Jonathan Tobin has an interesting article up at the Commentary magazine website. He argues that Israel is rapidly becoming a critical election issue not – as one might expect – for Jews, but for evangelical Christians.
Jewish organizations and media outlets, Tobin points out, occasionally make an effort to argue that Obama is a friend of Israel. But largely they seem to be operating on the assumption that Democratic Jews – that is, most of America’s Jews, with the general exception of those on the conservative end of the religious spectrum – are going to vote for Obama regardless of whether Israel stands to win or lose from his election. Romney, on the other hand, has placed Israel square in the middle of many campaign speeches, knowing that taking the “right”stance – unquestionable support for Israel – will help garner him the much-needed evangelical vote.
The irony that American Christians (and not only American – see my earlier interview with Marie-Aude Tardivo) are more eager to protect the Jewish state than American Jews is perhaps not so ironic after all. It simply highlights a realignment of the alliances among four groups: religious Jews, secular Jews, religious Christians, and nominal/secular Christians.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews were united by their concern for the sheer physical survival of the Jewish people. Israel was seen as an opportunity to protect the Jews and ensure their safety and religious freedom. Religious Christians were generally perceived by Jews as uniformly adhering to a replacement theology, and therefore either indifferent or outright hostile to Jewish survival. Under this narrative, there was not much need to distinguish between religious and secular Jews, nor religious and secular Christians.
Many Jews retain this basic mental map today, which leads to suspicion of the evangelical pro-Israel phenomenon. The motives of Christians who wish to defend Israel, not in spite but because of their Christianity, are viewed as ultimately anti-Jewish – for example, wanting Israel to exist merely so that the Apocalypse may be fulfilled, with the result that Judaism would be finally discredited.
But the truth is that the traditional alliances no longer hold. Many American secular Jews seem to have decided that world anti-Semitism is no longer a threat – and hence that Israel is neither essential as a protection against it, nor at any real danger of being destroyed at its hands. They also seem to have recognized that, with its endlessly precarious military situation, Israel is unlikely to become a paradise for socialism, gay marriage, and environmentalism anytime soon, and moved on to focus on these issues in more promising, safer places – like the United States.
The new relevant groupings with respect to Israel, then, are religious Jews and religious Christians, on one hand, and secular Jews and secular “Christians,” on the other. The first of these groups is driven, it seems to me, by two beliefs: first, that both the Jews and the Holy Land are a living testament to God’s promise; and second – not unrelated – that neither God, nor the devil and his anti-Semitic associates, are finished with the Jews quite yet. Both these beliefs spell out support for Israel as a Jewish state – a state whose mission it is to preserve the Jewish people, both physically and spiritually, in the face of adversity. The second group, naturally, holds the opposite view – that being Jewish is one of many largely equivalent religious preferences, which can be effectively protected in any country.
What does this mean for Jewish Christians? I’d love to hear what you think. Personally, I suspect there might be cause for tentative rejoicing. Christian support for Israel may finally signal to religious and other right-wing Jews that – unlike many liberal Jews – Christians believe in the Jewish people, even if not in Judaism. From there, it may become easier for us to explain ourselves.