Is Trying to Convert Jews to Christianity Antisemitic?

Congressman-elect Madison Cawthorn's history of proselytizing Jews has sparked an important conversation.

Yesterday, news broke that a Congressman-elect from North Carolina, Madison Cawthorn, has tried to convert Jews to Christianity.

Many Jews immediately reacted with “yikes,” but the news also sparked an important conversation about whether or not proselytizing, AKA trying to convert Jews to Christianity, is inherently antisemitic. So, is it? Let’s break it down.

Who is Madison Cawthorn?

Madison Cawthorn is a 25-year-old right-wing zealous Christian who first made the news when he took a vacation in 2017 to the Eagle’s Nest, the Nazi retreat in Germany that Hitler visited more than a dozen times. In Instagram posts from his trip, Cawthorn calls Hitler “Führer,” a term of reverence.

Here are screenshots:

cawthorn
(Twitter via Jewish Telegraphic Agency)

Cawthorn also has a history of alleged sexual assault. As Christian evangelical magazine World reported in August, “Two women say he forcibly kissed them. One woman told me he grabbed her thigh and moved his hand an inch or two beneath her dress.”

Cawthorn was endorsed by Donald Trump, and in the 2020 election, he beat Democrat Moe Davis for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District. He will become the youngest member of Congress in January 2021.

Um, okay… so what’s the deal with him trying to convert Jews?

In an interview with Jewish Insider, Cawthorn said, “So when you’re trying to lead an atheist to Christ, or, say, kind of a traditional Jewish person, you kind of have to make people really — you have to sell Jesus a lot, because, one, they don’t really believe that, you know — some very devout Jews just think he’s kind of a good guy. That’s great.”

On his attempting to convert Jews to Christianity, Cawthorn said, “I have, unsuccessfully. I have switched a lot of, uh, you know, I guess, culturally Jewish people. But being a practicing Jew, like, people who are religious about it, they are very difficult. I’ve had a hard time connecting with them in that way.”

Jewish Insider then linked to a sermon Cawthorn gave in July 2019, when he said about a chapter from the New Testament’s Gospel of Mark, “If you have Jewish blood running through your veins today, this might not mean as much to you, but for someone like me, who’s a gentile, this means a lot.”

That doesn’t sound great. How have people been reacting?

Immediately, many on Twitter expressed dismay at Cawthorn’s desire to convert Jews to Christianity, saying that it is inherently antisemitic.

Alex Zeldin (@JewishWonk) later tweeted: “Seeking to convert Jews *because they are Jews* is not an article of faith. It is bigotry.”

Then Madison replied to the discourse by tweeting:

Madison, you aren’t being attacked for “sharing [your] faith with others,” but for admitting you target Jews for conversion.

How is seeking to convert Jews antisemitic?

Well, part of Christianity is something called “mission work.” Let’s let the dictionary break it down: “Mission, in Christianity, an organized effort for the propagation of the Christian faith.” A missionary is someone sent to spread their faith to people who do not currently identify as Christian. A lot of mission work is humanitarian, but some evangelical communities specifically treat them as attempts to convert as many people as possible. There’s a long and problematic history of missionaries, but we’re not going to get into that here.

Mission work is not inherently antisemitic if the goal is to spread Christianity to everyone and anyone. And if a Jewish person makes their own decision to convert to Christianity, of course that isn’t antisemitic.

However, when missionaries/mission work specifically targets Jews, like Jews for Jesus (we’ll get to them), that’s when we enter antisemitic territory.

Let’s go back in time for a moment…

Throughout Jewish history, Jews have faced immense persecution. In some eras, this expressed itself in the form of forced conversion. Forced conversion occurred in the early Middle Ages in Gaul, the Byzantine Empire, and Italy.

Perhaps the most famous example is that of the Jews in Spain.

In 1391, for example, the majority of Jews in Spain were forced to convert to Catholicism after a series of pogroms. To make sure these “New Christians” (also known as conversos, or converts from Judaism) were being true to Catholicism, the Spanish King and Queen Ferdinand and Isabella set up something called the Holy Office of the Inquisition — more commonly known as “the Spanish Inquisition.” In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella officially expelled Jews from Spain in The Alhambra Decree. For them, converting — and expelling — the Jews was tied to seizing Jewish wealth and property.

