The New Christian Zionism
edited by Gerald R. McDermott
IVP Academic, 2016, 352 pages, $26
Earlier this year, a new U.S. President set as destinations for his first foreign trip the landed centers of the world’s three major monotheistic faiths: Mecca, Jerusalem, and the Vatican. On his visit in Jerusalem he became the first sitting President to lay his hand in prayer on the Western Wall of what once stood as the Jewish Temple—for three thousand years, even in times of ruin, the physical center of Judaism.
Why travel when international communication can connect world leaders instantly? Why pray at a wall if God already listens at home? In the world of international relations, these questions answer themselves. The physical geography and the tangible brick and mortar of each stop with their optics lend a resonant symbolism to a public message about foreign affairs that neither telephone call nor teleprompter speech can ever hope to match. Land and landmarks matter. Material culture adds an inevitably vivid and emotive reality to the messages one ventures to convey by the light of its visible depictions.
What a presidential visit illustrates with clarity, an important recent book explores historically and theologically. Published last year, The New Christian Zionism, assembles the work of ten scholars who have come to recognize the significance of Israel and its landedness to an ongoing understanding of our western civilization, so rooted in Israel’s people.
Two related developments of the last century make this work particularly relevant.
One, an unexpected course of secular events has precipitated a return of Jewish people in substantial numbers to their ancestral land, a land to which they have felt bound by a divine promise to Abraham four thousand years ago, a land from which they have been separated and against all odds returned twice before in Exodus and from Exile.
Their modern return began as a formal movement of Jewish Zionism in 1897. That year Theodore Herzl and Max Nordau convened the First Zionist Congress in Switzerland. The movement began with resolution but with only faint signs of promise. Secular Zionism’s political aim of establishing a Jewish Homeland in Eretz Israel won little support at first from European powers nor from the Ottomans. Thanks in large part, however, to the persistent and intrepid diplomacy of Chaim Weizmann (later the first president of the Israeli state) in Britain, Nahum Sokolow on the continent, and Louis Brandeis in the U.S., Zionism gained the improbable opening it sought when, with the implicit support of the Allies, Arthur Balfour sent his brief letter on behalf of the British government in November of 1917 declaring Britain’s “sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations.”
Whatever its motives, Balfour’s letter not only imparted the necessary momentum to an initial achievement of Zionist hopes on an international stage but set the vocabulary for international recognition of those hopes in terms of “a national home for the Jewish people.”
The Balfour Declaration’s formal and public endorsement of that aspiration in Britain was reinforced in the months before and after by France in a letter of its secretary-general of the foreign ministry, Jules Cambon, and in a subsequent letter of confirmation from foreign minister, Stephen Pichon; by the Vatican in Benedict XV’s open reversal of Pius X’s refusal to recognize the Jewish people; and by the United States in President Wilson’s letter to the chair of the Provisional Zionist Committee in New York. Additional approval followed from nations both European and Asian.
Together, these declarations of support gave weight to Zionist pressure to have the Balfour Declaration included in the preamble of the League of Nations’ Treaty of Peace with Turkey following World War I and to the San Remo conference’s related grant of a twenty-five-year mandate over Palestine to Britain, ratified in 1923. The secular Zionist goal of public, international commitment to a national home in its ancestral land had become a reality.
The fulfillment of that reality in an internationally recognized state received notorious, tragic assistance from the deadly anti-Semitism of the Nazi state. Redressing unconscionable genocide inflicted upon Jews of Europe and Russia, and in accordance with its Resolution 181 of the previous year, the United Nations proclaimed, on the day the British Mandate expired in 1948, the creation of the State of Israel. On Israel’s part, on the same day, David Ben-Gurion, Executive Head of the World Zionist Organization, issued the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, informally Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
Over time, nearly all the non-Muslim nations and a few Muslim nations of the UN have accorded formal recognition to the new state and have established diplomatic relations. A few, including Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela, have since withdrawn recognition in solidarity with the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel. Today 161 out of the 192 member states of the UN recognize Israel’s statehood. Today the Jewish presence in Israel has grown from fewer than 50,000 in the days of Herzl to a population over six million.
