Zev Chafets, born and raised in Michigan, moved to Israel in 1967 and became director of Israel's Government Press Office, then returned to the United States in 2000. He is the author of A Match Made in Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists, and One Man's Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Evangelical Alliance (HarperCollins, 2007).
Although he is an agnostic, Chafets told the Los Angeles Times recently that in the war against terror, "I'd rather be in a bomb shelter-or a foxhole-with Jerry Falwell than with Jerry Seinfeld." With the death of one of Israel's major Christian backers, how is the Israel-evangelical relationship likely to develop in the post-Falwell era?
WORLD: I've met your wife Lisa Beyer, a non-Jewish Time editor who was the chief of that magazine's Jerusalem Bureau, so I have a sense of why you'd want to explore an alliance that you call (in your new book's subtitle) the "weird and wonderful" Jewish-Protestant alliance. Could you explain a bit about your background?
CHAFETS: There weren't many Jews where I grew up. I took it for granted that America was a Christian country; certainly in its culture, history, and general outlook. I was fascinated by Christians, especially "exotic" types (the Reform temple I was raised in wasn't very different from mainline Protestant churches).
When I was in college, I spent my junior year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and I discovered I liked being in the majority. It was liberating; Israel is the only country in the world where Jews can be gentiles.
I worked for Prime Minister Menachem Begin near the start of the evangelical-Israeli relationship. I never felt threatened by it-on the contrary, I very much appreciated the support.
After more than 30 years in Israel, I returned to the United States with my wife, Lisa. Back among liberal American Jews, I was shocked by how deeply they disapproved of evangelical Christians, especially George W. Bush. Their bigotry made me curious; I wanted to see for myself.
WORLD: I like your description of going to Lisa's home town, Lafayette, La., and meeting her born-again father: "As we settled down in his living room I pointed to a picture of the Western Wall in Jerusalem . . ." What's the rest of the story?
CHAFETS: Lisa's dad didn't know she and I were thinking about getting married. In fact, this meeting was designed to break the news. So, looking for some common ground, I pointed to the picture and said, "Jerusalem. That's my home town."
Lisa's dad said, "Am I right in thinking you're a Jewish fella?"
I paused a second, thinking about all the movies I had seen in which evangelical Southerners are xenophobes and Jew-haters. Finally I said, "Yes sir, I'm Jewish."
He looked at me and said. "It is my belief that the Jewish people are God's chosen people."
And I replied: "In that case, I've got some good news for you about your future grandchildren."
WORLD: The historical background you provide is fascinating: You contend that "a lot of evangelicals were more clear-sighted" than "mainstream Jewish leaders" in 1939 concerning the need for "the U.S. government to take special measures to save the Jews of Europe." How so?
CHAFETS: Some evangelical Christians saw Hitler very clearly as a manifestation of evil, and understood that he intended to murder the Jews of Europe.
Articles predicting this appeared in evangelical magazines, and there were some efforts to mobilize on behalf of the Jews.
Not all evangelicals were engaged in this way. But they stand out because of the deep denial of the Jewish intelligentsia and the Jewish community. The New York Times, owned by the German Jewish Sulzberger family, made a conscious editorial decision to play down the "Jewish" aspect of Hitler's regime, and barely mentioned the Holocaust during World War II. Most "leaders" of the Jewish community also stayed silent; they didn't want to rock the boat, or to embarrass President Roosevelt, whom they overwhelmingly supported.
WORLD: You note that "in the real world, Muslim fascists, not evangelical Christians, are the enemy" of Jews. You also point out that Israelis generally are happy for evangelical support, but many American Jews would rather "go it alone" than rely on conservative Christians. Why, and what are some of the consequences of that thinking?
CHAFETS: Israelis, both on the Jewish right and the secular left, are overwhelmingly happy to have evangelical support. Much of the world-for reasons of Islamic solidarity, traditional European dislike of Jews, or "progressive" political correctness- is hostile to Israel. Nowhere is that clearer than in the UN, which is obsessed with the crimes-real and imagined-of the Jewish state.
Evangelical Zionists are unconditional allies. They aren't vulnerable to charges, often made against American Jewish Zionists (especially "neo-cons"), of "dual loyalty." Many support Israel because they feel God commands it. They will support Israel until the End of Time. You'd have to be nuts not to welcome wartime allies like that.
WORLD: Why do American Jews generally "earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans," and why is George W. Bush-despite his strong support for Israel-so unpopular among American Jews?
CHAFETS: American Jews arrived as socialists; Eugene V. Debs, the socialist candidate, won a plurality of the Jewish vote in 1920. FDR was the first American president to welcome Jews into his inner circle, and made Jews members in good standing of the Democratic coalition. This kind of inclusion, especially in the '30s, an era of anti-Semitism in America, was a great relief to Jews.
Starting in the '60s, barriers fell for Jews in America. Before that, there were restrictive quotas in Ivy League schools and many industries and institutions. Baby boom Jews grabbed their chance to join the elite and made the most of it. A lot of boomers, whose greatest lifetime achievement was getting into Yale or Harvard, feel mocked by Bush's rejection of the Ivy League dream.
