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A Clergy Reflection: Christmas 2020 and Anti-Semitism

by The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph on December 23, 2020

Most of us now know, anything we write or say online is around forever and impacts life in ways we cannot yet imagine. So, it is with trepidation that I write this Christmas Letter knowing that it is imperfect, only partial, and will be quickly outdated. However, I want to share some of my heart and journey with you.

This year we are experiencing a Christmas with the highest occurrence of anti-Semitic incidents in 40 years, according to the Anti-Defamation League, of anti-Semitic activity in the United States.[1] Some of this rise has been attributed to the lockdowns[2] and conspiracy theories emerging this year, and some of it (as is the case every year) is due to the interpretations of the Christmas narrative itself and the history of the dangers of this time of the year.[3] 

Because Christmas can be a time of alienation and even danger for non-Christian communities in our American culture—especially in 2020—I want to share some of my story. Members of my family admit that this year feels unsafe. Our denomination, the United Church of Christ, is good at addressing many justice issues—but facing Christian Privilege with humility could use some reflection and work.

Ever since we were little, my sister Jaime and I have had to be aware of words and identity, especially around Christmas. Our dad is Jewish and our mom is Christian. We were raised as Christians in the Presbyterian Church in Manasquan, New Jersey, and then mostly within an Assemblies of God megachurch called Timberline in Colorado until I came out as gay at sixteen and found the United Church of Christ. Dad agreed to have us raised as Christians even though it didn’t always please him. This led to a very careful and precise navigating of identities for me from a young age.

I am not religiously Jewish, but my sister and I are very proud of our Jewish cultural background through our immediate family history and tradition. We grew-up intimately close to these traditions, foods, vocabulary (a good amount oy Yiddish), and nurture. Our experience is a combination of a deep sense of identity with Jewish community and tradition, even as we are careful to name that we are not and have never been religiously Jewish. We are not, in any way, “Jews for Jesus” (a highly problematic and evangelical form of Christianity). One of my dad’s cousins converted to Jews for Jesus in the late 1980s, which caused a lot of pain through her family. She is a national leader and preacher for the movement. She wrote a book for Jews for Jesus that used my family as an illustration. We all get along well with this cousin as long as we don’t talk about religion. She isn’t sure what to make of me and my ordination.

Though my genetics have no correlation to deeper spiritual insights, Jewish culture does influence my theological frameworks. I find that some like to “spiritually-fetishize” my half-Jewishness; when it has appeared in my ministry in progressive churches. I have found it fascinating and bemusing. Some also assume that my family must be rich because we are half-Jewish—a concept is rooted in ancient tropes of anti-Semitism that do not reflect my family’s immigrant story or demographics. 

As young Evangelicals in Colorado, my sister and I attended a private Christian elementary school. A day in second grade changed everything for me. During an all-school assembly around Christmas a preacher and fundraiser from a Christian Zionist movement that raised money to send shiploads of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia “back” to Israel. They showed a video about their efforts deemed as God’s work.

It had music and dramatic imagery, and a “child-friendly” explanation with cartoons about how Jesus wouldn’t come back for the rapture until every person with “even a drop of Jewish blood” returned to Israel. She then called out to the room asking if any of us had any Jewish blood. Having been raised to not be ashamed of my family, we raised our hands proudly in the crowd. She pointed at the two of us and all the faces turned. I remember the eyes: accusing, anxious, angry. She exclaimed, "You have to go to live in Israel or the rapture will not take place!” Later that day on the playground, I remember being accosted by a group of kids who insisted that I leave for Israel ASAP so their parents would never have to experience death. I went back inside and sat in the lunch room instead of going right to Israel. I wondered how many people in the videos were not so distant cousins. 

Israel is extremely complicated. As Americans, we can’t speak about it without getting something wrong.  When UCC, address issues in Palestine and Israel, as we will again this summer at General Synod, it is important as Christians that we put every effort into distinguishing, in both our vocabulary and our mindset, between the policies of the modern State of Israel and the Jewish community in Israel and the Jewish faith around the world.

Christian-Privilege is around throughout from Mainline denominations. Christianity is not a neutral “savior” or arbitrator of the conflict. It was, in fact, the Christian-dominated countries of the United Kingdom, Germany, France and others who brought the modern nation of Israel into being during their protectorates. The accidental or intentional conflating of Jews and Israeli policy positions is a dangerous space where anti-Semitism flourishes. “Christians” are the ones who set-up the colonial paradigms that have created the current conditions. As ethical people of faith, we are called to speak and work for change in policies that create humanitarian crises; we must, however, choose our vocabulary carefully and not view ourselves as the saviors of the region. We are partners and advocates. One of my family members asked after reading a draft of this article, “If the UCC really wants to make a change in the humanitarian crisis, why not write joint resolutions with common ground with the Union for Reform Judaism[4]?” I wonder if that might take more time but result in greater impact in advocacy. It is a question worth asking. 

When I lived in Atlanta Rabbi Josh Lesser of the Reconstructionist Synagogue[5], who is a civil rights leader, taught me the phrase “Christian-Privilege” as a way to understand the cultural dominance our tradition has played across a supposedly secular and even-handed country. As a Christian, even one who is half-Jewish, and especially as a minister at a powerful and historic church like First Church Guilford, it is my responsibility to awaken myself and others to this privilege.

When I hear the Christmas story as someone who is half-Jewish, I find cringe-worthy moments—from an interfaith perspective, especially. On a fundamental level, we can’t change the whole canon of Christian Scripture to fix all of it. The nature of being religious in any tradition in 2021 is a balancing act of identity honoring the good and working to interpret and transform the bad. We can become aware of our Christian Privilege, and how it manifests itself at Christmas. A slight shift from Merry Christmas to Happy Holidays is not a very challenging change that can transform perspective. We can have more conversations about the passages that have been a gateway to anti-Semitic ideology and acts, look at new scholarship, and continue to listen for God to speak to us in new ways.

I wish you all a very Merry and Blessed Christmas Season. I wish you a Happy New Year filled with love and health. I wish you a Happy Holidays across every tradition. May we all strive for a world that is safe for all and work to fight anti-Semitism in all of its forms and subtle manifestations. As I celebrate the coming of Jesus into the world, we also commit ourselves more fully to a world of peace and understanding.

Prayerfully,
Jake

[1] https://www.dw.com/en/anti-semitism-in-the-us-hits-4-decade-high-report/a-53402428

[2] https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/30/uk/online-anti-semitism-intl-scli-gbr/index.html

[3] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/eastern-european-jews-christmas/

[4] https://urj.org

[5] https://www.reconstructingjudaism.org

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