Among Christians in America, Israel can be viewed as a fulfillment of prophecy, a democratic ally in a region of chaos, or an occupier oppressing stateless Palestinians. How to choose?
Given that 2 out of 3 US evangelicals have a positive perception of Israel, according to LifeWay Research, perhaps a better question is: How should evangelicals identify with the issues Israel faces?
Fortunately, there is a useful interpreter. “If the Christian community wants to understand Israel from a believing perspective,” said Jamie Cowen, an Israeli lawyer and a believer in Jesus, “going through Messianic Jews is best.”
However, the complexity of Israel divides even Messianic Jews in attitude toward Palestine, as illustrated by debate this year over an interview provocatively summarized as supporting ethnic cleansing.
“The only rights the Palestinians have are squatter’s rights,” Paul Liberman, executive director of the Alliance for Israel Advocacy (AIA), toldThe Intercept. He described how the lobbying arm of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA) was pushing for a shift of US funding from UN–administered Palestinian aid ($364 million in 2017) to an Israeli-led effort offering money to relocate from the West Bank. The goal: eventual annexation of the territory in a one-state solution with fewer Palestinian citizens, maintaining Israel as a Jewish state.
First adopted by the MJAA in 2015, the idea reverberated within Messianic Jewish circles once TheIntercept highlighted efforts to harness evangelical influence in Congress and the White House.
“It is not a removal. It is an opportunity for a much better life,” said Joel Chernoff, CEO of the MJAA. “But the demographic issue is real.”
About 700,000 Jews and 1.5 million Arabs live in Judea and Samaria—the favored name in Israel for the West Bank. Chernoff desires more Jewish settlements there. And he believes many Palestinians already want to escape the territory’s corrupt Palestinian Authority. (A 2017 MJAA poll found half of residents were discussing a move abroad and were open to resettlement in exchange for about $5,000.)
The “ethnic cleansing” headline was a smear tactic by liberal and anti-Israel media, Chernoff said. The issue is not controversial among the MJAA’s 3,000 dues-paying members, 12,000 supporters, or 155 affiliated synagogues. But it is controversial to other Messianic Jews.
“There is not a consensus this is a good proposal,” said Monique Brumbach, executive director of the 75-member Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC). “The Scriptures promised the land to the Jewish people. But there will always be other people within it.”
Nearly all Messianic Jews believe modern-day Israel is the fulfillment of biblical promises. They stand opposed to anti-Semitism and the BDS movement of “boycott, divestiture, and sanctions.” Both the MJAA and UMJC support charity work and investment in Israel.
While both organizations accept Arab Christians as fellow members in the body of Messiah, Brumbach said there is no widespread consensus on how to achieve peace.
Cowen, a former UMJC president, put it bluntly: “Those involved in dialogue between Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians will be traumatized by that proposal.”
According to Lisa Loden, co-chair of the Lausanne Initiative on Reconciliation in Israel/Palestine (LIRIP), the consequences are high. “For those of us living in Israel, this proposal has serious implications for our work of reconciliation,” she said. “We wish to disassociate from it.”
In February, Loden and the Palestinian LIRIP co-chair led 27 participants from Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza in their fifth three-day conference of prayer, study, and discussion. This year’s topics included issues of identity, military service, and the new “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.”
“Our unity in Christ needs to be demonstrated by our actions, and our commitment to working through the real issues,” Loden said.
But though divided on issues of Palestine, Messianic Jews are remarkably united in their support for Israel—and their place within it.
In America, their main risk is being assimilated: dissolving into the norms of evangelical Christianity. But in Israel, the risk is being ostracized and rejected as traitors.
“We are accused of being missionaries and get perceived as outsiders,” Cowen said. “We need to normalize Messianic Judaism, so that we are seen like everyone else.” There is freedom of religion in Israel, he said, but also social stigma and bureaucratic resistance to register properties for worship.
“If the Christian community wants to understand Israel from a believing perspective, going through Messianic Jews is best.” ~ Jamie Cowen
This is getting better, as their children get drafted into the army and rub shoulders with the general Jewish population. But progress has especially been made through outreach to Christians, working jointly with the UMJC to fight growing criticism of Israel among mainline churches and millennial evangelicals: 30 percent are “not sure” about their perception of Israel, LifeWay found, while 66 percent believe it should care more for its Palestinians.
“Because of our faith in Yeshua, we are in a unique position to influence the Christian world in a way no other segment of the Jewish community can,” Chernoff said. “The Messianic Jewish community is adding value to Israel through humanitarian and political means. Regardless of the obstacles, we continue to serve. And this is changing the atmosphere [toward us].”
But one stubborn area remains: Aliyah. The Hebrew word for “going up” refers to a summons to read the Torah but also the relocation of Jews to the Promised Land as mandated by Israel’s Law of Return. In 1989, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that faith in Jesus made Messianic Jews into Christians—and thus ineligible to gain citizenship as Jews.
Though loopholes exist, Chernoff called this “misdirected discrimination,” attributing to Messianic Jews the suffering caused by anti-Semitism among Christians.
The greatest help American evangelicals can be, said Cowen, is to stop cozying up to the Israeli government and pressure it to stop discriminating on immigration. No other group of Jews, no matter what they believe, has such issues. “I desperately want Jews to come,” he said, “but some of the most enthusiastic are barred.”
This tension will only grow, as the Jerusalem Postestimated Messianic Jews to number 350,000 in 2017.
Chernoff sees the worldwide development of Messianic Jews as miraculous—and biblical. “Like Gideon, God calls and uses even the least of the clans of Israel—if we step out boldly in faith, and say yes.”
Jayson Casper is Middle East correspondent for Christianity Today.
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