American Jewish History 89.1 (2001) 139-142
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In the introduction to Evangelizing the Chosen People, Yaakov Ariel explains that his "interest in missions began in early childhood when I encountered American missions in the neighborhood of Jerusalem where I grew up: a poor section . . . inhabited by newly arrived immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East. One unforgettable missionary was Uga (cake in Hebrew) which earned her name by offering the neighborhood children 'cakes' as a means of approaching them and gaining their trust." One might have expected that the author would cite this as an example of missionaries seeking to entice and even seduce vulnerable young children. Instead he describes her as an "unusual person" and adds "another visible missionary presence in the neighborhood . . . which organized activities for children . . . handed out pamphlets on street corners, some of which I still keep" (p. 1). That the author held on to missionary pamphlets from his "early childhood" in Jerusalem raised a question for me about his detachment in dealing with the subject of missionary activities. Moreover, not only does Ariel fail to explain his methodology in evaluating data or sources, he maintains that he wishes neither to "canonize [sic!] or condemn" and to "cut a balance between appreciation and criticism" (p. 2). Such a disclaimer would seem to be unnecessary in a work which aspires to scholarly objectivity unless the author wishes to preempt the suspicion that the work may indeed be unbalanced.
The early chapters describe the growth of missionary activity in the post-Civil War period. Ariel attributes this to the rise of dispensationalist, pre-millenialist theory within American Protestantism, the theological view he sees as the driving motive for evangelism to the Jews. By the beginning of the twentieth century, there were missions in virtually every city in America.
In the 1890s, when missionary activity was primarily directed at the masses of immigrants arriving from Eastern Europe, Ariel identifies an "innovative and daring missionary theory," i.e. that Jews who accept Jesus did not have to cut their ties to the Jewish community but could form congregations of "Jewish Christians" (p. 19). The theory was not as "innovative and daring" as Ariel suggests since there were attempts in [End Page 139] the 1870s and 1880s in the Russian Empire to establish groups of "Jewish Christians". 1
Ariel's figures on the number of actual converts are unreliable. He concedes there are "no definite statistics," but cites the estimate of one "reliable recorder" (Louis Meyer, a missionary and editor of a conservative Protestant journal) that in the early 1900s, 4,033 Jews joined evangelical churches, which Ariel calculates as 150 to 200 converts a year (p. 39). His assessment of this figure is ambivalent. He states that "one might conclude that only a small percentage of Jews . . . chose the option of conversion;" however, he adds that "there are numbers which cannot be overlooked" (p. 39). Even if one accepts these statistics as accurate, the return on the enormous investment of manpower and funds in "dozens of missions and hundreds of missionaries" is meager (p. 75).
Ariel finds the common belief that converts' families ostracized them untrue. For this, as for numerous other assertions, he offers little evidence. He does report that "some converts retracted their conversions and pointed to their sense of guilt, inner conflict, and turmoil as reasons for their unhappiness" (p. 46), but, again, he gives little hard evidence to assess how widespread reversion was. One notable returnee, Samuel Freuder, a graduate of the Hebrew Union College, who was baptized in 1891, publicly renounced his conversion in 1908. While Freuder is hardly a dispassionate reporter, one cannot totally disregard his observation that "missionary work is steeped in trickery and dishonesty. To be successful in the work of converting Jews one must not shrink from mummery, mendicancy and mendacity." 2
Ariel refers in passing to "many of...