A few years ago a group from the local Jewish community met with the president (an evangelical Christian) of my university and demanded that he fire me from my position in Jewish Studies. The charge, repeated in a subsequent meeting with the group, with myself and the provost present, was anti-Semitism. How could I be seen as anti-Semitic? Easy. I have and continue to defend the rights of the Palestinians to be free in their own homeland.
I remember the meeting well. Fifteen affluent southern Jews, including a recent convert to Judaism, were seated around the table. They grilled me, charged me, accused me of the vilest of sins, called my Jewishness into question. How could a Jew criticize Israel and defend Palestinians and claim to be Jewish? The violence in the room was palpable. The Jewish establishment was calling another Jew traitor; they were demanding that I be handed over to their violence.
Some months afterward, a messianic Jewish vocal group came to our city and performed in local churches. This occasioned the ire of one of the local rabbis, so much so that his weekly sermon focused on this “abomination.” Jews and Christians were completely separate and the “blurring” of the lines was akin to blasphemy. At risk was the Jewish community, especially the children. He called on Jews and Christians to reject those who masked their “self-hate” with songs to Jesus.
Was this violence the same I had experienced earlier? Were the charges of self-hate and anti-Semitism coming from the same root? What did this grouping of Jewish dissenters, one on the question of Palestine, the other with reference to Jesus, have in common?
I thought of this as I read the long and fascinating article on the different varieties and competing trends in Messianic Judaism. I am not a Messianic Jew. Nonetheless, I fail to see the reason for the violent reactions against those who practice this form of Judaism.
Yet, it is also true that, despite my own experiences, I have difficulty understanding why mainstream Jews are so violent against Jews who seek justice for Palestinians.
As I read the article, I pondered these questions and have come to the conclusion that the mainstream Jewish community itself is so assimilated to the State and Power that in effect the categories have been transposed. That is when I saw the light. Mainstream Jews who fight against Messianic Jews and Jewish dissenters-I call the latter Jews of conscience-have become Christians in the Constantinian sense. Sometimes I refer to them as Constantinian Jews. Perhaps Constantinian Christians and Constantinian Jews are one and the same.
This makes perfect sense since the religions we know as Judaism and Christianity were essentially formed at the same time-beginning in the 4TH century under Constantine and his suc-cessors-and over against one another. Christianity claimed to be the new Israel; the older Israel claimed to be the only Israel. Yet defining themselves over against one another and under the umbrella of empire, both religions skewed the message they purported to represent. Though Christianity was triumphant and Judaism suppressed and repressed, the stage was set for an endless competition between them and a series of distortions that remain to the present time.
This is a long and complex journey from then until now, with many detours, violence and suffering. Christianity became global at the point of the sword and though the sword was often pointed at Jews, Jews today point the same sword toward others, the Palestinians. The colonialism and racism of Constantinian Christianity is the same colonialism and racism practiced by contemporary Jews. One need only follow the recent discussion of Yasser Arafat’s legacy to see how Christians and Jews, at least in the West, share the same racism they once directed against each other.
This seems to be the very foundation of the contemporary ecumenical dialogue, a shared disdain held by Constantinian Jews and Christians of the new “other”-Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims. This is why the dialogue has become a deal, a religious deal of silence and complicity, which issues into a political deal in America where, regardless of what it does, Israel is always excused.
So just as Constantinian Christianity has a violence at its core, so does Constantinian Judaism. Messianic Jews, like Jews of conscience, experience this violence when they are called self-haters and anti-Semites.
These designations are themselves forms of violence, intended to maim and exclude. In many ways they are mirror images of the violence perpetrated by Israel against the Palestinians. Can we be peaceful and understanding toward one another if we are violent against others? The other outside becomes the other inside. It is a cycle of violence and atrocity that Jews suffered under Constantinian Christianity and that Constantinian Jews now perpetuate.
The violence may have little or nothing to do with either Christianity or Judaism. It may simply be situational. Empire calls forth a religiosity that is essentially violent and it seems that no religion can escape the seductive call of empire. That is why Constantinianism is not confined to any one religion but rather encompasses them all. In empire and its pursuit, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religions have been and today can still exhibit the attributes of Constantinianism.
So the question I am left with after learning more about Messianic Judaism is not what is its position on Jesus, or liturgy, or even its relation to Constantinian Christianity and Constantinian Judaism? Rather, I am left with the question of whether Messianic Jews, like Jews of conscience, are committed to the pursuit of community and opposition to empire wherever it is found?
Messianic Jews seem overtly religious and spend a large amount of time debating the how to’s of their religiosity. In the main, Jews of conscience are secular, sometimes even militantly anti-religious. Both may be overcompensating for their marginal position in the Jewish world. Yet the more important question is where both stand on the question of empire and how their religiosity or anti-religious sentiments help them pursue their course. In the end, it is the practice of justice and compassion that defines us rather than our prayers or refusal to oblige ritual.
So the two ends of the Jewish spectrum, Messianic Jews and Jews of conscience swim in a sea of Constantinian Judaism. Shall we fight each other while those who perpetuate a cycle of violence and atrocity define us as self-haters and anti-Semites? Or do some among Messianic Jews and Jews of conscience seek in their own way to become part of empire? Do some seek to become the new leaders of Constantinian Judaism?
This seems to be the question missing from the survey of variety and trends. Many Messianic Jews, partly because of their theology and perhaps because they seek to curry favor with the Jewish establishment, are themselves silent on Palestine. Are they, too, in complicity with a crime against others which is also a crime against our own Jewish history? Is their religiosity compromised in the same way as is the religiosity of Constantinian Jews? Perhaps then, despite the definitional struggle between Messianic Jews and evangelical Christians highlighted in the survey, many Messianic Jews really are Christians, in the sense of taking on empire and pretending to an innocence while pursuing it and enjoying its fruits.
Oppose empire and the violence it creates and sustains and then tell me who your God is. Is this not the most ancient foundations of the Judaic religion that some call a faith? One hears the words of God as told by Ezekiel boldly echoed in the pages of journals and in my meeting with the “Jews” of the town I live in:
I’m sending you to the family of Israel, a rebellious nation if there ever was one. They and their ancestors have fomented rebellion right up to the present. They’re a hard case, these people to whom I’m sending you- hardened in their sin. Tell them, they are a defiant bunch. Whether or not they listen, at least they’ll know that a prophet’s been here. But don’t be afraid of them, son of man, and don’t be afraid of anything they say. Don’t be afraid when living among them is like stepping on thorns or finding scorpions in their bed. Don’t be afraid of their mean words or their hard looks. They’re a bunch of rebels. Your job is to speak to them. Whether they listen or not is not your concern. (Based on Ezek 2:3-8)
Of course when you oppose empire, including the Jewish empire, you will find that God hands you a scroll like the one he handed Ezekiel. On both sides, front and back, will be written “lamentations, mourning and doom” (Ezek 2:8-10).
Once you have accepted this scroll, there is no return-only an exile that is unremitting. It is this exile that will define one’s religiosity and one’s understandings of the messianic. For this exile is beyond Constantinian religiosity of any kind, certainly the Constantinian Judaism that has emerged and ripened in our day.
Marc H. Ellis, Ph.D., is University Professor of American and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He is the author of Israel and Palestine: Out of the Ashes; The Search for Jewish Identity in the 21st Century.