Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Debate About Pro-Israel Christians

Greetings to you, dear reader. I have been absent from this blog for a while, with busy winter and spring seasons. But I return here to update you on an ongoing interest of mine, the subject of whether we Reform Jews should be engaging with pro-Israel evangelical and fundamentalists, of the ilk of Christians United for Israel.

In the recent edition (Summer 2009) of Reform Judaism Magazine, my friend and colleague Norman Cohen and I undertake to present, in 300 words or less, a spirited dialogue on this question, with Rabbi Cohen saying “yes” and my saying “no.” Below are the two columns, which I commend to you. And what follows are some responses that I have received as a result of Reform Jews – and others – reading these columns and being moved one way or another to answer back to me.

But first, the two columns, pro and con:

Debatable: Should Reform Jews Engage with Pro-Israel Fundamentalists? (Copyright 2009, Reform Judaism Magazine, www.reformjudaismmag.org)

YES by Norman Cohen

There are many good reasons to have a relationship with fundamentalist Christians who consistently advocate pro-Israel positions in the political sphere.

Our Jewish tradition teaches us to say “thank you” and reciprocate with a positive gesture of our own—certainly not to turn our backs on those who extend a hand in friendship.

When our youngsters are bombarded on college campuses with anti-Israel rhetoric and demonstrations, who comes to their defense? Christians who share their love for the State of Israel. And when Israelis are killed and wounded in terrorist attacks, which organizations raise thousands of dollars to provide needed assistance and relief for the victims? Organizations such as Christians United for Israel.

Keep in mind, too, that not all fundamentalist pro-Israel Christian groups try to convert Jews or claim that Jews have been replaced by Christians as God’s chosen people. Christian United for Israel, for example, has denounced such proselytizing philosophies as inappropriately triumphalist.

In maintaining a relationship with Christian fundamentalists, we also have the opportunity for dialogue and influence—to persuade them of Israel’s need to compromise for peace, to make them aware that the Jewish community is not monolithic about politics or social issues, and to offer them new Jewish connections with us.

Reform Jews need to face head-on the bigotry and prejudice many of us have against conservative Christians. We need to publicly acknowledge that they have been among the strongest supporters of Israel at a time when some of our liberal Christian allies on social justice issues have led the charge against Israel through their divestment resolutions and repeatedly fail to condemn Arab terrorism. It is time we give thanks to Christians United for Israel and similar groups who help preserve the safety and the future of the Jewish state.

Rabbi Norman M. Cohen is spiritual leader at Bet Shalom Congregation in Minnetonka, Minnesota.

NO by Jonathan Biatch

Before we engage in alliances with pro-Israel Christian fundamentalists, we must ask: Do their actions help Israel?

Regrettably, the dominant Christian-Zionist organizations advocate policies that undermine Israel’s security and the chances for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For example, Christian Friends of Israeli Communities (CFOIC) actively supports Jewish settlements in the occupied territories as part of “God’s plan for the Jewish nation.” Such encouragement provokes conflict among settlers and Palestinians, impeding progress toward a two-state solution, a policy goal explicitly advocated by the Union for Reform Judaism.

A second such group, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), also opposes territorial compromise. At its 2007 conference, CUFI board member Gary Bauer disparaged the notion of a two-state solution, stating, “We are praying that they [the settlers] never give up…even one centimeter of territory.” Further, CUFI founder and chairman Pastor John Hagee has called for pre-emptive military strikes against Iran that “would trigger nuclear conflict and devastating war and destruction between the Jewish people, God’s chosen people, and the Islamic world.” Such an “end of days” bloodbath is hardly in the interest of Israel or any nation.

Moreover, how can we overlook Hagee’s vehement attacks on the dignity of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, his derision of American Muslims as unpatriotic, and his explicit condemnation of liberal Jews as “poisoned” and “spiritually blind” (see www.jewsonfirst.org)?

Common interests and goals, such as support for Israel, can certainly unify people with otherwise divergent views. But when the values of potential political bedfellows clash so fundamentally with our own, we must reject their advances. CFOIC and CUFI are two such unwelcome suitors.

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Madison, Wisconsin.
(Copyright 2009, Reform Judaism Magazine, www.reformjudaismmag.org)

Now here is a sample of some comments that I have received. By the way, overall, seven of them have been positive, and three have been negative.

