A Teachable Moment
Yael Eckstein | March 3, 2021
In 1980, the Reverend Bailey Smith, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, gave a speech in which he mentioned that Jewish prayers have no value at political rallies because “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” The speech got national attention, and Jewish organizations were up in arms, condemning Reverend Smith and demanding a retraction.
An Opportunity to Teach
However, my father, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, saw an opportunity. Instead of lashing out at the Reverend, who he suspected did not fully grasp the implications of his words, my father invited him on a trip to Israel.
Reverend Smith accepted the invitation and brought along a delegation of fellow Southern Baptist ministers. The trip, full of meaningful experiences and conversations, was a huge success. It led to a greater understanding of and appreciation for the Jewish people on the part of the ministers, and initiated a friendship between my father and Reverend Smith. When they returned to America, my father was invited to speak at Reverend Smith’s church, where he preached on the topic of Jewish-evangelical fellowship, and his message was well received.
After that incident, Southern Baptist congregations across America welcomed my father. What began as an event that would drive a wedge further into the divide between Jews and Christians became the very impetus that brought them together, closer than they had ever been.
Teaching the Truth
I’ve been thinking about this story a lot lately because an unfortunate side effect of the coronavirus crisis has been a sharp rise in anti-Semitic hate speech and lies being spread on the internet. Some of the lies have been extreme — for example, accusing Israel and/or Jews for intentionally creating the pandemic. Other accusations have been less outrageous in nature, but equally false and potentially inciting.
Most recently, the TV network NBC came under fire when a cast member of the popular Saturday Night Live show joked that while Israel has vaccinated half of its population, he was sure it was only “the Jewish half.” While meant as a “joke,” the statement gave credence to the false accusation touted by many anti-Semites that Israel discriminates against and mistreats its non-Jewish citizens.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The danger is that most people don’t know the truth and such statements can influence peoples’ thoughts, and ultimately, their actions.
As an Israeli and a Jew, the rise in hateful and deceptive speech against the Jewish people concerns me, because history has shown us how dangerous it can be. Yet, history has also taught us how to respond when Jews become the target of verbal attacks. On one hand, anti-Semitism needs to be utterly condemned and those who perpetuate it should be held accountable. At the same time, we need to promote the truth and build bridges of understanding for all who are willing to cross them.
Building Bridges and Battling Hatred
For the latter approach, I have no better model than my father. He lived by the motto: Cooperate whenever possible, oppose whenever necessary, and teach and sensitize at all times. He wasn’t afraid to call out anti-Semitism at times when it was necessary, but he was also able to determine when a misspoken word could become what he called, “a teachable moment” – a chance to build relationships and educate through honest dialogue and mutual respect, just as he did with Reverend Smith.
As we face rising anti-Semitism today, we must take action to confront it. Sometimes, the right approach is to push back, and at other times, the best approach is to reach out. However, at all times, as people of faith, the most important thing that we can do is pray to the God of Israel who neither slumbers nor sleeps. As King David expressed in Psalm 109, “With words of hatred they surround me; they attack me without cause. In return for my friendship they accuse me, but I am a man of prayer” (v. 3-4).
We must do our best to promote truth and goodness while eradicating slander and evil, to educate when possible and condemn when necessary. But ultimately the battle belongs to God. Like King David, let us pray, “while they curse, may you bless” (v.28). May God protect Israel, may He bless those who bless Israel, and may we all rejoice in God’s everlasting glory.
With blessings from the Holy Land,