Originally published 11 October 2002
in National Catholic Reporter
First in a two-part series
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September, thousands of Christian Zionists met in Jerusalem for the Jewish
holiday of Sukkot to cheer on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and to
declare their unconditional support for the state of Israel. Organized by
the International Christian Embassy, the meeting appeared to be a love-in
as much as a rally. Walking here, I heard many times, and many people said,
We love you, we love Israel, Sharon said. May I tell you we love you. We
love all of you.
On the face of it, the love affair between conservative
Christians and Israels hawkish head of state seems unlikely, but mutual interests
notoriously make for strange bedfellows. Many fundamentalist Christians embrace
the state of Israel because of its role in their own end-of-time theology.
For its part, the right wing in Israel welcomes the economic and political
support it receives from conservative Christians around the world and particularly
in the United States.
Religion and politics. Its an incendiary combination
anywhere, and particularly in the Middle East where Christian fundamentalists,
often working in tandem with Jewish Messianic settlers, promote the formation
of a Greater Israel that they believe will usher in Armageddon itself. Many
of this countrys most ardent Christian supporters of Israel welcome that
prospect. Others who dont subscribe to the end-of-time theology of dispensational
premillennialism worry that the agenda pushed by the tactical alliance between
Jewish and Christian fundamentalists will transform the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict from a battle between two nationalities into a war of civilizations
that will engulf the world.
Its a very tragic situation in which Christian
fundamentalists, certain groups of them that focus on Armageddon and the
Rapture and the role of a war between Muslims and Jews in bringing about
the Second Coming, are involved in a folie deux with extremist Jews, said
Ian Lustick, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania,
a consultant on the Middle East to the last four presidential administrations
and the author of the book For the Land and the Lord: Jewish Fundamentalism
Whether the Bush administration is reflecting the views
of the Christian right or responding to them is difficult to say, but some
Mideast analysts are convinced they are seeing their effect played out in
U.S. support for Sharons hard-line policies. I think in general its safe
to say Christian fundamentalism has an influence on the administration and
specifically with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Kathleen
Christison, a former CIA political analyst and the author of Perceptions
of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy.
a group of people in the Defense Department and in the vice presidents office
who are very, very pro-Israeli and very pro the Likud Party in Israel, said
Christison, who named Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; Undersecretary
of Policy in the Defense Department Douglas Feith; adviser to the Defense
Department Richard Perle; Vice President Cheneys chief of staff Lewis Libby
Jr.; and Elliot Abrams on the National Security Council staff.
The United States current and exclusive focus on Islamic fundamentalism is a case of what some argue is selective blindness.
pay a lot of attention to Islamic extremism, but we dont pay a lot of attention
to Christian extremism or the extremism in the Jewish religion that is being
used to justify what is going on today, said James Zogby, founder and president
of the Arab American Institute in Washington, speaking about the turmoil
in the Middle East. Zogby argues that despite disclaimers to the contrary
the United States is waging a war on Islam at home and abroad even as it
tacitly supports extremist settlers in the occupied territories Israel controls.
Sept. 11, suspected Muslim charities have been shut down by the U.S. government
without the government offering any evidence that these charities have links
to terrorists, Zogby said. At the same time, a known terrorist organization
such as the Jewish Defense League is not placed on the governments list of
terrorist organizations, he said.
Without question, we are subsidizing
those settlements. Money is money, said Zogby, noting that Israel is not
only the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid but the only country that
receives its foreign aid in cash without going through the Agency For International
Development and without being held accountable to the General Accounting
Office for what it does with U.S. aid.
We say settlements are unhelpful
or counterproductive, but every single effort to sanction Israel for building
settlements or to take international steps to stop Israel from building settlements,
we block, Zogby said. Were massive enablers of Israels bad practices.
