinical court for consorting with gentiles in the framework of his International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. In Israel, some Orthodox members of the Jerusalem city council are against taking charity from American Christians, even if no strings are attached. But most significant, Orthodox rabbis in American, Israel and elsewhere - tend to be supportive of a Jewish-Evangelical alliance that doesn't include too much interpersonal contact (which could lead, in their view, to assimilation and intermarriage).
Liberal American Jews by and large have nothing against assimilation or intermarriage. They aren't concerned that fundamentalist Christians will marry their daughters; they are worried that they will defeat their candidates or upset the present cultural and social equilibrium.
Thank you for taking the time for this dialog. As usual, I'll start with a general question to warm you up, and give readers some idea about the main arguments you make in your book.
So let's start with all three areas you deal with in the book, and try to give a brief answer to these questions:
1. Why do evangelicals love Israel?
2. Do Israelis care at all about evangelicals?
3. Should American Jews be less suspicious of evangelicals?
I'm sure this will provide our readers with enough material for more than a week of follow-up questions.
Three very good questions:
1. There is no doubt that conservative Evangelical Christians support Israel more strongly, consistently and unconditionally than any other American constituency except (decreasingly) Jews.
Evangelicals have several reasons. Like other Americans they identify with Israel as a democracy. They know Israel is an American friend in a region where America doesn't have many friends. They also regard Israel as the enemy of their Islamic radical enemy.
But, most important is Genesis 12:3 - "I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them who curse thee." That's God talking about Israel, and if you read the Bible literally, as they do, God's commandment is all you need.
2. Israel cares about conservative Evangelicals because Israel's only reliable friend is the United States; that friendship depends on a bi-partisan coalition; and tens of millions of Republican Christians provide the right wing of that coalition.
Conservative Christians are great allies. Like Jews, they love Israel. Unlike Jews, they are not vulnerable to charges of "neo-con" dual loyalty, they don't give a damn about sophisticated European opinion and they are not afflicted with the need to seem balanced.
Evangelical tourism is big factor in the Israeli economy (and Evangelicals came during the intifada, when others stayed home).
Oh, and the President of the United States is a conservative Evangelical Christian.
3. Many American Jews believe that Evangelicals want to convert them. This is true in a theoretical sense. But Evangelicals know the score. There are probably more Jewish-American Buddhists than Baptists. When Jews do covert to Christianity, it is ordinarily to more upscale (and increasingly anti-Israel) progressive denominations.
Then there's the red herring of Armageddon. American Jews who claim Evangelicals support Israel to speed up End Times - in which will lead to the death or mass conversion of Jews - are missing two points.
1. The End Times come when God is ready. This has nothingto do with human agency; there is no way, in Evangelical thinking, that people can or should try to bring about the Second Coming.
2. Why should Jews care about the Second Coming anyway. Last time I looked, we didn't believe in the First Coming either. Either Evangelicals are right about this or they are wrong. If they are wrong, its science fiction. If they're right - well, we've got some 'splainin' to do.
The real reasons American Jews fear conservative Evangelicals are political and social, not theological. Jews are a major stakeholder (perhaps THE major stakeholder) in the Democratic Party; evangelicals are a major stakeholder (perhaps THE major stakeholder) in the Republican Party. And many Jews still see evangelicals as dumb southern rednecks. There is a fair amount of snobbery and even (dare I say it) bigotry, in this stereotype.
Jews have real enemies. The Jihad is aimed primarily at us. So is the intifada. And the Iranian nuclear program. And the Hamas Charter. Under the circumstances, it is irresponsible and even crazy to pick a fight over domestic issues with our most reliable friend.
Obviously there can be differences over domestic issues. American Jews don't need to convert to Christianity or even (God forbid) Republicanism. But they do need to put first things first. If they don't, they may spend the next generation--as they spent the last - building museums to commemorate the consequences of confused priorities in a time of war.
You write in your book about "the offensive against evangelical Christianity" and you say that it "was not coordinated, but it did reflect Jewish public opinion". It was when some Jewish leaders and activists chose to raise concern over the actions of evangelical Christians. My questions about it will be these:
1. Do you sense impatience among evangelicals toward Jewish complaints - and is there a danger that it will turn into a full scale (cultural) war?
2. Does this approach by Jewish Americans toward the evangelical community endanger in any way their support for Israel?
The present generation of conservative Evangelical leadership - Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, John Hagee and others--are unconditional Zionists. And Falwell and Robertson, through their universities, have raised a younger generation of like minded ministers and lay leaders.
But evangelicals are human. They may love Israel but it doesn't mean they love being mocked, denounced and generally despised by the intellectual/political elite.
On the theological level, conservative Evangelicals will probably continue to love Israel as the Bible commands. But there are different ways to interpret the Bible. Perhaps present days Jews aren't really the same as the Biblical People of Israel? Maybe the State of Israel isn't the same Israel spoken of in the Bible?
Zionist Christians want an alliance with the Jews, but alliances work in two directions. If the American Jewish leadership wants to make enemies out of 70 million fellow citizens, attacking them publicly on every issue is a good way to start.
And who, then, will then replace these allies?