Opinion

Evangelicals Trying to Convert Jews: A Fair Price for Christian Support for Israel?

A new Israeli TV channel targeting Jews for conversion to Christianity has triggered tumult even among evangelicals’ most dedicated Jewish friends. But one 'controversy' won’t wreck the Christian-Jewish alliance on Israel

Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin
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GOD TV broadcast promoting its Israel-focused programming, featuring 'Discovering the Jewish Jesus with Messianic Rabbi Schneider'
GOD TV broadcast promoting its Israel-focused programming, featuring 'Discovering the Jewish Jesus with Messianic Rabbi Schneider'Credit: Screenshot from YouTube
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin

As far as critics of the alliance between Jewish conservatives and evangelical Christians are concerned, GOD TV is the comeuppance that the right has long deserved.

Those who have been appalled by the warm welcome right wingers — especially the settler movement — have given conservative Christian admirers of the Jewish state think the fact that a new Israeli cable channel dedicated to trying to convert Jews to Christianity vindicates their skepticism about the value of their support.

Ward Simpson, CEO of GOD TV, speaks about GOD TV launching in Israel

From the point of view of many liberals, the price of evangelical support was always too high. They believe the embrace of these forces by Jews gave an undeserved legitimacy to their deeply conservative social agenda on issues like abortion and gay rights that is anathema to most Jews in the Diaspora.

Still others saw it as based in a belief that Israel’s existence would bring an Armageddon-like scenario that would hasten the return of the Christian messiah, which would in turn lead to the conversion of Jews rather than genuine friendship.

By the same token, Orthodox Jews view GOD TV as a betrayal of an alliance that they believed was rooted in unselfish Christian affection for Israel and Jews.

But while the presence of the GOD TV program on the Hebrew language Shelanu, a new channel being offered by the local Hot cable company isn’t going to wreck the Christian-Jewish alliance by itself; it is an apt moment to consider some of the false premises that some observers have been operating under.

Most of the left’s critiques of conservative Christian support for Israel are risible. As anyone who has spent much time covering the issue understands, the admiration and affection that tens of millions of American evangelicals have for Israel is sincere. While their frame of reference is hard for secular liberals to understand, they genuinely believe that the biblical references to Jewish rights to the land of Israel are dispositive.

That means not only do they accept the truth of the biblical injunction that those who bless Israel will be blessed and those who curse it will be cursed. They also think that obligates them to oppose anyone who disputes Jewish sovereignty, especially over places with biblical place names, a stand that endears them to settlers living in places that these Christians also call Judea and Samaria rather than the West Bank.

And contrary to the cynical view of liberals, this support is offered by people who want nothing in return other than what they believe will be heaven’s blessing

GOD TV broadcast promoting its Israel-focused programming, featuring 'Discovering the Jewish Jesus with Messianic Rabbi Schneider'
GOD TV broadcast promoting its Israel-focused programming, featuring 'Discovering the Jewish Jesus with Messianic Rabbi Schneider'Credit: Screenshot from YouTube

Liberal Jews can work with conservative Christians to build support for Israel just as they make common cause with liberal denominations that are critical of the Jewish state on social issues.

As for the notion that their backing should be spurned because it is based in eschatological expectations about Jewish conversion, that is not something that all or even most evangelicals believe. And even if they did, it passes understanding why any Jew, religious or non-religious, should be worried about what will or won’t occur after Jesus’ return, since none of them believe such a thing will ever happen.

But the missionizing sermon heard on GOD TV’s initial broadcast does give pause even to the evangelicals’ most dedicated Jewish friends. Indeed, the settlers and other Orthodox figures have been the most outspoken when it came to demanding that the cable channel cease and desist attempts to get Jews to convert.

God TV’s missionizing likely puts it afoul of Israeli regulations that essentially prohibits missionizing and could cost it its broadcasting license. But even if that weren’t the case, responsible conservatives know how destructive such efforts are to the cause of better relations between Christians and Jews.

The injunction to spread the "good news" of Christianity’s promise of salvation is at the heart of their faith, and especially so for evangelicals. Yet over the course of the last century, many Christian denominations have come to understand the profound offense Jews take to their missionizing efforts.

Jerusalem prayer rally for Israel organized by the International Christian Embassy, founded "as an evangelical response for the need to comfort Zion". 29 September 2015
Jerusalem prayer rally for Israel organized by the International Christian Embassy, founded "as an evangelical response for the need to comfort Zion". 29 September 2015Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Part of this is the historical baggage associated with the subject. Dating back to the time when Christianity became the official faith of the Roman Empire, Jews have been pressured to abandon their faith and accept the new religion. In the medieval era, many Jewish communities were forced to listen conversionary sermons. Others, such as in Spain, were offered the stark choice of converting or exile, with death being the only other alternative.

In a modern context, most Jews simply consider it bad manners for Christians to treat their faith as something they should trade in for a better religion. Since Jews have traditionally eschewed proselytizing others to join their face, they think Christians, especially those who claim to be philo-Semites and opposed to Jew hatred, like the evangelicals, must show similar restraint.

The Catholic Church and many Protestant denominations, including some led by prominent right-wing evangelicals like Pastor John Hagee, have accepted that so-called "replacement theology" — which holds that Christianity essentially replaced Judaism — must be rejected. 

A complicating factor in this debate is the question of so-called “Messianic Judaism." GOD TV CEO Ward Simpson declared that he didn’t want Jews to convert to Christianity but to only embrace Jesus as their messiah while retaining their Jewish identity. Such talk further alienates Jews of every stripe as they see such sects as fraudulent. 

While Jews differ on virtually every conceivable religious and political issue, the one thing that unites just about all of them from the most religious to the most secular is the conviction that if you believe in the Christian messiah, you’re no longer Jewish.

But while GOD TV or any other conservative Christian outfit ought to halt their conversionary efforts, the notion that what they’re doing represents a genuine danger to Jewish life is absurd.

In America, the demographic threat to the Jewish community comes from a decline of faith and belief in any concept of Jewish peoplehood, not Jews for Jesus. As for Israel, where Jews remain in the majority, the problem is the way the official rabbinate’s policies have brought Judaism into disrepute. 

Christian support for Israel should be accepted on its own terms rather than dismissed due to partisan or cultural prejudices. By the same token, though Jews aren’t wrong to resent conversionary efforts, any limited success it might achieve is a function of the failure of Jewish institutions, both in Israel and the Diaspora, to properly educate and inspire Jews about the beauty and spiritual riches of their traditions and faith, not the blandishments of proselytizers. 

If Jews, whether they are settlers or liberals, are genuinely alarmed about Christians seeking converts, they should compete against them in a free market of ideas rather than just fume about the sinister nature of missionizing.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin