Why do some mainstream churches dislike Israel?

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Sixth century mosaic map of Jerusalem

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Sixth century mosaic map of Jerusalem

Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton has come out in strong opposition to the anti-Israel Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement.

In a letter to two Jewish leaders, Secretary Clinton wrote:

…We need to make countering BDS a priority…to reverse this trend with information and advocacy, and fight back against further attempts to isolate and delegitimize Israel….The Jewish state is a modern day miracle—a vibrant bloom in the middle of a desert—and we must nurture and protect it.

Why is this important? Because Secretary Clinton is a lifelong member of the United Methodist Church, which begins its General Conference today (Tuesday) in Portland, Oregon.

Among the items on the conference agenda are resolutions that ask the Methodist denomination to divest from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett-Packard because of those companies’ involvement in settlement activity.

So, Secretary Clinton was not just speaking against BDS to American Jewish leaders. She was speaking to her fellow Methodists.

But the Methodists are not alone. Over the years, many mainstream Christian groups have gone out of their way to criticize Israel — most notably, the Presbyterians, in some harsh and ugly ways.

Question: why this mainstream Christian obsession with Israel?

Is it a remnant of what Jules Isaac called “the teaching of contempt”?

Is it that the people of Israel, having rejected Jesus of Nazareth, are now condemned to be the eternal Wandering Jews — forever homeless and landless?

Not really — though those elements certainly exist as well.

Theological anti-Semitism, especially when it pertains to Israel, is alive and well in Christian circles. Consider the influence of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, which would ask you to believe that the Palestinian people are the present incarnation of Jesus, and that Israel is crucifying “him” once again.

No — this time, I find the anti-Israel “culprit” not in those who love Jews and Judaism too little, but actually, in those who love Jews too much, and who have romanticized and idealized them beyond any reasonable reality.

It’s called philo-semitism — a great love of the Jews. It is a theme in English Protestant history. They saw themselves as ancient Israelites, crossing the Red Sea (a.k.a., the Atlantic) and settling in, well, a “New Canaan” (like the place in Connecticut) — and naming their towns with other quaint Hebrew Bible names, like Bethel, Salem, and Jericho.

When you romanticize and idealize the Jews, you expect them to be angelic, pure, and ethereal.

Wrong.

Time for some Hebrew grammar fun.

The Hebrew word for Jerusalem, Yerushalayim, is in the plural form.

Perhaps there are two Jerusalems — one, earthly; and one, heavenly.

The ancient Jewish sages imagined that the heavenly Jerusalem was an alternative to the real, imperfect Jerusalem which the Romans had destroyed. They imagined Jerusalem as a place where no woman ever miscarried, or where serpents or scorpions never stung anyone.

Christians have a similar idea.For Christians, the earthly Jerusalem is sinful; the heavenly Jerusalem is righteous.

The ultimate vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem comes from the book of Revelation (21: 1-3)

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband…

Some years ago, an Israeli diplomat was visiting Africa. He asked the desk clerk to place a phone call for him to Jerusalem.

The clerk responded: “Oh, no, sir. Jerusalem doesn’t really exist. It is a place that is only found in legends and fairy tales.”

Um, no. Jerusalem is a real place, with real victories, redemptions, and yes, challenges.

What happens when reality thwarts your fantasies of a perfect Jerusalem?

You become disappointed, disillusioned (which means that you had an illusion that needed, well, dissing), angry — and sometimes, hateful.

I think that this is why many otherwise liberal and humanistic Christians find Israel problematic.

To be blunt: they wanted better. For years, we Jews were — if not saintly, then at least safe. We were victims. We fit into their old scripts of powerlessness and purity.

Having power — well, that’s a whole other thing.

Yes, well, so do we Jews.

For Yom Ha-Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, we Jews want a gift. Let us have our humanity — our failed, flawed, ever-growing, ever-struggling humanity. To build a state is exhausting work, and while it is often the work of idealists, on numerous levels we live with a world that is not yet redeemed.

The late author, Andre Neher, wrote:

We have stubbornly refused over the centuries to substitute another place for our focus. Christians have another Jerusalem in Rome and in the heavens; Moslems have Mecca and Medina; agnostic consciousness builds other Jerusalems in Paris and New York. I have never been a Wandering Jew; I have always been a pilgrim towards Jerusalem.

As a great Hasidic teacher, Reb Naftali of Ropshitz, said:

By our service to God, we build Jerusalem daily. One of us adds a row, another only a brick. When Jerusalem is completed, redemption will come.

Jerusalem is not yet completed. We are building it — and not only out of our longings, but out of real stones.