Boris, Brexit, and the Backstop – Are They Good for Jewish Disciples of Yeshua?

 

So – Boris, Brexit, and the Backstop. Are we watching the longest suicide note in history or the shortest way of extricating the UK from the mess that is the European Union? Perhaps a bit of both, as was demonstrated by the pretty evenly divided views expressed in the 51%– 49% results of the United Kingdom European Union Membership Referendum in 2016. Some three years later, we are still no nearer to knowing with certainty how such a decision will be played out, whether the UK will leave on 31 October 2019 or if it will be “deal” or “no-deal.”

As Jewish disciples of Yeshua in the UK, most of us came from countries in the European mainland, or at least our grandparents and great-grandparents did, and despite the horrors of the Holocaust, our family histories can be traced through the European diaspora for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Europe, for good or ill, has been our home and our heartache, and with it, the ever repeating experience of both paradise and persecution, exile and return, and lost and found, as we have wandered through the millennia awaiting the coming of the Messiah and the ingathering of the scattered exiles back to Israel, the Land of Promise.

Brexit – thumbs up or thumbs down?

When we think of Europe, we don’t just think of interstate relationships, trading agreements, and free movement of citizens. It’s not just about defence, power-blocks in a global environment, or EU regulations on fishing, farming, and pharmaceuticals. It’s about Diaspora.

For Jewish disciples of Yeshua, our existence in Diaspora is a given, without which the construction of contemporary Judaism and Jewish identities would be unthinkable. Yet the challenge of the European Jewish Diaspora (EJD), a community of communities some 2,200 years old and with shifting demographics, contexts, and cultures presents an ongoing opportunity for those of us committed to be and to make disciples of all nations, beginning with the house of Israel. Our engagement with the EJD calls us to understand the signs of the times and respond with prayer, vision, and action, and to see how the regathering of the scattered exiles may become a living reality today in anticipation of the Messiah’s return.

In long-term historical perspective, the Jewish presence in Europe underwent radical spatial, quantitative, and social changes that reflected the essence of the deep conflicts, revolutions, and reforms that ceaselessly shaped the continent. This has been true since the end of World War II, no less than before it. Large-scale immigration and emigration, before and after the Shoah (Holocaust), generated more than once significant shifts and replacements in the human capital of European Jewry. Over recent decades, growth or stability in the size of Western European Jewish communities contrasted with drastic reductions in Eastern Europe. These changes were deeply affected by the radical transitions witnessed by European political systems, and in particular, by the build-up of the European Union and the demise of the Soviet Union.[1]

A century and half ago, an estimated 90 percent of world Jewry lived in Europe. But the Jewish population has declined rapidly since then, most notably because over half of European Jewry was murdered in the Holocaust, but also because many others migrated elsewhere, particularly from Eastern Europe to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and from the former Soviet Union to Israel in the 1990s. Yet over a million Jews still remain in Europe, most notably in France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Hungary, and many other countries still retain small Jewish communities of a few tens of thousands or lower.[1] Today about 85 percent of the global Jewish population today lives in either the US or Israel, compared to only about 10 percent in Europe.

Europe holds a unique position in Jewish history. For centuries, it played host to the intellectual heart of Jewish life and provided the backdrop for many of the greatest Jewish cultural developments in the realms of Jewish art, music, and literature. It was the cradle of the Enlightenment, the continent which produced the philosophies of Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Descartes, and Locke, and the region that, over the course of a century, emancipated the vast majority of Jews in its midst, thereby allowing them legal and political access to mainstream society. It witnessed the emergence of the Hasidic movement and gave birth to denominational Judaism – modern Orthodoxy, Reform, Conservative, Liberal, and Neolog[2] movements, as well as a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) reaction against all of these. And it provided the setting and motivation for Zionism, which set in motion one of the most significant developments in all of Jewish history – the establishment of the State of Israel. According to Jonathan Webber, Europe’s Jews are both “a series of locally defined peoples” and “a single people, with a common destiny, common identity and sense of purpose.”[3]

Europe was also the cradle of the Jewish missions movement of the nineteenth century and the Hebrew Christian movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, paving the way for the formation of Hebrew Christian churches across Europe, the forerunners of the contemporary movement of Messianic Jewish congregations and synagogues.[4] With an estimated 225,000 Jewish Christians in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Holocaust, emigration to Israel, the Cold War, and the collapse of Communism have all influenced contemporary expressions of Jewish identity and faith in Christ.[5] Whilst greater numbers of self-identifying Jewish disciples of Yeshua are to be found in Israel and North America, Europe still carries the historic legacy of differing expressions of Jewish Christianity and has seen in the last 50 years a resurgence of these expressions, particularly in Germany and the CIS.

