Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Israel and Evangelical Christians

Robert W. Nicholson has written a fascinating essay for Mosaic magazine titled “Evangelicals and Israel: What American Jews Don’t Want to Know (but Need to).” That essay, in turn, has generated commentaries by Wilfred McClay, Elliott Abrams, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and James Nuechterlein. Each of them has a somewhat different take on what Nicholson wrote; all are worth reading.

The Nicholson essay explores the explanation for Christian Zionism, locating it in eschatology for some Christians while in God’s eternal covenant with Israel for others. Mr. Nicholson argues that many evangelicals feel not only a strong sense of protectiveness toward the State of Israel but a deep cultural affinity with the Jewish people. But he also highlights the growing strength among evangelicals of what he calls a “new anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian movement.” 

The latter is something I can testify to first-hand. Several years ago my wife and I left a Washington D.C. church we were members of over what I came to discover was a deep, though previously hidden-from-view, hostility to Israel. The more I probed the matter, the more disturbing it was, to the point that I didn’t feel we could continue to worship there in good conscience. So we left, despite two of our children having been baptized there and despite having developed strong attachments to the church and many of its congregants over the years.

Mr. Nicholson does an excellent job explaining the rise of pro-Palestinian sentiment among some segments of American evangelicalism. The basis for this movement rests in part on the belief that Israel is a nation whose very founding in 1947 was illegitimate and immoral; since then, it is said, Israel has become an enemy of justice and peace. Authentic Christianity therefore requires one to embrace the pro-Palestinian narrative, or so this line of argument goes. “The bottom line is simply this,” writes Nicholson. “More and more evangelicals are being educated to accept the pro-Palestinian narrative – on the basis of their Christian faith.”

As for my own attitudes toward the Jewish state, I find myself closely aligned to the view of Nuechterlein. “In the present instance,” he writes, “one need not depend on biblical prophecy or covenantal theology to find reasons to support the state of Israel.”

Israel has the only truly democratic political culture in the Middle East. It is a friend of the West in politics and political economy, and, more important, a consistent and unswerving ally of the United States. It is a regional bulwark against the radical Islamists who are its and America’s sworn enemies. The more I see of the populist Arab spring, the stronger is my commitment to Israel. I support Israel not because I am a Christian—though nothing in my Christian beliefs would preclude that support—but because that support coincides with the requirements of justice and the defense of the American national interest. 

That strikes me as quite right. In a region filled with despots and massive violations of human rights, Israel is the great, shining exception. Indeed, based on the evidence all around us, it is clear that Israel, more than any nation on earth, is held not simply to a double standard but to an impossible standard. Its own sacrifices for peace, which exceed those of any other country, are constantly overlooked even as the brutal acts of its enemies are excused. (I offer a very brief historical account of things here.)

Israel is far from perfect—but it is, in the totality of its acts, among the most estimable and impressive nations in human history. Its achievements and moral accomplishments are staggering—which is why, in my judgment, evangelical Christians should keep faith with the Jewish state. Set aside for now one’s view about the end times and God’s covenantal relationship with Israel. Israel warrants support based on the here and now; on what it stands for and what it stands against and what its enemies stand for and against; and for reasons of simple justice. What is required to counteract the anti-Israel narrative and propaganda campaign is a large-scale effort at education, not simply with dry facts but in a manner that tells a remarkable and moving story. That captures the moral imagination of evangelicals, most especially young evangelicals.

I’m sure some evangelical Christians would appreciate it if more American Jews showed more gratitude toward them for their support of Israel over the years. But frankly that matters very little to me, and here’s why: What ought to decide where one falls in this debate on Israel are not the shadows but the sunlight. On seeing history for what it is rather than committing a gross disfigurement of it. And on aligning one’s views, as best as one can, with truth and facts, starting with this one: The problem isn’t with Israel’s unwillingness to negotiate or even any dispute over territory (Israel has repeatedly proved it is willing to part with land for real peace); it is with the Palestinians’ unwillingness to make their own inner peace with the existence of a Jewish state.

The suffering the Palestinian people (including Palestinian Christians) are enduring is real and ought to move one’s heart. Many Palestinians suffer from circumstances they didn’t create. And so sympathy for their plight is natural. But these circumstances they suffer under are fundamentally a creation not of Israel but of failed Palestinian leadership, which has so often been characterized by corruption and malevolence. Checkpoints and walls exist for a reason, as a response to Palestinian aggressions. Nor has anyone yet emerged among the Palestinian leadership who is either willing or able to alter a civic culture that foments an abhorrence of Jews and longs for the eradication of Israel. That is the sine qua non for progress. 

To my coreligionists I would simply point out an unpleasant truth: hatred for Israel is a burning fire throughout the world. Those of the Christian faith ought to be working to douse the flames rather than to intensify them.