Jewish apathy fuels missionary zeal

Israelis want to foster evangelical support, but often do not distinguish Christian missionaries from those who are not, Op-ed.

Matthew M. Hausman  ,

(illustrative) Christian Evangelists in Jerusalem, October 17, 2019
(illustrative) Christian Evangelists in Jerusalem, October 17, 2019
Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

In the Book of Proverbs (Mishlei, 26:24), King Solomon wrote: “An enemy dissembles with his lips and within him he places deceit.” And in the “Art of War,” Sun Tzu stated: “If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Despite their disparate cultural milieus, both understood the danger of failing to recognize or understand one’s adversaries; and the words of both could just as easily apply to the presence in Israel of missionaries who claim to love the Jewish People but in reality seek their spiritual destruction. Though the government should know better, receptiveness to evangelical blandishments and tourism dollars may be a reaction to eroding support from the US Jewish community. Thus, missionary zeal in Israel may be enabled by American apathy.

Evangelical activity in Israel has been a nuisance for years, but it has become more strident as missionary groups have endeavored to ingratiate themselves at a time when support from certain established quarters seems to be in jeopardy. The problem came to a head last year when an Israeli cable television provider awarded a contract to the Shelanu TV network, an affiliate of the evangelical “GOD-TV,” whose proponents claimed its programming would be for Christian listeners. The veracity of this claim was undermined when the network’s CEO was seen on video stating, “[t]here are nine million people in Israel who need to hear the gospel…” Clearly, the real agenda was to evangelize Israelis; and the station was taken off the air for misrepresenting its purpose.

This episode was by no means the only evangelical controversy in recent years. Indeed, missionaries from across the US, Europe, and Asia frequently bring their theatrics to the Israeli public square, while the “messianic” movement has been attempting to grow its presence for years. The former are often identified by their stereotypical street antics and ignorance of Hebrew scripture and are easily dismissed. The latter group is more problematic because its adherents include those who use claims of Jewish ancestry to legitimize doctrines that contravene Torah law. Though messianic Judaism is simply evangelical Christianity with a veneer of Jewish customs and traditions, its purveyors use heritage claims and meaningless ritual practice as subterfuge to promote heretical beliefs to the Torah-ignorant.

Some Christians truly support Israel for reasons of history and justice, but those who claim purity of purpose have the burden to show the absence of ulterior motives. Such skepticism is entirely appropriate given the long tradition of Christian antisemitism marked by replacement theology, ghettoization, harassment, crusades, and genocide. Unfortunately, the intentions of Christians who seek access to Israeli society are often not vetted critically. Can it be that this is because of the perceived opportunity to counterbalance declining support from Americans who reject Jewish tradition and Israel?

And this rejection stems from generations of minimal Jewish education, declining textual proficiency, and the conflation of Judaism with secular values – particularly among liberal ritual movements and communal organizations that elevate the political over the sacred.


The divide between the two communities exists not because Israelis have rejected their American cousins, but because US Jews have sacrificed Jewish tradition, observance, and history on the altar of progressivism.
A study by the Pew Research Center in 2013 evaluated American Jews’ emotional attachment to Israel, and results by movement affiliation showed the strongest affinity percentagewise amongst the Orthodox, followed by Conservative and Reform in descending order. Though reported attachment to Israel was significant overall, it appeared paramount for those who were the most Judaically literate (i.e., the Orthodox). As used in the study, however, the term “attachment to Israel” was undefined and thus may not have accurately gauged pro-Israel sentiments.

Perhaps a better indicator would have been to ask respondents whether they supported organizations that accuse Israel of apartheid, marginalize Jewish national aspirations, or disparage Israel’s Jewish character. The answer to this question would likely have shown ambivalence or antipathy among progressives – regardless of whether they claimed to be pro-Israel. Indeed, people’s loyalties are often reflected more by the company they keep than the words they speak.

