Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Slice Two: Christian Zionists

Moving from Sarah Palin to people who have actually expressed views on Jews as well as Israel, we have the odd phenomenon of the Christian Zionists. Quite famously, Evangelical Christians combine unwavering support for Israel with a belief that Jews, like anyone who does not take Jesus Christ as his or her personal savior, will go to Hell.

Critics dismiss such supporters as the Armegeddon Lobby, supporting Israel only because it plays an essential role in their End Times Scenario, which ends with Israel and the Jews being wiped out by the Anti-Christ. But given the extraordinary ability of most people to simultaneously hold contradictory ideas, I am willing to give Christian Zionists the benefit of the doubt here. A lot of what is at work may simply be a general Manichean mindset -- meximum support for Israel because they are Good and on Our Team, standing against the Evil Arabs.*
But that still raises an awkward bit of cognitive dissonance. After all, to a strict Fundamentalist Christian, Jews are just as Hell-bound as Muslims? So how can the epic struggle between Good and Evil be played out between two sets of Hell-bound participants?

Returning again to the realm of speculation about other people’s motives, is it possible that the whole End Times scenario is largely an attempt rationalize such an outlook? Granted, millenarianism is a long-standing Christian tradition. Granted, all Christian millenarians used the same scriptures to explain the times they live in. But let’s face it. The prophecies are vague enough to mean just about anything. How they are shaped and formed depends a lot on the preconceptions of the person interpreting them. So if you want to give Israel your unqualified support because you see them as the last outpost of Western Civilization against Evil Arab, but run into trouble because, after all, you think Jews are Hell-bound, it can be really convenient to have a lot of prophecies around that give an important role in the End Times to Israel. That overcomes the obstacle of how it can be our sacred duty to support one Hell-bound faction against another.

But other obstacles remain. The next obstacle is a harder one. According to all traditional rules of Evangelical Christianity, a Christian’s first duty to the Hell-bound is to try to convert them. After all, you never know when someone may be hit by the hypothetical buls and go to Hell because you failed to bring them to Jesus. But trying to convert Jews to Christianity invariably causes friction with Israel and threatens to undo the alliance. How do you deal with this? One solution is the Jews for Jesus approach, defining Jewishness as tribal membership rather than adherence to a particular religion, and arguing that Laws of Moses still apply to Jews even after they convert (anything Peter and Paul may have said to the contrary!). The trouble with this approach is that most Jews (including the Israeli authorities) just don’t buy it. There can be secular Jews and even atheist Jews, but a Christian Jew is a contradiction in terms, and is basically regarded by most Jews as a traitor. So many Christian Zionists make it part of their prophecy that there will be a miraculous mass conversion of the Jews to Christianity in the near future. This relieves Christians of their duty to evangelize to Jews and removes a major source of conflict between Christian and Jewish Zionists. **

But even that does not remove all obstacles. One such obstacle is how to get along with Jews who are not Zionists. Reverent John Hagee attracted a lot of attention and outrage by his statement that Hitler was God’s instrument to force the Jews from Europe to Israel. Most reactions to this statement have been expressions of shock and outrage that he could call Hitler God’s instrument or brush off his crimes so lightly. But let me raises another point. If God was displeased with the Jews for living in Europe because he wants all Jews to go to Israel, then what does that say about American Jews today? Are we also defying God’s will by living in the United States when God really wants us to go to Israel? My guess is that Hagee would manage to fudge this issue, too, and figure out some reason why the United States has God’s special favor and it is therefore acceptable for Jews to live here, too. But at the same time, the Christian Right’s insistence on the U.S. as a Christian country strongly seems to imply that any American who is not an Evangelical Christian is a second class citizen. What does that make Jews? And are any Jews shirking their duty to live in Israel second class Jews as well?

Then there is the whole question of the idealization of Israel. It’s fair to ask, how much of this idealization is neither millenarian prophecy nor Manichean standing firm against Evil, but a sort of romantic idealization of Israel as a land of bearded men in black coats and broad-brimmed hats, pious and militant, untainted by the decadence and secularism of the United States and Europe? This, too, is speculation about other people’s motives, but I note that Jeffrey Goldberg has pointed out that Israel is a lot more than bearded men in black coats -- it has many secular residents with the same decadent habits as the rest of the West (including an annual gay pride march).

But in the end, all of these can be overcome with sufficient mental gymnastics. What can’t be overcome is the unstated condition Christian Zionists place on their support for Israel – maximum belligerence and intransigence. Granted, with the current government in power, this hasn’t been much of an issue. But consider that when Ariel Sharon withdrew from the Gaza and was shortly after paralyzed with a stroke, Pat Robertson took it as a sign of God’s displeasure. So what happens if the Israelis decide some time that maximum belligerence is not, in fact, in their interest, and that they want to make some sort of compromise? When Israelis, in other words, stop being Authentic Real Jews.

Christian Zionists’ relationship with Israel reminds me of nothing so much as this book review on "philo-Semitism" (the opposite of anti-Semitism). It cites a Jewish joke, “Q: Which is preferable—the antisemite or the philosemite? A: The antisemite—at least he isn’t lying.” The point behind the joke, the author explains, is that the philo-Semite loves Jews, not as they really are, but as he believes they should be for his own purposes. If Jews refuse to stick to the script, this sort of idealization quickly proves to be a two-edged sword. Let any secular or Jewish Zionist keep this in mind.
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*Something similar happened in the Cold War. Before militant Islam arrived on the scene many Arab countries, though not Communist, were Soviet allies and thus (to a Manichean mindset) proxies of the Evil Empire.
**Any Jew hit by the Hypothetical Bus between now and the anticipated mass conversion is presumably unfortunate collateral damage.

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