Latest update: March 22nd, 2013
A popular aphorism had it that “wie es sich Christelt, so Juedelt es sich” – as things go for Christians, so they go for Jews. In 2013, however, the conditions for some 200 million Christians can be read from the pages of Jewish history.
When important Christian groups sought to build new bridges of respect after the Holocaust, we told them “If you want to understand us, study our story and learn of our pain.” Thus began a golden age of interfaith activity. Most of us in the Orthodox world refused to take part in ecumenical dialogue of a religious nature. We did, at times, take part in strategic alliances that were mutually beneficial to our communities, as well as maintain friendships on a local level that allowed us to call upon each other for assistance when needed.
Participants or not, we all benefited from an atmosphere in which influential Christians were more understanding and supportive of Jewish concerns over Soviet Jewry and Israel.
On a major website devoted to religious life in the U.S., one of us recently wrote about how Christians were increasingly seeing themselves in a Jewish mirror. In a huge swath of territory from Nigeria east and north to Iran and Pakistan, millions of Christians live in fear of losing their property or their lives simply because they are Christians.
In the Assyrian Triangle of Iraq, a campaign of church burning, clergy killing and terror has all but decimated the historically oldest Christian communities. Egypt’s Copts, a full ten percent of that country’s population and treated for decades as second-class citizens, now face an even more uncertain future as Egypt’s constitution moves the country closer to Sharia.
Christians who study Jewish history learn that for close to two thousand years, even when Jews were not being killed, they were terrorized and marginalized – often in the name of Christianity. They could not speak their mind or voice opinions about political matters. Anything they said might be used against them with fatal consequences as leadership changed, or rulers changed their minds about protecting “their” Jews from expulsion or death.
Moreover, on the rare occasions they enjoyed enough protection to speak or act, they knew they might be endangering their coreligionists elsewhere and so learned to remain mute even in the face of horrific tragedy.
Christian minorities today have learned to keep silent. Christian clergy in Muslim countries have had to turn the other cheek not for religious and moral reasons but because speaking up against their masters would endanger too many in their own community or in those of nearby countries.
Indeed, the only Mideast country in which the Christian population is increasing and Christians enjoy complete freedom of religion is Israel. Yet many Christian clergy in the Palestinian territories and in Lebanon parrot the anti-Israel invective of those who control their neighborhoods.
Christians in certain parts of the world are now seen as detested outsiders. Open Doors, a Christian ministry devoted to assisting persecuted believers, reported recently that despite the many centuries of Christian roots in Syria, some Islamist Syrians have been telling their Christian neighbors to “go back to their own country.” In their view, Christians have become the “other,” foreigners in the country in which they live.
Christians who listen to the Jewish saga begin to understand how Jews lived with themselves through the long centuries of persecution. Jews felt that truth was not something to be compromised or sacrificed, even if it meant they continued on only as a tiny fleck of mankind.
Interestingly, those who mocked Jews for their insignificance now consider voluntarily choosing to live with the same ethic. Writing as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in Das Salz von der Erde, Pope Benedict made a startling confession:
We might have to part with the notion of a popular Church. It is possible that we are on the verge of a new era in the history of the Church, under circumstances very different from those we have faced in the past, when Christianity will resemble the mustard seed, that is, will continue only in the form of small and seemingly insignificant groups, which yet will oppose evil with all their strength and bring Good into this world.
Some Jews will find all of this ironic, and leave it at that. Others will realize that at a time when Israel and world Jewry need all the friends they can get, the awareness on the part of some Christians of what they share with Jews can bring together two communities even when separated by an unbridgeable theological chasm.
Many of us live and work with Christian friends and associates. Sometimes we are reluctant to talk politics, thinking we will say the wrong thing – and oblivious to the fact that the Palestinians have found ways of reaching the same people. Perhaps if we understood the points above, we could be better spokespeople for the rights of Israel and our own right to proudly pursue our Jewish destiny.
And when we do so with integrity, many of our Christian neighbors might come to see their struggles and hopes reflected in our own.
About the Author: Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean of the Center.
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