From a former congregant:
I wanted to thank you for your letter in the Reform Judaism magazine. I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home, escaped and was a strong atheist when I met Joanne. I agreed to raise the girls in Judaism and have, over the years, come to the point where I value my connection to Judaism as one of the most positive aspects of my life.

I know firsthand the anti-Jewish attacks of Christian fundamentalists and their total lack of respect for Jews (and many other groups, but I won't try to list them all - I don't have all day). They may say in public that Jews are the chosen people, but in private, my mother told my daughter (her own granddaughter) that she was going to hell. While I have become less cynical over the years, I remain 100% suspicious of love from a hate group. Your comments were completely on target.

In case you get responses that are not positive, I wanted you to know how much I appreciate your comments.

From a current congregant:
I read your recent News/views article in the recent Reform Judaism and cannot agree with you more. After our visit in March to Israel many of the Israeli Jews that we talked with agree as well. I have great difficulty understanding the other side of this argument which in my prejudice feel 'money talks' and because they give to Israel they should be looked at differently. Thank you for representing us so well and sharing your views with other Reform Jews.

From a current congregant:
I just read your column in the Summer issue of Reform Judaism. I agree with you 100%. As you say, many of Israel's most vocal Christian Fundamentalist defenders undermine the ideals and the culture that make Israel a shining promise for humanity. In the Middle East and elsewhere, short-sighted political alliances of convenience often cause grave long-term problems. I fear that Israel is confronting that exact reality, as is the United States.

Thank you for your considered words, your courageous statement, and your wise leadership on this issue. I hope you will continue to speak out about controversial matters. I believe that is the appropriate and necessary role for a valued community leader.

From a total stranger who seems to like to throw stones from a distance:
Your argument against an alliance with pro-Israel fundamentalist Christian is flawed. You state that their political values clash with ours. They don't, they clash with yours. You may not meet many conservative Jews in Madison, but you are insulated from the real world if you think we don't exist. You denigrate the idea of a preemptive strike against. Iran. It would not cause anywhere near the blood bath that a nuclear armed Iran would. You assume a two state solution is the only way to go, when even the so called "moderate" Abbas refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. You accuse the fundamentalists of being bigots, when you are bigoted against them. But I forget, among secular progressives it is acceptable to be biased against fundamentalists, Catholics, and Zionists. Your friends on the left are at the forefront of the anti Zionist movement, yet you refuse to consider any alliance with our natural allies because you disagree with them politically. How astoundingly short sighted.

From the Israel-based director of the Christian Friends of Israeli Communities (read: settlements), who makes plenty of assumptions from my article:
...While you clearly have no tolerance for the settlement movement and the ideology that we represent, I wonder how you have the chutzpah to denigrate an organization that builds such wonderful relationships between Christians and Jews just because it supports a political or religious position that you disagree with. Is your support of Israel conditioned upon who is the prime minister? Will you withdraw your support of Israel if our country refuses to adopt the "two-state solution?" Perhaps you are not aware of the fact that the recent national elections in Israel sent a very clear message that the people of Israel no longer have confidence in the various peace processes that have been experimented with over the years. The recent campaign of the IDF in Gaza received overwhelming support among Israeli citizens. And perhaps you are not aware of the fact that it is young men who have grown up in the so-called settlements who, today, make up a significant percentage of the officers and soldiers of the IDF. Will you withdraw your support of Israel because the values of these soldiers and officers so clearly clash with your own?...

Back to Rabbi Jonathan:
Although one can say that it’s self-serving to offer the positive comments, I will let them speak for themselves.

The comments of the last writer, the director of the Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, make a great many assumptions. But the statement that I find most surprising is this: “I wonder how you have the chutzpah to denigrate an organization that builds such wonderful relationships between Christians and Jews just because it supports a political or religious position that you disagree with.”

My response:
I think that if one were to read my article again, one would find solid rationale for wanting to distance myself from this organization: Not that I disagree with their political position (though I do) but rather because they act in a political realm and hope for US governmental policy to change according to their view. When this organization, or the Christians United for Israel, expresses its belief, that is their right and privilege. But when they seek to influence United States or Israeli government policy because of their beliefs, I must stand up and forcefully disagree.

This debate will not soon disappear, and I look forward to further discussions on this issue.

Be well.