Opinion |

What Fuels Evangelical Christians’ Love-hate Relationship With Jews

A cyclical, volatile and dangerous form of apocalyptic Christian belief moves rapidly from philo-Semitism to hating Jews. Will this be the playbook for pro-Israel evangelicals surrounding Donald Trump?

Richard Landes
Richard Landes
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FILE: An evangelical prays during a Mass at a church
FILE: An evangelical prays during a Mass at a churchCredit: Ramon Espinosa,AP
Richard Landes
Richard Landes

GOD TV’s brief appearance on Israeli cable TV, allowing an aggressively missionizing Christian group to preach directly to Israelis in Hebrew, triggered a hue and cry in the Jewish state.

Within a month, the agreement was cancelled, and the channel removed from Israeli cable. In response, one of the leaders of the initiative, Michael Brown, wrote a highly critical piece in Haaretz (How Israel discriminates against Evangelical Christians) charging Israel with violations of their own country’s "much touted promise of religious freedom."

As a historian of two millennia of Jewish-Christian relations, I’d like to put Israel’s concerns in historical perspective, and explain why the behavior of Brown, a self-styled "philo-Jewish" critic and "opponent" of Christian antisemitism, is so irresponsible.

Screenshot of God TV CEO Ward Simpson discussing its new Israeli channel, Shelanu TV.Credit: Screenshot

First, we need to look back over the history of a volatile and extremely dangerous form of Christian Jew-hatred that has played out over the last two millennia, one that goes from loving Jews to hating them in a relatively rapid span of time. This is the problem of apocalyptic conversion, folowed by apocalyptic disappointment, and it plays out in a wave structure influencing Christian attitudes towards Jews.

That problem begins with the Christian need to convert the Jews: it’s a fierce, enduring, and unreciprocated desire.

Jewish identity is not tied up in converting the Christians the way that Christian identity is defined by what it considers Jews’ current refusal, but eventual acceptance, of Jesus as Christ and Lord. Christian exegetes have made it a central feature of their eschatology (what happens at the End Times), that the Jews will convert to Jesus at the very End, based on a (mis)reading of the gospel of Paul (Romans 11:25f).

As Marvell told his "coy mistress," using the most extravagant metaphor for delay, "And you should, if you please, refuse, Till the conversion of the Jews." Except, Paul did not say the Jews will "convert," but rather, be "saved."

Repeatedly, in Christian history (as in Jewish and Muslim history too), waves of apocalyptic expectation have animated believers who saw themselves playing a key role in carrying out God’s plans for the global salvation.

In the early stages of this enthusiasm, often modeled on the apostolic period, Christian believers adopted a benign attitude towards Jews, and an highly appreciative attitude towards Jewish religiosity (what the Church Fathers disparagingly referred to as "judaizing"). God, they believed, did not want the conversion of the Jews through coercion. But true Christian love would persuade them to see the light.

When "generous" apocalyptic expectations like these are disappointed (as they always are) the pushback can get brutal, especially when Christians blame the failure of their hopes on the Jews. The Jews’ refusal to convert foiled Jesus’ return, Parousia, and the cosmic Redemption he’d have brought with him. Again.

Like drunken lovers who turn abusive at the rejection of their sincere expressions of love, these loving Christians then turn on the Jews, who now appear on their apocalyptic projection screens as the "army of Antichrist." For every major outbreak of Christian exterminationist hatred in European history, if you look before it, you’re likely to find a period of philo-Judaism.

Evangelical Christians praying for Jerusalem, in Jerusalem, on September 29, 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

These wave structures are characteristic of the history of both Protestant and Catholic churches. Luther initially believed that, having slipped the ecclesiastical net and seen the Bible’s true meaning, now the Jews, who had reasonably rejected the false Christianity of the Catholic Church, would listen to him, and convert.

When they didn’t, and when he faced the unintended consequences of his apocalyptic dreams, he turned with redoubled ferocity on the Jews, outdoing his (highly accomplished) Catholic forebears in his verbal abuse (though without the institutions of physical abuse of the Crusades or Inquisition). Luther and his Protestant progeny of Jew-haters provided Nazi anti-Semitism with its religious inspiration.

Given how often Jews have, historically, experienced this deeply problematic affection followed by blind Jew hatred and delirious conspiracy theories from Christians in the past, it seems understandable that Jews are gun shy of the weddings to which they’re summoned. And until Christians acquire the self-confidence in their own religious path not to need the reassurance of Jewish conversions to prove their faith is true, this pattern will continue to replay, as tragedy.

