Historically, relations between Christians and Jews have been strained – to say the least. While Judaism predates Christianity by at least 1,500 years, the earliest adherents to Christianity were in fact Jews. That created tension between the two groups and engendered controversy between the religions.
At times, both Jews and Christians were persecuted simultaneously, such as during the early Roman rule of the land of Israel. Jews, however, by virtue of belonging to an older religion, were often treated more leniently than their Christian neighbors. However, when Christianity became the official religion of Rome – a facet of Emperor Constantine’s conversion – everything began to change.
That heralded centuries of Christian persecution of Jews, with countless instances of blood libels, expulsions and pogroms, culminating, some would say, in the genocidal atrocities of the Holocaust. Though not Christian in its inception and execution, two millennia of anti-Jewish theology helped make the demonization and scapegoating of Jews possible. The Holocaust profoundly affected the ways that Christians from across the theological spectrum think about and interact with Jews. Also, the knowledge that there were so many Christian rescuers – many of them honored by Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center – has helped to salve deep wounds.
However, in recent decades the controversy between Christians and Jews has begun to look increasingly archaic. Many scholars claim that the thaw began in 1965, with the Nostrae Aetate (Latin: In our time) declaration at the Second Vatican Council, where there was a wholesale reappraisal of Catholicism’s relationship to Judaism. It demanded specifically from Catholics – but in essence from all Christians – that Judaism be respected for its primogeniture.
One of the organizations that has helped dispel the controversy between Christians and Jews is the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ or the Fellowship). For 35 years, its mission has been to promote understanding between Christians and Jews, build broad support for Israel, and replace a history of discord between the two great faiths with a relationship marked by dialogue, respect and cooperation.
From its inception, one of the goals of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, Founder and President of the IFCJ, was specifically to end the vicious cycle of intolerance and prejudice that marked relationships between Christians and Jews for centuries. IFCJ has mobilized U.S. churches, Christian leadership and individuals to expresses their solidarity with the Jewish state through humanitarian support, prayer and advocacy. If the old enmities were still prevalent would this be possible?
Israel itself has been a unifying factor for many Christians and Jews, a recognition of a common bond and tradition that has helped heal ancient wounds. Particularly with regard to the Middle East and the persecution of Christians in Muslim lands, many Christians see Israel as an oasis of tolerance in a hostile neighborhood. Pilgrims visit Israel in their hundreds of thousands (if not millions) and they are able to pray as they wish, go and see historically important sites, such as Megiddo, Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee – even be baptized in the River Jordan. And that doesn’t even include all of the holy sites in and around Jerusalem.
It cannot be said that differences between the faiths no longer exist and that they view things in the same way. But today Jews and Judaism today have a more than reasonable expectation that any differences will be addressed through interfaith dialogue rather than show trials and the violence of the past.