Perceptions…Old Shadows Fade Slowly
A few weeks ago I had lunch with an Israeli diplomat, a man for whom I hold great respect, in Washington, DC. We discussed, among a host of other things, the inescapable tensions that often arise between the Christian and Jewish communities. During the course of our conversation, he made an observation I had never thought of in quite the same way. He said that there are two sides of the issue. Although Israel is an ancient people with a deep well of experiences, Israel as a nation is very young. It was only a half century ago that Israel arrived on the international scene; thus, it is still virtually in its infancy as a nation.
In relationship to the State of Israel, evangelical Christians have always been perceived to be friends and reliable allies. The facts for this assumption are readily available. From before the days of the first Zionist Congress, held in Basle, Switzerland in 1897, a strong core of evangelicals has lent its influence and support to the cause of the right of Jewish people to have a homeland in the Middle East—in a word, Zionism.
Men like the venerable British clergyman William Hechler stood by the early Zionists. In the course of events, he became a confidant of Theodor Herzl and introduced him to many European heads of state.
The Christian Restoration Movement in England, allied with Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour, was instrumental in forging the Balfour Declaration. This document sanctioned the legitimacy of establishing a Jewish national home in Palestine. It became the basic instrument guiding international leaders in their decisions related to the Jewish return to the land and the establishment of the modern State of Israel.
Before the violent assaults on the fledgling state in 1948, men like the revered British Army Captain Orde Wingate helped teach Israelis how to defend themselves against Arab aggressors.
It was said of Lawrence Oliphant, a well-known Christian promoter of early Zionist ambitions who today has a street named for him in Jerusalem, that he acted from a “biblical point of view.”
These Christians, and thousands more, can be credited with an unfailing commitment to the Jews and the plight of Israel. The common thread binding them together was a belief that the Bible provided the divine rationale for establishing a modern Jewish state. In their minds, the land belongs to Jewry because God says it does. It’s as simple as that.
It should not be surprising, then, that the leaders of successive Israeli administrations have had a high regard for evangelical Christians committed to the biblical principles basic to the Zionist dream to return to their land—Israel.
The physical rebirth of Israel brought millions of Christians, ardent believers in a Jewish return, into the public arena to support the fundamental belief that the Jewish people possessed irrevocable rights to the land occupied by their patriarchs.
Bible-believing Christians, who were awakened to the historical reality of the prophetic Scriptures, have always been and will remain a valuable asset to the old, yet new, nation of Israel.
The Gulf Between the Old and the New
Israel’s perception of evangelical Christians is quite different from that widely held among Jews of the Diaspora (those still dispersed among the Gentile nations). If Israeli leaders have taken a new look at these Zionist Christians, world Jewry has tended to cling to an old perception that associates all Christians with past atrocities. There remains, therefore, a two pronged perception of what Christianity is and what design Jesus’ followers have for Judaism and Jewish people in general. Indeed, the shadows of the past are fading slowly, if at all, among contemporary world Jewry.
In Jewish minds the record speaks for itself, as I discovered in a conversation with a young Jewish intellectual in Israel a number of years ago. I asked him what he knew about Christianity. He replied that he knew a great deal. He had studied Christian relations at the Hebrew University. I pursued the conversation by asking him what he thought about Christians based on his studies and personal observations.
“You don’t want to know,” he said.
“Yes, I do,” I replied.
“OK,” Yoram responded, “but you’re not going to like it.
“When Christian Crusaders came to this city, Jerusalem, to create a kingdom for Jesus, they cut down Jews in the streets, locked some in synagogues and burned them alive.
“A Jew thinks of the year 1492 in an entirely different way than you Christians do. You associate it with the discovery of the New World. We remember it as the year that Christian King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella said to every Jew in Spain, ‘Get out,’ and the Inquisition began.
“During the Black Plague that killed millions of people in Europe, Jews were accused of poisoning wells and were expelled from their homes to suffer great persecution.
“That’s not all. There were the pogroms in Russia, ghettos in Europe, and blood libels. How would you like to be forced to wear a pointed hat or tags on your garments that say, ‘Here comes a Jew. Watch out’?
“And then there is the matter of the Holocaust. Six million of my people perished in the greatest bloodbath we have known. Where did it originate? In Germany, the country that had been the seat of Christian theology. And what about Adolf Hitler? Wasn’t he, after all, himself a Christian?”
To a Christian like myself, the young student’s views were shocking, as they would be to most Christians. His perception was molded by the pseudo Christian political and religious elements operating far outside the realm of true biblical mandates. His vision of our history was tied to forced conversions, mocking, murder, and mayhem. He had never been personally exposed to true Christianity.
Aiding and Abetting Enemies of the Jewish People
Unfortunately, the same satanically driven forces that shaded my young friend’s vision of Christianity are still shaping the minds of Jewish people. I recently viewed a map of the United States that showed the locations of neo-Nazi cells, Ku Klux Klan elements, and assorted groups of militantly anti-Semitic organizations. Most of them tag themselves as “Christian” and claim to be protectors of the name of Jesus. As much as we know that these people are anything but Christian, their blasphemous rhetoric and militant conduct feed the perception that, for Jews, things haven’t really changed. The obsession to rid the world of the sons and daughters of Abraham is still a potent force in the world of Gentiles.
Admittedly, these elements, coupled with old torments, are extremely formidable obstacles to overcome. But we have clearly reached a juncture in history when fanatics who aid and abet the enemies of God and His Chosen People cannot be allowed to win the day. Christians have; a biblical mandate, not only to “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Ps. 122:6), but to recognize that God has not changed His mind nor diminished His love for Abraham’s children. Speaking explicitly of Jewry, to whom so many divine gifts have been given, the Scripture says, “For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance” (Rom. 11:29). This being the case, all true Christians are charged to agree with our Lord and conduct themselves accordingly.
Showing the Best That Christianity Has to Offer
Thankfully, despite what fringe fanatics manifest, there are millions of living, breathing contradictions to all that they represent. Many may be less visible than they should be, but they are there nonetheless. Allow me to present a case in point.
For many years I had a friend, now in heaven, who had a profound influence in my life. Gordon was a man who taught me and scores of others what it meant to be a true friend of Israel and the Jewish people. He believed implicitly that the Bible was the authoritative source for accepting the fact that God’s promises to the Jewish people were literal and historical, and that the land of Israel was theirs by divine right. Whenever an anti-Israel sentiment was voiced in the local newspaper, there would be an opposing letter to the editor from Gordon.
In churches, where he had considerable influence, he was always quick to make people aware of the proper place of the Jew in God’s economy. And it was always done in a way that encouraged as well as challenged.
The same was true in regard to the local Jewish people and in their synagogue. He was an ever-present face at bazaars and public events there. Gordon constantly reminded his circle of Christian friends that they should be supportive of the synagogue and show solidarity with the Jewish people.
While he was faithful in maintaining an unwavering relationship with the Jewish community, he was never reticent to share his faith in Christ and never lost sight of his responsibility to fulfill Jesus’ commission to make Him known. This was done, however, with the solid track record of being a true friend, and it was always presented with sensitivity for the old perceptions that so often cause Jewish people to hesitate to respond to the message of the gospel.
When Gordon died, representatives of the synagogue attended his funeral, which I was honored to conduct. After the ceremony, they approached me and asked if I would attend their Sabbath service the next Friday evening. Of course, I said I would. When the meeting began, it was announced that the service would center on a tribute to Gordon and his multiple accomplishments among and on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people.
In closing the eulogy, the speaker said, “I could only wish that every Christian could live up to the standard that this man consistently observed in his own life. Without question, Gordon showed us the best that Christianity has to offer.” Today, there is a plaque on the wall of that synagogue honoring the memory of this Gentile who had such a large heart for God and His people.
I close on an optimistic note. Although the shadows remain, they seem to be slowly fading. There are many factors involved, not the least of which is the cultural revolution that threatens our Judeo-Christian way of life. Consequently, a core of concerned Jewish people and evangelical Christians is coming together with a new sense of understanding and, in the spirit of people on both sides of the line like Gordon, is bridging some of the significant obstacles of the past.