Say what you will about Robert Jeffress, the controversial Dallas preacher who gave the opening prayer at the dedication of the American Embassy in Jerusalem last week, he sticks by his beliefs.
An event in the Jewish state, attended by a great number of Jewish people, might have been an occasion to recant or modify or explain his view that Jews are all going to hell. Jeffress thinks the same thing about Muslims and Mormons, describing the Mormon religion as “a heresy from the pit of hell.” And those are just the monotheistic faiths. I shudder to imagine what he thinks of, say, Hindus.
“Such a religious bigot should not be giving the prayer that opens the United States Embassy in Jerusalem,” Mitt Romney tweeted, a view also held by the Anti-Defamation League, which called Jeffress “an unrepentant religious bigot who has a history of making hateful comments about Jews, Muslims, Christian and other religions.” Jeffress is a prominent Trump supporter who has prayed with the president in the Oval Office; after several days during which questions about who had invited him to the embassy ceremony went unanswered, the State Department said the invitation came from the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman.
Friedman presumably doesn’t think all Jews, himself included, are going to hell. But Jeffress confirmed to me, in a phone call, that he does. The belief that salvation only comes through belief in Christ “has been the historic teaching of Christianity for 2,000 years,” Jeffress said. Jesus, Peter and Paul all were Jews, so how can Christianity be anti-Semitic? Next to Jews themselves — in fact, exceeding many American Jews themselves — evangelicals are among Israel’s strongest supporters. “I could not walk down the streets of Jerusalem without Israelis stopping me and saying thank you for your support,” Jeffress told me. “At dinner Prime Minister Netanyahu said I’m grateful for the support of evangelical Christians. He knows what evangelicals believe.”
What they actually believe is that establishment of the Jewish state is a necessary precursor to the second coming and the unanimous acceptance by the Jews of Christ (skipping a great many intermediate steps, as foretold in the Book of Revelation, some of which go by the ominous word “tribulation”). Netanyahu presumably doesn’t share that belief about the end times, which is why he’s happy to accept the help of evangelicals in the present. As for hell, he’s probably willing to risk it because Jewish theology isn’t built around salvation and doesn’t subscribe to the Christian view of the afterlife. I don’t care what Jeffress thinks will happen to me after I die, and I suspect Netanyahu feels the same way.
The ADL does care, though, about beliefs that might be shared by a quarter of the American population. Rabbi David Sandmel, the organization’s director of interfaith affairs, explained to me that “one of the problems with the idea that Jews are not saved, can’t be saved, is its connection to other issues in classical anti-Semitism: the Jewish rejection of Jesus, the idea that the Jews killed Jesus. It’s part of that narrative,” the narrative that has provided the excuse for inquisitions and expulsions and bloodletting from the Middle Ages onward.
It’s a theological conundrum, an intellectual challenge, an instance of cognitive dissonance that would throw lesser minds than Jeffress’s into turmoil. To refuse to accept Christ is a grave offense to the worldview of evangelicals. How does one square that with support for the Jewish state and friendships with individual Jews? Can you be friends with someone who, by his own choice, will burn in hell for eternity? Can your children? Can’t they find someone else to play with?
Former Rep. Michele Bachmann was also in Israel for the embassy dedication, and took the occasion to apologize for what she described as “ignorant” comments she has made about Jews. This was evidently a reference to an interview in 2015 in which she called for “converting as many Jews as we can” in order to speed the return of Christ. What’s wrong with that? Converting Jews, and everyone else, is a central tenet of the faith. The National Association of Evangelicals has a four-point definition of evangelicalism, one of which is “It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.” (Another is “Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation,” which puts a positive spin on “Jews are going to hell” but amounts to the same thing.) Christian broadcaster Rick Wiles was having none of Bachmann’s backsliding ecumenicism. (“Shame on you Michele Bachmann! You’ve denied the Lord Jesus Christ.”)
So I say, stick to your guns, evangelicals. Don’t be like that other Texas pastor who also spoke at the embassy dedication, John Hagee. Hagee’s endorsement of John McCain for president in 2008 caused McCain acute embarrassment when the Catholic League called attention to Hagee’s record of referring to the Vatican as “the great whore” and Catholicism as “a false cult system.” McCain disavowed Hagee’s remarks and Hagee apologized. Hagee shares Jeffress’s appreciation of Judaism for hastening its own extinction by establishing a Jewish state, but with a twist. He gave credit to Hitler as an instrument of God’s will in driving Jews out of Europe and back to what would become Israel. He apologized for that too, even while maintaining that it was a view supported by a passage in the Book of Jeremiah.
If it’s in a holy book, then you don’t have to apologize for it! That’s also the position of Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who is the chief rabbi for Israel’s Sephardic community (comprising immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa). The evening before the embassy dedication, Yosef spoke at a reception for the American delegation and hailed Trump as “a king of kindness.” Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, who were there representing the White House, approached Yosef for a blessing, according to reports in the Israeli media. This was less than two months after the Israeli Justice Ministry launched an investigation of Yosef for possible “incitement to racism” over a sermon that, in elucidating an obscure point of religious practice, referred in passing to a black child as a monkey. The ADL also denounced the remark as “utterly unacceptable,” but Yosef’s spokesman said he was merely citing the Talmud. (Contacted by Yahoo News, Avka Zana, the head of the unit that launched the investigation, said he couldn’t comment last week.)
It’s enough to make one miss Christopher Hitchens, whose mantra, in his atheist manifesto God Is Not Great was “religion poisons everything.” Hitchens died in 2011 and went wherever atheists go after death, but if he were alive today he could have gotten a whole other book out of the Jerusalem embassy affair.
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