When Efforts to Convert Jews Become Harmful
A growing number of reports have recently emerged of missionaries targeting Jews for conversion. Some of these have even involved Christians disguising themselves as observant Jews in order to infiltrate Orthodox communities in the United States and Israel.
In one such case, in Jerusalem, a missionary passed himself off as a normative rabbi and kohen – or member of the hereditary biblical Jewish priesthood – performing ritual "services" that not only were founded upon false pretenses but deeply violated the spiritual life that religious people consider to be at the sacred core of their very existence.
Even for Christians who feel unable to completely disavow proselytism, such deceit should not be deemed acceptable. The ends do not always justify the means.
Some Christians may believe that targeted missionizing is an act of love, but such a belief needs to be recognized as just that – a Christian's own belief. Ultimately, true and meaningful love involves treating people as they wish to be treated, not as we insist upon treating them.
"You shall love your neighbor as yourself" is a central pillar of both Jews' and Christians' sense of mission, and early sages paraphrased this injunction as "that which you would dislike, do not do to your fellow." Surely serious Christians would not want others aggressively seeking to part them or their children from their faith as they define it – especially if they were, like Jews, a small and recurrently vulnerable minority. The world today is home to only around 15 million Jews, but more than two billion Christians.
In a spirit of friendship, let us be honest: Jews agree on precious few things, but trinitarianism is as compatible with mainstream Judaism as denial of it would be with mainstream Christianity. Likewise, for virtually all Jews, proselytism aimed at their traditional faith and identity is experienced as hostile, just as physical attacks are.
For much of nearly two millennia, these two were in fact intertwined. Antisemites sought to bar Jews from practicing their faith, to aggressively convert them to other faiths, to enact discrimination against those who resisted conversion, and to impose torture and even death upon such resisters. Some preeminent figures, like Luther, signaled tolerance for Jews only to shift to vitriol upon realizing that many would not abandon their Judaism.
Indeed, countless Jews sacrificed their lives rather than renounce the religion of their forebears.
To be clear, as a believing Jew, the last thing I want is to insert myself in the internal theological considerations or religious practices of another faith community. I actually find the convictions of passionate Christians relatable, and I recognize that evangelism is particularly important to those who identify as evangelical.
But as with other cherished liberties, every person's religious liberty is inviolable only until it reaches another person's doorstep. It mustn't be exercised to the active detriment of others' ability to live securely and uphold their own commitments free of outside pressure or imposition.
Even more fundamentally: as students of history, we know that while faith offers immense blessing to human life, it can be used – when not stewarded with humility and care – to spur division and even persecution. Religious adherents are thus entrusted with balancing an impulse to share their own faith with a basic respect for fellow people, their rights, and sensibilities.
More often than not, we do more good in witnessing to our faith by fully living its values than by seeking spiritual conquests.
Of course, democracies like Israel proudly uphold religious freedom – enabling, in the case of the world's only Jewish state, the continual growth of the country's Christian and other minority populations, a rarity in the Middle East – but predatory or deceptive proselytism simply cannot be ignored. Camouflaging missionary solicitation as "Jewish" in order to attract Jews of weaker religious backgrounds, like the offering of social services to needy recipients on condition of exposure to a certain form of religious indoctrination, is a longstanding tactic in the efforts by some to capture the souls of others.
Fortunately, since the Holocaust – the physical cataclysm that capped centuries of religious contempt – unprecedented mutual closeness has blossomed between Christians and Jews. Various key church denominations have deplored antisemitism and eschewed active engagement in the targeting of Jewish people for conversion. And many Christians, recognizing the Jewish roots of their faith, are invaluable allies of Israel at a time when it continues to face not only relentless violence in its own neighborhood but demonization and even delegitimization abroad.
Without a doubt, many Christian supporters of the Jewish people are utterly pure in their friendship, with no motive other than solidarity as well as mindfulness of the biblical promise to Abraham: "I will bless those who bless you."
These friends deserve to be embraced, not feared. Let us ensure that the friendship of the many not be undercut by the overzealous actions of the few.
The rest is in God's hands.
David J. Michaels is B'nai B'rith International's Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs.