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Christian Zionism

Christian Attitudes Towards The State Of Israel:
A Bird's-Eye View

by Paul C. Merkley - December 9, 2003 - Source: IsraPundit

Jews who take the time to review the history of the quarter-century which led to the creation of the State in 1947-1948 will learn that the sturdiest champions of the Restoration of the Jews to Israel were Evangelical Christians. The rest of the Western Christian world (Roman Catholics and what is generally spoken of today as “Mainstream Protestantism”) was mostly well-disposed, but with many dissenting. The Roman Catholic Church had powerful objections, but did not feel able, in the light of the general humanitarian advantage that the Jewish cause briefly held in the immediate wake of the War, to compel nations with Roman Catholic populations to oppose. The Zionists’ opportunity to win the hearts of Catholics and mainstream Protestants was brief, created by extraordinary and unrepeatable circumstances: the uncovering of the Holocaust; the intolerable situation of Europe's surviving “displaced” Jews; and the realization that Jews not admitted to Palestine would have to be admitted in vast numbers to the Western democracies. For the moment, the word “Zionism” rang positively for most Christians.

Still, even in 1947-1948, when the desperate circumstances of the European Jews disposed most politicians and most Church leaders to endorse the Zionist solution, there was formidable opposition. In the forefront were spokesmen of the Protestant missionary societies which had worked with creditable success among the Arab populations of the Middle East for over a century. In the United States, these were allied with anti-Zionist Jewish organizations, notably the American Council for Judaism. Then, almost immediately after the initial decisions were taken, mainstream Protestant Churches as well as the Roman Catholic Church began to shift into the ranks of those denouncing the new State - and eventually became overwhelmingly hostile. Had the vote on the Partition of the Mandate of Palestine taken place five or ten years later, the Jewish State would not have come into existence.

When the United Nations agreed to let a Jewish State come into the world, in November, 1947, world opinion was in great part moved by conviction that justice was on the side of the Jews. It is precisely for this reason that we must stress that no conscientious friend of Zion has ever denied that the case for creation of a Jewish state, if expressed exclusively in terms of justice, was a relative one: it was a compelling case, maybe even an overwhelmingly compelling case, but still, like all other matters of justice, a relative one.

Similarly, the argument for Israel's continuing in possession of the territory which she governs today is an argument that can be defended in terms of justice; but no conscientious friend of Israel claims that nobody on the other side is suffering some degree of injustice because of it. The history of the relations between the Churches and Israel has been shaped by the fact that along the line since the war for Israel's independence in 1948-1949 most official spokesmen of most of the churches reworked the moral arithmetic, and came to find more “justice” in the claims of the Palestinian Arabs and less “justice” in the cause of Israel than they saw in 1947-1948.

In contrast, most Christians who define themselves as theologically conservative have remained constant in their preference for Israel’s claims.

This is because for Christian Zionists the case for the Restoration of the Jews in the first place, even though it was manifestly defensible in terms of “justice”, actually stood upon a firmer ground: namely, that it was ordained by Scripture. To have resisted it would have been sin, and in any case would be futile. To support it, brought blessing: “He who blesses thee, I will bless; he who curses thee, I will curse” (Genesis 12:3.)

Among the most formidable mouthpieces for expression of anti-Israeli rhetoric in the world today is the World Council of Churches. The WCC tends to think of itself as one of the world’s most venerable bodies, but in truth it is about two months younger than the State of Israel, having been founded in August of 1948. During the weeks previous to the Six Day War of June, 1967, when Nasser, the dictator of Egypt, was rallying the Arab world for a war of liquidation against Israel, the WCC remained silent. But immediately after Israel’s victory, the WCC came awake, and announced that it “cannot condone by silence territorial expansion by armed force.” From that day forward, the WCC and its constituent denominational organizations have generally portrayed Israel’s behaviour in lockstep with Arab rhetoric: all subsequent wars have been fomented by Israel, for the purposes of further territorial gain and for the opportunity to incorporate innocent and abject Arab populations. The WCC pressed constantly through the 1970s and 1980s for American official contact with the PLO and denounced Israel’s punitive responses to terrorism and civil disruption. It denounced the Camp David Accords of 1978 for allegedly ignoring the national ambitions of the “Palestinians.” Its consistent line is that “Israel’s repeated defiance of international law, its continuing occupation and the impunity it has so long enjoyed are the fundamental causes of the present violence and threaten peace and security of both peoples.” Just a few days before the al-Qaeda attack upon the United States, WCC representatives attending the UN Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance at Durban, South Africa, led in demanding an official denunciation of Israel for “systematic perpetration of racist crimes including war crimes, acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing.” (WCC Press Releases July 1997, October 4 , 1997, November 1997;March 1998; September, 21, 2001.

