Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Some of My Best Friends are Christian Zionists

Now the tide has shifted. I am no historian, but I suspect that if there was ever any precedent for Christians loving Jews as Jews, and supporting Jewish independence and statehood in Israel as a pillar of their faith, it was an historical anomaly that was short lived, rather than the impact of a growing movement with hundreds of millions of devotees today. Last week I had one of the most inspiring and meaningful experiences of my life. I attended the “Night to Honor Israel” under the auspices of John Hagee Ministries and Christians United for Israel, in Jerusalem. Twenty four hours after the event, my hands were still hurting from all the clapping. This was not my first event like this. Over the years I have had the privilege to participate in several similar evenings entirely orchestrated by fervently Zionist Christians. My early exposure to, and participation in, these events filled me with a combination of emotions – shell shocked to see such vibrant, colorful and sincere expressions of love and support for Israel, but outside the Jewish framework in which I was raised and with which I was familiar. I also felt a sense of awe and appreciation that for the Christian organizers and participants, this was simply a biblically mandated imperative which they embrace and undertake with the sincerity and joy of living God’s word. It’s that simple. While the “Night to Honor Israel” last week was especially inspirational, meaningful and motivational, the first one I attended was smaller but equally unforgettable. At the “Bless Israel Rally” in 1988 or 1989, in Cleveland, Tennessee, I was invited and escorted by a wonderful friend, Doug Chatham, who exposed me to an array of such events. Even more, he gave me an early understanding and appreciation for the genuine and sincere love for Israel as a growing phenomenon in the Christian community. In the ensuing years, I have had the privilege to participate in many events with similar themes and objectives, organized by Christians United for Israel, Eagles Wings, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, John Hagee Ministries, and others, and made genuine warm friendships through relationships established at these events. It is inspiring to celebrate support for Israel with 1000 people or more in any framework. I have attended countless Jewish rallies and parades like this, and of course living in Israel is the ultimate celebration of that. There’s something truly awesome and emotional in singing Israel’s anthem, Hatikvah, among hundreds, or thousands, of people. But when it is emotionally led by a Christian, among a sea of 1000 other Christian supporters of Israel, it is something uniquely so. One feels the palpable change in tide from a time, not that long ago, that the majority of Christians used their faith to persecute Jews, and even worse. Making this all the more unique is that the love for Jews and Israel expressed in these events is unconditional. It is the feeling of love like that which one feels from a parent. But with great respect for Judaism and humility, the love expressed is not that of a parent, but rather like that of a sibling, in this case a younger sibling, who looks up to the older sibling with respect and adoration. Christian Zionists today, and the growing relationships between Christians and Jews, are built on an underpinning of recognition of the proud Jewish roots as the foundation of their faith. Christian Zionists’ lives and faith are enriched by Judaism, not there to replace Judaism. Some who don’t know any better ascribe malicious intentions to these relationships. Some fellow Jews are threatened by these because of their own lack of faith, or knowledge of their own traditions. Some can’t get beyond differences politically, socially, and religiously, hanging an association between Jews and Christians on one divergent issue as compared to the wealth of issues and values that bring us together. Some can’t get beyond the thousands of years of Christian persecution of Jews and want nothing to do with “goyim,” used pejoratively, carrying with it thousands of years of fear and mistrust. The reality is that having a meaningful interaction, even close personal relationships, with Christians of faith who share a mutual belief and devotion to Israel, and the God of Israel, is uplifting. This year, I risked shaking up the relationship with my own wife over extending an invitation to friends from a church in Washington to visit our home. Under normal circumstances, she’d have been perfectly happy to open our home to any guests, in the finest spirit of our patriarch, Abraham. However, I dared to suggest that they visit us the day before Rosh Hashanah. Anyone who knows the pace of life in a Jewish home that is preparing for a major holiday knows that the house is in disarray, last minute errands need to be run, and cooking, cooking and more cooking abound. And then, cleaning up the mess. Comforted by the fact that my wife loves me, and that killing me on the eve of Rosh Hashanah would generally be a bad thing, I told her not to worry. After my friends left, I braced for another thing for which I’d need to ask forgiveness, fearing my wife’s response from inviting our Christian guests into my home, almost as much as our forefathers feared the pogroms often inspired by Christians which would cause their homes to be burned and looted. Ready for the hammer to fall, I was struck, rather, by my wife’s response. Meeting and getting to know these people, understanding their sincerity and devotion, appreciating the expense that each undertook to be in Israel, some not for the first time, left her with a sense of awe and appreciation as we went into the Days of Awe. Since then, my wife has recounted this experience as having helped to give her an extra special appreciation and sense of devotion in her Rosh Hashanah prayers. Rather than pissing her off, I helped her have a sense of the warmth of some of these relationships which I have been blessed to have for more than two decades. The Jewish principle of hakarat hatov, teaches us acknowledge kindness received from, or done by, another person. But more than just to acknowledge such kindness, hakarat comes from the word lehakir, to know or become familiar with. Rather than just remembering to say thank you to someone, hakarat hatov means to take time to recognize the benefit one has received from another. To that end, it’s not just a human value to say thank you, but a Jewish imperative. When someone expresses unconditional love for another as in this case, it’s our obligation to acknowledge that, to appreciate it, to say thank you. And taking it a step further, to offer a reciprocal embrace of such sincere love and support not only is proper, but makes us each stronger in our respective faith. On Easter 1945, which corresponded to the first days of Passover, three months after the liberation of Auschwitz and the end of WWII, several Jewish holocaust survivors who were neighbors of my grandmother and who had returned to their homes in search of other survivors were murdered by their Polish Catholic neighbors. The murderers threatened to finish the job the next day and kill the remaining twenty Jews in a town that, once, was almost half Jewish. There are more than enough reasons for fear and mistrust. However as the spring ushers in the respective Jewish and Christian holidays of Passover and Easter, let the renewal of this season serve as a harbinger of renewal of personal and interfaith relations between Jews and Christians, with the model like that of the thousands just with whom I have had the privilege to interact, to serve as a living example for the future.