Much of the Jewish world is irate over reports that former President George W. Bush has accepted a speaking invitation from a messianic Christian group that aims to convert Jews to Christianity. Few issues have the capacity to get Jews more excited than this one.
Jews are a famously fractious group, prone and even eager to disagree over any issue, including but not limited to Israel, abortion, education, kosher standards, and even the number of minutes after sundown at which the Sabbath ends. The Talmud itself is a 63 tractate work outlining hundreds of years of rabbinical disagreements.
On this issue, however, it is hard to find internal disagreement. Jews have a near universal revulsion to active efforts to convert their brethren to Christianity. This distaste extends externally as well. Jews as a rule do not seek to convert outsiders to Judaism, and there is even a tradition that a rabbi is supposed to ask a potential convert three times if they really want to do this before accepting a new entrant into the fold.
Much of this revulsion has a historical basis. In earlier times and other countries, Jews suffered from active state and church-based efforts to get them to give up their beliefs. The Jews of Spain were famously offered the choice between conversion and exile, leading to the forced departure of most of the Jewish community from Spain in 1492. Many of those who remained and accepted conversion became Marranos, or secret Jews, and the Inquisition sought to root out and discover such deviationist behaviors as refusing to eat pork or lighting candles to welcome in the Sabbath on Friday evening. Outside the Christian world, Muslims have also pressed for Jewish conversion at times. The false messiah Shabbatai Tzevi was given a choice between conversion and death in 1666. He chose conversion.
In these examples, however, religion had the coercive power of the state behind it. In modern America, there is a constitutional prohibition against the establishment of religion by the state, a provision so powerful that it has at times been interpreted to prevent the placement of religious symbols in the public square. Furthermore, in America everyone is free to worship as they see fit, and the prospect of widespread and forced conversions is not a significant concern.
In fact, the new Pew study on Jews in America suggests that the real problem the American Jewish community faces is the voluntary departure of Jews from Judaism. As Jonathan Tobin recently wrote in Commentary, the key takeaway from the Pew study is the degree to which American Jews are choosing not to live as Jews. The departure of Jews from Judaism via forced conversion pales before the voluntary abandonment of Judaism taking place before our eyes.
Given these facts, what accounts for this continued Jewish revulsion towards the relatively small number of religious groups that are actively (but not coercively) aiming to welcome Jews to their religion? First, this very real and painful history continues to resonate among Jews. Historical memory is a powerful aspect of Judaism, and has helped Judaism survive for millennia, during which time many more powerful civilizations have disappeared from the face of the earth. A second reason is the long-standing and not always fair suspicion Jews have of evangelical Christians in America. While some of this stems from the latent fear of forced conversions in earlier eras, much of it comes from divergent views on social policy today. American Jews are decidedly liberal -- 70% backed Obama in 2012 -- and tend to have liberal views on abortion, gay marriage, and religion in the public square, positions that diverge from those of many evangelicals. These disagreements on domestic political issues make for one of the reasons that Jews fail to give evangelical Christians sufficient credit for their consistent support of Israel.
Beyond historical memory and policy disagreements, there is a third factor at work. As Jews face the prospect of more and more voluntary departures from the religion and high levels of intermarriage, it is easier to point to an external threat than to do the hard communal work of coming up with a retention strategy that can work in a free society with historically low levels of anti-Semitism and high levels of intermarriage.
As President, my former boss George W. Bush was a real friend of the Jewish community, a staunch supporter of Israel, and inveterate opponent of anti-Semitism around the globe. Nevertheless, he is making a political misstep in speaking to the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute. Still, the fact of his speaking does not present any serious threat to Jewish life in America. The real danger to American Jewish life is internal, which is where the Jewish leaders need to be looking to ensure the long-term survival of a vibrant and strong American Jewish community.