This momentous development over the course of the past century has set a challenging question before a discerning world: Shall Israel’s legal status among its fellow nations be upheld or withheld? The name of the book, The New Christian Zionism, signals its answer to that question on the cover: As one contributor, Darrell Bock, summarizes it (p. 308), “In one sense, all the term Christian Zionism means in the end is [a declaration by Christians] that Israel has a right to exist with the same human rights and security guarantees that other nations receive.” That stands as a prudential claim of the book. It has a theological case to build upon that.
A second development makes the objective of the book not only relevant but necessary. The very success of Israel in gaining its land and numbers has bred a growing hostility against the state and its Jewish people, most intensely so from its Arab neighbors in the Middle East.
An important element of the hostility is geopolitical. With growing populations, both Jewish and Arab, land in a state the size of Israel becomes increasingly scarce, valuable, and contested. To an Arab resentment over the loss of land to Jewish immigration, add the further losses, aggravated by humiliation, of two major military failures in 1948 and 1967.
The failed military effort by Arab states in 1948 to oppose the UN’s initial partition plan resulted in Israel’s increasing its share of the partition by some 20%.
In 1967, Egyptian President Nasser declared Egypt’s and its Arab allies’ intentions of “total war, which will result in the extermination of Zionist existence.” Egypt’s closing of the Red Sea to Israeli traffic prompted a pre-emptive airstrike from Israel, incapacitating much of Egypt’s air force. An attack from forces in Jordan upon Israeli neighborhoods in Jerusalem brought retaliation from the Israeli Defense Force, who took control of the whole city. After six days of continuing defensive war with its hostile neighbors, Israel succeeded in taking not only East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan but also the Sinai and Gaza from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria, tripling the area under its control.
A third war, the Yom Kippur War of 1973 was fought to an internationally negotiated truce. At great military cost, Syria and Egypt succeeded in some psychological gain, having exposed vulnerability in Israel’s defenses. Yet neither attacker succeeded in recovering any lost territory. Only through hopes for peace through concessions of land in the Camp David accords of 1978 did Israel agree to restore the Sinai and the Suez to Egypt. But the hoped-for peace has proved transient. Anwar Sadat, who negotiated it, was assassinated by Islamists dissatisfied with his gains. The ongoing bitterness of loss, humiliation, and difference continues to fuel Arab antagonism against Israel.
Moreover, self-identifying Palestinians still wait in vexation to see some realization of their share of the partitions proposed (albeit never made binding) in the British Mandate and in the plan of UN Resolution 181 with the creation of an autonomous Palestinian state. Land apportioned for Palestine in the Mandate became initially occupied instead by Jordan, Syria, and Egypt. Much of that land came under Israeli control in the course of defending itself from those occupiers. Inability to reach agreement among the PLO, Hamas, and other contenders for the administration of a common Palestinian state has left even sympathizers with a two-state solution challenged to identify a negotiating partner. As an upshot, the advantage of a perceived victimhood has attracted a growing sentiment of international sympathy for Palestinian claims against Israel.
The same concerns likewise stir antipathy against Israel’s interest in securing its own state, a legal state in part mandated and legally created by the international community and in part acquired in defensive wars. The Arab League stands by its resolution of 1967 concerning Israel: “no peace, no recognition, no negotiations.” The International Court of Justice censured Israel in 2004 for its construction of a wall around East Jerusalem. The UN Human Rights Council has (tendentiously, to judge by its relatively benign treatment of Bashar al-Assad and Kim Jong Un) censured Israel multiple times for alleged violation of human rights.
This second development of diminishing support has moved others in the international community to come to the defense of Israel’s right to exist and of the Jews to have the national homeland upon which the First Zionist Congress set its hopes. Readers seeking objective reasons to support Israel in its rights will find them from political, legal, and theological perspectives in The New Christian Zionism.
