December 26, 2002
The idea is supposed to make me tingle warmly: While I sit in my home here in Jerusalem enjoying
the Friday evening calm, thousands of Christian Coalition supporters will be gathering at the Ellipse in Washington to proclaim solidarity with Israel. According to pre-rally PR, my prime minister will speak by satellite hookup, pleased to have the backing of an American constituency more hawkish than most of his Israeli voters. At least some American Jews, including leaders who once wanted nothing to do with the Christian right, may point to the rally as proof of an important new political alliance. With Israel facing a danger to its existence -- so they argue -- Jews should welcome the help of a group that loudly proclaims its love for the Jewish state.
I'm not tingling.
Having spent years researching the Christian right's tie to Israel -- listening to leading "Christian Zionists," reading their sermons and examining the links of some to Israeli extremists -- I have to conclude that this is a strangely exploitative relationship. Accepting the embrace of conservative evangelicals poses problems of principle for Jews and Israel, in return for an illusory short-term payoff. Jews would do better to follow the Hebrew maxim, "Respect him and suspect him," maintaining a polite distance and publicly delineating their differences from the Christian right, even while at times supporting the same policy steps.
The Christian right's view of Israel derives largely from a double-edged theological position: Following a classic anti-Jewish stance, it regards the Jewish people as spiritually blind for rejecting Jesus. Yet it says that divine promises to Jews -- to bless those who bless them, to return them to their land -- remain intact. Indeed, it regards Israel's existence as proof that biblical prophecies are coming true -- heralding an apocalypse in which Jews will either die or accept Jesus. Israel is loved as confirmation of fundamentalist Christian doctrine. "The most dramatic evidence for His imminent return," the Rev. Jerry Falwell has stated, is "the rebirth of the nation of Israel." Evangelist Chuck Missler once told me that Israel gets more support in America from Christian fundamentalists than from "ethnic Jews" -- yet he has asserted that Auschwitz was "just a prelude" to what will happen to Jews in the approaching Last Days.
Jews who advocate working more closely with the Christian right say this is irrelevant. "These religious beliefs ... speak to an unknown future," while evangelicals are providing support right now, Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman wrote recently. This answer misreads millennial belief. To long for the end is to assert that our world is deeply flawed. One whose millennial vision is, "Gonna lay down my sword and shield" says one thing about what's wrong today. Those who look forward to the Jews' converting or dying proclaim another, very different "flaw" in our world. It's no accident that evangelical support for Israel often comes bundled with efforts to proselytize to the Jews.
By ignoring this theology, Jews both demean themselves and condescend to conservative evangelicals. They also risk undermining decades of dialogue with Catholics and mainstream Protestants who have undertaken the difficult task of reassessing Christianity's attitude toward Jews. It will be hard for Jews to affirm that reassessment if prominent Jewish groups are working closely with Christian groups that negate Judaism.
Does Israel's current crisis justify ignoring such long-term considerations in order to ensure immediate, tactical backing, as some argue? Living in Jerusalem, I don't underestimate today's dangers. But as frightening as Palestinian terror is, it does not threaten Israel's existence. Palestinian demographics do threaten Israel, as long as it holds all the land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. Within a few years, there will be a Palestinian majority in that land, and Israel will either cease being a Jewish state or cease being a democracy. No wonder a recent poll showed a majority of Israel's Jews favoring a Palestinian state. The Christian right's position, on the other hand, is exemplified by Sen. James Inhofe's (R-Okla.) statement last March on the Senate floor that Israel should keep the West Bank "because God said so." Rather than support for Israel, this is support for hard-line policies that endanger Israel in the name of fundamentalist theology.
Jews have every reason to speak with conservative evangelicals -- in forthright interfaith dialogue, plainly stating differences as well as points of agreement. In the political realm, however, Israeli and Jewish interests are better served by working with politicians and religious groups that champion renewed American diplomatic efforts to end bloodletting in the Holy Land. Seeing negotiators sit down again to talk peace -- now that would give me a warm tingle.
Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount" (Oxford University Press, 2002).