Nurturing Relations with Christians in Israel

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 displeasure.
“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.
I imagine 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.
THE ATTITUDE 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.
JEWISH-CHRISTIAN 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 close.
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 Christianity.
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 fratricide.
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).
But 20th century developments in Jewish-Christian relations are less than 50 years old.
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 Afula as well as a CJCUC lecturer. Comments should be directed to [email protected].
This article appeared in The Jerusalem Post on December 31, 2012.


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