A Christian-led caucus ‘protecting’ Jewish values? No thanks

Right-wing evangelical Christians like to pretend they speak for Jewish people. This is not, to put it mildly, generally in the interest of Jews. It isn’t in the interest of a healthy democracy, either.

The latest example of the appropriation of Jewish identity is the congressional “Caucus for the Advancement of Torah Values.” It is led by Republican Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska and conservative Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas. Neither of these men is Jewish. None of the other members of the caucus appear to be Jewish, either. Besides Cuellar, they all also seem to be Republicans. This caucus is clearly not an organization by and for Jews. It’s an organization for mostly right-wing American Christians who want to be associated with, and speak for, Jewish people.

Again, this isn’t unusual. At the end of 2019, President Donald Trump retweeted a quote from a Christian conservative radio host that described him as “the King of Israel.” After the antisemitic massacre at Tree of Life synagogue in Philadelphia, Vice President Mike Pence appeared at a rally where a prayer was delivered by a Christian claiming to somehow be a rabbi. The right also loves to use the phrase “Judeo-Christian values” to promote a conservative Christian agenda that conveniently erases the several thousand years during which “Christian values” included beating, forced conversion and murder of Jewish people.

Christian philosemitism, especially on the political right, is often linked to support for Israel. Evangelical conservatives have long embraced Israel in part because many believe it’s important for fulfilling end times prophecies (in which Jews convert or go to hell). Evangelicals also have a strong connection with Israel and the holy sites located there. Israel’s oppression of Palestinian people and its conflicts with its Muslim neighbors also feed into right-wing ideology, specifically Islamophobia.

Christian philosemitism, especially on the political right, is often linked to support for Israel.

Sure enough, Bacon said the Torah Values caucus would oppose “anti-Israel bigotry,” a phrase that neatly conflates criticism of Israel with antisemitism. But Bacon also said the caucus would protect the Jewish “right to worship freely.” The press release specifically points to harassment of Jewish people in New York City and how Covid restrictions there are being applied to synagogues and yeshivas. These are important concerns of the caucus’ primary Jewish adviser, David Hofstedter, an Orthodox rabbi from Canada. Joshua Stein, a philosopher who studies antisemitism, pointed out on Twitter that two representatives in the caucus are Christians from Pennsylvania, Dan Meuser and Brian Fitzpatrick. Yet the material doesn’t mention the Pittsburgh Tree of Life shooting, probably the worst antisemitic hate crime in U.S. history. Antisemitic violence is a national problem. But for the right, as Stein explains, “the focus is on NYC *because* NYC is diverse and liberal.”

If you’re actually interested in combatting antisemitism, you need to talk about antisemitism across the country. That would include antisemitic attacks perpetrated in the name of Palestinian activism, like the recent hostage crisis at a Texas synagogue. But it would also have to include antisemitic violence like the shooting in Pittsburgh and antisemitic remarks by white conservative Christians like radio host Matt Walsh, who recently minimized the violence of the Inquisition. Sometimes that antisemitism is cloaked transparently in allyship. Take Christians United for Israel, a pro-Israel organization founded by right-wing Christian John Hagee, who himself has made antisemitic statements claiming that the Holocaust was part of God’s plan to create a Jewish state.

Instead, the Torah Values caucus goes after New York City, a diverse, multiracial, multi-ethnic, Democratic-voting city. And why does New York City vote Democratic? There are lots of answers to that question. But one important one is its large Jewish community.

Jewish people in the diaspora have long been stereotyped as stateless perpetual immigrants. The suspect in the Tree of Life shootings believed Jews were trying to encourage immigration to replace white people. Jewish people also are consistent liberal voters; about 70 percent identify as Democrats, according to Pew. (Orthodox Jewish people are an exception; they tend to lean much more Republican.)

Singling out New York City as a den of antisemitism doesn’t just distort the actual prevalence of antisemitism. It also appoints these Christian politicians as de facto arbiters of oppression, deciding who is a good Jew and a bad Jew, who is oppressed and who is the oppressor. They, of course, are standing with, and even in place of, the oppressed.

It doesn’t help any Jews anywhere when Christians give themselves the power to decide which instances of antisemitism are worthy of note and which Jewish people are worthy of solidarity. Nor does it help Jewish people when the cities they live in and the Democratic Party many of them vote for are demonized using antisemitic tropes.

But ultimately, what right-wing conservative Christians love more than almost anything else is playing the victim — thus Christian support for the Jan. 6 coup attempt. White Christian evangelicals embraced Trump precisely because he articulated their feelings of powerlessness and rage in the face of a growing nonwhite, non-Christian majority, according to Yale sociologist Philip Gorski. When Christians cosplay as Jews, adopting or co-opting Jewish phrases or causes or identities, they are able to buttress their own claims to righteousness and to revenge.

Christian militant revenge movements haven’t traditionally ended well for Jews. Self-appointed Christian guardians of righteousness and faith are advancing their own interests. They shouldn’t do it in Jewish people’s names.

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