The price of being accepted by the world

What really explains the Jewish overreaction to the Pat Robertson flap?

January 22, 2006 01:41 (photo credit: )

At one level, Israelis' angry reaction to the Rev. Pat Robertson's suggestion that the stroke which felled Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was Divine retribution for the Gaza withdrawal is completely understandable. Coming as the prime minister was struggling for his life, Robertson's remarks struck many as unseemly. (The Israeli press managed to ignore the fact that in the same broadcast Robertson also expressed his affection for Sharon and offered prayers for his well-being.) To Jewish ears, the attempt to offer a Divine calculus for tragedy also sounded strange. According to our sages, when Moses asked God to reveal His ways, God replied that no man may know His ways and live. At most, a prophet at Moses' level might gain some retrospective understanding of events. Those same sages tell us that the era of prophecy ended long ago. Nevertheless, there was something over the top about the official Israeli response to Robertson. From the heated responses one would never have guessed that Robertson is one of the most influential defenders of Israel in the United States. His 700 Club broadcast reaches millions of viewers daily, and he has been consistently defending Israel against attacks for 20 years. THE 70 million US Evangelical Christians are Israel's largest, most vocal base of support. Every poll shows that Israel's security is a critical factor in determining how they vote. The same cannot be said for American Jews. Israel ranks further down the list of issues of major concern to them - somewhere after "women's reproductive rights." Insensitive as Robertson's statement might have been - he has since sent Omri Sharon a written apology - it was that of a friend, who sees in disengagement a real threat to Israel's security. Israelis may disagree with the theological principles underlying Robertson's fears (so would leading Torah scholars), but that should not prevent us from recognizing his concerns as the product of his empathy for Israel and the Jewish people. That's what makes the official response to Robertson's comment altogether too fast and too furious. Tourism Minister Avraham Hirschson immediately declared Robertson persona non grata and excluded him from participation in a $50-million Christian tourist park in Galilee. That exclusion is now being reconsidered. Israel's UN ambassador, Danny Ayalon, termed Robertson's remarks "outrageous." That is not the way Israel should talk to a friend, especially given our short supply of such friends in the world. THE MORE secure Jews and Christians are in their own beliefs, the less threatened they are by differing views of the other side, the more comfortable the relationship and the less the temptation to theological debate. To Jews confident of their own beliefs, for instance, it matters not a whit whether Christians believe in the eventual salvation of all Jews by the Christian savior. Since we are sure that day will never come, we can work together until then. Friendship does not give carte blanche, or mean that Jews should be willing to sacrifice important principles on the altar of friendship. Were Robertson, for instance, supporting missionary activities in Israel; or if the proposed Christian tourist park became a center for such activities, Israel would have a duty to defend the integrity of the Jewish faith. Tensions between Christians and Jews in the United States are often generated by the internal dynamics of the Jewish community - such as the fundraising needs of organizations that depend on raising the specter of anti-Semitism, and the political identification of most Jews with the Democratic Party. And a certain alienation from faith within the Jewish world may also have contributed to the reaction to Robertson's remark, even in Israel. IRONICALLY, what makes some Jews nervous is the evangelical belief, derived directly from the Bible, that the Jews are God's Chosen People and that the Land of Israel was promised to them. The very concept of chosenness makes many Jews nervous; they find the whole notion vaguely "racist." For many Jews, Jewishness has become a burden, and belief in the holiness of the Land nothing but an obstacle to peace. Above all, many Jews seek to be embraced by the world. How else do we explain the way the acceptance of Magen David Adom by the International Red Cross was hailed as a triumph, even though it came at the cost of making it the only emergency organization forbidden to display its distinctive religious symbols? In our eyes acceptance is too often defined as the world ceasing to view Jews as different. For that to happen, however, we must first cease viewing ourselves as in any way unique. How irritating, then, of evangelicals such as Rev. Robertson to keep reminding us that we were, indeed, chosen. The author is a director of the Jewish Humanitarian Foundation International.

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