A psychological exploration of weak Jewish response to Christian missionaries in Israel

It’s worth exploring the many ways Jewish political, social, communal and even spiritual leaders tied to the financial benefits of Christian missionary support delude themselves and their followers.

By Donald Zev Uslan, Vision Magazine

We need to address the extent to which Israelis are empowering and ignoring the inroads being made by Christian missionaries within the State of Israel and their designs to convert Jews to a belief in Jesus.

What in our psychological and social makeup has led to this situation? What psychosocial dynamics have allowed free rein to groups whose goal is the spiritual demise of the Jewish people? Let us explore a variety of views from a psychological and psychosocial perspective. The following are some Jewish vulnerabilities.

The shtetl mentality

Almost a thousand years of living in small, concentrated areas (“shtetls”) in the exile under gentile rule has created in our historic DNA a mentality of seeking to please the majority society; be it by language, personal or social behavior.

In the Diaspora, we don’t offend. We often seek to please, we want and try to fit into the host country. The results can be seen in the patterns of assimilation and disaffection among our people. There is no anti-Semitism, no hatred or harm to Jews if we stay under the radar. Thus we became beholden to the majority by necessity. We became obligated to the majority culture.

This propensity very often colors our governance of Israel and even the mentality of our leaders. Because we are “grateful” for Western support, we temper our typical Israeli assertiveness (“cḥutzpah”) and critical thinking when it comes to diverging positions with our “allies.”

We don’t want to rock the boat. We unquestioningly accept financial and political support from zealous “Christian Evangelical friends” – oblivious to the price we pay by allying ourselves with some truly crazy people, some of whom are driven by dreams of creating a theological melding of Jew and Christian into “One New Man.”

Protestant missionary kindness

After a long history of being shunned, isolated, restricted, condemned, forcibly converted, expelled, physically imperiled, murdered and both idealistically venerated and yet cynically reviled by traditional European Christian denominations, Jews are now back in our homeland.

And we are fully engaged in utilizing our hard-won knowledge and skills, initiative, and creativity to defend ourselves from military attacks. Yet our energies and talents have yet to be directed towards effectively countering spiritual seduction and brazen assaults on our faith and identity.

European and North African Jewry had little exposure to a “gentler” Protestant evangelism such as seen in the United States, where Jews have been exposed to Protestant sharing, kindness and “unconditional love”- a Christianity which has replaced “Replacement Theology” with eschatological aspirations for a “Judeo-Christian” conglomeration under Jesus.

The dangers of the ‘nice’ missionary

Frankly, we have no defense against the “nice” and “kind” disposition of missionaries, which frequently masquerades as “respect.” The news is increasingly rife with incidents of anti-Semitism, acts of violence, efforts at financial sanctions, international and academic condemnation, and social and media demonization of Jews and Israel.

But those whose “non-violent” mission is to draw our souls away from our Torah and heritage are deemed to be our friends. Oddly enough, some perceive these evangelical overtures as being “philo-Semitic.” After all, they say wonderful things, they do nice stuff, they spend money on us, and lobby on our behalf. They love us. No group throughout our history has ever “loved” us for this long!

In Israel, missionary “nice” goes beyond financial, political, and moral support. Evangelical love permeates every facet of Israeli society, and quite often it’s free for the taking in the form of messianic concerts, tours, food, and interfaith religious, educational, and cultural events in a variety of languages.

And then there is missionary-sponsored emotional and financial support to the sick and suffering, Shabbat meals for lone soldiers, evangelical-sponsored Bible study in the Knesset, online lectures about the “fallacies” of Judaism and the “lies “our rabbis have told us, offers of alternative and simplified Jewish customs and traditions (Yeshua Jesus minus Christian symbolism, all wrapped in a tallit and given a Jewish name).

There is free legal advice on how “Messianics” can utilize loopholes in Israel’s Law of Return in order to obtain residency and citizenship. And with the backing and sponsorship of major evangelical organizations, missionaries are openly collaborating with Israeli governmental ministries and public service agencies on a variety of sensitive issues pertaining to the Jewish nature of the State of Israel. It’s all very nice.

A former missionary who became a Jew and now works as a Jewish educator told me:

“There is a new degree of sophistication employed today by the former standards of missionary approaches. Today’s missionaries are data-mining Jewish sources to substantiate their ‘proofs.’ The missionary message now to Jews is an appealing universal one. You can have the best of both worlds. You can marry a non-Jew, eat what you like, celebrate as you wish, be free of rabbinic influences for they are the agents of oppression. Keep in mind we are being presented with a made-over version of Christianity today, one that is repenting for the ills of the past and desiring to be the best of friends to Israel and the Jewish nation.”

The kind of psychological gymnastics and contortions that Israel goes through in order to not deal with the missionary threat is worthy of a very warped gold medal.