Gorenberg, author of The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for
the Temple Mount , remarks that depictions of those who believe they are
living in historys final days are often cartoonish, drawing too rigid a separation
between mainstream religion and beliefs that are relegated to doomsday cult
status. An American-born Israeli journalist who is an associate at the Center
for Millennial Studies at Boston University, Gorenberg has studied the spectrum
of Messianic belief both in Israel and in the United States.
is that millions of quite rational men and women, belonging to established
religious movements around the globe, look forward to historys conclusion,
to be followed by the establishment of a perfected era. They draw support
from ideas deeply embedded in Western religion and culture. You dont need
to go to central Africa to find them; they live in American suburbs; they
work in insurance offices and high-tech startups. Some are influential leaders
of Americas Christian right, Gorenberg writes.
An article in the May
23 issue of The Wall Street Journal headlined, How Israel Became a Favorite
Cause of Christian Right, discusses the effects on U.S. foreign policy of
the alliance between the Christian right and traditional supporters of Israel.
More than any other single factor, it explains why there has been so little
pressure from a Republican White House on Israel to curb its crackdown on
Palestinians, write Wall Street Journal reporters Tom Hamburger and Jim VandeHei.
describing the transformation of the Republican Party by religious conservatives
during the past 20 years, the two reporters detail how conservative Christian
Republicans once suspected of intolerance and even anti-Semitism have become
some of the staunchest supporters of Israel.
Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson,
Jerry Falwell and a host of other conservative Christian leaders now lobby
on behalf of Israel and support the most hard-line Israeli positions. Many
fundamentalist Christian groups finance efforts to resettle Russian Jews
in Israel, often in settlements in the occupied territories that offer settlers
special tax breaks and financial inducements to move there.
a number of very conservative Christian groups that support settlements because
they see this as a way of strengthening Jewish hold on the land of Israel
because in their mind this is important for end-of-time theology and part
of hastening the Second Coming and the conversion of Jews that would be entailed
in some of the theology. One would think that would be a good reason for
conservative Jewish groups not to be involved with these groups, but they
have made a pact to focus on political goals. They leave the proselytizing
at the door when they entered into joint activity, said Lewis Roth, president
of Americans for Peace Now, a U.S. branch of the Israeli movement Peace Now.
Levens, president of the National Unity Coalition for Israel, an alliance
of Christian and Jewish organizations founded in 1993-94 to support Israel,
said the coalition has a hard-and-fast rule against members proselytizing.
Beyond that, Levens said she doesnt probe too deeply into the reasons why
many Christian groups have chosen to partner with the coalition.
end-of-time theology is an important motive to many. For biblical literalists,
particularly those who subscribe to dispensational premillennialism, a theology
articulated by British preacher John Darby in the 19th century and popularized
today by such books as Hal Lindsays The Late, Great Planet Earth or the Left
Behind books by the Rev. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, the Rapture is
near at hand in which Christs faithful will be caught up in the clouds and
given new, immortal bodies while the rest of the population faces the horrors
of the last seven years of human history. Israel plays a key role in this
theology, which posits that the Second Coming requires Israel to be reconstituted
and the Jewish Temple, destroyed in 70 A.D., rebuilt. According to the script
many Christian fundamentalists read from, the Antichrist will desecrate the
rebuilt Temple, which will be followed by a period of tribulation when earthquakes,
plagues and all the other furies outlined in the Book of Revelation will
come to pass. This in turn will be followed by Jesus return to earth. At
that time, according to some Christians, those Jews who accept Jesus will
enter the kingdom along with faithful Christians. Others will perish violently.
have their own Messianic reading of the future. No apocalypse. No mass conversion
of the Jews. No second coming of Jesus. For fundamentalist Jews, the establishment
of the state of Israel and the extension of its sovereignty to the West Bank,
Gaza and even further, is part of the process of world redemption. Eventually,
Jewish rule will extend beyond the borders of the present state of Israel
to the entire land of Israel described in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Temple
will be rebuilt, and the Messiah will arrive, ushering in the redemption
of the world.