The reality is that organizations hostile to Israel attract many nontraditional clergy and congregants, but very few Orthodox. Not surprisingly, groups like J Street (which has often endorsed anti-Israel political candidates), the New Israel Fund (known for financially supporting organizations that promote boycotts), Jewish Voice for Peace (which advocates curtailing US aid to Israel), and many BDS-related organizations draw supporters from across the progressive Jewish spectrum, including from the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements and possibly the neo-Conservative Open Orthodox.

Given the unprecedented intermarriage and assimilation rates among the non-Orthodox and unaffiliated populations over the past few decades, it seems unlikely their attachment to Israel would have grown in the years since the Pew study. And how could it when so many of them take their cues from leaders who value progressivism over Jewish tradition? The sad truth is that liberal pulpits have become soapboxes for progressive indoctrination, unbalanced criticism of Israel, and polemics against traditional Judaism.

Though nonprofit professionals claim Jewish giving to Israeli charities remains high, some studies have suggested a drop-off influenced by demography and politics. In fact, some observers have noted a widening gap between American and Israeli societal values, and the differences are striking. Whereas American Jews tend to favor liberal politics over traditional Judaism and define their identity by partisan affiliation, Israelis seem to have a more traditional view of Jewish identity, more informed perspectives on religion, and greater understanding of Jewish history.

Israelis seem to have little affinity for nontraditional movements that have grown cavalier about Israel’s safety, security, and Jewish continuity. Moreover, many are alienated by Americans who dialogue with Islamist front organizations posing as moderate, support Democratic politicians with antisemitic credentials, or validate revisionist Palestinian Arab claims that deny the Temple stood in Jerusalem and repudiate Jewish history.

Whether observant, traditional, or secular, many Israelis are put off by Americans who support organizations that seek to undermine Israel’s sovereignty and Jewish character, or seek to impose social, political, or religious standards that Israelis find irrelevant or aberrant.

The divide between the two communities exists not because Israelis have rejected their American cousins, but because US Jews have sacrificed Jewish tradition, observance, and history on the altar of progressivism. And American philanthropic giving today is often influenced by donors’ emphasis on social change, which they generally define in secular political terms, not by Jewish tradition or history.

Consider the lack of conventional observance in movements where rabbis sanctify political initiatives like “ethical kashrut,” which posits that kosher foods must be produced consistent with progressive social, legal, and environmental priorities. Compliance with secular values has no bearing on kosher status, however, particularly when there already exists a body of Torah and rabbinic law governing business ethics, treatment of workers, animal cruelty, and so forth. Ironically, such concepts are advocated by many who do not observe traditional kashrut and who misuse terms like “tikkun olam” and “musar” to sacralize political causes that are extraneous or antithetical to Jewish law.

Despite contrary claims by philanthropic professionals, there is indeed a growing divide between Israeli and Diaspora Jews; and it is driven by the false conflation of Jewish values with progressive causes (e.g., Palestinian advocacy) that are hostile to Israel and Jewish tradition. Thus, it may seem natural when Israelis seek to solicit goodwill from gentiles who profess nothing but love and support for the Jewish People and their state.

The reality, however, is not so simple.

The problem is that Israelis often do not distinguish Christians who are missionaries from those who are not, and consequently, they have let the proverbial fox into the henhouse. They should have no quarrel with truly righteous gentiles who respect Jewish tradition and history. But in a society only a couple of generations removed from the Shoah, policymakers should recognize that those evangelicals who proselytize Jews seek to do spiritually what Hitler attempted to do physically.

Those who don’t understand the threat should educate themselves, whereas those who recognize but ignore it risk devaluing their Jewish past and imperiling their present and future. Political apostasy in the American Jewish community should not lead to allowing promotion of spiritual apostasy in the Jewish homeland.

Clearly, Israeli and American Jews must all learn to distinguish friends from foes – whether in matters of politics or faith. As stated by King Solomon in Proverbs (Mishlei, 27:6): “Faithful are the wounds of a lover; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.”

Matthew M. Hausman is a trial attorney and writer who lives and works in Connecticut. A former journalist, Mr. Hausman continues to write on a variety of topics, including science, health and medicine, Jewish issues and foreign affairs, and has been a legal affairs columnist for a number of publications.



top