What does this have to do with Michael Brown and Ward Simpson and the other folk at GOD TV? They, too, are apocalyptic Christians. They believe that we all live in the Endtimes, when Jesus will return. Moreover, they interpret Romans 11:25 as meaning the Jews will or must convert just before Jesus’ return. "You want to see the great revival? It begins with the Jewish people’s eyes being opened." The conversion of the Jews will bring the Second Coming.

GOD TV's Ward Simpson calls for conversion of all Jews to bring Jesus' second coming. 13 May 2020

For evangelicals like them, GOD TV was literally a divine miracle, an act of God, to achieve this conversion of the Jews – targeting them in their vernacular, all concentrated together, in the Jewish state. One can hear both the urgency and frustration in Ward Simpson’s voice. We’re so close. We’ve always been so close. If only the Jews…

But that exalted triumphalism bumped into reality – and Israeli resistance to GOD TV. Thwarted again: "How can the Jews frustrate [our interpretation of] God’s will?"

Brown smartly couched his Haaretz response in both the conventional terms of critical liberal discourse about Israel – violators of human rights and civil liberties and also the "religious liberty" language of the U.S. Christian right. And both registers reflect the bad faith underlying their initial benevolence.

'March of the Nations,' a pro-Israel rally by evangelical Christians in Jerusalem. May 15, 2018Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

Although the language is about doing the Jews a favor (opening their eyes, saving their souls), the emotions are about reaffirming their own (supersessionist) identity. I cannot be wrong about Jesus’ plans for mankind; and if I fail, it’s your fault.

Brown’s letter shows little empathy with the Jews he "loves," little understanding of why Jews might be sceptical of Christian assurances that their "love" is in "good faith."

And Brown doesn’t even start to cover the level of cultural (mis)appropriation at work here. "Philo-Semite evangelicals" insist they’re actually Jews, their faith in Yeshu the Christ is Jewish, indeed, they are the True Jew. For a somewhat breathtaking example, watch GOD TV’s Ward Simpson explain why they called their Israeli program, Shelanu, "Ours."

Apparently, not only is what’s ours is theirs, but they are us.

GOD TV's deleted video: "It's time to take the Gospel to Israel"

What Brown’s article does show, however, is the incipient stage of a scapegoating campaign that, like so many before, ends with a hatred all the more vicious for being a result of spurned love. "We were so caring, how can you be so cruel as to reject us?"

Historically, not all of philo-Judaism has been (ultimately) negative, even apocalyptic. There were many occasions when those who blessed the Jews, inspired by apocalyptic hope or not, and really did treat them well, were blessed with the kind of cooperative, positive-sum interactions that ensued. One might even posit a history of those episodic moments of philo-Judaism and convivencia as periods the West was prodigiously economically and culturally productive, and relatively egalitarian.

The key test to the Christian apocalyptic love of Jews, then, is how believers confront the (inevitable) disappointment of their glorious if outrageous expectations. Those Christians with sufficient modesty to admit they may have been wrong (in their prophetic scenarios, their deeds, their motivations), are better placed to escape the powerful pull of blaming someone else, and sacrificing the Jews to justify their faith.

Their apocalyptic expectations, greatly encouraged by the creation of Israel, draw from two initially harmonious, eventually disjointed biblical passages: On the one hand, Genesis 12:3: "Those who bless you I will bless," defines their approach to the Jewish people, on the other, Romans 11: 25: "Israel remains blind until the fulness of the gentiles have come in…then will all Israel be saved," informs their apocalyptic expectations.

A 2015 Trump campaign rally in Mobile, Alabama. Credit: Mark Wallheiser / Getty Images

Since the excitement around Rapture 2000 faded, the world increasingly looks more like the times of tribulations. Today, the Christian world faces another wave of apocalyptic hopes and fears (as we do all), and thus a great challenge arises: Can it avoid the backlash which, some might argue, disillusioned post-Oslo liberal Protestants began and that evangelicals might likewise embrace?

Over the last two decades, culminating in a U.S. president closely (if curiously) associated with evangelicals, there has been an unusual level of philo-Judaism in some evangelical Christian circles and pro-Israel policy in diplomatic circles.

And yet despite the evangelical hopes of two post-1948 generations, there’s still no sign that the Jews "understand" their critical role in everyone’s salvation. In the past, the slippery slope to violence and human sacrifice has won over and again.

Can Christians hold on to the unconditional love they profess, and cling to the ways of peace? Can the apocalyptic 21st century be different?

Richard Landes is a medieval historian with a specialty in apocalyptic millennial movements ("Heaven on Earth: The Variety of the Millennial Experience," Oxford, 2011; "Paranoid Apocalypse: One Hundred Year Retrospective on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion," NYU Press, 2011). His forthcoming book is entitled "Stupidity Matters: A Medievalist Guide to the 21st Century" (Academic Studies Press). He serves as the Chair of the Academic Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. Twitter: @richard_landes

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