From Allen Gorin, my fiend. I could not have said it better.
Dear Friend of Idahoans United for Israel:
Recently I wrote of my thoughts on the AIPAC policy conference in November 2012, mentioning that I would follow up with my thoughts on Pastor John Hagee's controversial speech at the convention. I say "controversial" because Pastor Hagee's speech addressed many issues and themes that are challenging and somewhat painful to face--both for Jews and for Evangelicals.
As I begin this analysis of Hagee's speech and the growing alliance between Jews and Evangelicals on behalf of Israel, I am reminded of the words of my mother, Mildred Gorin, who passed away in 1999. Nunie (her nickname), truth be told, did not exactly qualify as a sage. But occasionally she'd come up with some real gems. Among her ongoing bits of advice was the following: "Allen, if you want to succeed in life, don't talk about politics and religion in the same conversation." Call me a rebel, or call me dumb, but I never really learned to embrace Mom's homespun wisdom. I may yet live to regret it.
Perhaps the best place to begin my analysis of the Jewish-Evangelical relationship is where I'm coming from--my background. Since moving my family to Idaho in 1998, I have been (quite by accident) surrounded by Evangelical Christians and somewhat immersed in their culture. This has happened because (1) my wife and I have homeschooled our two daughters, and Evangelicals represent a sizable segment of the homeschool community in the Treasure Valley; (2) I am politically active and conservative, and Evangelicals are involved in conservative politics; (3) some of my best friends, as well as a business partner, are Evangelicals; (4) as the Director of Idahoans United for Israel, I've come to know Evangelicals of various backgrounds, professions, and personalities, almost all of whom share a passion for Israel; (5) I am by nature a curious person, willing to explore new cultures and engage new people. Having been raised as a secular Jew in New England and having lived much of my adult life in southern California, getting to know Evangelicals in "heartland" Idaho has been a unique experience.
Add to all this the fact that I have recently read the book written by Israeli journalist Zev Chafets, entitled "A Match Made In Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists, and One Man's Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Evangelical Alliance,"--a version of which I could have written--and I was thoroughly prepared for the style and content of Pastor Hagee's speech at the AIPAC convention.
Before getting into the controversial content of Hagee's speech, please appreciate that his very presence there, in a prime time slot, stirred controversy. With the possible exception of addressing the Israeli Knesset, there is no larger, more prestigious platform from which to communicate to the Jewish people worldwide than a featured AIPAC speech. I suspect there was much behind-the-scenes debate about the wisdom of inviting him, with more than just a few objections. But Pastor John Hagee is much more than just a staunchly conservative, Bible-belt televangelist. He is a man who has led Christian delegations to Israel during both Intifadas, when few American Jews had the courage to make their presence felt. He has started Christians United for Israel, thus playing a pivotal role in awakening the sleeping Christian Zionist giant. He represents a constituency--50 million Evangelicals in America and tens of millions more worldwide--that AIPAC considers critically important teammates as Israel plays a real-life version of Survivor in the most treacherous part of the world.
So it is no longer possible for Jews simply to have private conversations about the propriety of Evangelical-Christian support for Israel, and leave things there. Evangelicals like Pastor John Hagee have, in a manner of speaking, extended a hand in friendship--or, at least, as potential teammates willing to put aside differences and work for a common purpose, namely the safety and prosperity of Israel. As Jews, we can either shake that hand or slap it.
Why would any pro-Israel Jew refuse the help of a Pastor Hagee in particular, and of millions of Evangelicals in general? The answer to that question was best typified in a recent conversation that my wife, Leslie, had with an East Coast Jewish friend. Upon hearing about my AIPAC trip and Hagee's speech, this friend remarked that while she understood the need for Israel to cultivate friendships in a hostile world, she was not comfortable with Evangelicals being among those counted as friends. When my wife asked why Evangelicals should be viewed with such suspicion, the friend countered that given the chance, Evangelicals might gain a foothold in Israel and eventually kick out all the Jews.
Frankly, when Leslie told me of this conversation, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. After dropping my jaw, I did manage to say that the idea of Evangelicals kicking Jews out of Israel was about as irrational a comment as I had heard in a long time. But the more I thought about the origins of this friend's views, the more I understood. This friend was an adult during the Holocaust. She had been raised with tales of what the Christian church had done to Jews over the last two thousand years. She was aware of the historical fact that Jews have been, at one time or another, given only the choice of death, conversion, or eviction from many countries, including ostensibly Christian nations. In her mind, why couldn't a worst-case scenario play out in Israel?
