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Why many evangelical Christians now celebrate Jewish holidays

The reasons are both spiritual and political.

The Rev. Billy Graham rides a donkey in Jerusalem on March 28, 1969, as he visits holy places in the city. Graham was one of the first evangelical leaders to address antisemitism. (AP) (AP)

On Aug. 10 and 11, many Jews worldwide observed the religious holiday of Tisha B’Av by fasting, praying and reading Bible passages related to the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians. Religious Jews have kept Tisha B’Av for centuries as a day of communal mourning.

But this year they were joined by a growing number of evangelical Christians who now observe the holiday to lament the historical persecution of Jews by the church. The new Christian Tisha B’Av calls for penance for past misdeeds — most especially by growing Christian support for Israel.

This mix of interfaith and political solidarity is actually a core component of modern Christian Zionism. Millions of Christians are undertaking robust political and diplomatic activism in the United States and worldwide in support of Israel’s military, its occupation of the West Bank and its ongoing confrontation with Iran, not only because of their theological views and political alliances, but also because of a new, very different sort of interfaith alliance driven by guilt and the need to atone.

Christians have observed Jewish holidays dating to the days of the New Testament, and holidays such as Pentecost, based on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, have remained fixtures on the Christian calendar.

But today’s evangelicals and Pentecostals have built upon this long-standing practice in a distinctly modern way: by fusing religious observance, general support for Israel and public denunciations of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Christians are not only reviving Jewish holidays and practices in their own faith in recognition of the Jewish roots of Christianity. They also are responding to the seismic events in modern Jewish history, most especially the horrors of anti-Semitism, some of it perpetrated by Christians.

In a way, they are engaging in these practices to atone for past sins. American evangelicals and Pentecostals do not have the same history of denouncing anti-Semitism or grappling with Christian contributions to the Holocaust that other Christians do. Catholics, for instance, have Vatican II’s “Nostra Aetate” in 1965, which focused on the church’s relationship to Jewish people. Because of their theological conservatism and decentralized structure, evangelicals arrived — and continue to arrive — only piecemeal at the conclusions reached by Catholic and liberal Protestant theologians in the 1950s and 1960s about the history of Christian involvement in anti-Jewish persecution.

One early pioneer, educator G. Douglas Young, was one of the first post-Holocaust evangelicals to link support for Israel with atoning for past Christian anti-Semitism. By acknowledging Jewish claims for statehood and security, Young argued, Christians could begin to right the historical wrongs of treating Jews as cursed or killers of Christ. In theological terms, Young denounced “supersessionism,” the historical Christian teaching that God’s covenant with the Jewish people had been superseded by a new covenant with the church. The Rev. Billy Graham also attacked anti-Semitic beliefs, rebutting the charge of deicide in his sermons, including during a trip to Israel in 1960. Evangelicals in his orbit encouraged Christians to observe Jewish feast days to get in touch with the Hebrew roots of their faith.

Because of the influence of Graham, Young and their followers, by the 1970s, evangelicals began to attend Seder meals, incorporate Jewish practices into their worship and engage in interfaith dialogue. They also began to organize politically into the modern Christian Zionist movement, out of both a growing conviction that past Christian attitudes needed to be rectified, and the belief that the Jewish people and Israel remained central to God’s plans for the future.

In 1979, hundreds of Christians — mostly American and European — celebrated the Jewish holiday of Sukkot in Jerusalem. The organizers chose Sukkot to gather in Jerusalem alongside Jews as a symbolic fulfillment of a prophecy in Zechariah that in preparation for the end of time, people from all nations “will go up year after year [to Jerusalem] to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles.”

The next year, a much larger group gathered to celebrate this feast following the Knesset’s passage of the Jerusalem Law. A statement by the Israeli right wing of the centrality of a unified Jerusalem under Israeli control to their agenda, it was designed to calm Israeli fears about losing Jerusalem after the Camp David Accords. Although the law prompted 13 countries to evacuate their embassies in Jerusalem, Christian Zionists greeted it very differently. Seeing an opportunity to display their belief that God’s guarantee of Jerusalem to the Jewish people had not been superseded, and to back their words of interreligious solidarity with actions, Christian Zionists used the second annual Feast of Tabernacles gathering to inaugurate the International Christian Embassy, the largest Christian Zionist organization operating today.

This movement has blossomed since 1980. Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians have adopted Jewish dress, practices and Hebrew language in prayer and worship. These range from the anodyne (blowing shofars and wearing prayer shawls) to liturgical (singing in Hebrew and mirroring synagogue Torah readings) to the overtly political (adopting Jewish symbols in Christian Zionist branding and partnering with Israel to promote shared interests).

The new Christian observances of Tisha B’Av touch all of these dimensions. For Jews, the ninth day of the month of Av commemorates multiple tragedies in Jewish history, ranging from God decreeing that the Israelites would wander in the desert for 40 years to Jews being expelled by decree from England (1290) and Spain (1492). The Orthodox Jewish organization Chabad ranks Tisha B’Av as “the saddest day on the Jewish calendar,” even more somber than Yom Kippur.

And although Christian commemoration of this holiday has a political subtext, given the alliance between conservative evangelical Christians and the Jewish and Israeli far right (including many Orthodox Jews), the development of this new practice is about more than just politics. It is also historical and theological. Marking the somberness of Tisha B’Av has become a way to atone for Christian atrocities against Jewish people.

Evangelicals have embraced a condemnatory version of church history — one shared by many Jews who see centuries of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism as a moral blot on the church and weighing down Christians today. Conservative Christians and Orthodox Jews, along with many politically conservative non-Orthodox Jews, find deep consonance in this reading of the past, for different reasons. Many of them also share a similar reading of the future: of a Judeo-Christian exceptionalism in God’s plans for humanity that views both Jews and Christians in covenant with God as the vehicles of worldwide redemption.

Although most interfaith alliances in the 21st century have striven for liberal political gains, this linked understanding has created a powerful shared political ideology built around key conservative goals: supporting Israel and attacking theological supersessionism, which they identify as the root of much past Jewish persecution.

Christian Zionists and Orthodox Jews are increasingly using Tisha B’Av as an interreligious setting to brand movements opposed to Israeli policies — from calls to boycott or divest from Israel to growing criticism of settlements in the West Bank — as the modern versions of past Christian persecution of Jews. They share a vision for Israeli military superiority and continuing settlement in the West Bank.

The ramifications for this could be huge, especially in the United States. Conservative evangelicals are the largest and most influential constituency in the Trump era (and any foreseeable future Republican administration) when it comes to Israel, and their success in deepening and broadening Christian Zionist activism through interreligious cooperation will define the future of U.S. support of Israel. This growing solidarity could have enormous political ramifications, and demonstrates how interfaith alliances are no longer simply a creature of the left.