[This blog is provided courtesy of a friend of mine, pen name Francis Adams, who majors in Judaic Studies and has some very interesting insights into how a very non-Christian movement in Jewish Zionism has become an object of infatuation in the modern Christian mythos.]
Religion (and the practice of it) can be mostly harmless, even sometimes positive if it encourages charity and acts of kindness, until it reaches a certain point. We call this point “fundamentalism,” and it emerges in a variety of often disturbing places from a variety of otherwise decent philosophies. One of the most interesting but perhaps most overlooked areas is the effect that fundamentalism has on international relations; specifically, the effect that Evangelical Christianity has on America’s support of the nation of Israel. This particular brand of fundamentalism offers direct support for many pro-Israel policies and practices of the United States, mixing real-world politics with supernatural expectations. The nation of Israel is tied intricately in an Evangelical myth, a situation that offers no solution to real-world problems and even harms in part the legacy of the Jewish nation.
To start, a very brief account of the establishment of the nation of Israel: the goal of the 19th-20th century Zionists was to work in the political sphere of their time to create an actual, recognized nation in the land of their ancestors. From 1880-1914 (roughly the dates of the first two aliyot), thousands of Jews migrated to the land of Palestine, most fleeing violent pogroms in their host countries. They found an early ally in Great Britain, and the British imperialism in Palestine lasted from 1917 until 1947-1948. The Jewish people continued to immigrate to Palestine during this time, and the migration increased dramatically as Jews fled to the area to escape the rise of Nazism. This influx of Jewish migrants upset the stability of Arabs already living in Palestine, and, amidst a slew of Arab revolts, many Palestinians were displaced by the incoming Jews. Soon after World War II, the Jewish section of Palestine revolted against the British mandate that still ruled over them, and declared an independent state of Israel in the land of Palestine on May 14, 1948. Thus began the year-long 1948 Arab Israeli War, the results of which were temporary borders, known as “Green Lines,” that cut through Palestine and divided the emerging state of Jewish-dominant Israel from areas such as the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where many Palestinian refugees had gathered. In all, approximately 700,000 Palestinians were displaced by this war. The young Israel was then admitted into the United Nations in 1949, finally a nation in its own right.
Or, if you need a more entertaining explanation of modern Israel’s emergence:
Just pretend that instead of immediately acquiescing, Piglet had revolted violently against Owl’s imposition.
Bottom line, this modern state of Israel was born very messily, and its place in international politics continues to be strained in recent years. Because of this messiness, the existence of the modern state of Israel is, understandably, highly controversial. Israel’s existence has become a social issue; protests are held against it, rallies are held in support of it, people identify as either pro- or anti- Israel/Zionism, et cetera, et cetera. And while this controversy affects nations worldwide, one nation- the United States- stands out above all the rest as an undying supporter. For example, the US gives more foreign aid to Israel than to any other nation, and it is generally known that the US protects Israel in the UN against any too-critical charges. Again, this is not to say that the US is the only country that supports Israel, or that everyone in the US supports it, but rather that there is a weirdly special relationship between the two nations that doesn’t make much sense. The US unwaveringly funds and protects Israel without much of a benefit kickback. The typical slogan about Israel being the US’s greatest ally is questionable at best, not to mention that Turkey is really our greatest ally in the region (heck, they let us put our nukes there during the Cold War, while Israel was stealing nuclear technology from us). So what, then, is the root of this relationship?
There are a plethora of reasons that the US and Israel are BFFs, and a big one is public support; politicians continue to support the nation because to speak against Israel would turn off a majority of constituents from both political parties (not to mention some well-funded special interests groups). According to a March 2013 Gallup poll, Americans’ love for Israel is at an all-time high, with a rough 64% sympathizing with Israel’s situation and only around 12% sympathizing with Palestinians. Additionally, there is a sort of patriotism associated with supporting Israel. As congresspeople Artur Davis and Eric Cantor once wrote for the Los Angeles Times:
“Like the vast majority of Americans, we support Israel for a very basic and obvious reason: America is at its best when we align ourselves with allies that share our values of tolerance, freedom and democracy…”
This article assumes in part that supporting Israel is synonymous with supporting some of America’s best values; it links the two in such a way as to suggest that being a patriotic American means you support Israel. And, weirdly enough, the Gallup poll seems to echo the same refrain. So, again, with not much of an obvious gain from such a relationship, and with so much injustice interwoven in the fabric of Israeli-Palestinian relations, why do so many Americans support (and perhaps even identify with) the nation of Israel?
