Next Year in Jerusalem

Men's Breakfast May 4, 2014


Last month Gustav reviewed the background and process around the overtures regarding Israel under discussion at the upcoming Presbyterian General Assembly. I’d like to tell you a story about why we Jews are sensitive about these actions. I’m an American Jew, and a Christian for almost fifty years. My mother in the 1940’s told me about what it was like to be Jewish in Europe. Europe has a long history with Jewish residents. I say residents, not citizens, since the difference is important. The stories had been passed down from mother to daughter, and in my case, mother to son.

One of the powerful cultural memories of Europe passed on to me by my mother is of her parents hearing threatening gangs of local Christians marching through the streets chanting, not, “Hup, two three,” but “Hep, hep, hep. Hierosolyma est Perdita. Hep, hep, hep.” The Latin words mean, “Jerusalem is lost.” H for Hierosolyma, E for est and P for Perdita. Hep, Hep, Hep! Rubbing it in. Reminding Jews they have no home. Their homeland is lost. Jerusalem is Lost Forever.

In my Eastern Massachusetts town, I myself was spat on and called, “Christ Killer.” With the millennia of being uprooted, my heart leaped when, as a ten-year old with ear pressed to a static-y radio, I heard the moment the State of Israel was established. Every Shabbat service I attended ended with the phrase, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Now again Jews had been brought back from exile.

The founding of the State of Israel was, more precisely, the reestablishment of  the country of Judea. The Lord God, Blessed be His Name, has reestablished Israel several times over the millennia since He promised the land to Abraham and his descendants forever.  He brought his Jews back from Egypt, He brought his Jews back from Assyria, He brought them back from Babylon, He brought them back from Persia, He freed his Jews from Greece. And in AD 1948 He brought them back from their long Roman exile.

The Bible tells us each earlier time God returned his Jews to their homeland, the neighbors tried to annihilate them. As you can read or hear in the news, suicide bombers, rockets and other attacks continue to target Israel today.

The latest reestablishment of Israel in AD 1948 followed a sordid chapter in human history. Not the Holocaust. The Holocaust was simply the latest in a long series of atrocities committed against the homeless and helpless refugees from Judea. The latest chapter began shortly after what the western world calls, The Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment, or The Age of Reason, began in the late 16th Century in Europe. Bertrand Russell linked enlightenment thinking to a reaction to the Catholic Church resisting Luther and Calvin’s Protestant Reformation. Historically, that effort is called the Counter-Reformation. Dogma was questioned. Philosophy gave way to empirical scientific method. One of the outcomes of this new way of thinking was a new view of the human person, which led inevitably to new ideas in government. Among these ideas was emancipation of the feudal populace from the aristocracy. This was the era of Revolution.

Jews had been brutalized, humiliated, ghettoized, marginalized and murdered for centuries during their exiles and periodic uprooting in and from Spain, Italy, England, Germany, Poland, Russia and France. Now a new wind of emancipation swept the West, and by the time of the Napoleonic Wars in the early eighteen-hundreds, Jews began to say, “Why not us, too?” 

In the Revolutionary spirit, Jews began to take part in public life, to hold official posts, even to gain citizenship in some European countries including France.  Reaction to Jewish emancipation was not positive. With the Enlightenment, Jews began to look beyond their holy books. Instead being restricted to Torah studies, the educated Jews joined the intellectual and professional elite of Europe. Competition.  In the mid-eighteen hundreds, Jews began to do well. This did not please the general European public.  When political and economic crises boiled over, the Jews again became the scapegoats.
The old medieval statutes restricting Jews reappeared. In the Rhineland, now German again, Jews lost the citizenship rights they had been granted under the French and were thrown out of professions. Those few Jews who had been appointed to public office before the war were fired. Then, in the late eighteen-hundreds, the pogroms started.

Going back to my story, for Jews 1492 is the year when the Sephardic, the Spanish Jews were uprooted from their centuries-long homes in Spain and Portugal by the same rulers who sponsored Columbus. A few hundred years earlier, during the Crusades, my great-great-grandfathers and grandmothers were similarly driven with their families eastward and northward, out of France and Germany, beyond the fields of Poland, into the reaches of Russian Lithuania and Latvia. Refugees again. Things were okay for a while. Some of my forebears were harness makers. Then, in the mid-eighteen hundreds, Russian Czars Alexander and Nicholas imposed the catastrophic Pale of Settlement, restrictions which squeezed and limited the physical geography in which Jews were allowed to live and the ways they were allowed to make a living. Jews simply could not live. My grandfather, Israel Kitt-Cohen went on the road with his needles and thread, tools and pack on his back. After two weeks he returned to the shtetl with one egg and two potatoes for the family. It was time to leave Europe. He heard the fiddler on the roof and headed to Massachusetts. This was not the distant past. This was the grandfather I knew.

We were lucky. The 1890’s were so bad, my grandfathers left. Most European Jews were not so lucky. They stayed. By the1930’s as pogroms mounted, there were few alternatives for Ashkenazi Jewry. The golden door of American emigration had been slammed shut on Jewish refugees. There were few countries to escape to. The two main alternatives for European Jews were murder or Israel. As Simon Schama said in the recent PBS series, "It’s not what the Nazis did to the Jews, it’s what everyone else failed to do that makes the moral case for Israel." That still resonates today.

