All opinions expressed are those of the writer.
To understand the Israelis of today and why Israel means so much to them, a good deal of time must be spent understanding the Jewish story which has wrought the Israeli experience. As one elderly Israeli woman once told me, “Because of our history, you must understand what it means to need this homeland. You realize this is a necessity.” This story is integral to the identity and motivations of modern Israelis. Exile. Persecution. Second-class citizenship. Extermination. These are the words that defined the Jewish experience for nearly 2,000 years.
For many American Christians, the memory of antisemitism begins and ends with the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel being its final outcome and solution. Most Christians today are ignorant to the fact that much of the pain of the Jewish story not only begins long before Nazi Germany, but that it was perpetuated under the name of Christianity. One need only briefly look at the history of Christianity to realize the depth and breadth of Jewish persecution either by the Church or in the name of it. Many Christians would be horrified and ashamed to discover what acts have been done that run counter to the faith that they hold so dearly today.
N.T. Wright, named “the most important apologist for the Christian faith since C. S. Lewis” by Christianity Today, puts it like this:
“The horrible dark history of ‘Christian’ persecution of people of other faiths, particularly Jewish people, has left a stain on what should be a symbol of hope and welcome. I remember being shocked, as a young man, to read about Jews who had escaped from persecution in supposedly ‘Christian’ cultures in Eastern Europe and who then, upon arriving in America, saw on street corners the sign of the cross, which they had come to fear and loathe. Those of us who grew up with crosses in our churches and all around us and with no anti-Jewish ideas in our heads have to face the fact that our central symbol has often been horribly abused. It has been used as a sign of a military might or of a dominant culture determined to stamp out all rivals… The fact that such nonsense is a scandalous denial of the early Christian meaning of the cross doesn’t make it any better.”
To make matters worse, this persecution was not merely led by an extreme sect or some other rogue Christian minority. Rather, it was carried out all over Christian Europe and maintained often by the establishment of the Church itself. The year 1492 is not remembered among Jews as the year “Columbus sailed the ocean blue” but as the year all Jews in Spain were forced to convert to Christianity or be expelled from the country with the threat of death. In 1543 Martin Luther wrote a work dedicated to condemning the “miserable and accursed” Jews entitled “The Jews and their Lies”. In “Christian Russia” in the 19th century, Jewish sons were forcibly removed from their homes at a young age and placed into the military to “Russify” them and strip them of their Jewish culture and heritage. Pogroms were launched frequently by local officials, destroying Jewish homes and beating and killing until the Jewish community decided to flee. One Russian official publicly proclaimed of the government sponsored persecution against the Jewish minority: “One third will die out, one third will leave the country and one third will be completely dissolved in the surrounding population.”
All this was done in the name of the church and beneath the shadow of the Christian cross. The list goes on and on. The Holocaust, known as the Shoah amongst Jews, was the culmination of these centuries of persecution. Once again, it was many Christians who turned a blind eye to the atrocities within Europe. Americans, who often view themselves as the saviors of the war, were not exempt. Ships carrying hundreds Jewish families from Europe seeking refuge from the Nazis were turned away from each country they visited. In 1939, the United States Coast Guard escorted the M.S. St. Louis away from the Florida coast, under orders to pick up any Jews attempting to swim to shore and place them back on the ship to Europe. Most of those 937 passengers were killed in the death camps in the coming years.
In their darkest hour, the Jewish people were isolated and left alone to suffer one of the greatest atrocities in the history of humanity. When they needed help the most, they were treated just as they had for 2,000 years: exiles, outcasts, and second-class citizens. For over 70 years, Israel has existed as a safe-haven for Jews worldwide, but it is a shame that its need was only reluctantly recognized after the Shoah. As the saying goes: “Israel was not born because of the Holocaust. The Holocaust was born because there was no Israel.”
Israel is truly an anomaly in the Jewish story. If it is to be the beginning of a new normal and not a mere footnote in history, it is up to Christians to realize the precarious window of opportunity that exists today. The history of world Jewry is a dark and brutal tale, but it is sobering and necessary to grasp the urgency of our cultural moment. There is hope that we can change this narrative. The nation of Israel offers a new chance for Christians to build trust with the Jewish people: a trust that has been nonexistent throughout the history of our faith. In supporting Israel’s right to exist and self-determination, we can make an important stride in both recognizing the sins of the past and preventing the inaugurations of new ones.
Our lifetimes could very well be the beginning of an unprecedented era of Jewish-Christian relations and a grand step towards friendship after centuries of hostility. The Church must know that this opportunity may be fleeting and must be seized for the sake of justice, redemption, and for all that the Christian faith claims to support and fight for. This window could close at any moment. Jews today still exist in a state of vulnerability due to their status as a small minority of the world’s population. The Jewish State is but an infant, and her story is to be one of triumph over some of the worst stains of human history, then Christians must lead the world in offering a hand to her in fraternal love and friendship. We have this moment to change history, and that is a thrilling but weighty idea. The story of Jewish-Christian relations is not finished, and our generation has the opportunity to usher in the first chapter of many that will grow to be much more powerful than the dark memories of the past. Let us pray and act that this may be so.
Learn more about the history of Jewish-Christian relations:
The Day the Revolution Began, by N.T. Wright
“The Attitudes of Russian Officials in the 1880s Toward Jewish Assimilation and Emigration,” Slavic Review34, no. 1 (1975): 1-18, by Michael Aronson
“Christian Persecution of Jews over the Centuries,” by Gerard S. Sloyan: center/initiatives/ethics-religion-[…]the-centuries/christian-persecution-of-jews-over-the-centuries