Go tell it on the mountain, but leave this Jewish boy alone

David Aaronovitch on being a target of evangelists
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The Independent Online
It was too much to hope for that Nick Howard, the son of the former Home Secretary Michael Howard, might turn out to be as socially useful and as entrepreneurial a young man as William Straw.

Jack's boy, of course, supplied a Mirror reporter with marijuana (a case of coals to Newcastle if ever there was one). Alas, Nick - a third year student at Oxford University - deals in very different opiates. He is an evangelical Christian who, in recent weeks, has been targeting Jewish students, with the aim of converting them to the one true faith - his. And it is causing a lot of trouble.

Howard senior is, of course, Jewish. But, as is the way with youth, the son renounced the faith of his father (while a schoolboy at Eton) and would now, presumably, like to see his dad come over to Jesus. So he has set about organising meetings to which his proselytising comrades are encouraged to bring Jewish friends, plying them with kosher food and the promise of redemption through the Lord. He is, after all, doing them a mitzvah, because - as he puts it - "Christianity is fulfilled Judaism."

The Conversion of the Jews is a touchy subject. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who runs a society for Jewish students at Oxford, was incensed. Accusing Howard fils of "spiritual Nazism", Rabbi Boteach alleged this week that "such behaviour is a direct cause of anti-Semitism". He then lodged a formal complaint with the university's vice-chancellor, the distinguished historian, Professor Sir Colin Lucas.

My first reaction to this outburst was that the rabbi ought to take more water with it. There are some Jews, I thought, who reach for the a-S word a little too readily. And certainly this morning's Jewish Chronicle takes a similarly relaxed view of the affair, carrying an editorial commiserating with the embarrassment caused to Michael Howard. After all, those Jews who want to attend Christian Union meetings and munch gefilte fisch while absorbing the message must be a pretty sad bunch anyway. Otherwise they'd be busy revising, fornicating, smoking dope or saving trees, like everyone else. I myself was pestered for a couple of years by a tedious group called "Jews for Jesus" which posted its Xeroxed nonsense to anyone with a vaguely Yiddisher name. And it didn't do me any harm.

That, as I said, was my first reaction. And then I began to wonder. There had, after all, been something about Jews for Jesus that was vaguely unsettling. It had to do with the idea of being targeted specifically, of becoming the focus of such attention by reason of one's birth (or, in their case, by reason of a name ending in -vitch). When the Rabbi complained that Nick Howard's unwanted attentions somehow suggested that Jewishness was a lesser state, perhaps he had a point.

Part of the trouble is that, for most of the last two millennia, this conversion business has been a one-way street. Once upon a time Jews did return the compliment. Richard Fletcher's recent history, The Conversion of Europe, cites the debate between Bodo Eleazer, a Christian turned Jew (and servant of Charlemagne), who - in 838 - crossed the Pyrenees and entered into a written controversy with Paul Alvar of Cordoba. Which he won. Oh, and Archbishop Andrew of Bari, converted to Judaism on a trip to Constantinople in 1066. After that, however, it was all pretty much Christians attempting to convert Jews by one method or another. Usually another. From the Crusaders, through the Spanish Inquisition to the London Society to Disseminate the Christian Faith Among Jews, they tried.

Jews did not reciprocate. In fact for centuries Jews have seemed to suggest to Gentiles that they are largely indifferent to their religious beliefs, possessing little desire to fill up the synagogues with goyim. This may have been a mistake; perhaps Christians would have preferred to have been courted and seduced - for this absence of Jewish evangelism has been widely misinterpreted as cliquishness, a sign of secretiveness and exclusion.

Such diffidence has spared the world some interesting sights. Such as shiploads of Jewish missionaries on their way to Africa; marquees in the southern states of the US resounding with joyful screams as mass circumcisions are carried out; and the sons of former cabinet ministers coming home from public school for the long vac, wearing a Homburg, scalplocks, a prayer shawl and greeting their mothers with the words "Oy veh, Mum, this you'll never guess!" So Judaism is not, in its later manifestations, an aggressive religion. You don't want to be a Jew? So don't be a Jew?

But this passivity can be a disadvantage when faced with evangelism. Jews have thrived in Britain because this is not a religious country. Here, Christianity is - in general - deprived of its edge by the good old Church of England.

Evangelists, of course, cannot be tolerant. They must convert. They believe that they are saved and that the rest of us are damned and that it is their job to save us - every bit as much you or I might try to save a drowning child from a pond. (Not an exact metaphor, I know, since children do not like to drown). It is for them, just as it is for Catholics who believe that abortion is murder and that others must be prevented from murdering. "We believe everyone needs to hear the good news about Jesus," said Laura Jervis, vice-president of the Oxford Christian Union, apropos of the Howard row. And Nick had decided that few needed to hear it so badly as Jews. "As Christians," he told the student newspaper, Cherwell, "it is our duty to reach Jews, who are a priority in our evangelism".

You see, that's the point. Why are they the priority? Why are not Muslims - adherents to a far more activist and numerous religion - the priority? It couldn't be, could it, that the spotty Herberts of the Christian Union are afraid of being duffed up; that Jews are a softer target because they are not so likely to burn your rooms and assassinate your scout? No, that's too cynical.

But there is something unpleasant, nonetheless, about being singled out for conversion - as though your religion, your faith, was the most corrupting and dangerous of all. In a society where there are many more Christians than Jews it feels just a bit like bullying.

There is, of course, nothing that can be done here. Despite Rabbi Boteach's protests the vice-chancellor would be ill-advised to get involved. As long as young Nick limits himself to meetings, debates and newsletters, there is no justification for leaning on him. But perhaps Nick himself should recall that the most fearsome Grand Inquisitor of them all - the scourge of Spanish Jewry, Fra Tomas de Torquemada - was a Christian of Jewish descent.