A big reason is that the existence of a nation of Israel fits nicely into the Christian mythos. Yes, there are other reasons that definitely extend beyond religion, but a primary source of pro-Israel support is religiously-based, and that, frankly, is frightening. For many Americans, their support of Israel is tied directly with their religious belief.
A poll by Langer Research Associates found that the nation’s greatest cheerleaders are “evangelical white Protestants,” whose support for the nation is a whopping 76% (interestingly enough, non-Evangelical white Protestants and Catholics garnered only 55% in support). Additionally, the survey found “those who attend religious services more apt to side with Israel.” This all suggests that a huge factor in America’s support for Israel is religiosity; that is, Israel is more supported by those who are not only religious, but who are Protestant, and who are actively consider themselves so.
I present to you now the three main explanations I hear from American Evangelicals as to not only why Israel should be a nation entire (including the occupied Palestinian zones, of course), but also as to why America should continue to support Israel as strongly as it does now, and even why it should increase its support for Israel. Regardless of where you stand personally on such issues (I’m not entirely sure myself of how this particular cookie should crumble), understanding these explanations lends an interesting perspective on the Christian myth of “city-on-a-hill” Protestant Americanism and its odd effect on real-life politics.
Explanation #1: “They were there first!”
At the risk of being slightly stereotypical, there are two things I’ve noticed about most Christians. One: they are, generally and genuinely, very nice, decent people. And two: they often have a pretty screwy view of history. When that decentness comes into contact with something they consider good (like Israel being an independent nation) but which is actually indecent (like 700,000+ Palestinians being uprooted without much reason), they seek to find some solution that makes it all good and decent again. And usually, to the frustration of many historians, that solution usually comes from the murky, loopy waters of Bible history.
The “They were there first!” explanation is a perfect example. The explanation goes a little bit like this: “The Jews were in the land of Israel before all other people, therefore it is really still Jewish land because it is the land of their ancestors. So we should give it back to them; it is rightfully theirs anyways.” Totally, just like when the US gave New York back to the Iroquois because, you know, they were there first.
Anyone with a basic understanding of people and space can see the obvious flaws in this set up. Not only is it just not done in any other situation, but it doesn’t really solve the problem of the displaced Palestinians who also have a tie to that land; where are they going to go? So the explanation, certainly and plainly, doesn’t solve the problem.
If that’s not enough to show the uselessness of this explanation, consider that it also probably isn’t true. Truth is, we don’t know where the early Hebrews came from. There are a slew of theories, the most popular of which is that they were a breakaway Canaanite sect, or that the early Hebrews were nomads who settled gradually into Canaanite territory (the Palestine area). The first mention of a group called Israel doesn’t come until 1209 BCE with the following inscription on the Merneptah stele: “Israel is laid waste and his seed is no more.” Further, this “Israel” mentioned in the stele wouldn’t look a thing like the modern Jewish culture. We do know, for example, that these early Hebrews were polytheistic, a trait which would make them alienating and unrecognizable to most Jews and Christians today. Logically and historically, this explanation fails in every way.
The variation of this explanation, which many Christians also proffer, is that “God promised the land to the Jews.” This again solves no problems except to ease the explainer’s conscience and to propagate further the myth that the Christian/Jewish god is in control of events right here, right now. Good ol’ Pat Robertson lays out the core of this explanation:
“The return of the Jewish people to the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a miracle of God. The remarkable victories of Jewish armies against overwhelming odds in successive battles in 1948, and 1967, and 1973 are clearly miracles of God (of course not miracles of US military aid). The technological marvels of Israeli industry, the military prowess, the bounty of Israeli agriculture, the fruits and flowers and abundance of the land are a testimony to God’s watchful care over this new nation and the genius of this people.”
