Exploring the Alliance

May 1, 2007
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A Match Made in Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists, and One Man’s Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Evangelical Alliance
by Zev Chafets. HarperCollins, 2007 240 pp $24.95

Reviewed by Michael Kress
Jewish attitudes toward Evangelicals tend to range from the paranoid (“They’re out to make America a Christian theocracy!”) to the condescending (“They’re backwater, low-IQ, gun-toting simpletons!”). Lately, however, an increasing number of Jewish writers and leaders — mindful both of the absurdity of those usual Jewish dismissals of Evangelicals and of Evangelicals’ affinity for Israel — have adopted a largely uncritical outlook on conservative Christians as Jew-loving, kind-hearted, wholesome, and the necessary antidote to liberal Christians’ increasingly strident criticism of Israel.

The latest entry in the Jewish lovefest for Evangelicals is Zev Chafets’s A Match Made in Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists, and One Man’s Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Evangelical Alliance. Chafets, an American-born Israeli journalist and former Jerusalem Report editor and New York Daily News columnist, brings his journalistic and intellectual credentials to the gargantuan task of convincing liberal American Jews not to be afraid — and even to embrace — the scary Christians who so dominate our political discourse these days. Though his effort is ultimately faulty, readers — especially those liberal Jews without much exposure to the Evangelical world beyond the usual stereotypes — would do well to join him on his journey among so-called “Christian Zionists” (a term he uses interchangeably with “Evangelicals,” just one of many subtle signs that Chafets is as new to their world as most of his intended readers).

Chafets is a master of small, telling details, which make his episodic storytelling style both entertaining and edifying. We meet Christians on a trip to Israel, at megachurches, and at two of the major Evangelical colleges in the U.S., Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and Pat Robertson’s Regent University. By allowing the Christians he encounters — rank and file and national leader alike — to tell their own stories, we see them as full human beings, not types, and get a sense for the great diversity of beliefs and personalities among people often seen by outsiders as moving in lockstep.

And we hear again and again of these Christians’ sincere love for Israel and for the Jewish people, exactly the kinds of statements that make most blue-state Jews roll their eyes mockingly. But Chafets’s message is clear, as he presses his subjects for more details on their beliefs and examines their words and deeds: This love of all things Jewish is, indeed, sincere, born not of some secret desire to befriend Jews just to convert them, but of a complex mixture of Christian theology (Jesus was a Jew and never himself a “Christian”); history (repentance for past sins of Christians against Jews); and, especially, conservative politics (Israel is a beacon of democracy and freedom amid the darkness of the Middle East and a stalwart friend of the U.S. and a regional military might to boot).

More so than most Jews who’ve come to embrace Evangelicals, Chafets deals with, rather than ignores, the conversion issue — the idea, ingrained in Jewish minds and not completely false, that, ultimately, Christians desire nothing more than Jews’ acceptance of Christ. Though I wish he’d gone further with this, he presents the complexities of the Evangelical world; it is no monolith, and while one group may make a big show of targeting Jews for conversion, another can put its messianic hopes on hold to treat Jews as full human beings and partners, whose fate — like their own — is in God’s, and not humans’, hands. He doesn’t pretend that the convert-the-Jews element is nonexistent or unimportant, but he also makes clear that for most Christians, apocalyptic world changes are no more a part of their daily thoughts and no more guide their attitudes toward others, than dreams of an imminent mashiach and restoration of the Davidic kingdom motivate most Orthodox Jews and dictate their attitudes.

But for all its value to the Jewish reader who knows little of the Evangelical world or who buys into the stereotypes of the scary Evangelical, Chafets makes the mistake of presenting little beyond the “usual suspects” in the Evangelical. We hear from Falwell and Robertson with no indication that neither of these figures commands nearly the same following among Evangelicals today that they did 20 years ago (and Robertson is largely seen as something of a buffoon, thanks to his much-publicized series of outrageous comments blaming various tragedies — 9/11, Ariel Sharon’s stroke, Hurricane Katrina — on the sins of the victims). Chafets does not seek out the new Evangelical leaders, like James Dobson, Rick Warren, or Rob Bell, who would offer fresh insight and more current thinking on Evangelicals’ feelings toward Jews and Israel. Likewise, we encounter Christians at Evangelical colleges, but not at, say, the University of Michigan or even Harvard, implying, falsely, that most Evangelicals eschew mainstream institutions for their own secluded campuses. Chafets also treats Evangelicals like a Republican monolith, with no mention of the 28 percent who voted Democratic in the last election.

Where Chafets really goes wrong, though, is his turn, in the final third or so of the book, away from intimate, detail-oriented, first-person reportage to sweeping pronouncements and analysis of big-picture geopolitics. In this, Chafets leaves aside his persona as curious, open-minded, detail-focused journalist and emerges as a committed neo-con, unquestioningly spewing party-line (and, in some cases, now repudiated) arguments about America, Israel, the Muslim world, 9/11, the Iraq war, Israel’s recent Lebanon war, and other such global issues. His message here goes beyond urging Jews to embrace Evangelicals, but to seek a wholesale political realignment, in which Jews would turn away from their traditional Democratic affiliation and, like him, embrace a Bush-like militaristic worldview.

In the end, Chafets’ effort misses the mark for the same reason that Jewish opining about Evangelicals is misguided:   the limits of seeing the evangelical world merely through the lens of Jewish-Christian and/or Israeli/American relations. He, like many other Jews, sees a need to break down old, close-minded stereotypes of Evangelicals only because these conservative Christians are Jew- and Israel-friendly, making an alliance politically beneficial given today’s realities. It seems to me to be the ultimate hubris for a population comprising at best two percent of the American population to learn about a population comprising upwards of 30 percent of Americans merely for political expediency, rather than because forming attitudes toward another group — especially one so much larger and more powerful — that are complex, multi-faceted, and multi-layered and not built on condescending stereotypes is good citizenship and the right thing to do.

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Michael Kress is Assistant Managing Editor of Beliefnet and former Editor-in-Chief of MyJewishLearning.com. His writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, Moment, Slate.com, and The Dallas Morning News.

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