Commentary Magazine


Evangelicals and Israel by Stephen Spector

Friends in Deed

Evangelicals and Israel:
The Story of American Christian Zionism
by Stephen Spector
Oxford. 352 pp. $29.95

 

As international pressure mounted in late December for Israel to cease its military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, a major pro-Israel group issued an urgent action alert. “It is important that we express our appreciation to President Bush for standing with Israel in this crisis,” the message said. “It is also important that we encourage President Bush to continue to support Israel in its effort to end the rocket fire from Gaza. He is hearing from the critics of Israel. He must also hear from us.”

These could have been the words of any of the traditional, mainstream Jewish or Zionist organizations in the United States—AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, or the Zionist Organization of America. Instead, they came from the national chairman and founder of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), Pastor John Hagee, and his call went out to some 100,000 leaders across America, whom CUFI says helped spread the message to millions more.

CUFI is a powerful proponent of Christian Zionism, a term that strikes many Jews as being oxymoronic or, at the very least, freighted with insidious theological and political baggage. Stephen Spector, a professor of English at Stony Brook University, provides a lucid account of the rise of this movement, its historical roots, and its political weight.

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Decades before Theodor Herzl published The Jewish State in 1896, it was Anthony Ashley Cooper, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury and a lay evangelical leader of 19th-century Britain, who formulated the Zionist slogan “A land without a people for a people without a land.” His counterpart in the United States was a professor of Hebrew at New York University—one George Bush, a direct ancestor of the forty-first and forty-third Presidents of the United States. During World War I, a preacher and activist named William Blackstone was instrumental in winning Woodrow Wilson’s support for a Jewish national home.

Although no less a credentialed Zionist than Louis Brandeis called Blackstone the Father of Zionism, many Jews were as skeptical of his motives then as today’s Jews are of his evangelical heirs. Polls show that evangelical Christians profess a deep and abiding spiritually-based love for Israel and Jews, but that love is largely unrequited. At the root of this uneasy relationship is the theology that separated the early Christian Church from Judaism as well as the modern evangelical eschatology of premillennial dispensationalism—the belief that scriptural narrative and biblical prophecy divides history into a series of epochs, or dispensations, the last of which will see Christ’s Second Coming and the creation of his earthly 1,000-year Millennial Kingdom.

Liberal Jews tend to distrust Zionists who believe too strongly in the ultimate truth of Christianity, who want Jews to live in Israel as players in a theological drama, and whose support for them involves an end-times vision of mass conversion and mass death. Liberal Christian critics of Israel like former President Jimmy Carter reject this theology as “a completely stupid and ridiculous premise on which to base foreign policy and on which to base support for Israel.”

The director of CUFI, David Brog (who is Jewish), says that the end-times critics are elevating passages in Christian literature into motives. He points out that Christian Zionists make charitable donations to support elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union—men and women too old or frail to uproot their lives and move to Israel. If it were simply a matter of hastening Armageddon, why waste the money? Better to open up brothels and casinos. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, calls the media fixation on eschatology “narishkeit” (Yiddish for foolishness).

Indeed, although certain evangelical groups—the Southern Baptist Convention is one—support “outreach” to Jews, the major Christian Zionist organizations have publicly rejected any proselytizing efforts. Be that as it may, a certain liberal suspicion attends upon the friendly overtures of evangelicals. “They’re not interested in the survival of the State of Israel,” says the Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg. Jews “are merely actors in their dreams.”

The disconnect is partially cultural. Susan Michael, director of the Washington, D.C. office of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, told Spector, “The segment of Christians that are the staunchest supporters of Israel are actually the weakest and least experienced at interfaith dialogue and relations.” That is to say, the ones who love Israel most have had the least real-life interaction with Jews.

Biblical prophecy and dispensational expectation certainly form one basis for Christian Zionists’ support of Israel. But, as Spector shows, it is far from the only one—or even the most important one cited by evangelical Christians. The chief motivation for Christian Zionists is God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3: “I will bless those who bless you and curse him who curses you.” That blessing became a biblical imperative and an essential element of dispensationalism in the 1909 edition of Cyrus Ignatius Scofield’s Reference Bible. Spector writes that while the philo-Semitism and Zionism of evangelical Christians is often generous and selfless, the blessing of Genesis 12:3 is often interpreted as a tangible, material benefit. “God has blessed America because America has blessed the Jew,” Jerry Falwell said in 1980. “If this nation wants her fields to remain white with grain, her scientific achievements to remain notable and her freedom to remain intact, America must continue to stand with Israel.”