(For the sake of total disclosure, this weird “They were there first” trend also exists to some extent where Israeli archaeology meets political opinion. Muslim groups in Israel are frequently accused of destroying archaeological evidence that supports the “Jewish claim to the land,” and any findings in Israel, at least in the eyes of the general public, seem to immediately be up for evaluation in the light of modern politics. Perhaps some Evangelical misconceptions come from these rumors.)
Explanation #2: The apocalypse! (AKA the “fulfillment of prophecy”)
Apocalypticism is my absolute favorite social phenomenon. There are many forms of apocalypticism that have been expressed by a plethora of cultures throughout history; it is actually quite natural, sort of an extended pondering on the reality of personal mortality. But American Evangelical apocalypticism is one of the best, and, frighteningly enough, it is tied fairly closely to the politics surrounding Israel.
Many Christians hold that one sign of the apocalypse is the rebirth of the nation of Israel. This comes primarily from the biblical free association of Pastor John Hagee, apocalypse aficionado. Hagee explains it like this in his book Beginning of the End:
Matthew 24: 32-34 reads, “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” According to Hagee, this is a prophecy of a sign of the end of times. This verse predicts that when a new Israel is born, the end is at hand. The fig tree is Israel. The tender twigs and leaves are its first steps as a new, modern nation. And “summer” is the end of the world. (Of course, it is not a prophecy that there would be an apocalypse in the 1st century CE like Jesus said…)
Similarly, the returning of the Jews to the land of Israel is prophetically symbolic of the end. Jeremiah 23: 7-8 reads, “’So then, the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when people will no longer say, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt,’ but they will say, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the descendants of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.’ Then they will live in their own land.” Fairly self-explanatory: when the Jews return from all over the world to Israel, the end days are upon us. (You know, because this verse clearly refers to events thousands of years in the future, rather than to Israeli exiles returning in the 7th century BCE after the fall of Northern Kingdom when Jeremiah was actually writing…)
Based on these and other readings, many Christians believe they are living in the end days, right before the apocalypse described in the Book of Revelation/the Left Behind novels will occur. There is a push, then, in relation to Israel, to keep the nation around in order to draw out God’s ultimate wrath upon the wicked and, concurrently, his ultimate blessing upon the righteous. You’ve surely heard people bemoan the sorry state of society, or the increase in natural disasters, or various national tragedies as “signs of God’s judgment” or “signs of the end.” I’ve heard this from even my more moderate Christian acquaintances. At its core, Christianity is a heavily apocalyptic religion- the great crescendo of all Christian myth is the end of this age and the commencement of a holier “age to come” (just as every generation of Christians has predicted this, tick tock tick tock). And Israel is, unfortunately, at the center of these musings.
A mixture of free association and wishful thinking pushes this “Israel as sign of the apocalypse” idea into full view. For example, popular Christian magazine The Good News published a piece that concludes with the following:
“For these prophecies (of the end times, spoken allegedly by Jesus) to be fulfilled, it appears that sacrifices (traditionally done at the Jewish temple of old) will be reinstituted in some form… Apparently the Jews will again initiate sacrifices at or near Jerusalem; armies again will surround Jerusalem, and the sacrifices will be halted. Israel needs a third Jewish temple or some designated “holy place” for this to happen. Before its establishment as a state in 1948, this seemed impossible…Yet it happened!… Christians should look to God to work out events so that His will may be fulfilled. The state of Israel has a substantial role to play in the realization of key biblical prophecies. Watch Jerusalem!”
This piece has not only the verses attributed to Jesus that are applied (out of context) to modern events, but it also has some sort of excitement: “Watch Jerusalem!” The author of the piece is asking readers to follow the real-life politics of a real-life, present day city in order to see where we are on the apocalyptic timeline. Consider that for a moment if that doesn’t immediately freak you out. One of the main sources of American support for Israel comes partially from the idea that our world is locked in a cosmic scheme, with a puppet master God pulling international strings to fulfill his ancient playbook. It is a weird sort of extrapolated biblical literalism, and it is one that costs the US around 3.1 billion a year. The Christian hope for Millenium, the apocalypse, and the return of Christ drives, in part, actual political support for the nation.