That’s a bit of personal background on the importance to Jews of the existence of a homeland, a safe refuge for being Jewish. Through the millennia Jews have rarely been allowed to participate as full citizens of the lands in which they were living. So the hunger for a true homeland. The idea of a homeland is important to one’s sense of identity. Whether you identify as Scots or Irish or Colombian or Sudanese, even though fully American, you have a psychological homeland in Scotland or Ireland or Colombia or Sudan – as well as America. Jews, Israelites, again finally have Israel.
Leaving to others the politics of survival tactics, I believe most Jews would prefer to see a State of Israel survive. The Mid-Eastern neighborhood is no more welcoming to Jews today than it has ever been, and no more welcoming than was Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Perhaps less so. Nonetheless, most Jews believe that Israel is surrounded by neighbors who are, in large measure, not committed to peacefully coexisting with the Jews of Israel. In fact, many are explicitly committed to their annihilation.

We all long for the day when our brothers of Hamas, now joined with the PLO, will emphasize the peaceful, worshipful and contemplative nature of the Holy Koran, and will remove from Article 7 of the Hamas charter, the Hadith Bukhari.  Hamas teaches the children of Gaza:

"The hour of judgment shall not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them, so that the Jews hide behind trees and stones, and each tree and stone will say: 'Oh Muslim, oh servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him,' except for the Gharqad tree, for it is the tree of the Jews.”

This commitment to the death of all Jews remains a deterrent to peaceful coexistence.

As a child growing up on our farm in Massachusetts, I knew it was a sin for Jews to read the New Testament, so my mother said. And so, other than snippets of Luke at Christmas and John at Easter, the New Testament was a mystery. But in a Congregational Church, I heard the Gospel and Romans read for the first time, and the idea that all this could be true dawned on me. Well, I read the New Testament cover to cover, and suddenly Isaiah made sense to me. I understood and believed.

Maybe it’s unrealistic to look to scripture for models of behavior. But, certainly we can look to scripture for understanding our purpose as a People. The New Testament taught me what the relationship of Christian to Jew was to be. And, I suddenly understood why, against all human reason, Jews have continued as a distinct People these four millennia.

The Jew is commanded to obedience to the Law. The reward is Life. Jesus more fully explained the Law as a teaching. Jesus opened the Law for us. The Christian also has life, but the Christian has more. The follower of Jesus has life in all its abundance. More than life, we possess the fruit of the Spirit; which is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

You remember the phrase, “Litmus Test?” A litmus test is how you test the acidity or character of a solution. You dip litmus paper into the solution and see if it changes color. Paul teaches that Jews are God’s litmus test of the full maturity of his Church. When Christianity is ripe, is full, in its fullness, Christianity will inspire the jealousy of Israel. The full expression of Christianity will turn Israel green with envy. We are to make Israel envious of what we possess. What do we possess? What do we have that Israel also wants? Nothing less than the fruit of the Spirit.

Romans teaches, … has God rejected his people? By no means! But through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. 
A few verses later Paul goes on, …I am speaking to you Gentiles… in order to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.  For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?...  If the root is holy, so are the branches. Remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you... how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.
I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved; as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.

According to Paul, our full expression of Christianity will turn Israel green with envy. Isn’t it time to let the Holy Spirit blow freely? Isn’t it time to make all Israel jealous for what we have; the fruit of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Forbearance, not condemnation.

Scripture teaches that Jews look to Christianity. Christianity is the great trunk of the Tree of Life. Judaism is the root of this tree.  Jews have experienced the axe at the root of the tree. Jews are anxious about the axe. Jews look to the Christian, the Presbyterian Church, with anxiety, but with hope. We have the choice to make all Jewry jealous of what we have, eager to share the fruit of the Spirit.

The Bible tells us in painstaking detail how, on returning from Persian exile, Nehemiah organized and oversaw the rebuilding of the broken wall defending Jerusalem. Today there's the defensive wall requiring suicide bombers to pass through checkpoints. The State of Israel is cautious about abandoning its walls of protection.

But, what are we to do? We could condemn Israel. Or, we could consider pouring out the fruit of the Spirit. Instead of condemnation, forbearance. Instead of disinvestment, gentleness and self-control. Instead of impatience or boycott, love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness. And, thus, make Israel jealous.
Miraculous things will happen. The Bible tells us so.

As we wrap up, this has been a very personal recollection. I am trying to describe to you why I personally will take the passing of these overtly one-sided overtures singling out Israel, and only Israel for condemnation, as an expression of thinly disguised anti-Semitism. I fear that others will do the same.
The implicit assumption is Israel alone is responsible for the state of war in the Holy Land. As if all Israel had to do were to open its borders, abandon the idea of a Jewish State and peace will reign. Of all the countries in the world who actually oppress minorities and dissenters within their borders, why, the Jew asks, why is the Jewish State and only the Jewish State singled out for persecution by the Presbyterian Church?

Here’s my hypothesis: Anti-Semitism has been embedded in our culture for so long, we do not even recognize it. The negative stereotype of the Jew is deeply embedded in Western Civilization. From mediaeval times, Passion plays, tales of blood libel, and even Shylock, demanding his pound of flesh, the wandering, Christ-killing Jew is a cultural totem. Understanding this deep-seated cultural anti-Semitism, we, as Christians, can forgive the authors of these overtures for not realizing what they are doing.

But, we must demand they stop.