Robert Nicholson, Executive Director of the Philos Project brings his legal scholarship effectively to bear on a range of allegations of injustice and irresponsibility that Israel’s opponents level against it, exposing the tenuous nature of the charges and the complexity they fail to reckon with. In the face of his analysis, one can no longer facilely sustain a claim that Israel should be blamed as an aggressor in the Six Day War; that captured land in that war had belonged to Palestinians; that Israel administers Palestinians in its territories as an apartheid state, granting them no legal or political autonomy; that Israel resists an exchange of land for peace or has been delinquent in its obligations to UN Resolution 242 calling for its withdrawal from captured lands.
Indeed, as Shadi Khalloul, a leader of the Aramean community in Israel, argues in his chapter, the 24% of Israel’s population made up of non-Jewish minorities enjoys a “remarkable” measure of the “full social and political equality of all its citizens without distinction of race, creed, and sex” that the Declaration of the Establishment of the State guarantees to them and to which the government stands, however imperfectly in execution, by principle earnestly committed.
To the legal and moral defense of the Jewish need for a national homeland and of Israel’s right to exist as a state that embodies that national home, professor Robert Benne adds Reinhold Niebuhr’s arguments for Zionism from his standpoint of political realism. Niebuhr, one of the premier ethical thinkers of the past century, supported Israel against a swelling tide of its detractors on the grounds of its benefit to the balance of powers in the world. Its stable, if precariously placed, democracy in the Middle East provides a “bastion” against threats of domination from Soviet ambitions, from Arab nationalism, from the totalitarian impulses of socialist and Islamist extremism, and from the hubris of enemies who would arrogate to themselves their stated intentions “to annihilate the Jewish state,” much as German Nazis had once set themselves to answer “the Jewish question” by complete extermination.
Niebuhr rested his own justification for supporting Zionism and defending Israel primarily on secular and prudential grounds. Benne presses Niebuhr’s thinking more deeply to expose its roots in the soil of Christian commitment that nourished his ethics and politics from below. The Christian model of divine love, incarnate in the person of an atoning Messiah, imparted a distinct moral value to Niebuhr’s realism. He saw warrant for Zionism in the oppression Jews had endured, in their persistence as a religious nationality, in the value to a people of self-determination, and significantly in the conviction that “there is no spirit without a body, and there is no body without geography” (p. 233). Land and landmarks matter.
Political, legal, and moral considerations have animated a secular Zionism both within Judaism from the days of the First Zionist Congress and beyond it among non-Jewish Zionist supporters around the world. Those considerations do not stand alone. As in Islam where law defines religion, so in Judaism the mingling of piety and politics defies the clean lines American democracy likes to draw between church and state.
While predominantly secular aspirations impelled initial Jewish immigration into Israel, and its secular beginnings have meant that Zionism as a movement has never been committed to a theocratic state, religious aspirations of Aliyah have, since the founding of the state, played the greater role in fueling the Zionist cause.
Indeed, for centuries prior to the rise of modern, secular Zionism, an Israel- or temple-centered focus upon return has kept a religious impulse of proto-Zionism before the worshiping community as a guiding vision for Jewish identity. The first divine summons to Abraham pointed his lineage to a land that God would show him. The last vision of a Hebrew prophet foresees “everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem going up year after year to worship the God of the Jews, and to keep the Feast of Booths” (Zech 14:16). Miraculous returns to the land from Egypt in Moses’ time and from Babylon and Persia in Ezra’s sustained a conviction that neither diaspora, nor pogrom, nor holocaust would comprise the final chapter of Israel’s story. The prayers of Passover, Yom Kippur, and the daily Amidah conclude with the Zionist hope: “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Religious uprisings and Messianic movements responded to the centripetal vision with sporadic but unproductive efforts at return, re-conquest, or repopulation throughout the past millennium. Many early, Medieval, and Renaissance theologians took the Zionist vision of Israel for granted in their reflections on the scriptures, as editor Gerald McDermott’s chapter on the History of Christian Zionism documents well. The terms Proto-Zionism or Forerunners of Zionism more conventionally designates a set of mid-19th century Jewish leaders including Bibas, Alkalai, Kalischer, and Hess, all Rabbis, whose religious ideas began to take nationalist shape, influencing organizations that came together in 1884 as the Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion).
Success in returning to the land in the twentieth century, and particularly the reuniting of Jews with their ancient landmarks in the larger territory gained in 1967, rekindled religious reasons for Jewish interest in Zionism. In the memorable phrase of Gideon Aran, “In the land of the Bible the Israelis have met the Israelites.”
As religious engagement with Zionist thought responded to the repossession of its heritage, the fund of intellectual resources from the more secular Land of Israel Movement furnished fertile soil for fundamentalist movements like the Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) as well as for religious thought across the spectrum of Judaism—and not, of course, of Judaism alone.
The “New Christian Zionism” represents the serious theological reflection of Judaism’s most populous historical branch upon the relationship in which it should now stand to the Jewish trunk from which it grew, given the larger tree’s new reconnection to the land where it had once, long ago taken root.
Despite the unmistakable admonition of the New Testament to “remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you” (Romans 11:18), its Christian readers have habitually yielded to a temptation to think of the church as having supplanted Judaism in ways that render the Jewish people with their laws and rituals of no continuing relevance to Christian life and thought, except perhaps as historical precursors or as cautionary examples. A prevailing view of the biblical relationship sees the church in a role of displacing or superseding Israel in God’s plan for redemptive history.
In developments that anticipate the modern antipathy against the state of Israel among majority-Christian nations, Christian theologians historically favored an understanding that the church was to be “the new Israel,” in the arguably docetic, if not anti-Semitic, sense of supplanting and replacing an ethnic people with their spiritual and superior heirs.
On this view, Christ becomes the “end” of the law as its termination. The covenant with Israel is considered broken by the Jews’ rejection of Jesus Messiah. Regardless of the Law’s promises of life to people of faith (cf. Lev 18:5 and its echoes in Nehemiah, Ezekiel, and Galatians), not merely the letter of the law, but the law itself, we are given to believe, kills, whereas the Gospel and the spirit give life. Moses and Paul are set at odds in teaching the means to salvation. Jews who embrace Jesus as their Messiah are expected, unlike the first apostles, to abandon their Jewish observances to be part of the church. A tour through modern Israel illustrates the prevalence of the perspective in vivid landmarks: everywhere one travels, a Christian monument sits atop the remains of Jewish history, eclipsing it and reinterpreting it in the light of the church’s self-perception.
To undergird its case for the Jewish people and their land, The New Christian Zionism sets forth as “the heart of the book” (p. 27) a compelling theological critique of the supersessionist strain of Christian interpretation. Emphasis upon this Christian theological perspective on the importance of Israel’s return to the land distinguishes The New Christian Zionism from more liberal and secular aims that principally drove the nationalism of early Jewish Zionists like Herzl or the political arguments of ethical realists like Niebuhr. Emphasis upon continuity between Jews and Christians and upon agreement of their respective scriptures distinguishes The New Christian Zionism from the premillennial dispensationalism that advocates for Zionism on quite contrary grounds.
The careful work of established Christian and Messianic-Jewish scholars, Craig Blaising, Joel Willitts, Mark S. Kinzer, and David Rudolph in Part Two of the book, lays out convincing evidence that, for the key writers of the New Testament they examine, “the people of Israel and the land of Israel persist as abiding concerns” for those who lay the foundations of Christian understanding.
The ner tamid, the eternal light, hangs above the Torah ark in every synagogue today to remind the Jews who worship there that God has called the people of Abraham to be “a light to the nations.” Christians in the Gentile nations who recognize their need for God’s light have profound reason to rejoice that God’s appointed light has not been extinguished, and all have reason to reflect on the providence that has embodied that light in the vivid and emotive reality of a particular people with a material culture, now gathered again on physical land, with visible rituals from which we are still today instructed to learn. The land and landmarks of Judaism have provided and still do provide the church its effective and indispensable theological textbook.
The New Christian Zionism sets out this fresh perspective on Israel and its land with a clarity and persuasiveness that, for perceptive observers of current affairs, promises to add constructive answers to urgent questions like those singled out here. American and Christian readers will do well to study its cloud by day and its fire by night.