Conservatives, Messianic Jews, and the Jews

Jewish Israel, an Orthodox anti-missionary group based in Israel, is out with a statement highly critical of American Jewish conservatives’ reaction to former President George W. Bush’s speech at the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute fundraiser.

JI, unlike American conservatives who were critical of Bush’s appearance, does not draw sharp lines between Messianic Jews and Christian Zionists, considering their goals one and the same. In contrast, while American conservatives expressed disappointment that Bush would fundraise for a group whose clearly stated goal was to convert Jews and still identify as Jewish, they were quick to praise evangelical and Christian Zionist “support” for Israel.

JI has a markedly different take:

It is important that we in the Jewish world understand that evangelicals and their “messianic” counterparts are not just praying for Israel from the pews, while reservedly hoping for “a second coming of their messiah”. The evangelical movement is made up of myriads of dynamic and determined pastors and adherents of varying sects who are taking a pro-active part in trying to actualize a Christian restoration – of Christians – in Israel.

Some American conservatives have tried to deflect attention away from Bush’s appearance by blaming liberals for growing irreligiosity among American Jews, which they claim is a bigger problem than Messianic Judaism. Tevi Troy, an Orthodox Jew and former Bush liaison to the Jewish community, was critical of Bush’s appearance. But he also argued that the recent landmark Pew survey of American Jews “suggests that the real problem the American Jewish community faces is the voluntary departure of Jews from Judaism. As Jonathan Tobin recently wrote in Commentary, the key takeaway from the Pew study is the degree to which American Jews are choosing not to live as Jews. The departure of Jews from Judaism via forced conversion pales before the voluntary abandonment of Judaism taking place before our eyes.” (emphasis mine)

Even conservatives who aren’t Jewish chimed in. Reihan Salam suggested on Real Time with Bill Maher that because about a fifth of Jews are secular, “the basic idea here is that you can continue to be Jewish and identify as Jewish and be part of this culture community and you could profess Christianity. . . . of course you can be both.” (In this short post, I summarize the views of Rabbi Michael J. Cook, who is also a New Testament scholar, arguing what Messianic Jews get wrong ritualistically, sociologically, and historically.)

Salam’s view, though, probably wouldn’t fly with Dennis Prager, the conservative radio host whose 1989 essay “Is There Such a Thing as a ‘Jew for Jesus’?” argues that Messianic Jews are “probably the only people in the world who take on the beliefs of another religion yet deny that they have converted to that religion.” Prager, who last week deemed Christians United for Israel and other Christian Zionist groups “the Jews’ and Israel’s best friends in the world,” also tried to blame liberals, not Messianic Jews, for challenges to Judaism. “For 40 years I have argued that Jews for Jesus pose little or no danger to Jewish survival,” Prager wrote. “We Jews should be preoccupied with all the Jews for Nothing, the Jews for anti-Zionism, the Jews for radical Leftism.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again here: the greatest challenge of Messianic Judaism is not to Judaism itself. But Messianic Judaism could radically alter evangelical perceptions of what it means to be Jewish, interfaith relations, and how Americans view Israel. 

Prager wasn’t finished with the liberals, though. “Our sons and daughters in college are not being alienated from Judaism, the Jewish people, and, of course, from Israel by Jews for Jesus,” he continued, “but by the secular left-wing professors who teach contempt for God, for religion, for Zionism and for Israel.”

JI isn’t buying it, charging that Tobin and Prager are in “damage control mode:”

The situation on the ground today calls for an honest, responsible, and critical assessment, rather than denials and red herrings. Yet when the news of MJBI’s 2013 speaker, former President Bush, went public, Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin and author Dennis Prager shifted into damage control mode, minimizing Bush’s participation and dismissing the dangers of the messianic movement to Jews in Israel and elsewhere, and instead pointing their pens at liberal, secular America.

JI, though, points its pen at American conservatives:

[C]onservative publications such as Commentary, FrontPage and Mosaic are loath to initiate investigations and feature stories which cast the slightest degree of suspicion on Israel’s Christian allies. It’s important to consider and understand that a Christian can claim to be pro-Israel and a lover of the land Israel and the Jewish people, and still be an adversary of Judaism.  And therein lies a very big problem.

Finally, Jewish Israel highlights an issue that liberal American Jews have been raising for a long time, only to be dismissed by conservatives as insufficiently supportive of Israel and its evangelical allies. The uproar over Bush’s speech, says JI, “has the potential to awaken the Jewish community to the debilitating approach of Jewish leaders towards Israel-evangelical relations which continues to blindly follow the credo of ‘the evangelicals are our best friends, don’t ask questions.'”

Liberal Jews may have a different reason for opposing Christian Zionist support for Israel: that Christian Zionists not only support continued settlement building and occupation, and favor military confrontation with Iran, but that they also use their political stances to mask an apocalyptic theology. So for liberal Jews and JI, the old saying, “with friends like these who needs enemies?” might have a slightly different meaning. But perhaps they have a nugget of common ground?