Continuing the interview from Monday’s post. Last part coming Friday.
In the 20th century, the Catholic Church has given serious thought to its relationship with the Jews and attempted to make amends and articulate a philosemitic theology. What has kept the Orthodox Church from doing likewise?
The short answer is that the Orthodox Church has not yet caught up to the 20th century. Most Orthodox are associated with Russia – the nation with perhaps the most virulent modern history of anti-Semitism – and many of them still want their Czar back.
Orthodox Christians in the Middle East have been dispossessed of their homes by Israelis – this plays a huge role. A recent article of mine in Touchstone caused an Antiochian priest colleague of mine to accuse me of defending the State of Israel – despite the fact that the article did not mention Israel at all, and barely mentioned Jews.
But even for these Middle Eastern Christians, isn’t Islam their traditional enemy – indeed, can’t much of the hardship they have suffered at Israel’s hands be traced back to Muslim provocation? It seems to me that it should not be so predictable that they would pick the anti-Israeli side.
Here I agree with you; it should not be so predictable. The enemy of the Christians in the Middle East has always been the Muslims. But at the same time, the Christians had to band together with the Muslims in several ways throughout history, notably against the Turks.
Also, Christians in the Middle East have had to struggle for survival, and would align themselves with any regime that would protect them.
Not very different from the Jews…
That’s right. In Syria they universally support the Assad government – it is their protection against the Sunni majority. The Christians in Iraq supported Saddam Hussein – he was their protector as well. The same is true in Jordan. So if the Assad government is anti-Israel, which it certainly is, the Christians align themselves against Israel. They had more enlightened leadership in Egypt than in Syria – Mubarak really protected the Christians, now they are killing people and burning churches.
And we can’t forget that Israel itself is not the biggest fan of all things Christian.
Israel’s history is very complex. There are deep fissures in the body politic. The 1967 war marked a big change: from that point on, very few people in the Israeli government were willing to accommodate the Arabs. At the same time, there is no doubt that Israeli Arabs have a much higher standard of living than Arabs anywhere else in the world. It is very complex.
This strikes me as particularly ironic in light of Father James Bernstein’s argument that modern Middle Eastern Christians, particularly in Syria and Palestine, may well be physical descendants of the original Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem.
Fr. Bernstein’s book is the only one I’m familiar with on this topic. But his thesis is very plausible.
I don’t think Middle Eastern Christians are aware of this hypothesis. I suspect my own archdiocese is not that familiar with Bernstein’s thesis (note: even though Fr. Bernstein is himself part of the Antiochian jurisdiction).
Do you see a way forward for the Orthodox Church on this issue of its stance toward the Jews?
The mechanisms for it are there. But anti-Semitism is a very severe heresy. As Fr. Hopko would say, the disappearance of heresy often requires a sufficient number of funerals. I identified it as a heresy in my article on Marcion, which was published in our archdiocesan journal, Again Magazine, ten or twelve years ago. People read it, but there was not much reaction. Nobody took the trouble to disagree with me. It did not strike people at the level where recognition of the problem could take place.
I certainly don’t anticipate any steps toward a resolution or even admission of an anti-Semitic problem in the Russian Church in my lifetime. We still have a lot of work to do.
It seems to me that anti-Semitism these days often masquerades as condemnation of Israel’s policies. There is of course a legitimate place for disagreement with what Israel does as a nation, but the lines begin to blur when its very right to exist is questioned, I think.
I would agree with that.
Now I should note that, in my parish for example, there is very little awareness of this as a problem. My parishioners don’t have a trace of anti-Semitism; many of them are pro-Israel, though that’s because they are Republicans rather than because they are Orthodox Christians.