WORLD: I can understand that. He's saying that Ivy League folks aren't so smart, at a time when Jews are taking leadership positions in what was a Protestant stronghold. And then there's Texas . . .
CHAFETS: A lot of Jews don't like Bush's macho Texas style. But the main thing is, Bush is a Republican and American Jews are, overwhelmingly, Democrats. The ideology and attitudes of the party are shaped primarily by Jews. They took Bush's defeat of Gore and Kerry as a rejection of "Jewish" (i.e., liberal) values.
WORLD: The relationship of African-Americans and Jews has been close but sometimes difficult. Regarding support of Jewish causes, how did the attitudes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson differ?
CHAFETS: Martin Luther King was a Zionist for reasons of morality and pragmatism. In the post-Holocaust, pre-Six Day War period, King-like many liberal Christians-understood the justice of allowing Jews self-determination and a safe haven. But King also understood that northern Jews were the most reliable white allies he had in the civil-rights movement. Jews moved the liberal wing of the Democratic Party in King's direction. They contributed a great deal of money and manpower to the cause. Some studies say that more than half of all the white freedom riders and civil-rights volunteers in the segregated South were Jews. King was a great coalition-builder, and support for Israel was an obvious means of coalition-building with the Jewish community.
Jesse Jackson belongs to a different era. He rose to prominence in a period of black power, in which Jews weren't especially welcomed in the ranks of the black struggle. He is a believer in "liberation theology," which tends to see Israel as a white, colonialist country. Jackson, more than any single figure except, perhaps, Louis Farrakhan, has hurt Israel's image in the black community-and the black community's relations with American Jews.
WORLD: You did an interview earlier this year with Terry Gross of NPR; she seemed shocked that you had kind things to say about people who believe in the Second Coming and oppose homosexuality. Do you get that reaction a lot from liberals, and how do you respond?
CHAFETS: Sure, I get it all the time. I tell them that I am a social liberal myself; I disagree with a lot of the domestic evangelical (and Orthodox Jewish) social agenda. But that doesn't mean that I can't cooperate on common issues-especially in wartime. The same people who can't imagine making a pro-Israel alliance with Falwell against Ahmadinejad were glad to join hands with Stalin to defeat Hitler.
I don't think Jews need to become Christians, or even Republicans. They (we) simply have to stop being so hostile, superior, and harsh to people who are extending a hand of friendship. A lot of Jews don't know that Jews, too, can be bigots.
WORLD: What would you recommend to evangelicals who want to discuss religious questions with Jews?
CHAFETS: Evangelicals have tried, from time to time, to save me. Frankly, I appreciate the effort-I wouldn't want to belong to the only category of nonbelievers who don't merit a shot at salvation.
Here's a confession: I like going to church, especially black gospel churches. There's a good feeling there, the music is great, and you meet nice people. For me it's like visiting a very cool foreign country. But I have never been tempted to become a Christian. It seems to me that a lot of Jews who feel threatened by proselytizers are really unsure of their own identity and beliefs-their own essential Jewishness.
WORLD: You've written five non-fiction books but also five novels. How for you is the writing of fiction different from the writing of nonfiction-and if readers want to sample your novel-writing, which book do you recommend as a starting point?
CHAFETS: Writing fiction is less work and more fun. I once wrote an entire novel that took place in Michigan while sitting in my study in Tel Aviv. I think your readers might like The Project and Hang Time, both of which have a connection to evangelical Christianity and Islamic radicalism. Warning: They are ironic and impious.
Novel writing has shaken my own agnosticism. When you make up a story you are creating a world, breathing life into people, watching them grow from afar, occasionally intervening. I once killed a character, changed my mind and brought him back to life. It's hard not to believe in God when you've had the opportunity to play God.
The two novels of his that Chafets recommends, The Project and Hang Time, are indeed ironic and impious, but they will also give readers a taste of Israeli thinking that's harder to get from either official pronouncements or standard journalistic accounts.
The Project, a Chafets novel that came out a decade ago, is set in the year 2000, when accidental deaths of the president and vice president make Speaker of the House Dewey Goldberg America's first Jewish president. Goldberg, a Democrat, is nominated by his party for election to a full term, but Israel's prime minister is supporting a conservative Republican who also has backing from a Pentecostal preacher with a huge following that expects Armageddon in 2001.
It turns out that the Israeli leader, with the support of the Republican candidate and the reverend, is preparing to take out Iran's nuclear sites as well as other enemy bases-and less hawkish Israelis, along with Goldberg and an influential journalist, are out to stop the risky effort. The plot, along with witty comments on subjects ranging from American politics to gefilte fish, will pull many readers along.
So will the plot of Hang Time, published in 1996: It has less politics but more action than The Project (and also some trash-talking basketball obscenities). In it a Muslim physician-terrorist goes up against an American president who sees glory and political gain in hawkishness: Neither blinks as violence escalates. We come to care about three men: a Detroit Pistons forward-turned-hostage; his big brother (a former tough cop) who pledges to rescue him despite the willingness of Israeli and American leaders to let him die; and the son of the terrorist, torn between hatred of America and love of American basketball.