“Like a Parent”: Thinking critically about anti-Semitism and Israel today

Rev. Dr. Corey Fields

May 15, 2019

When you’re a parent, your children are yours, and nothing can change that. For their sake, you will drive them all over the place and care for them when they’re sick. Most of all, you will do everything you can to protect them from harm.

At the same time, responsible parents are also just as quick to correct and discipline their children for misbehavior. I’m a father of two, and I often feel that I am simultaneously my children’s biggest supporter and their harshest critic. I vacillate back and forth between those roles. I have a special bond with them and I favor them, but that does not mean they will not be rebuked when they forget what I have taught them.

This is a fair way to think about God’s relationship with Israel throughout the biblical narrative. The theme of divine favor for these people is prominent in the biblical text. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son…To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them” (Hosea 11:1, 4 NIV). “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?” (Isaiah 49:15 NIV).

But interspersed among these affirmations are harsh words of warning and judgment for Israel’s behavior. “My people are determined to turn from me. Even though they call me God Most High, I will be no means exalt them…Ephraim has surrounded me with lies, Israel with deceit. And Judah is unruly against God, even against the faithful Holy One” (Hos. 11:7, 12 NIV).

In Jeremiah 18, following the famous “potter’s hands verses,” the prophet declares that God reserves the right both to relent of judgment if a nation repents, as well as reconsider blessing if the nation does evil (this is the original context for what it meant for the “house of Israel” to be “like clay in the hand of the potter”). As with other biblical prophets, Jeremiah makes it clear that God’s chosen people were not immune from judgment and, arguably, that they are held to an even higher standard because of the covenant relationship.

The prophets did not hesitate to call out God’s people, certainly for idolatry, but also often for their unjust treatment of the vulnerable among them. “They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed” (Amos 2:6-7 NIV). Jesus, a Jew himself who lived primarily among the Jews, pretty clearly rejects the notion of favor based on identity. His commentary to this effect in the synagogue nearly gets him run off a cliff (Luke 4:14-30), and he says to a group of Jewish leaders, “Do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham” (Matthew 3:9 NIV).

But there’s no doubt that these people groups and their descendants have spent a significant portion of their existence as an oppressed or subjugated minority, including during the Babylonian Empire of the 6th century BCE, the Roman Empire that was in place during Jesus’ life, and at certain points during the Middle Ages. In modern times, the ineffable horror of the Holocaust still looms large (despite the inconceivable persistence of deniers). When God’s people are the oppressed and the victims, or the ones deserving of comfort and rescue, the declarations are just as sweeping and definitive. “The Lord will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins” (Isaiah 51:3 NIV).

There is wisdom to glean from these things as we try to responsibly discuss Jews today, anti-Semitism, and the state of Israel. The issues are paralyzingly complex, and the modern nation-state of Israel is a totally different reality than the people of the Bible, but that is all the more reason to treat these discussions with far more nuance than they’re getting. Anti-Semitism is real and serious, but it is not anti-Semitic to criticize injustices perpetrated by the state of Israel and its supporters.

Anti-Semitism is real and serious, but it is not anti-Semitic to criticize injustices perpetrated by the state of Israel and its supporters.

I, like many others, am alarmed by the rise of anti-Semitism and neo-Nazi hate groups. Almost exactly 2 years ago, I was attending a rally at a nearby synagogue in solidarity with them after they had received threats. The shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in October is a recent and horrific example of this inexplicable hatred towards Jews.

The underlying sentiments are nothing new. Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine tells of her first experience with this at the age of 7 when another child looked at her and said, “You killed our Lord.” This serves as a reminder that even verses of the New Testament, combined with careless interpretation, have long served anti-Semitic purposes.

Today’s Jews still find themselves feeling very vulnerable and threatened. They are a small minority in every country of the world but one. The one country where they are a majority is surrounded geographically by non-democratic states with troublesome leaders, nuclear weapons, and sentiments that the state of Israel should not exist. Organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, whose leaders and documents wish harm on Jewish people (not just retaliation against the state) cannot be ignored.

As Leroy Seat wrote in an Ethics Daily column, “Anti-Semitism cannot be condoned no matter when or by whom it is expressed. But,” he said, “neither can charges of anti-Semitism be used as a means to stifle legitimate criticism of the nation of Israel.” In light of Jesus’ teachings and the consistent biblical witness for justice and honesty, it is unfortunate that so many Christians have accepted a Zionist posture that reverts to the idea of rights based on ethnicity and give a pass on brutality and corruption when it is committed by the majority Jewish nation. Surely we can find a way to work for any needed defense of Israel and fight against anti-Semitism without excusing wrongdoing.

There is no doubt sin and loss of life on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Between January 2009 and March 2019, attacks and indiscriminate rocket launches by Palestinians killed at least 91 Israeli civilians, according to the Israeli organization B’Tselem. However, the Palestinian people, often conflated with groups like Hamas, have seen disproportionate numbers of civilian casualties. B’Tselem reports that over the same time period, Israeli troops killed 3,445 Palestinian civilians. Israel has defended attacks on hospitals and schools by saying that combatants were in the area, but even if true, it would still be a violation of the Geneva Convention to fire on such a structure.

Palestinians have seen systemic oppression and do not have self-determination. According to Human Rights Watch, the restriction of movement in and out of the Gaza Strip has forced 70% of its inhabitants to rely on humanitarian aid, and in the midst of continuing settlement construction in the West Bank, Palestinian homes are routinely bulldozed for not having a permit even though Israeli policies make one nearly impossible for them to obtain. Some of these policies bear eerie similarities to what was done to people of color in South Africa’s apartheid.

Although perhaps there’s some merit to the criticism that Rep. Ilhan Omar’s infamous statement slipped into anti-Semitic stereotypes, it is not out of line to critically examine the increasingly well-funded lobbying of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Israeli American Council (IAC), or the symbiotic relationship that IAC funder Sheldon Adelson has with Donald Trump.

Few things arouse God’s anger more in the biblical text than when Israel formed unholy alliances and became corrupted by other influences. Furthermore, God does not bless a people so that they can prosper while others suffer. God blesses so that we may be a blessing (Gen. 12:2). Scripture says on several occasions that God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11; Gal. 2:6), and we must bring to these issues the biblical witness of God’s higher expectations for his people (Isa. 61:8-9) and God’s concern for the vulnerable, whomever that may be in any given place or time.

The Rev. Dr. Corey Fields is senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Newark, Del.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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