Recently, there have been a string of violent attacks against the Jewish community in America. 2019 saw an almost unprecedented increase in hostility toward American Jewry; from a vandalized synagogue in Beverly Hills and a desecrated cemetery in Nebraska, to a series of knife attacks and shootings in New York and New Jersey. In New York alone, in one week, there were nine acts of violence against Jewish people. Long known as one of the few places where it is OK to be a Jew, America is becoming more of a security risk than a safe haven for Jewish people. Anti-Semitism, arising from fever swamps across the political spectrum, are fueling this new and dangerous environment.
There is something familiar and insidious about these reports and incidents. While they may appear random, each assault, shooting, and hate crime is more cultural muscle memory than it is a random act of violence. As I write this essay, I am sitting in Israel at a cafe in Jerusalem. Around me are tourists and pilgrims, Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Americans, sipping tea and basking in the warmth of the Mediterranean sun. Everywhere in this land are reminders of why the Jews fought so hard to claim a space they could call their own. Memorials to recent terrorist attacks vie for attention with museums and monuments documenting the horror of what frequently happened in history when “random” small acts of hatred went ignored.
If you were to travel to Jerusalem and visit Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Holocaust, you would recognize in its displays a frighteningly familiar set of images. As the museum meticulously and chronologically documents the Holocaust, a pattern begins to emerge. Within a few short years, Jews went from being disliked and the fodder of conspiracy theories to being fuel for Nazi furnaces. A German boy who entered kindergarten in 1933 was able to be a guard at Auschwitz by the time he finished high school. While these narratives and statistics may seem implausible today, the faded photos of broken shop windows in Poland and torched synagogues in Germany are hauntingly familiar. As we witness a rise in anti-Semitism, it remains to be seen whether or not America has learned the lesson of history; of how little time it takes to slide into the abyss of the unthinkable.
Understanding our tie to the Jews
As an American and an evangelical Christian, I was raised to love Israel. Like many, I was nursed through childhood and Sunday school with stories of Israelite heroism and history. Moses, David, Daniel, and their exploits occupied a prime place of residence in my childhood fantasies. All these stories culminated with Jesus, the Jewish rabbi from Galilee. Many Christians however are tempted to forget the Jewishness of Jesus. For many, the relevance of Jews and Judaism ended after the Pentecost and only re-emerged after the Holocaust. In the gap is a lost history of defeat and diaspora punctuated with persecution and pogroms.
When Jews are attacked for being Jews, we should stand with them because they are with us co-religionists in an increasingly secular age.
Jewish history and experience and Christianity’s role in that history are rarely discussed. As a result, despite our shared heritage, it is more difficult at times for American evangelicals to relate to modern Judaism or empathize with our contemporary Jewish neighbors when they are attacked. Several aspects are important for us to understand in order to know why we should advocate for the safety of Jewish people.
1. The special relationship. More needs to be done to bring to light our unique tie to the Jewish people. Russell Moore describes the relationship Christians share with Jewish people:
Jesus is a son of Abraham. He is of the tribe of Judah. He is of the House of David. Jesus’ kingship is valid because he descends from the royal line. His priesthood, though not of the tribe of Levi, is proven valid because of Melchizedek the priest’s relation to Abraham. Those of us who are joint-heirs with Christ are such only because Jesus is himself the offspring and heir of Abraham (Gal. 3:29).
As Christians, we are, all of us, adopted into a Jewish family, into an Israelite story. We who were once not a people have been grafted on, in Jesus, to the branch that is Israel (Rom. 11:17-18). That’s why the New Testament can speak even to Gentile Christians as though the story of their own forefathers were that of the Old Testament Scriptures. We have been brought into an Israelite story, a story that started not in first-century Bethlehem but, millennia before, in the promise that Abraham would be the father of many nations. Whatever our ethnic background, if we are in Christ, we are joined to him. That means the Jewish people are, in a very real sense, our people too. An attack on the Jewish people is an attack on all of us.
2. The co-religionists. We must remember that religious freedom is fragile; and while persecuted Christians and Jews across the globe understand this all too well, American Christians are clueless. When Jews are attacked for being Jews, we should stand with them because they are with us co-religionists in an increasingly secular age. When their synagogues are attacked, we should help them rebuild. Though American Christians and evangelicals often take comfort in our vast numbers, we should recognize that we, along with American Jews, take shelter under the same blanket of religious protections. We may see that blanket fraying at the edges and affecting only the Jews, but if it unravels, we will all be just as exposed. We should do what we can to insure that the Jewish community can live and worship unfettered by hate and intolerance.
3. The human shield. Throughout Israel, both in the north and the south of the country, Jews live in constant threat of rocket attack from Islamic militants obsessed with hatred of and grievance with the Jewish state. To combat this threat, Israel deploys the Iron Dome, which is a state of the art, American-made inception system which interdicts rockets in the air preventing loss of life. Although one is never completely free of the nagging fear associated with this threat, it is no small measure of comfort to know that there is a figurative shield over your head. The Iron Dome is both a deterrent to the violent and a comfort to the victim; would that the American church be described in such a way, when it comes to anti-semitic attacks against our Jewish neighbors.
For Jews in America the threat is not from rockets, but from racism and hatred. And it is our duty as Christians to speak against anti-Semtism, regardless of the side of the aisle it originates from. Jews should feel invited into our communities. Pastors should meet with rabbis. Christian neighbors should attend shabbat dinners. Such actions may cause discomfort, and at times we may feel confused by the differences between us, but let that discomfort be the small price we pay to surround this community with care.
The time has come for Christians to stand against anti-Semitism. We should defend our fellow neighbors’ right to free exercise of religion and their dignity as humans created in the image of God. After all, if one Jew was willing to give his life to save humanity, surely those of us who claim his name can stand up for the people to whom he came, and through whom the gospel came to us.