In a recent interview regarding America, Israel, and the wider Middle East, Malcolm Hoenlein, the long-serving head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, spoke out unequivocally against the persecution of Christians around the world and the West’s shameful acquiescence in the face of these horrible crimes. Holding what is arguably the most senior leadership position within American Jewry, for Hoenlein to have spoken out in this way is a welcomed move on a much-neglected subject.
Given the Jewish experience of persecution it is right and important that Jews should lend their voice to a coalition calling for action to protect Christian minorities in those places where they face attack. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to the Middle East, once home to countless thriving Jewish communities, only for them to have been decimated in the mid-twentieth century. With the rise of hardline Islam and growing turmoil in many of these countries, Christians risk sharing a similar fate.
During the course of his interview with the Times of Israel, Hoenlein touched on a wide range of foreign policy subjects raising the matter of anti-Christian persecution during discussions of human rights in Iran. In Iran, Hoenlein protested, “a Christian who is accused of proselytizing, which, in most cases, just means practicing their religion, will be hungand they hang them from cranes!”
Hoenlein’s remarks in the course of the interview suggest that this was not simply another exercise in hand-wringing over atrocities in far off parts of the world. Rather, it appears that the chairman was making a heartfelt call for action by declaring:
The White Housethe whole Western communityought to be taking action, as we would against any country that engages in this kind of action. Look, overall the West is muted in their response to the killings of Christians by the thousands, from Indonesia to Nigeria to Tehran to Damascus. Where is the outcry? Christians and Copts [are being killed] in Egypt, other countriesand hardly any response to it.
When Hoenlein was pressed on precisely what kind of action he is expecting he firmly insisted that “It has to be an outcry, and sanctions, and there can be all sorts of actions taken to demand that this be reversed. Where are the [United Nations] Security Council resolutions? Why aren’t the condemnations coming from them? Even if it’s just a message to them that people care.”
If trends continue in their current direction then the ancient Christian communities of Iraq and Syria will soon be entirely extinguished. A century ago, Christians constituted 20 percent of the population of the Middle East; today, that number stands at just 4 percent. The monitoring group Open Doors found that the murder of Christians around the world doubled last year with 1,213 such killings in Syria alone, while in recent years bombings and shootings at churches in Iraq and Egypt have become ever more prevalent.
Malcolm Hoenlein specifically addressed why it is that the U.S. and Europe have been relatively muted on this subject, and why these events must particularly concern Jews: “This really requires a concerted response. It cannot be tolerated. And, frankly, the Jews seem to be the ones most outraged by it. . . . It’s shades of the past that a world that is indifferent to such brutal actions becomes indifferent to anybody’s suffering.”
No doubt it is in part that past which has made Jews perceptively sensitive to recognizing when the predicament a minority group is moving into dangerous territory. Of course, the deep Jewish interest regarding events in the Middle East also contributes to this concern with trends in that part of the world. As early as 1976, the Jewish scholar Bernard Lewis, in his uncannily predictive essay “The Return of Islam,” sounds the alarm about the future of the Arab world’s Christian minority.
There are, however, far more profound reasons for why Jews and Christians should care about one another’s fate. Speaking at the First Things’ annual Erasmus lecture in October, former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks explained this point eloquently. Having highlighted the plight of Jews facing rising anti-Semitism in Europe, Rabbi Sacks moved to the matter of the assault on Christians throughout the world. Sacks forcefully declared:
This is the crime against humanity of our time. It is the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing. It is deliberate, it is brutal, and it is systematic. And I, as a Jew, want to say that I stand solidly with Christians throughout the world in protest against this crime. And I am appalled that the world is silent.
The wider point that Sacks went on to make, is that it is not simply the case that there is a Jewish minority facing intimidation in Europe and a Christian minority in the Middle East facing violent persecution, but that in a kind of synthesis of these two phenomena, Judeo-Christian values and practices are under attack throughout the West, including in America.
For the head of America’s Jewish community to have come out advocating concrete action to defend the world’s Christian minorities is no small thing. This call is right, not only because it seeks to address the genuine humanitarian need of those at risk, nor simply because it is expedient for Jews and Christians to cooperate in confronting shared enemies and challenges. More importantly, Jews and Christians have enough shared beliefs, texts, and values that they should know that when one of them is being threatened, it is actually those principles that they both stand for in the world that are really being put under assault.
Tom Wilson is a British-born writer and political analyst. He is currently a fellow at the Tikvah Fund in New York.