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Denying that you are proselytizing is patronizing and false

G-d, the Deity, has just made it easier to explain the case against GOD, the cable television company that has come under fire in Israel. While people have not been able to reach agreement on who speaks for the former, there is no question that it is Ward Simpson, its CEO, who speaks for the latter.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is Director for Interfaith Relations at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is Director for Interfaith Relations at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Divine Providence has arranged that Mr. Simpson, in trying to take his case to Christian Post readers, spoke the words that precisely show that the Israeli law that prohibits proselytizing to minors should apply to GOD TV’s programming: “The goal is not converting Jews to Christianity. It is helping them recognize Jesus as their Messiah without renouncing their Jewish identity or calling.” If Mr. Simpson truly believes that, then he knows nothing about Jews and Judaism. What for Mr. Simpson is an attractive synthesis is, for Jews, a contradiction in terms. Anyone in Israel who did not think that he was proselytizing for another faith now knows better.

To understand what is wrong with Mr. Simpson’s argument, let’s reverse our roles. I drive up to his church, and set up shop near his front door with a few of my friends. As churchgoers pass us walking into the building, we try to engage them in conversation. “Let’s all worship G-d together, the right way!” A few people courteously ask us to leave, finding it offensive that we are preaching against Christianity so close to a Christian house of worship. In wide-eyed disbelief, we respond, “Against Christianity? Furthest thing from our minds! We just want you to drop your belief in the Trinity! We want all our friends to remain good, church-going Christians.”

If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, then understand that so does “messianic Judaism” to us. And that means that Simpson’s Hebrew-language Shelanu station is proselytizing – if not for Christianity, then definitely against Judaism.

We hear grumbling, though, in the background. Isn’t GOD TV’s Israel regional director correct that “It will be a sad day if the only democracy in the Middle East prevents the freedom of speech of Messianic Jews in Israel?” Shouldn’t they be free to proselytize if they want?  Well, maybe not so much.

Simpson himself shows why this is not so inappropriate. “To exercise the right of free speech here without any regard for that history or the Jewish sensitivities against missionizing would be a callous misuse of that right.”

Let’s look, then, at some of that history. The simple fact is that eight hundred years of getting preached to left Jews with a certain distaste for the process. Beginning in the 13th century, Jews were forced by the Church to listen to conversionary sermons. Since the Church officially rejected forced conversions, it needed another way to coerce Jews to convert in large numbers other than burning them at the stake. The workaround was to stop short of forcing Jews on pain of death to accept baptism – although plenty of that took place nonetheless – and instead merely forced Jews to listen to long harangues that demonstrated the falsity of Judaism and the truth of Christianity. Instead of decreasing with the Enlightenment (like so many other medieval church features), forced attendance of conversionary sermons picked up steam in Rome in the modern period, and only came to an end in 1847.

Here is a description of what Jews were subjected to each week:

Rome’s Jews were compelled to proceed in a public procession from the ghetto to the sermon’s locationAdriano Prosperi describes the excursion of hundreds of Jews ‘from the ghetto  to the church of the sermon, between throngs of curious people who commented, laughed, insulted, and sometimes passed from speech to action.’ This ritual procession, and the public conversionary sermons that followed, recalled many other moments when Jews acted in Roman public spectacles. As in many Italian cities, Carnival festivities included special races for animals and notably for Jews, who had to run nude or semi-nude, ridiculed and egged on by the crowds. Uniquely to Rome, when a new Pope was elected, his possesso ceremony contained a staged encounterAt this encounter the Jews presented the Pope with a Sefer Torah, the sacred scroll adorned with rich decoration, as an act of homage. The Pope, in turn, cast it to the ground to represent the supersession of the Old Testament by the New. Each party spoke formulaic phrases: Jews attested to the honor of the gift, and Popes responded that although the Law of Moses was holy and venerable, its Jewish interpretation was vain and condemnable.

Do Jews still have a bitter taste in their mouths from centuries of Christians proselytizing them? Yes. Is this understandable? Yes. Have they banned their former persecutors from their new State? No. Is there any country in the Middle East where churches are being built, and that is more friendly to Christians than Israel? No. Has Israel banned preaching the Gospels publicly? No. What it has done is come up with a modus vivendi, a balance between the requirements of Jewish pride and memory, and a commitment to function as a democracy. It is a compromise. Like any compromise, no party gets everything they would want. Many Jews would prefer to see missionaries banned altogether; Christians would like to see untrammeled opportunity to preach to whomever, and whenever, they like. Instead, Israel came up with something in between, banning proselytizing to minors, or using unethical inducements like money. True Christian friends of Israel should accept the compromise.

We do agree with Mr. Simpson in one regard. “Regardless of the backlash it is facing in the Israeli media and the Jewish press, GOD TV will continue to oppose BDS and GOD TV will continue to stand against the unfair treatment of Israel in the UN and other international bodies.”  For our part, regardless of the outcome of the matter, now in the hands of Israeli government officials, we will continue to educate Jews about the millions of Christians who don’t hate us and are Israel’s most dependable allies. We will have to try a bit harder to convince them that while sharing their faith with others is an essential of Christianity, not a negotiable add-on, not all Christians share Mr. Simpson’s strategic plan of how to do it. Many see their obligation fulfilled generally by living lives that clearly reflect their values, and specifically are mindful of Jewish sensitivities to proselytizing that grow out of our experience with many centuries of humiliation, and coercive and devious tactics.

We all deserve better than to allow this issue to drive a wedge between evangelicals and Jews. Both have worked hard to bring us together, and both have already reaped great rewards from the process. With G-d’s help (the Deity, not the TV station), we will go forward together.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Director of Global Social Action.  Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the Center’s Director of Interfaith Affairs.

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