A 2002 poll commissioned by Stand for Israel, an offshoot of the IFCJ, found that twice as many evangelicals are motivated by God’s promise to bless those who bless the Jews than by end-times considerations. On a different set of questions, 24 percent of white evangelicals declared their support of Israel because it is a democracy and 19 percent because it is a strong ally in the war on terror.

This complexity accounts for some surprising adaptability on political questions. According to the critics’ script, premillennial dispensationalism requires Jews to be in possession of the biblical Promised Land; ergo, a two-state solution, the withdrawal from Gaza, and even the Camp David Accords are strictly forbidden. In fact, leading evangelicals have been neutral about and even supportive of such diplomacy. “If Israel desires to give up part of her land to her neighbors, that is her business,” Falwell said in 1984. Two decades later, when Ariel Sharon uprooted Israeli settlements in Gaza, he said, “I trust Israeli leaders to know what they’re doing.”

Jewish and Christian leaders often bridge the Zionist theological divide by telling variations of the same joke. In Pastor Hagee’s rendition, “When we’re standing in Jerusalem and the messiah is coming down the street, one of us is going to have a very major theological adjustment to make. But until that time, let’s walk together in support of Israel and in defense of the Jewish people, because Israel needs our help.”

If humor can temporarily suspend the impact of evangelical eschatology, the same cannot be said of the political differences that separate evangelical Christians from a vast number of Jews. From abortion to school vouchers, the political agendas of traditionally conservative evangelicals and traditionally liberal Jews simply cannot be reconciled. Spector is surprisingly constrained in addressing this dynamic.

He is at his best examining the relationship between evangelicals and President George W. Bush. Yes, the Bush White House gave evangelical leaders unprecedented access. But it is far from clear whether that access was due to Bush’s own evangelical beliefs or, rather, the political consideration that they represented the largest constituency in the Republican party. It is an article of faith among Bush critics like Bill Moyers that evangelicals drove him to support unquestioningly the extreme right wing of Israeli politics. Some prominent Christian Zionists, like some of their Jewish counterparts, encourage that belief in order to bolster their reputation for effectiveness.

But did that evangelical access translate into policy? The critics offer no first-hand testimony, only conjecture and a sloppy syllogism: some, though not all, evangelicals are dispensationalists; Bush is an evangelical; therefore Bush’s Mideast policy sought to hasten the Rapture. Spector marshals a vast amount of contrary evidence from religious and political figures who have known Bush for decades. In any case, the causes for pro-Israel changes that did occur after the first year of the Bush administration, he argues persuasively, are impossible to distinguish from the background noise of 9/11.

American policy and the American people became more animated by the threat of terrorism from Arab and Islamic extremists. Beleaguered Israel was a sympathetic ally. Even so, this didn’t prevent Bush from pressuring Sharon to end Operation Defensive Shield following the Passover massacre of 2002, or from encouraging him to evacuate the Gaza Strip in 2005.

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So what should Jews ultimately make of the support of Christian Zionists? Disappointingly, Spector offers no direct answer, though by deconstructing evangelical stereotypes and presenting Christian Zionism in its post-Holocaust, post-9/11 milieu, he offers a compelling circumstantial reply. Jewish community relations councils and social action committees at temples and synagogues around the nation routinely engage in dialogue with black, Latino, mainline Protestant, Catholic, even Muslim groups. They work cooperatively with them on specific issues such as civil rights, immigration, and antipoverty efforts despite powerful disagreements on issues such as gay marriage, parochial education, and abortion.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations tells Spector: “We need as many friends as we can get, but you don’t make common cause because someone happens to share a view with you. We can differ on other issues with respect, appreciate what we can do together, and establish the conditions for dialogue. We do it with Jesse Jackson and others. Why can’t we do it with them?”

In answering that question, Jews who live in comfort and security in America have the luxury of blithely deciding whose support they are willing to accept and whose they will reject out of hand. Those who live within missile range of Hamas and Hizballah, who face an emerging nuclear threat from Iran, and who deal with the prospect of being blown up on a bus or at a restaurant don’t have that luxury.

About the Author

Jonathan Gurwitz, a new contributor, is a columnist at the San Antonio Express-News.




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