The most recent WCC statements on “Israel/Palestine,” together with history of the role that WCC has played in NGO actions and statements, can be found at wcc-coe.org .) Just a little attention to the actual wording of recent World Council Statements on the “Palestinian struggle for liberation” and on the well-known congenital behaviour of Jews and of their political allies everywhere will bring to mind the anti-Semitic propaganda which Hitler sowed throughout the world in the 1930s - not excluding the English-Speaking world. It is language imposed by an imagined Christian duty not to be found in disagreement with the world-view of Islam.

Much has changed in the world since both Israel and the WCC entered it in 1948. The first Report issued by the WCC is called “The Church and the Disorder of Society: A Report from the Amsterdam Assembly of the World Council of Churches, 1948.” Here we read that the present disordered world has to be transformed into “the responsible society” by accepting “God's design.” Amen to that! After a few years had gone by, however, the hearts and minds of Protestant churchmen began to turn more to recognition of the inhibiting effects of “order”: WCC position papers tended now to see “order” and “disorder” in creative mix. By 1968, the Theology of Order was out, and the Theology of Liberation was in. A more “nuanced” view of such matters as civilization and civility now reigns.

Among many other factors at work in this evolution there was the desire to appear more relevant in academic and intellectual circles. The Universities of the West were then undergoing siege by radical student movements, stemming ostensibly from the anti-Vietnam movement, but ultimately from a crisis of self-esteem which took place in the traditional civilization of the West. Courses in Western Civilization were driven to the periphery of the curriculum. A defining moment in this story came at the Uppsala Assembly of the WCC in 1968. Here, the “Program to Combat Racism” was adopted: it called for educational efforts, political and social action, economic sanctions against “racist” regimes, and moral and material support for groups “fighting racism.” This new program caused much offense in conservative ranks because of its explicit adoption of “Third World” rhetoric and Marxist-Leninist insights on imperialism.

Since it first met to consider Man’s Disorder and God’s Design, the WCC has not lost its ambition to be the conscience of the world. Rather, recognizing the low estate to which the Church has fallen in the counsels of politicians and leaders of opinion in the Western world, the WCC has deliberately appointed itself the moral conscience of the world majority. Now the WCC takes its rhetoric from the majority in the UN. It has no patience for History and therefore no patience for legitimacy. All that matters is “justice,” “justice now” - justice understood as leveling everything out, so that all claims are equal. No wonder that it is tone-deaf to Israel!

Jews understand that there will be fluctuations from time to time in the relative justice of the case that Israel can present before world opinion -- as, for example, with regard to what the State perceives to be her security needs vis-à-vis internal and external foes. But Jews cannot understand how Christians, who parade their sensitivity to the situation of the oppressed, can even for a moment toy with the thought that Israel has a doubtful right to exist within the borders that have resulted from her original acceptance of the partition of 1947, improved by result of her enemies’ recurring appeal to the God of war. Most spokesmen of the mainstream Protestant and the Roman Catholic churches seem not to appreciate the place that allegiance to Israel has at the centre of Jewish self-understanding. In an official statement of 1990, the United Church of Christ of the U.S.A. we read: “We do not see consensus in the United Church of Christ ... on the covenantal significance of the State of Israel.” This same United Church document refers throughout to “the State of Israel-Palestine.” When Jews look for an affirmative commitment to the survival of Israel they find instead expressions of commitment to the other side: “We stand in solidarity with Palestinians as they cry for justice as the dispossessed,” says a recent official Presbyterian statement. With increasing frequency Jews hear leading voices of the official churches announcing that the decision to permit Israel to come to birth in the first place was “unjust” and should be reconsidered.