Psychological and psychosocial considerations

From a psychological and psychosocial standpoint, Christians who covertly or overtly missionize in Israel may be considered “fanatics.” The definition of a “fanatic” is one who has a rigid inability and/or unwillingness to question or reflect on their own motives and beliefs and actions without considering alternative possibilities.

It represents the psychological profile of “black and white” thinking about a single value. Here, a conviction that influencing, seducing, coercing or forcing others to believe in Jesus as the Messiah is “the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me in order to be saved” (John 14:6).

Missionaries are unable to consider any other interpretations of their own belief, certainly no acceptance of another’s beliefs.

The following statements represent typical responses to the issue of Christian missionaries in Israel and characterize many of the psychological and psychosocial issues presented below:

  • “The Evangelicals are our best friends, don’t ask questions” (“don’t bite the hand that feeds you”).
  • “When the Messiah comes, we’ll see what happens.”
  • “Take the money – don’t convert.”
  • “I’ll guard my soul; you guard yours.”
  • “I’m secure in my faith. I am not going to convert.”
  • “They owe us and I’m taking. They [the gentiles] can never repay us for the damage they’ve done.”
  • “We have the same Bible, we pray to the same G-D, the only difference of opinion we have is over the Messiah.”
  • “Without the support of Evangelical Christians, Israel would cease to exist.”
  • “They [the evangelicals] are not just friends of Israel; they are Israel.”
  • “They know how to give. We know how to take. It is strictly business.”

(Elisheva Horowitz)

So given all the above, what are some of the psychological and psychosocial reasons for Israelis to be oblivious to the potential threat of missionaries in our country? Let us examine a few:

The effects of exhaustion: Mental exhaustion and depletion lead to becoming emotionally drained and strained; there is no time or energy for such obscure things as “missionaries” who are largely unseen and if seen, considered friendly and harmless. Mental fatigue can trigger physical problems and include emotional symptoms such as worry and anxiety. Israelis have this in spades.

“We’re living 24/7 with existential threats to our existence and now I must worry about missionaries? Give me a break.”

Willful ignorance: People take part in willful ignorance because it is useful to them, and, at some level, they realize their beliefs are probably false, or they refuse to pay attention to information that is contrary to their beliefs. Most native Israelis have no knowledge of the history of missionary activity around the world nor of various evangelical missionary activities in Israel, nor do they seek it out. It is absent from the Israeli conversation and education curriculum. Most mainstream media do not support articles or coverage of this subject (primarily out of concern about upsetting evangelical readers, supporters, and advertisers, and pro-Israel political alliances).

Similarly, unlike Jews in the Diaspora, most Israelis have had little exposure to normative, non-missionizing Christians.

Self-deception: This happens when someone believes false things with absolute conviction; they use theories, personal needs, and prejudices to maintain their world view. Many people hold erroneous beliefs because others facilitate it.

Denial: This is a deliberate refusal to acknowledge that a fact exists, such as turning a blind eye to this discussion about missionizing in Israel. This allows one to avoid unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or events.

“How harmful can a few wack jobs be?”

“Meh. I just throw their stupid Jesus brochures away.”

Avoidance: This is the act of staying away from situations that cause difficult feelings and thoughts. “I don’t want to talk about it. It is not important. There are more important things to worry about.”

Self-interest: This is usually unconscious and automatic, a means of avoiding ethical or moral dilemmas and avoiding potential danger and harm. With accusatory anger:

“You don’t know what you’re talking about. Evangelical Christians are our best friends!”

“You will damage support for Israel if you continue to criticize evangelical Christians!”

Arrogance: Characterized by overbearing attempts to coerce or force actions or opinions with little regard for another person’s beliefs or a group’s concerns. This includes threats or acts of legal remedies and lawsuits and the use of Israeli libel and slander laws to stifle publications.

“No one has tried to convert me.”

“If you’re secure in your identity, you shouldn’t have to worry about missionaries.”

“You are paranoid! You are seeing threats that don’t exist!”

Justification: A type of defensive intellectualization. Typically, the person makes an excuse for an action that one knows to be wrong or indefensible.

“I don’t see any signs of missionizing!”

“You’re making a mountain out of molehill.”

“Evangelical Christians are good people. They provide stuff that we don’t provide to our own people.”

“So, what if they end up converting a few Jews. They probably weren’t Jewish anyway according to halakha (Jewish law). That’s a small price to pay for their support.”

Controlling others: Some Israelis control the discourse about the intent and harm of missionaries. This is usually caused by their own internal conflict or anxiety about the subject. Thus, they demonstrate intimidation, blame, overbearingness, irrational anger, inducing of guilt, threats of lawsuit and other forms of aggressiveness meant to stop dialogue and cease debate and discourse.

“This is just an eschatological difference of opinion!”

“You are just anti-Christian! You are hateful!”

