Monday, July 17, 2006

Jews and Christian Zionists

There has been a lot of talk recently about how much help we should be accepting from Christian Zionists and whether we can trust them. Interestingly, this issue is over 150 years old. In the 1820s-1840s, the same questions arose in Israel and there was a difference of opinion between the Sephardim and Ashkenazim in Jerusalem. From Arie Morgenstern, Hastening Redemption: Messianism and the Resettlement of the Land of Israel, pp. 166-167:

How did the Jews of the Land of Israel receive the missionaries? Were they willing to talk with them, to receive the Scriptures they published and printed, to look at their publicity materials, and to accept their economic and medical support and their intervention with the authorities in defense of Jewish interests? Did they engage with them in theological discussions over matters of faith?

As we have seen, the leaders of the Perushim [Ashkenazic students of the Vilna Gaon] maintained an understanding of redemption that differed from the traditional one, and their view of the missionaries' activities could likewise be expected to differ. The Sefardic sages, almost to a man, saw only the negative side of the missionary activity. This was their first encounter with missionaries, and their response, in my judgment, was decisively shaped by their historical memory of their experiences with the Christianity of the Iberian Peninsula. They feared that the missionaries' economic resources might enable them to sway the Sefardic poor, and they accordingly imposd a strict ban on any contact with the missionary Wolff.

The leaders of the Jerusalem Perushim took a different tack. As foreign citizens, they stood to gain more from the missionaries than could the Sefardim, who were Ottoman subjects. From their first encounter with the missionaries in the 1820s, the Perushim recognized the potential usefulness of maintaining contact with them. The state of war at that time between Turkey and Russia complicated their lives, and they hoped the missionaries would intercede to help them secure the protection of the British consul in Beirut.

During the 1820s and 1830s, missionary activity in the Land of Israel concentrated on distributing sacred texts and tracts, providing material and medical support, and offering substantive defense against governmental scheming. The Ashkenazim were in such dire straits at that time that rejecting those forms of assistance would have been suicidal. Few voices of protest were raised against their willingness to receive the missionaries' help; that may have been because of the missionaries' failure during that time to achieve any of their religious goals...

But while the economic assistance provided by the missionaries helped secure the position of the Ashkenazim in the Land of Israel, the leadership of the Perushim saw more to it than that alone. In their view, the involvement of Christian missionaries in efforts on behalf of the Jewish community represented the fulfillment of the prophetic promise that gentiles would help promote the return to Zion: "And strangers will build your walls" (Isa. 60:10). Consistent with that understanding, the leaders of the Perushim saw the church's emissaries not as missionaries but as representatives of "the princes sitting at the head of the Kingdom of England, noblemen, etc."

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