The Jewish state, standing with Christians

Christian support for Israel has received significant attention in recent years. As I chronicled in my book Christian Zionism: Navigating the Jewish-Christian Border, Christian Zionism has indeed been a very fruitful place for new thinking about Jewish-Christian relations in ways that can be inspiring and challenging simultaneously.

The last 10 to 15 years have witnessed a remarkable surge of new alliances between the State of Israel and evangelical Christians.

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Notwithstanding the controversies and cautionary tales, this broad movement of Christian Zionism has been an extraordinary development that has deep implications for Jewish-Christian relations.

Indeed, this vast interest in the Jewish roots of Christianity coupled with a Christian respect and support for the Jewish homeland is a movement that would have been unthinkable 50 years ago.

This explains the fact that whenever I assert that the Jewish state needs to stand with Christians, many Jews nod energetically, thinking of those evangelical Christians whose financial and political support has significantly impacted Israel today.

But it is time for us to grow up and look a further, beyond ourselves and our own immediate needs.

Did you know that in the last six months, some 6,000 Christians, mostly women, children and the elderly, have been massacred in Nigeria by Fulani herdsmen? Closer to home, the Christian population in the Middle East has dropped from 20% to around 4% in the last century.

Christians are being discriminated against, persecuted and massacred in countries around the world, often right on Israel’s doorstep.

Earlier this week, Pope Francis brought together representatives of various Christian churches and denominations in an ecumenical prayer service in Bari, Italy. The focus was to unite different branches and articulations of Christianity on behalf of their suffering brethren in the Middle East. Yet still, Jews – and especially Jewish Israelis – tend to know very little about Christianity beyond the Christmas we see on American television and the Spanish Inquisition that is taught in high-school history class. When we think of Christianity we tend to think about a powerful, triumphal, Western Church.

Yet Christians too have lived, if not exactly in diaspora, in situations not unlike those of the Jews: as small, persecuted and dispersed minorities dependent on powerful, and not always friendly, majorities.

Early in the 15th century, a Venetian merchant named Nicolo Conti was surprised to see Christians living like this in his travels and wrote “these Nestorians are scattered all over India, in like manner as are the Jews among us.” What would it mean for our sense of Jewish-Christian relations to seriously explore Christianity not solely as a part of triumphal Western Christendom, but as a minority religion often living under hostile rule of another faith? What would it mean for our sense of Jewish-Christian relations if we remembered, for example, that in the early 14th century, at the same time as the Jewish persecution in Western Europe, Christians were being persecuted and reduced to tiny minorities across the Middle East? And in the same way, what could it mean for Jews to recognize the persecuted Church suffering just beyond our borders, in countries like Egypt, Syria and Iraq? I believe that this shared historical and contemporary experience of suffering and vulnerability is a place to draw Jews and Christians together, beyond the old dichotomies of Christian persecutors and Jewish victims, and beyond the Christian Zionist story of Christian support for Jews and a Jewish state “in need.”

After 70 years of existential struggle, we can feel a basic sense of security about the State of Israel. The question of Israel’s physical survival is no longer central. Instead, the question that plagues us as we stabilize and mature is “why?” What is the meaning of our state, our presence here, the existence we for which we fought and paid such a heavy price? For what do we exist? What is the next chapter? Part of the answer to that question, I believe, is spiritual – addressing anew our meaning and our mission as Jews in this world, and wondering how a vibrant, successful and thriving nation-state can continue to actualize that very mission. Acting on behalf of Christians and other minorities facing genocide – mobilizing our influence, our resources, our voice – is first and foremost our moral responsibility as Jews. It is also an opportunity as we look toward the next stage of our presence here in the Middle East: an opportunity to think not just about Christian responsibility toward us, but also our responsibility, as a sovereign and successful Jewish and democratic state, toward the Christians in our region. Christians have stood with Israel. It’s also time for Israel to learn how to stand with Christians.

The writer is the director of the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations and a Senior Fellow at the Philos Project.

She can be ed at faydra.org