Religiosity or delusional beliefs: Many Jewish political, social, communal and religious leaders, tied to the financial benefits and the adulation of missionaries demonstrate a higher-than-normal degree of self-esteem and self-righteousness about evangelical support. In attempts to justify their position they have created a personal “prophetic-like” faith and belief with the historic and theological path they believe the world is taking now. This is a non-textbook form of delusion, a blend of quasi-Jewish and Christian eschatological beliefs, fueled by an evangelical “love” that attempts to frantically piece together current events and the arc of history culminating in some type of momentous “end days” revelation.

This is akin to the oft discussed “Jerusalem Syndrome” or, if you will, a “Missionary Syndrome” – a fervency beyond all reason. This urgency to direct and decode history is not to be confused with the principles of Jewish belief in redemption and of the coming of the Messiah, and of the grounded, healthy, and creative efforts associated with this hope.

Cowardice: This is a trait where excessive fear prevents someone from taking a risk or facing danger. These people lack the courage to support their convictions, to uphold what they know is morally right. Does this describe those leaders or rabbis who are aware of the missionizing of Jews and efforts to convert them to a belief in Jesus but fail to take courageous action to speak out and act?

“This is not a problem. It doesn’t exist.”

Grandiosity: This delusional belief leads some to see themselves as some form of modern end-days prophet. This is analogous to the Biblical Moses leading the children of Israel to Sinai; they are leading modern day Jews to the political Sinai. Grandiosity is typified by a belief of greater intelligence and talent than others, a failure to understand that their actions could inflict hurt.

Hypocrisy: This involves claiming to have beliefs or moral standards but not exhibiting them oneself. Hypocrisy allows people to avoid personal responsibility or to attain control over a situation without taking responsibility.

“Stop this counter-missionary activity! We need their financial and political support!”

Philo-Semitism: This is a disproportion focus on Jews, usually an elevated view of Jewish stereotypes and an overly simplified view of Jewish history and accomplishments.

An aspect of this is a failure to understand the cycles of history, where philo-Semitism (love of Jews) is followed by the hatred and persecution of Jews.

“At worst, given the right impetus, the coin of philosemitic antisemitism can easily be flipped, and all those formerly positive stereotypes can be weaponized against Jews,” notes journalist Yair Rosenberg.

The American Jewish Committee notes:

“Christian Evangelical Zionism can also be a problematic form of philosemitism. While Christian Zionists strongly support the Jewish state, a small number are pre-millennial dispensationalists, meaning they only support bringing Jews to Israel because they believe it will bring about the Rapture and the Second Coming of Jesus. This treats Jews as a means to an end and also a target for conversion. It can even set the stage for scapegoating the Jews when the Rapture doesn’t come as expected.”

As Professor Richard Landes notes: “For every major outbreak of Christian exterminations hatred in European history, if you look before it, you’re likely to find a period of philo-Judaism.”

Going forward

Of course, the State of Israel benefits from the political and financial support offered by pro-Israel Christians. Many community leaders, businesses, tour guides, religious leaders and social service organizations are reliant upon evangelical financing and involvement. Evangelical political support has been instrumental for Israel in many arenas. But we know there is a theological agenda behind this support. The necessity for alliances must never cause us to compromise our integrity, our land, our people or our beliefs.

Perhaps we are desperate to hang onto good friends after the seeming abandonment of Diaspora Jewry (or perhaps vice versa?). The unfortunate wavering support for Israel of the six million Jews in America who are now largely focused on charitable and social activities in the Diaspora pales in comparison to the resolute and enthusiastic financial, political support and power of 60 to 70 million Evangelical Christians.

How do we distinguish between the constructive support of pro-Israel Christians and that of missionaries who are actively laying the groundwork and influencing Jews towards a belief in Jesus? I and others have come under severe criticism from other Israelis for even suggesting that some of this support is tainted with ulterior motives.

A simple acknowledgement and acceptance of the complexity of Christian support might allow for reasoned discourse. Yes, there are tangible benefits in Israel to evangelical support, but there’s also an abundance of negative consequences. Let us acknowledge, for all our Jewish vaunted cognitive capacity for complex nuancing of ideas, values and ethics, that we are lacking the ability to hold in our collective discourse the dichotomies of “nice” and “not nice,” “kind” and “dangerous,” “giving” and “taking,” “pleasant” and “fanatical” in the same breath.

Missionizing does not come under the rubric of “the marketplace of ideas” when designed to target vulnerable people and populations seductively and deceptively in Israel.

Missionizing is a predatory act.

It is time for a “Declaration Against Missionizing in Israel” supported by Israeli and Diaspora leaders, as well as non-missionizing Christian groups. Such an effort should be fashioned into effective and enforceable legislation. The integrity of the land of Israel and its identity as a Jewish state requires it.

Donald Zev Uslan is medical and rehabilitation psychotherapist from the University of Washington, now in practice in Jerusalem. His specialty over a 45-year career has been working with individuals and groups with complex chronic illnesses, most of whom had been psychologically, physically, or sexually abused in childhood.