With a surge in hard-right political movements across Europe, and white nationalism enjoying a higher profile in the United States, American Jews are asking themselves if the world is becoming more hostile to them.
They could be overlooking an ally with a unique position in Christian culture. Across the country, people with Jewish backgrounds who believe Jesus is the Messiah are advocating regularly for the Jews and Israel — right in Sunday morning church services.
“We are a bridge between the evangelical church and the Jewish community,” said Mitch Glaser, president of Chosen People Ministries, a major messianic Jewish organization. “We’re able to remind Christians to be more sensitive about anti-Semitism, to oppose it when they see it.”
Messianic Jews see themselves as straddling two worlds, Christian and Jewish. They may attend synagogues, churches or messianic Jewish congregations, where Jewish and Christian traditions are combined. And raising awareness about anti-Semitism and advocating for Israel has been a part of their mandate since the modern messianic Jewish movement coalesced in the 1960s. Messianics view Jews as divinely linked to the Land of Israel. For them, anti-Semitism is not just bigotry, but also an abomination.
“As believers in Jesus, we must denounce anti-Semitism not only as racism, but also as sin and a great evil. Let’s not be silent — for the sake of the Jewish people and our Jewish Messiah,” the website of New York City-based Chosen People Ministries reads in a special educational section on anti-Semitism.
Joshua Turnil, an organizer with Jews for Jesus, headquartered in California, believes that anti-Semitism “derives from evil forces.”
“These forces transcend culture, religion and race. Anti-Semitism is the belief that Jews are the reason for the world’s woes rather than the source of its salvation,” Turnil wrote in a post on the Jews for Jesus website.
These messianic groups still see themselves as deeply Jewish — and are committed to outreach in the Christian world on behalf of the Jewish nation. Taken together, they send thousands of emissaries annually into churches, and urge churchgoers to cherish and protect Israel and the Jewish people.
While best known for their controversial missionary work among other Jews, major messianic groups — Chosen People Ministries, Jews for Jesus and Jewish Voice Ministries International — consider the fight against anti-Semitism an important part of their mission.
When neo-Nazis planned a demonstration in a Jewish neighborhood in London, Jews for Jesus rallied evangelical support against the gathering. “The traditional Jewish community does not have the same leverage or the same entre as we do with churches,” said Susan Perlman, a founding member of Jews for Jesus.
And when Chosen People Ministries is invited into Christian churches, it educates congregants on Jewish history, ancient and modern, emphasizing the Jewish roots of Christianity. Chosen People Ministries also leads evangelical tour groups to Israel, visiting Jewish and Christian pilgrimage sites. “We get to do our advocacy right in Sunday morning church,” Glaser said.
Supporting Israel is central to messianic Jewish theology.
“Israel is part of who we are, and standing with Israel is part of our identity as Jews,” Perlman said.
One messianic organization, the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, even operates a new lobbying group in Washington, where the group hopes to fight the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. While most U.S. Jews believe a two-state solution is desirable, this lobbying group pushes for a one-state solution — because it was ordained by God.
“A two-state solution is contrary to the Bible,” the lobbying group’s executive director, Paul Liberman, told Haaretz in April.
Messianic Jews may also differ from American Jews in another significant way. Around 70% of Jews in America voted for Hillary Clinton, but Glaser says that messianics tend to lean conservative and may have supported Donald Trump. Like the 25% of Jews who voted Republican, they might not see the president-elect as stoking the fires of bigotry, and may be instead attracted to Trump’s outspoken support of Israel and the cultural conservatism that he plans to usher into the White House.
While some messianics see themselves as forgotten allies and potential partners with other Jewish organizations, such political and theological differences could still pose hurdles.
Many American Jews look askance at messianic proselytization, and according to polling by the Pew Research Center, relatively few American Jews believe one can continue to “be Jewish” while calling Jesus the Messiah.
Still, messianic Jews hold fast to the privilege afforded them as inhabitants of the religious borderlands of Christianity and Judaism. They want to bring Jews to Jesus, and they want to help Christians see the divine nature of the Jewish role in history.
“Messianic Jews see the State of Israel as divinely inscribed,” said Yaakov Ariel, a professor of religious studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of the 2000 book “Evangelizing the Chosen People.”
“In Israel, they see a stepping stone towards a messianic era,” Ariel said, “and a positive development towards the end-times.”
Sam Kestenbaum is a contributing editor and former staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum.