Jeers and loathing in Bethlehem

A presentation by a respected evangelical author last month shows that some Palestinian boosters are willing to take us back to the darkest days of Adversus Judaeos

Polls in the United States show sustained support for Israel despite relentless campaigns to demonize the Jewish state. Evangelical Christians, who have stood by Israel through thick and thin, are being lobbied by the Palestinians and their allies to drop their support for Zionism and embrace the Palestinian cause.

A presentation by Gary Burge to hundreds of evangelicals who gathered last month in Bethlehem at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference (CATC) shows that some Palestinian boosters are willing to take us back to the darkest days of Adversus Judaeos.


Dr. Burge is a respected evangelical author and teacher at Wheaton College who rose to provide the theological basis for rejecting Christian Zionism, which the conference organizers believe is a source of oppression of Palestinians. What emerged was a cynical and derisive monologue that deployed classic anti-Jewish stereotypes and thinly- veiled contempt for Judaic values and the link between Jews and the Holy Land. (Our comments in red.)

He started his speech by recounting an exchange in Jerusalem with an “old, eccentric rabbi” who claimed to know where the treasures of Herod’s Temple were hidden. Burge observed that the rabbi “certainly had this Indiana Jones look in his eye, but not in his clothes. His {haredi?} hat was all wrong”.

Next, he moved his audience to the steps near the Western Wall on a Shabbat morning, where his camera drew the attention of five American yeshiva students who asked him not to use the camera on the Sabbath.

“This sounded like fun…Theological debate ensued…They argued that pushing the button on the shutter release was doing work. I told them climbing all these stairs all over Jerusalem was more work. And on it went for about a half hour. This could have been a scene right out of the Gospels.” {Burge saw himself in the same position as Jesus debating points of belief with Jewish leaders. We wonder what Christians make of Burge presenting himself as the modern analogue of their Savior.}

“I said I was taking in the beauty of G-d’s creation by taking a picture; they said I was breaking the Law.” {What does demonstrating the triumph of Christian love over Pharisaic legalism have to do with Middle East peace? Why was he hawking this stuff to an audience of Christian Palestinians, and Americans who came to Bethlehem to learn how to make a difference in pursuit of peace?}

“I was having a great time.” {Why? Has contempt and triumphalism replaced prayer and unqualified love as the proper Christian approach to the challenges of Holy Land peacemaking?}

Burge debunks Replacement Theology, only to resurrect it: Jews, he asserts, are not replaced — except for all Jews between the time of Jesus and his return.

Burge then homes in on his key objective — to demonstrate that ethnic connection to Abraham should not provide any person or group with any privilege. First he shows – and mocks – Jewish belief in the stature of Abraham. Burge’s proof-text is the “Book of Jubilees,” written about 150 BCE by sectarians. Jubilees is not even in the Jewish canon, which gives it roughly the same standing for Jews as the “Gospel of Thomas” has for Christians. Yet, Burge calls this marginal work “a window into what Jews were thinking” two hundred years after it was written! How would he know?

“Here in Jubilees we get a glimpse of a creative Jewish imagination. {Not a “tradition,” but a fabrication.} Jubilees says ‘Abraham was perfect in all of his actions with the Lord, and was pleasing through righteousness all the days of his life. {Actually it is Genesis 26:5 that says this.} Most important, Abraham is the great father of Israel, the ancestor from whom every living Jew would take up his identity. Another Jewish book from the very same era, the Psalms of Solomon, puts it succinctly: ‘G-d,’ it prays, ‘You chose the descendants of Abraham to be above every nation.’ So therefore, to be attached to Abraham is to have a select place in the human family. It was an exceptional place, it was a place that was filled with privileges, and you felt entitled.”

The slide on the floor-to-ceiling display on Burge’s left reads, “Abraham in Judaism”; not “Abraham in 2nd century BC sectarian literature.” Behind Burge is a huge mural of the hardened part of Israel’s barrier against suicide bombers, a constant reminder to all the attendees about who is exclusively at fault in this conflict. In combination with the slogan about Abraham, the message about blame is clear: It’s Jewish chosenness, stupid!

