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Christian Zionism

by Gad Nahshon

Prof. Charles Merkley from Carleton University (Canada) discusses the history of "Christian Zionism" and its critics in his new illuminating research Christian Attitudes Towards the State of Israel (McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal and Kingston, 2001).

This research is based on documents, facts, as well as on interviews with Israelis & Palestinians. He also presents to the reader the anti-Zionist syndrome among Christian organizations. One can speak about a Christian Zionist impulse which was rooted in the 19th century, with the belief that Jews should go back to Zion in order to bring redemption to humanity. Therefore, the establishment of Israel, as a new state, is a fulfillment of a Christian belief or theology. Of course, the anti-Zionist Christian impulse tends to deny this linkage between old Israel, Israel of the Bible and new Israel, and Prof. Merkley exposed this notion.

Israel always looks for friends. A country under a permanent state of siege, a society which fights for its physical existence each day, Israel asked the Christian establishment to support her. It is so enriching to find leaders such as Prof. Douglas Young, the founder of the Institute of Holy land Studies, declare the following in 1976 in his new home in Jerusalem: "I have been accused of being a Zionist, a Christian Zionist, by some of my co-religionists in Israel and in the administrative areas. I would like to take this means of thanking them for this compliment."

Young is critical of those Christian leaders who do not support Zionism and Israel and from Jerusalem he keeps advocating to the whole world the message of Christian Zionism. In his book, Prof. Merkley discussed the attitudes to Zionism among Protestant and among Catholic clergy and spiritual leadership. Of course, he is aware of the issue of the "Internationalization of Jerusalem" or in the U.N."s 1947 partition plan, "Corpus Separatum" and the power of the Christian churches (Eastern movements) in the Middle East. It is the old story of Christian interests inside the world of Arabs or Muslims. It is one of the reasons that the Vatican, until recently, failed to recognize Israel, and Jerusalem as its capitol.

The stress of this book is on the development of the Protestant Evangelist"s pro-Zionism impulse. In the 1940"s there was a small movement which supported Zionism in the U.S. The Catholic support in this country was very little. But Merkley exposed the anti-Zionist Protestants. Among them, the President of Barnard College, Virginia Gildersleeve.

Prof. Merkley discusses the issue of the Christian attitude towards the state of Israel from 1948 to 1967. He points out that some Christians who love Zionism did not like the idea that Israel became a secular pro-socialist state. Other anti-Zionists joined the World Council of Churches which was established in 1948 and never has expressed any pro-Zionist declarations. In 1967, only a few pro-Zionists supported Israel. But after its "Six Day War" Merkley argues one can see a change: "Not only in evangelical and fundamental ranks but among most Christians of conservative theology, the creation of Israel in 1948 had seemed proof of the reliability of prophetic scripture."

The power of the "Restorationists" who believed that Israel is the outcome "...a remarkable fulfillment of the ancient prophecy of Joel 3:2," their power enjoyed the momentum of 1967: "To see the Western Wall taken from Jordanian hands and returned to the possession of the Jewish people." The linkage from 1948 to 1967 is clear, first of all, to people such as Billy Graham (see his 1969 book, His Land).

Merkley points out as to the rise of the "Evangelical Zionism" which is so familiar to us today in America, a movement which has influenced the Republican administrations as well. He stated: "To them (Evangelicals) the Six Day War was powerful proof of the authority of the prophetic sections of the Bible." Billy Graham wrote that now the fact that Jerusalem is in the hands of the Jews demonstrates "the validity of the Bible." The rise of "Restorationists" and "Christian Zionism" was epitomized by the establishment of many organizations such as: 1. The International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem by Pastor William Van Der Holven (Sept. 1980). It promotes Christian tourism as well as aliyah. (It pushed 40,000 olim from Russia to come to Israel!); 2. The Christian Zionist Congress (Feb. 1996, Jerusalem); 3. The National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel (1967). The founder: Prof. Franklin Little; 4. Voices United for Israel (Pro-Israeli Christian-Jewish Coalition). Among its leaders: Ralph Reed, Ed McAteer, David Lewis, Walid Parea, and David Bar-Ilan.; 5. Religious Roundtable. It runs the annual Prayer Breakfast for Israel. (The leader: Rev. Ed McAtter); 6. Christian Friends of Israeli Communities (1995). Its leader: Ted Beckett. Its goal: to support the settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; 7. Christian"s Israel Public Action Campaign (CIPAC). Active from 1991 in the American political world and lobbying. Its leader: Richard A. Hellman.

There is a huge Christian pro-Zionist movement in the U.S. Moral Majority, the Christian Mass Communication, famous leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, David Dolan, Don Feder, promote Christian Zionism and love for Israel. But the irony is that often Jews express reservations as to this love. Some argue that the Christians simply have a hidden agenda or they believe that Jews in the holy land will convert to Christianity, perhaps in the next millennium... Other Jews are liberal and democrats and they cannot stop from fighting, in principle, against Evangelism as a regressive impulse and for the holiness of the separation between church and state.

Here their love for Israel conflicts with their Americanism. Merkley also points out that there are evangelists who are anti-Zionists because of many reasons. Some are pro-Arab. Some argue that according to their theology Jews do not need a state or that the church is the epitome of "new Israel."

It is clear and Merkley dedicates a chapter to this issue that Middle Eastern Christianity is crusading against Israel. Also, the Palestinians use the Christian churches in the Middle East and in Jerusalem for their Muslim interests or goals. It is clear that Middle Eastern Christian scholars always blame Israel for the war. They, such as Naim Ateek, try to show that the Palestinian theology of liberation is also a Christian one! Furthermore, Merkley remarks that these Arab-Christian theologists such as Bishop (Evangelical Lutheran) Munib Younan argue that the old testament pushes Jews to commit crimes against the oppressed Palestinian people.

It is unbelievable but the old testament has become virtually forbidden literature in much of the Palestinian-Christian world. These Palestinians even mutilated the old testament: "All the passages considered unacceptable to Muslims have been eliminated from the Arab version. Entire generations of Palestinian Christians have grown up ignoring God"s alliance with Israel and the Jewishness of Jesus... to them they were all Arabs."

In the Palestinian theology, the place of the church is not clear. The P.L.O. tries to show unity but many Christians tend to emigrate from Arab lands. But their leaders argue that the P.L.O. promotes Christianity when Israel is destroying it. There are many conflicts between Christians and Muslims in the West Bank. Arafat said that his P.L.O. is not religious but a secular organization and the rise of Muslim fundamentalism (Hamas, Hizbullah, Muslim Jihad) means problems for the Arab Christian minorities.

But today, the baton of anti-Zionist propaganda is in the hands of the Middle East Council of Churches (founded in 1974). It is an umbrella organization of 17 Christian denominations in this region representing 14 million Christians: Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestants as well. This organization fights against Christian Zionism and Israel,. Prof. Merkley contributed to our understanding of these theological issues which are complicated to understand. But it is important to learn about the pro-Israeli camp inside the world of Christianity. We must also learn how to preserve and enrich the future of this religious gentile camp.


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