Explanation #3: Christians and Jews are essentially the same
Basically, the history of Jewish-Christian relations goes like this: both groups hated each other for a really long time (just read Martin Luther), then, after the Holocaust (initiated by one of Luther’s biggest fans), Christians exulted the Jews as their own. That’s pretty much it. Until the second half of the 20th century, the Jews were viewed by most Christians as “Christ-killers,” “blood-libelers,” and, more recently, in the age of nationalism, a diseased race whose only cure was originally assimilation and later annihilation. Similarly, most Jews despised Christianity as a perversion of their religion, calling the Christian messiah a “magician” who misused his power and mocking him as “the hanged one.” Only recently has the relationship done a complete flip, possibly brought about by some widespread guilt for the Holocaust. This is, in part, understandable.
However, this close Christian association with the Jews is more than just a show of solidarity. Consider the following passage from the Bible publishing company Biblica:
“We all owe a tremendous debt to the Jews. We have inherited so much from them, and from them came God’s own Son, the Messiah. Faith in Him, that is, in His once-for-all death and resurrection is the key to peace of heart now and hope for the future.”
More than a show of support, it seems that Christianity has imbibed Judaism as its personal forerunner, the source from which it “inherited” its most key tenets. I believe this is the reason why many Christians choose to so closely associate with the Jews, and thus why they support the existence of the nation of Israel. By acting in this way and supporting Israel, many Christians believe that America can incur God’s favor almost parasitically via his blessings on the Jews. They cite Genesis 12:3, interpreting it to mean that God will bless those who bless the Jews and curse those who act against them. Again, I have had fairly moderate Christian friends cite this as a reason for their continued support of Israel. There is this serious, concrete fear that if America ever stopped supporting Israel, it would fall in the eyes of God, whereas by supporting it, God will continue to bless the nation.
However, the relationship of love and association between Christians and Jews is very much one-sided. According to Dr. James Q. Wilson, “in one Pew survey, 42 percent of Jewish respondents expressed hostility to evangelicals and fundamentalists. As two scholars from Baruch College have shown, a much smaller fraction—about 16 percent—of the American public has similarly antagonistic feelings toward Christian fundamentalists.” These statistics show a very definite dislike among American Jews for the very Evangelicals who support them, and the source of this dislike is relatively unknown. This distaste for Christians is present in Israel also, however, where there are recorded incidents of anti-Christian vandalism and spitting.
So the Evangelicals love the Jews (or at least the idea of them), but the Jews aren’t too crazy about the Evangelicals. Why do many Evangelical Christians continue, then, to pursue a people that is neither interested in nor even seems to need their support? Perhaps, beyond this sense of entitlement to the Jewish culture or idea of the inheritance of Jewish religious ideas, the Evangelicals merely find joy in the chase.
To conclude, I’d like to reference the title of this piece: “How the Christian Mythos Alters Hibbat Tsiyon.” We’ve explored three major ways in which many Evangelicals and other Christians explain the necessity of Israel’s existence through justifications, manipulations, and ideological relations. These explanations are all part of the aforementioned Christian mythos; they describe the realness and activeness of God right here, right now, in America and abroad. The myth of millennial Christianity is one of fundamentalist, Evangelical Christianity’s favorite playthings, and it provides many Christians, Evangelical or not, with an inlaid plot summary of the past, present, and future.
“Hibbat Tsiyon,” conversely, has nothing to do with Christians-or at least it didn’t originally. It means in Hebrew “love of Zion/Jerusalem,” and it refers to the ultra-important tenet of Jewish collective self-identification that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people. It is an essential aspect of Jewish culture, and one that is a part of its legacy, regardless of modern politics. Again, I am not here to argue any pro-Israel or anti-Israel stance, or to condemn general religiosity. What I will argue is that using all the explanations explored above, Evangelical Christianity has abducted “Hibbat Tsiyon” for its own selfish purposes, and has altered it specifically to fit the Christian mythos. It has hurt the integrity of another culture through selfish manipulation, and in the meantime it has hurt the focus of the United States by exaggerating the importance of national support for Israel. No matter where you stand on the issues of US-Israel political relations, that is just frightening, frustrating, and very, very wrong.