For both fundamentalist Christians and Jews, an end
to human history as we know it is connected to a transcendent imperative
that necessitates actions that others see as risky, provocative and aggressive.
For both groups, Israeli settlers are the vanguard troops in a campaign of
action rooted in believers reading of the Bible.
Messianism inspires this sort of affinity and sense of entitlement to these
territories and to the land of Israel itself, said Geoffrey Aronson of the
Foundation for Middle East Peace, a nonprofit organization in Washington
that tracks the growth of settlements in the occupied territories. That idea,
that the Bible has some sort of contemporary relevance to Israels territorial
breadth and extent, is reality. It affects the entire political spectrum
that one of the basic presumptions of the Israeli Jewish community is that
they live and claim title to the state of Israel and perhaps areas beyond
it by right, and its a right thats recognized in the Bible. Ultimately, this
sort of idea has been a very important motivator of the Jewish community
in Palestine for the past hundred years, said Aronson.
The Bible as property deed
the notion of biblical entitlement to the land of Israel was latent in the
founding of the state of Israel, religious claims were soft-pedaled by early
Zionist leaders. Opposed by many Orthodox Jews who believed it violated the
rabbinic injunction to avoid human efforts to bring redemption, Zionism was
a predominantly secular movement that appealed to Jews and non-Jews alike
by arguing that providing Jews a homeland of their own would end Jews condition
as a persecuted minority and make Jews into a people like any other.
arguably a streak of secular Messianism underlay the Zionist enterprise,
it was the Six Day War in 1967 and the swift and surprising victory Israel
achieved in that war, doubling in less than a week the amount of territory
it controlled, including the prized city of old Jerusalem, that provided
the impetus for the settler movement and the development of a Jewish fundamentalism
that had been largely dormant for 18 centuries.
Even secular Israelis
regarded the victory as a kind of miracle while for others, especially religious
Zionists, the conquest of the West Bank was proof of a divine plan at work.
As never before, Messianism became a respected ideology, powering the movement
that settled Jews across the West Bank, Gorenberg writes. He adds that Israels
victory became part of another story, too: the resurgence of Christian fundamentalism
in the last third of the 20th century.
The Jewish conquest of Jerusalem
provided proof of premillennial doctrine. It amplified hopes for the Second
Coming; it spurred some people to predict just when the great event would
Christian millennialists eagerly watched the Middle East
for more signs. In time, some moved from being onlookers to being participants,
offering support to Israel -- or to the Israelis deemed most likely to make
prophecy come true, Gorenberg writes.
Now some conservative Christians
not only raise money for Israel, they meet in breakfasts and monthly briefings
organized by the Israeli Embassy and participate in schemes to build the
third Temple in Jerusalem. In 1998, for instance, the Canaan Land Restoration
Inc. of Israel was established by Clyde Lott, an American cattleman and a
Responding to verses in the Book of Numbers
that say only the ashes of an unblemished red heifer that has never been
yoked can purify a priest to enter the Temple ,Lott joined forces with Rabbi
Chaim Richman in Israel in an effort to raise red cattle suitable for Old
Testament sacrifices. An Internet page for the Canaan Land Restoration, Inc.,
solicited tax-deductible contributions that would cover the costs of shipping
red cows from the United States to Israel. Lotts project is now idle because
of internal problems and fear of an impending war, but Dean Hubbard, the
vice president of the now-bankrupt organization, said the idea is to regroup
and refocus when they can. Its staggering to see how its all on schedule,
Dean Hubbard said of the pace of world events.