Forced conversions of Jews to Christianity continued past the Inquisition, like when Elizabeth I (known as Elizabeth Petrovna, Elizabeth of Russia) “inaugurated a campaign of forced conversion of Russia’s non-Orthodox subjects, including Muslims and Jews, and reissued decrees barring Jews from Russian soil.”

What about present day?

Well, “forced conversions” as we understand them in history don’t occur anymore.

However, for some Christians, converting people — including Jews — is seen as a means to helping that person achieve salvation. (Perhaps this is where Madison Cawthorn fits in, though he defines himself as a “non-denominational Christian.”)

With regard to specific targeting of Jews…

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest Protestant Christian denomination in the U.S., explicitly seeks to convert Jews. (Not so fun fact: They broke away from the Baptist movement in 1845 because the Baptist movement wanted them to stop having slaves.) In 1996, they passed a resolution calling on their followers to “direct our energies and resources toward the proclamation of the gospel to the Jewish people.” The purpose of the Southern Baptist Messianic Fellowship, formed in 1990 as an offshoot of SBC, is to encourage converting Jews and proclaim to “Jewish believers that their ethnic and historical heritage need not be lost upon their commitment to Yeshua (Jesus).” In 2005, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued a statement on the Fellowship, saying, “The idea of the Southern Baptist Convention using a so-called Jewish messianic group — which misrepresents two faiths — to target Jews for conversion is disgraceful, insulting and dangerous.”

The Roman Catholic Church has also operated groups with the specific aim of converting Jews, like the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion (actually founded by Jewish converts). Catholic saints like Vincent Ferrer, who lived in the 14th century, were notable for their “zeal” in converting Jews. He did so non-violently, but he inspired violence against Jewish communities in the towns he visited. As the Jewish Encyclopedia points out: “Ferrer saw in the Jews the greatest impediment to his holy mission, and in their conversion a daily proof of it. Therefore he zealously endeavored to bring them into the fold of the Church, imposing upon them, as Jews, many limitations and burdens, and promising them, in the event of conversion, freedom and the pleasures of life.”

However, in 2015, the Vatican issued a statement that Catholics should not try to convert Jews, specifically saying, “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”

More and more Christian denominations are ceasing mission work specifically targeting Jews. The Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, and the United Church of Canada all have officially ended their efforts to convert Jews.

What about Messianic Judaism and “Jews for Jesus”? 

Jews for Jesus is a branch of Messianic Judaism, though the two terms are often used interchangeably. Messianic Jews, which is actually a Christian group, believe Jesus was the Messiah (which Jews don’t believe); all the major denominations of Judaism reject Messianic Judaism as a branch of Judaism.

Within Christianity, “Messianic Judaism is sometimes seen as a group within the evangelical community, and sometimes seen as a separate sect. At times, various Christian leaders have publicly criticized Messianic Jews for their aggressive missionizing in the Jewish community and for misrepresenting themselves as Jews.”

A core mission of “Messianic Judaism” is to convert Jews. As My Jewish Learning explains:

A core component of Messianic Judaism is witnessing and missionizing to other Jews. According to the evangelical theology accepted by Messianic Jews, those who are not saved are destined for eternal damnation. Helping to bring someone to Yeshua and thus to salvation is a responsibility of all Messianic Jews, and many embrace that role, particularly when it comes to Jewish members of their family. This is often at the root of the animosity between Messianic and mainstream Jewish communities.

As Vox explains: “While on their surface, Jews for Jesus and similar organizations are avowed opponents of anti-Semitism — and many, like Chosen People Ministries, openly decry the practice — the implicit theology of many of these groups ultimately places (non-Messianic) Jews in the position of ‘rejectors of Christ’ who ‘need saving.’ Judaism without Jesus is thus coded as wrong or incomplete.”

TL;DR?

Targeting Jews to convert them to Christianity specifically because they’re Jews is antisemitic. And just, like, gross.

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