Nurturing relations with Christians in Israel
Jews and Christians have their own problems, issues, texts, theologies and traumas to work through. They share much, and of course they differ greatly.
Celebrants dressed as Santa at J'lem's Mamilla Photo: Sarah Levin
The Christmas season had newspapers in Israel trotting out the regular seasonal
articles about Christians in Bethlehem, about how the Jewish state cares for its
Christian minority by distributing free Christmas trees, about how Christians
are persecuted around the Middle East, about how NGOs in Europe mobilize the
Christmas story for political ends, and so on.
The responses were equally
predictable. Look, we (Jews) love Christians. No we don’t. Yes we do,
they don’t. We’re not entirely sure how we feel about Christians here in
Israel, or why.
Today, yet another person (yes, another academic) felt it
necessary to berate me about my field, leaning over her desk with unmasked
“Why Jewish-Christian relations?” she demanded. “What makes
them so special? We don’t need that in Israel – we need to work on Jewish-Muslim
relations!” A little bit of probing easily uncovered standard-issue Israeli
parochialism at work. For many here, it is Jewish-Muslim issues that require
attention because those are ostensibly the real issues we face.
that the clergy members that were spat on, the faithful whose holy sites were
vandalized and the believers who watched their scriptures ripped up by a Knesset
member who then posed for pictures might think differently.
apparently held by some in Israel that Christians, and Jewish-Christian
relations, are not a significant enough issue for contemporary Israel to warrant
our attention and our energy, is problematic.
I always find this
argument, particularly when it comes from academics, to be especially bizarre. I
can handle Jewish ambivalence about Christians and Christianity. I get that. But
to suggest that Jewish relations with Christians and Christianity are somehow
irrelevant to us in Israel because there are so few of them here evokes a
certain Soviet-style reality in which value is measured by usefulness to the
state. It’s a little like saying we needn’t study history because it’s about
dead people, or the moon because it’s so far away.
Funnily enough, this
version of “why do Jewish-Christian relations matter” is just a variation on the
conservative (religious) argument sometimes heard here, which wonders why Jews
ought to know anything about Christianity at all. We’re a majority in Israel,
the argument goes, and finally our children can be raised really Jewish,
untainted by these foreign influences.
So why on earth would we want them
to know anything about the New Testament? We’ve related enough to Christianity;
now let’s just do Jewish- Jewish relations.
are unique, and uniquely important, both in humanity and yes, in service to the
state of Israel.
First, there are no two religions that share as broad a
textual foundation as do Judaism and Christianity. While both religions have
their own interpretations and texts, the fact that both religions engage and
develop the Hebrew Bible, however differently, makes their relationship uniquely
Second, because it grew out of a Jewish context, Christianity is
deeply and passionately interested in Jews and Judaism.
The problem of
dealing with its Jewish roots has plagued and inspired Christianity for its
entire existence in an effort to at the same time assert continuity with and
difference from Judaism. Similarly, Christianity is theologically preoccupied
with the Jewish people, and what their chosenness implies for the status of
Of course the Christian “problem” with Judaism is different
from the Jewish “problem” with Christianity. The former is mostly theological
and tends to worry about ideas. The latter is overwhelmingly historical and
worries mostly about security of persons and communities. In different ways,
Christianity and Judaism are deeply and necessarily entangled with each other,
in history and today.
THROUGH THE issue of the Holocaust,
Jewish-Christian relations serve also as an important basis for opening up some
of the most crucial conversations in our world today, about difference and
genocide, and about – as Radford-Ruether titled her book – faith and
Let us not forget that it was also the Jewish-Christian
crucible that formed the basis for Western civilization. A thorough
understanding of how Judaism and Christianity developed and relate to each other
helps us to legitimately ask all kinds of good questions about the contours of
this process and the product that emerged.
Finally, it requires little
imagination to see that Jewish- Christian relations really are of grave
importance for all us here in Israel. It is in the Christian world that Israel
finds some of its staunchest critics and some of its most powerful allies. A
fierce battle over support for Israel is being played out in Christian pews,
fellowship halls and colleges.
The bitter debates within mainline
denominations over boycotts and divestment, the platform given in the Christian
world groups like Sabeel and the influence of Christ at the Checkpoint are
ultimately about Jewish-Christian relations.
And yes, they have
everything to do with Israel.
Jews and Christians have their own
problems, issues, texts, theologies and traumas to work through. They share
much, and of course they differ greatly. Thinking carefully together about
Jewish-Christian relations, and striving to build better relations between Jews
and Christians is not to suggest that Islam is unimportant or Muslims not
critical conversation partners for Jews (and Christians).
century developments in Jewish-Christian relations are less than 50 years
They are still young and fragile, requiring careful care and a
protected space for them to grow. We hold in our hands the priceless
privilege and responsibility to nurture those developments. And you are
invited to join us.
The writer is the director for the Center for Studies
in Jewish-Christian Relations at Yezreel Valley College in