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Should Jews Fear Fanatically pro-Israel, Philosemitic U.S. Evangelicals?

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Binghamtown Baptist Church, Middlesboro, KY, a screenshot from 'Til Kingdom Come,' a documentary about Evangelical support for Israel and financial framework behind it
Binghamtown Baptist Church, Middlesboro, KY, a screenshot from 'Til Kingdom Come,' a documentary about Evangelical support for Israel and financial framework behind itCredit: Abraham (Abie) Troen

What is more offensive – and more threatening? Today’s fanatically pro-Israel, philosemitic U.S. Evangelicals, or yesteryear’s Christian theological antisemitism?

The answer to this question has far-reaching implications for Jewish-Christian relations and specifically, how Jews should deal with Evangelical participation in the U.S.-Israel relationship.

In a recent article in Haaretz (‘Pro-Israel' Evangelicals Furious at Netanyahu's Fall Turn to Sickening Antisemitism), Joshua Shanes vented his ire at Mike Evans, the evangelical Christian Zionist who accused political opponents of seeking to "crucify" the divinely-appointed Benjamin Netanyahu to force him from office, vowing to mobilize millions of evangelicals to bring down the new Israeli government.

Shanes identifies Evans as the paradigm of the antisemitic philosemite: a Christian performing his love for Jews and Israel who is really interested in baptizing Jews and crunching on popcorn as a river of blood rushes through the alleys of Jerusalem as Armageddon unfolds.

Shanes, horrified by Evans’s unsavory and disreputable apocalyptic theology, is no less angry with the "Zionist Right" for finding Evans to be a more supportive ally than the progressive American Jews who do not spare Israel from criticism.

Mike Evans with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2019.Credit: Yossi Zamir

The alliance of evangelicals and the Zionist Right, argues Shanes, locks Jews into acting out a Christian fantasy. "Good Jews" participate in this fantasy, while the bad ones keep their distance from Israel and therefore delay the coming of Christ. Evans even goes so far to compare these "bad Jews" to assimilationist German Jews, whom he faults for fiddling while Auschwitz burned, "because they were more German than they were Jews."

Now, I cannot but share Shanes’s feelings of repulsion for Evans. Evans seems like a grifter and a bullshit artist.

What I do not share, however, is Shanes’s feelings of fear with regards to Evans’s philosemitic antisemitism.

Shanes ends his article with a rhetorical question from a friend:

"Come now," one of my friends concluded, "when has it ever not worked out for Jews to have Christians be mad at us for failing to play the role they've cast for us in their own cosmic drama?"

The conceit, obviously, is that Evan’s evangelical Zionism poses some kind of material threat to Jews who refuse to comply with his messianic vision. Thus, Jews must reject Evans. And those who don’t, like Netanyahu and Shlomo Riskin (Chief Rabbi of Efrat), could be considered responsible for the shedding of Jewish blood later on. Shanes speculates that Evans’s anger at the unseating of Netanyahu could be a precursor to a new wave of Christian anti-Jewish violence.

As repugnant as Evans is, his style of philosemitism deserves a more charitable interpretation than Shanes gives it.

The core of the philosemitic Christian "cosmic drama" is indeed the centrality of the Jews. This seems to Shanes to be analogous to an older version, which centered Jewish recalcitrance and refusal to accept Christ as the messiah.

In this story, at least according to St. Augustine, Jewish existence – its dispersion and misery – testified to the truth of Christ and the waywardness of Jewish rejectionism. Indeed, according to Augustine, Jews were ordained to serve this testimonial purpose until the cosmic drama concluded with Christ’s eventual victory (and Jews’ conversion or annihilation) in the end-times.

The central role of Jews in the old version of the Christian story was as a dispersed and helpless symbol of defeat. Jews were stuck in this role – condemned to it. They had no agency whatever.In the new version of the Christian story, however, the role of the Jews could not be more opposite.

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

Evans is furious with Naftali Bennett and the other Jews, Israeli and otherwise, who supplanted Netanyahu because they utilized their outsized agency to achieve ends contrary to Evans’s own. In other words, Evans takes Jewish agency for granted.

Indeed, the very foundation of his philosemitism is the desperate Christian need/desire for Jews to properly play their role in the cosmic drama. This is evidenced by Evans’s wrath at having been betrayed. He was counting on the Jews to do one thing; and they wound up doing something else.

What Shanes leaves out of his interpretation of Evans’s screed is that, at least from a theological perspective, it is altogether inert. Evans is powerless to change the outcome that he despises, no matter how venomously he rails against it. The basis of his philosemitic Christian theology stipulates Christian powerlessness.

Evident in Evans’s own words is the fact that his version of Christianity displaces Christians from intimate partners of God to fetishist voyeurs. Christians are supposed to look on as God and the Jewish people perform their intimate dance. They are supposed to watch from afar and enjoy.

The roots of the philosemitic turn of Christianity lie in the Christian response to the Holocaust and Zionism – a strange admixture of guilt and triumphalism. But more important for the time being than the question of Christian philosemitism’s history is the issue of how Jews should respond to it.

Evangelical Christians at an event in Jerusalem, September 29, 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Shanes argues that on the basis of its theological antecedents and unholy alliance with the “Zionist Right,” this philosemitism should be feared and contested. Yet, this posture neglects two critical issues.

First, it obscures the fact that Christian philosemitism emphasizes Jewish agency, where Christianity once took the opposite for granted. Second, Shanes does not concede that Jewish politics – whatever its future – will have to grapple with the ongoing fact of Christian characterizations of Jews and Judaism. That is, Christian interest in Judaism will be an enduring part of the Jewish political landscape.

This emphasis on Jewish political agency and the unavoidability of Christian representations of Judaism may seem like it would lead back to the rightwing Zionist position that Shanes rejects. It may. Quite often –  too often – Zionism has been presented as the only option for those interested in Jewish agency. And the role of Christianity in Jewish politics has almost always been to cheerlead a simplistic (to the point of infantile) view of Israel’s Biblical mandate. Moreover, other, non-rightwing Jewish positions have hastily fled the field where the confluence of Jewish politics and Christianity is concerned.

And yet, it is possible to imagine a different conclusion that capitalizes on the novel emphasis on Jewish agency found in Christian philosemitic discourse.

Jews like Shanes (and me) who are happy to see Netanyahu go cannot evade the fact that Christians have an interest in Jews. We should make use of our agency to articulate a different view of the cosmic drama and what that means for Israel and Jewish politics. Of course, to do that, we need to understand more about the drama we’ve been in all along.

Judah Isseroff is a PhD candidate in Religion, Ethics, and Politics at Princeton University. His dissertation is entitled "Beyond Political Theology: Hannah Arendt’s Jewish Theology of Givenness"

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