The delusion has taken hold in some quarters recently that deep conversations between Jewish and evangelical Christian leaders will solve the key problem that divides these two communities: evangelical efforts to convert Jews. My advice to those pursuing this dialogue: stay home.

Take on this problem head-on and face to face, "reason together," and there will be progress--that's the idea. This is a very American approach, but in this case it's probably dead wrong. The more that evangelicals and Jews confront each other on proselytizing, the less progress there will be.

Now, there is plenty for these two communities to talk about. They are separated by a wide gulf of ignorance. Most Jews know few if any evangelicals and tend to see them as backward, Elmer Gantry-type fundamentalists. Worse yet, poll after poll shows that Jews believe that evangelicals are anti-Semites. As there is good survey data showing that evangelicals are not prejudiced against Jews, this Jewish belief is simple bigotry. For their part, evangelicals study the Old Testament but tend to know little about post-Biblical Judaism--about the Talmud and other texts, and about how Jews live today. Moreover, neither community seems to be aware of how varied the other is. Evangelicals understand little about Jewish denominational divisions and the distinct practices of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews. Jews seem to think all Evangelicals believe the same thing, and are fundamentalist in religion and right-wing in politics.

And if "getting to know you" isn't enough of a theme for conversations, there are many areas where the two communities could cooperate. As parents, for example, they may all worry about the increasingly heavy doses of sex and violence in popular culture. They may work together for legislation that requires employers to accommodate the religious practices of employees. They may strategize together about whether to seek government money for religious charities that work with the poor and the sick, or whether to reject government funding of religious schools because it will have too many strings attached.

But why start with the single area that most deeply divides Jews and evangelicals? Why jump right into evangelism? Having participated in such discussions, I am willing to bet that most of the time they will produce more heat than light. The two positions are simply irreconcilable. Evangelicals believe that Jesus bade them evangelize--and that the New Testament says this in black and white. Moreover, the apostle Paul said such efforts should be directed "first to the Jew." It is an inescapable responsibility.

But Jews experience this evangelism as insulting and threatening, especially when viewed against a background of Christian anti-Semitism that extends from the Crusades to the Inquisition to Martin Luther's denunciations of Judaism. Jews living in Christendom have avoided proselytizing Christians because it was likely to provoke Christian wrath, and they have found Christian efforts to convert them, often by force, an ever-present danger. The recent Southern Baptist "prayer guide," telling the faithful how to pray for Jews and their conversion ("pray that they will find the spiritual wholeness available through the Messiah"), produced howls of Jewish anger. As a consequence, some well-meaning Jewish leaders have been discussing the possibility of sitting down with the very Southern Baptist officials responsible for the prayer guide to try to reconcile their positions. It won't work--and may even lead to additional anger. I have seen pastors and rabbis who know and trust each other reach a dead stand-off but avoid bruised feelings. When strangers try this, the outcome may be worse.

Jews have long worked together with Christian religious groups that have what Jews see as deeply objectionable beliefs. For decades, Jews have cooperated with liberal mainline Protestant denominations on issues like civil rights and the separation of church and state, and have been willing to forget about these groups' often intense dislike for Israel and their support for the PLO. If Jewish leaders can put aside differences over the fate of Israel, they should be able to turn their eyes away from sporadic, often poorly funded evangelical efforts directed at Jews.

But if these discussions are going to take place, here are two suggestions for the Jewish leaders entering into them. First, stick to one narrow point where some degree of agreement is possible. That point is deception. I have found that many evangelical leaders agree that's it's offensive to place ads that promote Passover seders or High Holy Days services without revealing that the sponsors are so-called "Messianic Jews"--people who call themselves Jews but accept Christ as the Messiah--who are actually offering Christian services. This point can lead to a larger discussion of evangelical support for those "messianic Jewish" groups, where once again there will be no overall harmony But at least Jews can argue that the deception point is key, that deception is frequent, and that Evangelicals have an obligation to police any groups which they fund or assist. Second, Jewish leaders should meet with local Baptist pastors, not with the very officials pushing the efforts directed at Jews.

Still, these talks--not among friends and colleagues who know and trust one another but among strangers--are likely to do little to diminish the distance that separates the Jewish and Evangelical communities. Let's start instead by cooperating on the easier stuff, where there's a good deal of agreement. Leave the hardest problems, and the most aggressive Baptist officials, for later. Or risk making things worse rather than better.

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