In March of last year, I wrote about a minor kerfuffle involving Rick Santorum, who was then in the middle of a quixotic run for the presidency. The former senator who had come from out of nowhere to be the runner-up in the Republican presidential nomination race had apparently given a paid speech to the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, a group whose adherents claim Jewish identity but also profess a belief in the divinity of Jesus. As I explained at the time, in doing so Santorum was picking at a sore wound for a Jewish community whose history rendered them especially sensitive to efforts aimed at converting Jews to Christianity, as the Messianics intend. While these people are as free to believe what they like as any other American, the overwhelming majority of Jews—regardless of denomination or political belief—reject their claim to being part of the Jewish people as well as take a dim view of their deceptive practices aimed at fostering conversion. I wrote that the candidate, who had a long history of friendship for the Jewish community and the State of Israel, needed to understand that involving himself with such a group compromised his standing with Jews. While this episode neither helped nor hurt Santorum’s long-shot presidential run, apparently the lesson was lost on a far more important member of the GOP who also has a sterling record of friendship for the Jews: former President George W. Bush.
As Mother Jones reports, Bush is scheduled to speak at a fundraiser for the Messianic Bible Institute on November 14 in Irving, Texas. The Institute trains people to try and convert Jews to Christianity and thereby hasten Jesus’s second coming. While the former president has done his best to avoid entangling himself in political controversies of any kind since he left the White House, by involving himself with this organization he has stepped into one with both feet. That is troubling not just for those of us who were grateful for his heartfelt support for Israel but also for those who care about fostering good relations between Jews and evangelical Christians, among whom Bush numbers as one of their most prominent adherents. But while I condemn Bush’s involvement with a group that seeks to target Jews for conversion, I am just as troubled by those on the left who would seek to use this unfortunate incident as a weapon to delegitimize all evangelical supporters of Israel and to disrupt the growing ties between Jews and their friends among the Christian right.
One such person is Jay Michaelson, who took to the pages of the Forward to not only make the hyperbolic claim that “George W. Bush wants to convert you and destroy the Jewish faith,” but to also assert that the former president’s presence at this dinner discredits all Christian Zionists and the entire notion of friendship between Jews and evangelicals.
In Michaelson’s worldview, evangelical supporters of Israel are not to be trusted because he thinks their only purpose is to hasten the rapture. Moreover, his animus for these Christians is so deep-seated that he includes Bush’s support for aid to faith-based organizations in his litany of the 43rdpresident’s sins. While the rest of the civilized world, including many of Bush’s fiercest critics, have conceded that his work to vastly increase the amount of U.S. aid to Africa and to prioritize the fight against AIDS there was among his most praiseworthy actions in the White House, Michaelson even condemns this because the money went in part to Christian groups. Apparently, the author, who is a prominent advocate of gay rights, is so afflicted with a classic case of Bush-derangement syndrome that even Bush’s work to combat the spread of AIDS is somehow suspect.
Whatever our feelings about Bush’s presence at this dinner, this argument holds no water. The overwhelming majority of evangelicals reject replacement theology in which Jews have no purpose but to serve as the spark for the second coming. The genuine devotion of American Christians for Israel’s well being is measured by their charitable giving to groups such as the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews as well as a stout support of Israel’s existence and right to defend itself that often outshines that of many, if not most, American Jews. As for Bush, whatever you may think of his politics, he is no enemy of the Jews, not while he was president and not today. His record on Israel, and indeed his friendship for the American Jewish community, is a matter of record.
As Michaelson’s hysterical piece demonstrates, many Jewish liberals are living in the past when it comes to Christians and imagine these good friends of the Jewish people are enemies. They are wrong. Whereas in the distant past, religious Christians might be assumed to harbor hostile intentions toward Jews, that is not the case in 21st century America. The good faith of Christian friends of Israel has been demonstrated time and again. Moreover, at a time when many liberal Protestant denominations have turned their backs on Israel and flirted with the BDS movement and its war on the Jewish state, the alliance between evangelicals and Jews is more important than ever.
As I wrote last year, all Christians need to steer clear of groups that aim at conversion of Jews if they wish to maintain good relations with the Jewish community. While there is nothing illegal about members of one faith seeking to win converts from another in a free country, after 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism that laid the groundwork for the Holocaust, those who support conversion campaigns must realize that Jews regard them as offensive. Supporters of the Messianic Bible Institute may believe they have good intentions, but their efforts undermine those who labor to bridge the gap between conservative Christians and Jews.
That said, it should be remembered that if any Jew does leave the fold, the fault belongs to a Jewish community that has often failed to educate its children. As much as Jews have reason to be offended by groups like the Bible Institute, they are nothing more than an annoyance and are in no way a threat to Jewish life in this country or Israel. Those who worry about perils to the Jewish community’s future should concentrate on the recent Pew Study and the way it demonstrated how irreligion and assimilation are leading to a situation where the ranks of American Jewry are rapidly shrinking. If conversion to Christianity went largely unnoticed in the report, it is because it constitutes a threat that is so marginal as to be barely worthy of mention.
Nevertheless, President Bush needs to reconsider his presence at this dinner. If he does not, it will lend weight to destructive arguments such as those voiced by Michaelson and create obstacles to interfaith harmony that should be demolished rather than strengthened.