The New Testament, he continues, defines the claim to Abrahamic blessings, not on ethnicity, but on faithfulness to G-d’s ways. This is the message that we Jews missed – and continue to miss. Christianity goes further. “The true children of Abraham may be the followers of Jesus… it was a move that would have surprised those young men in the Old City of Jerusalem to no end.” {Really? Their world would have come crashing down to learn that Christians reject Judaism?}

The debate in John 8 between Jesus and some Jews settles the matter. “There it is. You can be a descendant of Abraham, and not be a son of Abraham. Faith matters.” {Burge simply substitutes Christian chosenness for the Jewish chosenness he mocks.}

The idea that Biblical promises and covenants bestowed upon Jews were transferred 2,000 years ago to the “New Jews,” i.e. Christians, is commonly referred to as Replacement Theology. Historically, Replacement Theology served as the underpinning of centuries of oppression, persecution and murder of Jews by Christians. Burge does not want to be seen as promoting a doctrine that would threaten the lives of Jews around the world. So he offers this alternative:

What is wrong with Replacement Theology, says Burge, is that it leads to the conclusion that “G-d’s people in the world today are Gentile Christians and Messianic Jews.” Ordinary Jews, he says, are left with nothing but a broken legacy, and the guilt for the death of Jesus!

Burge’s “new” way: “Messianic Fulfillment.”

“The Church continues the great legacy of Abraham because it is a community of Jews and Gentiles who together reflect the faith of Abraham now seen in Christ. But Judaism holds an incomparable place in history. Because of its legacy, it is not rejected. But it will return to the olive tree rooted in Abraham when it embraces Christ by faith.” He then makes it clear that the Jews (who are now, citing Paul, “enemies of the Gospel”) will return only with the Second Coming. “It is a community loved for the sake of their ancestors.” {So there you have it. Burge debunks Replacement Theology, only to resurrect it: Jews, he asserts, are not replaced — except for all Jews between the time of Jesus and his return.}

The CATC conference was a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. Burge’s message was not the only example of the ugly, but there was good as well.

Burge then “fantasizes about finding the five yeshiva students from New York.” He wants to renew their debate and let them know who the real descendants of Abraham are. Twice he harps on their New York accents. Is New York “too Jewish” for his liking? These students “are willing to take other people’s land on the basis of their ethnicity.” {Never mind that these students stood not in a West Bank settlement, but at the Western Wall Plaza, site of both Jewish Temples.}

Here we arrive at the unvarnished truth: While the conference was meant to challenge Christian Zionism, it is Jewish Zionism that makes Burge uncomfortable. While championing the right of return for fourth-generation Palestinians, he rejects the right of return for Jews to the Jewish state – the single largest Jewish community in the world!

The CATC conference was a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. Burge’s message was not the only example of the ugly, but there was good as well. Attendees heard alternative voices that emphasized the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish State, and who spoke with no disrespect. Theirs were the voices of evangelicals whose friendship Jews have come to cherish and trust.

Whose message will ultimately prevail? It depends. On the world stage, Israel will continue, with the help of her Jewish and Christian supporters to defend her rightful place among the nations. But what of Burge’s students? They and others get a skewed – and sometimes hateful – picture of Israel and Judaism. Very, very few presenters knowledgeable about Judaism and Israel ever get an opportunity to speak in places like Wheaton and other seminaries training new generations of evangelical leaders. No one they meet will explain to them the Jewish concepts of work, creativity and rest on the Shabbat, or, for that matter, the Holy Land’s centrality in the Jewish faith and nationhood. It will be especially difficult reaching out to youthful leaders reared on such contempt and hubris.

Ultimately, the greatest price of all may yet be paid not by Israelis living and thriving on their land, but by the next generation of diaspora Jews who may have to confront the dangerous return of a theology that leaves no room for an empowered Jewish future.


Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the Wiesenthal Center’s Director of Interfaith Affairs.

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