I shared this East Coast Jewish friend's remarks over lunch with two Boise-based Jewish friends, both involved with Idahoans United for Israel. One of these friends--a political liberal who would disagree with Hagee on most public policy issues, yet thought his AIPAC speech said all the right things--saw the East Coast Jewish friend's remarks as animated by two things: fear and insecurity. And where you have fear and insecurity deeply ingrained in a listener, it becomes more difficult for that person to receive pro-Israel remarks like Hagee's without doubting their sincerity.
Objectively seen, however, Hagee's remarks were strikingly pro-Israel and pro-Jewish. During his speech, he "humbly ask[ed] forgiveness of the Jewish people...for the deafening silence of Christianity in your greatest hour of need, during the Holocaust. We were not there. We cannot change the past. But together we can shape the future."
Answering the oft-asked question of why Christians support Israel, Hagee said, "Christians believe they owe a debt of gratitude to the Jewish people. You gave us the Word of God. You gave us the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob...If you take away the Jewish contribution to Christianity, there would be no Christianity. Judaism does not need Christianity to explain its existence, but Christianity cannot explain its existence without Judaism."
Hagee has put his money where his mouth is, forming Christians United for Israel, the goal of which is to ensure "that Congress knows that the matter of Israel is no longer just a Jewish issue. It's a Christian-Jewish issue from this day forward."
Along with millions of Christians across America, Hagee sees the Jewish people "as the apple of God's eye; the chosen people; a cherished people...they are alive and well. They are thriving. They are prospering. They are growing. Even in the day of adversity, they are still going forward."
It is understandable that someone who lived through the Holocaust, like my wife's friend, would greet the above sentiments and expressions of support with skepticism. But when younger Jews, and contemporary Jewish culture in general, are found to have embraced similar cynicism, someone like me could get pretty depressed at the prospects of building, nurturing, and sustaining a Jewish-Evangelical coalition.
Change may be in the air as you read this, however, since many mainstream and even liberal Jews are beginning to recognize the crucial support Christian Zionists lend to the pro-Israel movement, and less skepticism about the motivations behind Christian support may finally emerge. My liberal Jewish friend, who helped explain the fears of older Jews who lived through the Holocaust, reminded me of an important fact: it wasn't too many years ago that his own views of Evangelicals were closer to those of my wife's East Coast Jewish friend than to mine. Why did he change? I offer some ground rules that emerged from our collective experiences, that developed with groups like Idahoans United for Israel and AIPAC, and that might help to build ties between Jewish and Christian supporters of Israel:
Ground rule #1: No quid pro quo. There are those in the Jewish community who believe that there is a string attached to Christian support for Israel. Liberal Jews, for example, are expected to change their positions on certain issues (e.g. abortion rights or gay marriage) as a kind of payback. Within Idahoans United for Israel, we made it clear from the outset that this would not be an operative principle. Support for Israel is not subject to political wheeling and dealing; it is the right position to take, for Christians and Jews, in and of itself. In rejecting any notions of a quid pro quo, we've created an atmosphere in which Jews, Christians, and others could be part of an alliance without compromising their consciences and positions on other issues unrelated to Israel.
Ground rule #2: Psychoanalyzing motivations for pro-Israel support is counterproductive. There are significant numbers of Jews who reject, or at least severely question, Evangelical support for Israel based on the notion that it may be motivated by end-times theology or a desire to convert Jews. But based on the fact that Jews have traditionally allied themselves with a wide range of groups on a variety of issues--groups whose motivations may have been less than altruistic--an objective reading suggests that an intolerant, double standard is often applied to Evangelicals. In the end, it's actions that matter, not motivations. Often, motives are complicated and difficult to assess. Behavior, however, such as a Christian's donating money to an Israeli charity, patronizing an Israeli restaurant during the Intifada, or picking up a rifle to defend a kibbutz, is transparent.
But even if a Christian's support for Israel is clearly identified as being motivated by end-times theology or a desire to convert Jews, what's the big deal? Once again, these thoughts should be relevant only if they affect behavior, and if that behavior in turn is somehow inappropriate.
Ground rule #3: The opponent you demonize today might be a pro-Israel teammate tomorrow. Many involved in the pro-Israel movement are also passionately involved in other political issues, and it is not all that uncommon to find pro-Israel teammates who disagree strongly on other issues. When those disagreements are made public, it's important that participants conduct themselves with dignity, civility, refrain from ad hominem attacks, and not demonize those with whom they disagree. In public policy disagreements, it's essential to see someone as simply wrong on an issue, not necessarily as evil. Viewing people with whom you disagree on certain issues as evil makes it hard, if not impossible, to work with them on other issues.
Observing such protocols makes it possible to strenuously debate issues unrelated to Israel on one occasion, and yet "bounce back" on another as co-operative teammates on behalf of Israel.
Ground rule #4: Don't proselytize, unless it's clearly welcomed. On this subject, there could hardly exist two religious groups more different than Jews and Evangelicals. As a general rule, Jews neither proselytize nor appreciate being on the receiving end of proselytizers. Most Evangelicals, on the other hand, seem ready, willing, and able to share the faith 24/7.
A few years back, I attended a luncheon sponsored by the Boise Christian Businessmen's Association, where the featured speaker was the head of the Christian Embassy Jerusalem. When I asked him the secret of being an effective Christian operating in a city largely composed of Jews, he answered that he almost never proselytizes to Jews. He knows from history the negative connotations associated with Christian proselytizing, regardless of his intentions. Like other mature Christians I've come to know, he waits until someone of the Jewish faith solicits him for religious discussion--discussion which may lead to appropriate proselytizing.
Needless to say, overwhelmingly most supporters seek out pro-Israel coalitions simply in order to help Israel: nothing more, nothing less. While proselytizing certainly has its time and place, a broad pro-Israel coalition is generally not one of them.
Ground rule #5: Cut allies some slack. Occasionally, I'll be on the receiving end of a missive from a Christian Zionist who will say that Israel's problems will be only solved when it receives The Prince of Peace. On other occasions, there will be some other attempt to inject Christian theology into the Middle East conflict. Generally, I either don't respond to such comments, or I try to gently explain that Jews don't view the Middle East conflict through a Christian lens. But what I always try to be mindful of is that I'm dealing with an ally, that I should cut this person some slack and not torpedo the relationship.
None of us is perfect, and none of us wishes to walk on eggshells around people who expect us to be perfect when it comes to religious sensitivities. Jews, especially, need to keep this in mind lest we risk losing decent, pro-Israel Christian teammates due to unreasonable expectations.
Ground rule #6: As Israelis make large sacrifices, we can certainly make small ones. Many years ago, I became involved with a black men's group in Los Angeles. I had always felt deeply about the issue of equal opportunity for blacks, and teaching seminars on entrepreneurship and real estate seemed like a way for me to act on that concern.
Notwithstanding my idealism and good intentions, I was initially caught off guard by the number of blacks who didn't trust me, and saw me only as some rich white guy venturing down from my suburb, looking to save the poor, struggling black man. This impression of me was unfair; it was insulting; it was frustrating. But the bottom line was that it was also the hand I was dealt, and nothing could change that fact. The only variable was how I played the hand. Largely because of my commitment, I managed to work through the difficulties. Little by little the men in the group began to trust me, to see me as a mentor for learning about entrepreneurship, and not as "that rich white guy on an ego trip."
I share this story because Christians--especially Evangelicals-- who want to be treated fairly as individuals within a pro-Israel coalition may experience similar behavior from skeptical Jews. Two thousand years of "baggage" does not evaporate overnight. In the face of credible, Christian pro-Israel behavior, some Jews will lose their skepticism quickly; some Jews will require much time and patience; some Jews will never stop looking at the present without the lens of the past. As Walter Cronkite used to say, "That's the way it is."
As for the Jews, it will always be tempting to think that we can avoid complicated alliances and rely simply on the tribe to save Israel. Or, to think that we can be incredibly picky as to whom we allow into the pro-Israel coalition. Or, to think that we can accept pro-Israel help from certain "controversial" sources, like Evangelicals, while holding our collective noses. To give in to any of these temptations is neither right or nor wise.
With all that Jews have had to overcome in the last three thousand years, it ought not be too difficult a challenge to treat pro-Israel Evangelicals with open minds, softened hearts, and a willingness to grapple with our own fears and insecurities. But time will tell.
As for the emotional price Jews and Evangelicals pay for working side by side as the two major faiths within the pro-Israel alliance, it's really pocket change compared to what Israelis pay for living in the world's craziest neighborhood. As we kvetch (Yiddish for complain) about this sacrifice or that inconvenience, let's keep what Israelis experience--in pizza parlors, schools, on buses, and every day life--very much in mind.
In sharing my thoughts on the emerging Jewish-Evangelical alliance on behalf of Israel, I've tried to balance respect for religious sensitivities with a desire to tell the truth, as I see it. With all due respect to my mother's warnings, and knowing that some people may be offended by something I've written, I believe the Jewish-Evangelical alliance on behalf of Israel will not operate on all cylinders, and might even fail, without honest, mature dialogue. This is my contribution to that badly needed conversation.