March 1, 2007
Evangelical support for Israel—good for the Jews?
Q & A with author Zev Chafets
Chafets' latest, critically acclaimed book is "A Match Made in Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists and One Man's Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Evangelical Alliance" (HarperCollins). Chafets discussed his book and other matters in a phone interview.
Jewish Journal: What is the central point of your new book?
Zev Chafets: A war is going on against the United States and Israel, and Jews are the special targets. It's only reasonable that in war you look for allies. Some 50 million to 70 million American evangelicals have extended their hands to American Jews, who have mostly slapped those hands away. That's a terrible mistake.
JJ: Why are Jews rejecting such help?
ZC: Jews don't know the first thing about evangelical Christians. What Jews know is "Elmer Gantry" and "Inherit the Wind" and the stereotypes of the 1950s and '60s. They think of evangelicals as Southern segregationists and anti-Semites. Actually, they form the most pro-Jewish community in the United States, and their churches are the most integrated in the country. But we don't understand their motives, we don't speak the same "God" language, we live in different places and go to different schools.
JJ: But why this "great gulf of misunderstanding and disdain," as you put it?
ZC: For political and fundraising reasons, some Jewish organizations have made whipping boys of evangelicals and created a terrible bias against them. On the other side, I've spent six years researching this book and lived one year among evangelicals and never heard a single word against the Jews or Israel.
JJ: Doesn't it bother you that evangelicals believe in converting Jews and that at the end of days Jews will have to accept Jesus or be damned?
ZC: Why should I be bothered? I was raised as a Reform Jew, and I'm now a secular Jew. Since I'm not a Christian, I don't believe in Armageddon. By the way, Christian conversion attempts have been an abject failure and there are more Jewish Buddhists than Jewish Baptists. What if the evangelicals said we want to convert everyone except Jews? Jews would go into a rage and call it anti-Semitism. So what if they want to save me? I don't claim to know God's mind, I only know my own.
JJ: But don't evangelicals want to hasten Armageddon through wars on earth and other terrible catastrophes?
ZC: No, they believe that the end of days will come in God's own time. Man's actions have no influence at all.
JJ: Aside from the religious concerns, aren't most liberal American Jews turned off by the conservative social beliefs of evangelicals on abortion, gay rights and so on? Are you saying that when it comes right down to it, Jews base their votes mainly on domestic social concerns rather than on what you might consider is best for Israel?
ZC: That's right. I title one of my chapters "Jews are Democrats, Israelis are Republicans." Jews have a large capacity for apathy, denial and distancing themselves from Jewish concerns.
JJ: How do Israelis feel about evangelicals?
ZC: President Bush is probably more popular in Tel Aviv than in Crawford, Texas. Every Israeli prime minister from David Ben-Gurion on, and all political parties from left to right, have welcomed evangelical support.
JJ: But if evangelicals love Jews and Israel because God told them so, what difference does it make what American Jews think about them?
ZC: The older evangelicals and leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson will be pro-Israel, come what may. But there is no guarantee that the next generation will be the same; they don't have to put up with abuse, and they don't have to be philo-Semitic. It may be our luck that evangelicals are as ignorant about Jews and their attitudes as Jews are about evangelicals.
JJ: Given that the large majority of American Jews vote Democratic and are socially conscious liberals, what do you want them to do?
ZC: You don't have to change your social, political or religious beliefs. All I am advocating is that you cut out the sneering, patronizing behavior toward evangelicals, and you don't need to patrol every town square in Alabama for religious symbols that are important to Christians. You and Israel are in a holy war, so keep your focus on the existential issue.