In the weeks leading up to our current national conversation about anti-Semitism, in the quiet town of Midwest, Oklahoma, a familiar form of anti-Semitism attempted a comeback. The occasion was the Christ at the Checkpoint (CATC) conference, sponsored by the Palestinian Bethlehem Bible College in the West Bank and held for the first time in the United States. This ideological anti-Semitism ought not to be conflated with the far-right terror which devastated Pittsburgh. Indeed, its proponents are more at home on the political left. Its primary criticisms are most directly focused on the Jewish state, to which adherents say Jews have no justified claim.
As Christian college students studying politics and theology with special interests in Middle Eastern affairs, we attended the CATC conference hoping to broaden our understanding. According to polls conducted by LifeWay Research, 76 percent of American evangelicals support the State of Israel. Since visiting Israel with a Christian non-profit called Passages, we have firmly counted ourselves in that majority. But we know there are some who disagree, particularly younger evangelicals, and we ourselves are sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian people. We wanted to understand a different perspective and find common ground. What we encountered was a mixture of ignorance and bigotry.
On its website, CATC advertises itself as a community committed to “love for Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews alike.” It appears to offer a nuanced and unbiased Christian understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In reality, its leaders promote an anti-Semitic ideology that has historically had fatal consequences for Jews.
Each morning, the conference opened with devotions led by Dr. Gary Burge, professor of the New Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary. These devotions consisted of interpretations of Scripture intended to discredit the notion that God promised to bless the Jewish people unconditionally. The first morning, we focused on Luke 4, the story of Jesus rejected in Nazareth. While traditional interpretations hold that Jews rejected Jesus in Nazareth because he claimed to be the Messiah, Dr. Burge argued that the Jews rejected Jesus because their spiritual blindness prevented them from loving their Gentile neighbor as Jesus commanded. Building upon this narrative the second morning, Burge claimed that the covenant God made with Abraham was conditional and it was possible for the Jewish people to fall out of grace with the God of their forefathers. The audience nodded along, expressing their support as the foundation of the Jewish faith was discredited by this specious interpretation.
Other conference speakers challenged the legitimacy of the Old Testament itself. The Hebrew Scriptures were described as “tribal” and “genocidal” documents. According to Dr. Mark Braverman, the Executive Director of Kairos USA, the book of Joshua is the worst in the Old Testament collection. Referring to the superiority of New Testament Christianity, Rev. Bob Roberts Jr., pastor of Northwood Church in Texas, distanced Christianity from its Jewish roots, arguing “the best things that Christians have to offer is to be Christians … when we Christians try to return to Judaism, we create more problems than we create help.”
Conference attendees were aware that their views are often called “anti-Semitic.” Braverman, one of two Jewish speakers at the event, prepared the audience to defend against the accusation. He invoked the Christian’s biblical command to carry our crosses. “If you are called an anti-Semite, that is your cross to bear. And is it really that heavy of a cross?” He then offered: “Tell them a Jew told you this.” With no awareness of the irony, Braverman told the group to keep Jews out of the conversation because the church’s perspective on the Middle East should be developed solely “within” the “house” of the church.
Braverman implored the audience to understand that, “there are many holocausts, we should not refer to it with ‘the’ and a capital ‘H’.” He quoted anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer to convince the Christian leaders that they, just like Bonhoeffer, could change the direction of the church’s thoughts on political issues. Lost on him and the audience was the depressing irony of invoking the legacy of a pastor whose life’s mission was to resist anti-Semitism.
The following morning was the coup de grace: Disgraced Anglican minister Stephen Sizer delivered a sharply worded critique of Christian Zionism, defending his thesis that the Jewish people are “not chosen” and the land is “not holy.” It only took a quick Google search to find that the Church of England investigated Sizer after he posted links to articles that promoted Holocaust denial and conspiracies blaming Israel for 9/11. In a Facebook comment after the conclusion of the conference, Sizer defended sharing the article about 9/11, saying, “I felt the allegations it contained were serious and needed considering.”
The church is no stranger to this breed of anti-Semitism. Centuries of hatred from Christians toward the coreligionists of their Messiah culminated in the Holocaust. In the aftermath, church leaders acknowledged centuries of moral failings. American Christians, and particularly evangelicals, became some of the staunchest supporters of the embattled Jewish state. Yet, at Christ at the Checkpoint, we heard unapologetic anti-Semitic echoes of the harmful theology that 20th-century theologians and church leaders from many denominations worked diligently and firmly to repudiate.
The return of Christian anti-Semitism is something Christians of all denominations must condemn and be able to recognize, not only when it leads to violence. In Oklahoma City two weeks ago, we were reminded that Christianity still can be used to promote and justify the world’s oldest hatred. American Christians have for decades done something unprecedented in church history and kept anti-Jewish invective out of their churches. In 2018, some faith leaders, distressingly, are letting down their guard.
Brittany Bertsche is a senior at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. She studies Jewish Studies and is passionate about Jewish-Christian relations. She hopes to work in Jewish-Christian relations after she graduates.
Lauren Marchand is a senior Politics, Philosophy, and Economics major at The King’s College in New York City. Before completing her undergraduate degree in New York, she worked on state house and senate campaigns and as a legislative aide in the state capitol in her home state of Texas. When she is not focused on her studies in New York, she enjoys representing her school in international debate competitions focused on questions arising from current events. She most recently returned from a competition at Oxford University. Lauren is passionate about empowering Christians to understand contemporary social and political questions and pursuing social and religious reconciliation.