Christian churchmen imagine that statements like these reflect a creditable spirit of even-handedness, but to most Jews the tone is one of menace towards Israel. Is it not obvious, many say, that, beneath all the rhetoric of secular complaint against Israel - its alleged territorial aggressions, its allegedly cruel behaviour towards its “Palestinian” population, and the whole catalogue of its alleged sins against its neighbours and against the world community -- there is a far deeper cause of complaint that draws from the same theological source as did the medieval libels against the Jews of Europe?

Jews are right to ask: if it is true that Protestants and Catholics cannot yet accept that the Jewish state is a state having at least the same “legitimacy” as the homelands of the Italians the Greeks and the Turks, is this because Protestants and Catholics cannot accept that Jews have the same right to call themselves a people? And if so, from what does this refusal follow? Is this neo-anti-Zionism not a genteel reincarnation of the old anti-Semitism?

There is, however, another side to our story.

When it became evident that organized Protestant bodies were turning towards anti-Zionism (during the 1960s and 1970s), voices of protest were heard inside every denomination. Sometimes groups of the like-minded were formed -- lobby groups, within the denominations and within the delegations to the subsequent Assemblies of the World Council of Churches. Nothing was accomplished on this level; the anti-Israeli forces were too deeply entrenched at the top. Not daunted, Christian Zionists moved their efforts on behalf of Israel into the great and boundless world of para-church, and volunteer organizations appeared, dedicated to expressing Christian concern and organizing political support for the security and welfare of Israel: Bridges For Peace, International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, Christian Friends of Israel, and many more.

Christian Zionists can make a case for the justice of Israel’s regime -- in doing which they are helped by pointing to certain powerful extenuating realities:

1. That Israel has always had to contend with the very denial of her right to exist -a minimum condition of peace among neighbours.

2. That Israel remains beset by hostile neighbours -- all of them formally at war with her until very recently, and most of them still -- all of them still condoning and most still sponsoring terrorist activities against her and against her citizens throughout the world.

3. That all of Israel’s enemies outside and inside the territories she governs could have had peace with Israel -- a much smaller Israel -- in 1948, had they had been willing to abide by the world’s decision, embodied in the UN Resolutions of 1947.

Going beyond this calculation of the relative justice of her claim, Christian Zionists argue that Israel has much to commend her stewardship of the land since 1948:
1. She has created and sustained the only democratic system in the region, while being surrounded by hostile despotic regimes.

2. She has achieved a remarkably high standard of living (education, health, economic opportunity, etc.) for all of her citizens, including the Arab citizens, while providing for those in the disputed territories (not citizens) standards of living higher than are enjoyed by the Arab citizens of any of the neighbouring Arab states.

3. She has carried out honorably her responsibilities with respect to access to and respect for Christian and Muslim Holy Places.

4. She can demonstrate the highest levels of cultural and scholarly accomplishments, including conscientious attention to the archeology of the Holy Land, and has maintained the basic freedoms of speech, assembly, religion, and so on.

Yet, for the Christian Zionist none of this is really the heart of the matter. The Christian Zionist is not knocked off his perch when Israel is denounced for rough treatment of the Palestinians, or when a politician is found to have his hand in the till, or when the Mossad carries off a dirty trick, or when instances of brutality occur in her prisons, etc. The Christian Zionist does not have to rework the ethical arithmetic when bad news appears, in order to reckon whose side he is on. To the Christian Zionist, it is a requirement of faith to prefer the blessing of Israel above all passing things. Doing this, he believes, cannot, by definition, ever be incompatible with the will of God.
Paul C. Merkley is Professor Emeritus of History at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, and the author of two published books on historical aspects of Christian attitudes towards Zionism: The Politics of Christian Zionism, 1891-1948 (Frank Cass, 1998) and Christian Attitudes Towards the State of Israel (McGill-Queen's U.P., 2001.) A new book, Presidents, Religion and History, is forthcoming from Praeger Publications.

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