The Web site of one
Christian Zionist organization states that Today, tens of millions of Protestant
Christians in the United States and more around the world support Israel
with an uncritical fervor, exceeding even Jewish support.
a lot of forces at work here, said Jim Besser, a writer for The New York
Jewish Week and The Baltimore Jewish Times . There are evangelical Christians
who support Israel simply because they believe it is biblically mandated
for them to do so. There are also those who support the right wing in Israel
because of their views of the end-time prophecies. They believe Israel will
play a central role just by view of getting destroyed. These are not necessarily
distinctive groups. There are different motivations. The third element of
the equation is that a lot of political conservatives are increasingly supporting
the right wing in Israel because of purely geopolitical reasons. They see
Israel as the front line in the battle against terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism,
Not all evangelical Christians are unqualified supporters
of Israel, of course. A letter sent to President Bush from 40 evangelical
Christian leaders this past summer called upon him to employ an even-handed
policy toward Israeli and Palestinian leadership and noted that the American
evangelical community is not a monolithic bloc in full and firm support of
present Israeli policy.
Still, many of the most prominent names in
the evangelical world support Israel unconditionally and are opposed to Israel
negotiating a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
The feeling among
evangelicals is that any effort to create peace in the Middle East is ultimately
a trick, Besser said. If you pick up any of Hal Lindsays books or Pat Robertsons
books, its all laid out there in quite a lot of detail by many of these popular
evangelical authors. The demands of these prophecies are very much in the
minds of many of these evangelicals who are so vocal in their support of
Israel right now.
The intransigence of certain Christian fundamentalists
mirrors that of many right-wing Israelis, notably the ultra-nationalist religious
settlers on the West Bank who view the conquest of the West Bank as part
of a plan for divine redemption and who oppose a peace settlement that would
involve Israel ceding any inch of territory it controls. For many of these
settlers, rebuilding the Temple, an activity that would almost inevitably
involve the destruction of the Dome of the Rock, Islams third-holiest site,
which is believed to lie on the ruins of the old Temple, has become a rallying
A little-known force
In his book For the Land and the
Lord , Ian Lustick writes that Americans and Israelis alike share a dangerous
ignorance of the animating beliefs of Jewish fundamentalists despite the
importance fundamentalists have assumed on the Israeli political scene since
Haim Dov Beliak seconds that statement. A rabbi in California,
Beliak studied at the Merkaz Harav yeshiva in Israel. Headed by the messianic
Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, the yeshiva was at the ideological center of the
settler movement in the 1970s when Beliak attended it. According to Beliak,
neither the Jewish community in the United States nor the American public
at large knows much about the settlers. There is a profound lack of curiosity
about them, Beliak said. They are very problematic because they are going
to cause World War III. They are not dealing with a normal political reality.
Theres a complete denial of any rights that the Arabs might have.
of these settlers simply want to come in where Palestinians are living and
say a Jew lived here 75 years ago so they should be living here now, or that
1,500 years ago Jews controlled the land so Jews now should control the land.
Theres an attempt to use the Bible as a land deed claim, said Beliak.
Christian scenarios of the end of time involving the anti-Christ and Armageddon
sometimes seem outlandish or bizarre, fundamentalist Jewish schemes for redemption
can appear no less so. Beliak reported efforts underway by some Zionist groups
to track down the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, who disappeared in 276 B.C.
when they were carried off into captivity. Scouts are looking for the descendents
of these tribes in Africa and Asia, and a group of people in Burma and another
in Peru are being seriously investigated.
The lengths of this search
is almost comical, Beliak said. The hope is that these people will discover
their Jewishness, reconvert to Judaism and therefore they will need a place
to live and then it will be legitimate to displace the Arabs who are living
[in the occupied territories.]
It is fantastic the lengths of religious nationalistic jingoism these people are prepared to go to, said Beliak.
and others distinguish between those settlers who move to the West Bank and
Gaza for ideological reasons and those who are drawn by the economic inducements
offered them and who would resettle if similar opportunities were provided
elsewhere. Its the first and smaller group that forms the core of the settler
movement: Israelis who because of fundamentalist religious views or extreme
nationalism believe all of the occupied territories should be incorporated
into the state of Israel, despite the Arab population living there.
speaking, there is no distinction between the settler movement and the current
Israeli government headed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Beliak said.
is the architect of the settler movement, and hes the practical engineer
of the idea that there is no room for the Arabs to live between the Jordan
River and the Mediterranean Sea in their own political entity, Beliak said.
