A former Israeli consul general in Ontario told me once about how he used to be the Israeli representative in the American South.
“A very different experience from most places,” he explained. “There seemed to be no anti-Semitism, enormous support for Israel from all of the Christians there, and the biggest criticism I had to deal with was that we weren’t rebuilding the Temple!”
He wasn’t joking.
The Christian attitude toward Jews and Israel has changed rather a lot. It’s a complex, fascinating and profound story.
For most Jewish people, the Christian world remains something of a mystery, but as a general guide, we can break it down into four major categories: Roman Catholic, evangelical, mainstream Protestant and Eastern Orthodox. The first is obvious, the second includes Baptist, Pentecostal and numerous independent churches. Mainstream Protestant encompasses the Anglican, United and perhaps Presbyterian churches, and the fourth category refers to the churches of Russia, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and much of the Christian Middle East.
I had three Jewish grandparents, but my maternal grandmother was not Jewish and I was raised with a certain religious ambivalence – a definite cultural Jewishness, but no connection to Jewish religious or communal life. I became a Roman Catholic in 1984 and now worship as an Anglican. I have spoken to tens of thousands of Christians in hundreds of settings over 20 years and I know of what I speak. In all of that time, I have never encountered anti-Semitism, but I have sometimes met either obsessive love or absurd dislike of Israel.
I’m not going to argue extensively about the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, but it seems to me there are two errors into which we can fall: the first is to say they are never linked and the second is to say they always are.
For some people, their dislike of Israel is merely an extension of or a disguise for their dislike of Jews. It might be paradoxically comforting to think this is always the case, but I assure you it’s not. The challenge is more nuanced and difficult than that. For the vast majority of Christian opponents of Israel, there is no connection between criticism of a nation state that happens to be Jewish and dislike of Jews, and they resent any suggestion otherwise. They may be genuine, but they also evince a colossal insensitivity toward Jewish history and a lack of understanding of why most Jews feel the way they do about Israel.
Evangelicals first. Quite clearly some of the evangelical support for Israel is based on a fundamentalist eschatology, a notion that the end times and the second coming of Jesus Christ require the return of the Jewish People to Israel. This is one of the reasons these groups oppose organizations like Jews for Jesus – because they wish to restore rather than convert. They are well-financed, fill enormous mega-churches and have substantial political power in the United States. Indeed, one of the reasons the offensively misnamed “Jewish lobby” is so inaccurate is that many of the leading proponents of Israel in Washington are not Jewish but evangelical.
But is this based on regard for the Jews and a post-Holocaust theology or a naive, fundamentalist desire for Armageddon? A bit of both I think, but we certainly need to be very careful about whom we call our friends.
This, however, is the most severe and raw version of the evangelical church, and it’s found far more in the United States than in Canada. More common is a genuine desire to understand the Jewishness of Jesus and recapture the original meaning and substance of the Christian message, bathed as it is in first-century Judaism. I know personally many of the leaders of the Christian Zionist movement in Canada, and while we may disagree on numerous issues – they are invariably extremely socially conservative – I have found only genuine affection for Jews in both Israel and the Diaspora.
Roman Catholics present similar gradations. We have had three genuinely philo-Semitic popes in succession. Francis possesses visceral warmth and counts the chief rabbi of Argentina as one of his closest friends. Benedict was treated unfairly because he was German, but only ever showed understanding and affection for Jews and Israel. John Paul II was enormously significant because as a Pole – with all of that country’s layers of Jewish history – he made so many statements to prove the absolute need for Catholics to love and be grateful to the Jews.
In terms of Israel, recent popes have been positive. But, truth be told, the Vatican foreign affairs department has been far more challenging, and there are quite clearly Vatican diplomats who embrace the Palestinian and greater Arab narrative rather than the Israeli one.
To an extent this is understandable – their role is to speak for Catholics, and Catholics in the Middle East are generally Palestinian, Lebanese or Syrian. But overall, the Catholic Church is careful and generally balanced.
Mainline Protestantism is a mixed bag. I am one of them and fully acknowledge that there can be an embrace of fashionable liberal politics that, while usually admirable, sometimes skips over details to indulge the greater picture. Some of the actions of the United Church, in particular, have been rash, but again, I do not believe motivated by malice.
Remember, whenever churches consider an Israeli boycott or a harsh statement about the Jewish state, there are always anti-Zionist Jews who will assure them their actions are in no way anti-Semitic and in the direct tradition of Jewish social justice. If we add to this an increasing familiarity with the Palestinian Christian experience, we can understand why all this is happening. The truth is that Israel does sometimes act clumsily and unfairly. All I argue is that its critics show the same concern when its neighbours act far worse.
I was raised in Britain with a Church of England ambience, and I have grown to love the Anglican Communion very much indeed. Do some of its members sometimes show far too little empathy with Jewish and Israeli insecurities? Perhaps. But I have never read a statement by a senior Anglican bishop that is extreme or unloving about Israel, and the Jewish People are far better off building bridges and explaining their position to mainstream Protestants than roaring accusations at them.
Finally comes the Orthodox Church, which is the denomination of most Arab Christians. As such, and because of some of the nations where it is the national church, it can be far too condemning of Israel. Then again, the Orthodox Church in Bulgaria, for example, was extraordinarily protective of its wartime Jewish neighbours. Truth be told, in Canada we hear little, if anything, from the Orthodox Christians about the Middle East.
Ultimately, Christians differ from one another as much as, well, as much as Jews differ from Jews. I may sound naive, but I am convinced that there are very few Christian enemies of Israel, though perhaps some misguided or lost friends. I also know this: listening and communicating are the only way to respond to the entire situation with any hope of success.
Michael Coren is an author and broadcaster. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org