In Jewish consciousness, however, much of this history has been overshadowed by Europe’s greatest atrocity and shame – the mass annihilation of its Jewish population by the Nazis and their collaborators in the Holocaust. Jewish visitors to Europe today, whilst drawn to the majesty and grandeur of its great cities and cultural monuments, often cannot fail to be overwhelmed by the remnants of Jewish destruction that seem to litter the landscape. Synagogues deserted and demolished, cemeteries left derelict and in decay, and entire communities devastated and destroyed. Jewish history is ubiquitous in Europe, but its horrifying chapter in the twentieth century has left an indelible mark on the Jewish mind.

Before I studied theology, I was a politics student fascinated by political theory and immersed in the messy business of trying to change the world through political processes. I dabbled in Marxism and other brands of socialism, Conservatism, Social Democracy, and Liberalism. At the student union, I debated with all my friends on every issue of the day (anti-Apartheid, Israel/Palestine, the EEC (as it was then), post-colonialism, world poverty, etc., took part in demonstrations and sit-ins, campaigned for elections, and with my other Messianic Jewish friend, narrowly lost the university debating competition by winning the floor vote but failing to appeal to the external judge, now a high court judge.

At the Jewish-Israeli society, I was a finalist at the annual “balloon debate,” along with one of my Marxist friends. The speakers would represent a famous person, fictional character, or an idea, and attempt to win the approval of the audience, who were invited to imagine that the speakers were flying in a sinking hot-air balloon. Someone must be thrown out if everyone is not to die. Each speaker made the case as to why they should not be thrown out of the balloon, and gradually the 10 people were whittled down to the two of us.

Each of us had to speak on why we should stay in the balloon and the other thrown out as the balloon lost altitude. She was speaking as “the State of Israel,” and I was speaking as “Yeshua from Nazareth.” As we both made our case for staying in the balloon, and as the audience was about to cast their votes to decide, the moderator asked if either of us had been persuaded by the arguments of the other. I realised that, of course, Yeshua would have jumped out of the balloon to save his people, so I immediately conceded victory to the State of Israel. Like Jonah and the sailors on the boat to Tarshish, I knew what to do.

There’s no easy answer or quick solution to the Brexit dilemma. It seems to lead to chaos and disorder, like the tohu va’vohu of the first chapter of the book of Genesis. Instead of beginning with bereishit bara Elohim (“in the beginning God created”), we have Brexit – it sounds the same, but is a lot more chaotic. What can Jewish disciples of Yeshua do? How should we respond?

  1. Watch and pray, especially for those in authority, that they may make wise decisions, live lives of justice, integrity, and peace-making, and continue to all religious freedom across the continent of Europe (1 Timothy 2:2).

  2. Study the times and seasons (1 Thessalonians 5:1). Brexit may or may not be the forerunner of the return of Yeshua, but it certainly shows us the confusion of the times we are living in, and our tradition speaks of the “birth-pangs of the Messiah” as the forerunner to his return.

  3. Oppose anti-Judaism and antisemitism in all its forms, especially those who say that Yeshua is not one of and for our people (Ezra 3:11). Both in the UK and in continental Europe, there is evidence of an alarming increase in antisemitic activity and incidents – in damage to property and in social media, public, and political discourse.

  4. Be and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). Those of us who are disciples of Rabbi Yeshua Ben-David need to demonstrate this not only with what we say and discuss about Brexit, but in every area of our lives as political and social beings. Our ethics, relationships, and characters are under scrutiny, and we need to show the relevance of the Messiah we follow and the characteristics of his love for all.


[1] Jonathan Boyd, European Jewish Identity, 2–3.

[2] The largest group of Hungarian Synagogues, a form of Modern Orthodoxy.

[3] Jonathan Webber, 7.

[4] Richard Harvey, “On this day in Messianic Jewish History,” https://messianicjewishhistory.wordpress.com/category/otdimjh/.

[5] Harvey, “Foundations of European Messianic Jewish Theology: The Theological Significance and Challenges for Messianic Jews in Europe Today,”

https://www.academia.edu/7438521/Foundations_of_European_Messianic_Jewish_Theology_The_Theological_Significance_and_Challenges_for_Messianic_Jews_in_Europe_Today.


 
Richard HarveyBrexit