They can live there as laborers and choppers of wood and drawers of water
but only if they eschew any political aspirations.
According to Peace
Now, since February 2001 when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took office, 34
new settlements have been established in the occupied territories. Close
to 400,000 settlers now live in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza,
and their presence poses what many analysts call the biggest obstacle to
peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
The growth and entrenchment
of the settlers, whose population has doubled since the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords
were signed, have proved to be Jewish fundamentalists greatest success. But
Ian Lustick said fundamentalists in Israel have experienced reverses, too,
notably the peace accords themselves and the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak
The peace process showed they actually had to assassinate an
Israeli leader to stop a Palestinian state from emerging, Lustick said. The
need to rely on spectacular violence is something they wanted to avoid relying
on. They wanted to naturalize Israeli rule over the whole of Greater Israel
and to trivialize the question of the Arabs. The intifada, the first and
second one, has made it impossible for Israelis to not see the Arabs, to
see the West Bank and Gaza as just extensions of Israel.
Lustick called settlements the main reason for the failure of the Camp David negotiations.
was proposing at Camp David that all settlements and all roads leading to
them would remain under Israeli sovereignty. That was the achievement of
the settlers movement, that even a dovish prime minister would begin a peace
conference with such a hawkish and unworkable proposal, therefore leading
to the second intifada and the current disastrous circumstances we see today,
A worldwide phenomenon
Reading the Bible as a
set of predictions about the future sends chills through many mainstream
theologians. No reputable Catholic theologian or certainly no reputable mainline
Protestant theologian would look at the Bible this way, said Jesuit Fr. John
R. Sachs, who teaches at Weston Jesuit School of Theology near Boston. Americans
growing interest in the apocalypse forms part of a worldwide phenomenon,
said Sachs, with conservative, literalistic, fundamentalistic movements in
religion taking place in vast areas of the world today.
fundamentalist theology and its influence on U.S. Mideast policy strikes
Baylor University professor Marc Ellis as hypocritical, even though Ellis
acknowledges he would like to see the political sway of fundamentalists curtailed.
of the Christian and Jewish support for the state of Israel has come from
liberal sources. Now liberal Christians are beginning to understand that
something is wrong with those policies, but those policies have already had
their effect, said Ellis.
A professor of American and Jewish studies
at Baylor, Ellis points out that if some fundamentalist Christians promote
the state of Israel, so too in the past did prominent liberal theologians
such as Reinhold Niebuhr and other Christians, if for different reasons.
Christians supported Israel out of guilt over the Holocaust. Fundamentalist
Christians have supported Israel because of biblical eschatology, said Ellis.
were the vehicle through which Christians renewed their own theology after
the Holocaust: the recovery of the Hebrew Bible that had been so denigrated
in Christian theology, the recovery of the prophets, the Jewishness of Jesus.
Jews were seen as carriers of those values that Christians needed to embrace,
Ellis said. Its about how Christianity renewed itself in the face of atrocities
it was responsible for. Jews were elevated where once they were demeaned.
Ellis called the political naivet of liberal Christians who saw Jews only
as innocents has played a large role in contributing to a steady deterioration
in the conditions Palestinians live in that he said threatens to get worse
still if the United States invades Iraq.
Its been getting worse from
the beginning, since 1948, and its been getting worse since 1993 when Oslo
was signed. Everything that has been gained since 1993 has been wiped out
in the last two years. Now there are three million Palestinians on the West
Bank who are in virtual prison, or worse. They are under closure. No one
delivers their food. You have an entire population in prison but without
the perks of prison, said Ellis.
Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 2002