A flawed vision of Zion

 — Apr. 8, 20048 avril 2004

Five hundred people will gather in Jerusalem this week to counter ultra-conservative Christians who advocate Israel’s claim to its lands and the exile of all Palestinians.

On a visit to Jerusalem in the mid-1990s, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, said ruefully that so many Palestinian Christians were emigrating in despair from the West Bank that the Christian holy places would soon become Disneyland attractions rather than places of “living worship.”

Three and half years into a second intifada, the situation is still deteriorating. Only one branch of Christianity — Christian Zionism — feels comfortable in the Holy Land these days. The reason is simple: while the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Churches line up behind their embattled and dwindling Palestinian flocks to protest against Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and the expansion of settlements there, Christian Zionists stand shoulder to shoulder or even comfortably to the right of Likud and the Orthodox rabbis.

Among its demands are more Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the relocation of Palestinians to neighbouring Jordan and even the razing of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque to make way for the third Jewish Temple.

Some observers believe there are as many as 50 million Christian Zionists worldwide — the majority American and northern European. They flock to the Holy Land, not for the old church feasts of Easter or Christmas, but for a week-long conference cum celebration of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem.

Every autumn since 1981, intifada or no intifada, they arrive in their thousands from the strongholds of Protestant Christianity — from evangelical North and even South America, from Anglican Britain, Lutheran Scandinavia and central Europe and Calvinist Switzerland and white South Africa, but also from American mission fields in the Far East. Their purpose is to attend lectures on Israeli politics, watch dazzling spectaculars of Jewish history and visit sites connected with Old Testament Jewish history. Marching through modern West Jerusalem dressed in their national costumes, they wave their national flags and banners proclaiming their love for Israel. Last year, at the start of the fourth year of the intifada, more than 3,000 attended.

But what exactly is Christian Zionism, and how does it connect with Jewish Zionism? If Zionism is Jewish habitation and ownership of the land God promised to their forefather Abraham in the Old Testament, then Christian Zionists are Christians who see modern Israel and its expansion as the glorious fulfilment of the same divine plan — proof that the Bible is true and Christ’s Second Coming is nigh.

Christian Zionists’ unconditional support for modern Israel today — emotional, political and financial — is rooted in a conventionally Protestant literal reading of the Bible and subsequent appreciation of the Jews’ starring role in God’s grand design. In Genesis 12 they have discovered God promising Abraham “I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse, and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” In Ezekiel 37 they have found another promise: “I will make them one nation in the land, upon the mountains of Israel.” In Genesis 15 they have seen God promising Abraham a land stretching “from the river of Egypt to the great River, the River Euphrates, the land of the Kennites, the Kennizites, the Kadmonites.” They have even encountered God justifying some ethnic cleansing: “If you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as pricks in your eyes and thorns in your side and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell.”

Like some of the most extreme Zionist members of Ariel Sharon’s government, many Christian Zionists believe that all Palestinians should be deported to neighbouring Jordan.

It is a view that increasingly concerns critics of Christian Zionism, who deplore the way Christian Zionists ignore the New Testament’s more inclusive message. Almost 500 of them will be gathering in Jerusalem this week for a conference titled “Challenging Christian Zionism: theology, politics and the Palestine Israel conflict.” Dr Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Anglican who heads Sabeel, the ecumenical Christian organisation hosting the conference, is uncompromising in his criticism. He describes Christian Zionists as people who read the Bible “like a computer manual,” people who have “made God a racist God,” while the Middle Eastern Council of Churches complains that they “sacralise a political ideology or state” to place it “beyond the reach of human criticism or ethical standards.” The American academic, Donald Wagner, meanwhile asserts that they have recast God as a “cosmic real-estate agent” whose favoured clients are Jews.

Palestinian Christians are fearful of what they consider to be an unnatural but extremely powerful religious and political bonding between Christians and Jews. One bewildered Arab Christian worker in Jerusalem quizzed me warily about the Christian Zionists: “Who do they support here?” When I replied, “The Israelis,” he said, “Right! And why the Jews, when we are the Christians here? They should be supporting us.” Others have a better grasp of realpolitik: “What does Israel care? They can make good propaganda for Israel in America,” says another Arab Christian.

Many Jews, both inside and outside Israel, have been wary of Christian Zionism, with its cocktail of guilt over the Holocaust of God’s Chosen People, reverence of their Chosen People status and adulation of Israel’s survival against the odds since its creation in 1948. They also mistrust their simplistic understanding of the Middle East and most Christian Zionists’ fixation on Bible prophecies about an “End Times” agenda — the coming of the Antichrist, the Battle of Armageddon, the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ. They have noticed that a literal reading of the prophet Zechariah, chapter twelve, suggests that most unbelievers, Jews included, will die at the Battle of Armageddon.

Gershon Gorenberg, an Israeli journalist and author, a close observer of Christian Zionists and one of the conference speakers, discerns a lurking anti-Semitism in this: “As they see it, one thing wrong with the world right now is that there are Jews in it,” he says. He also objects to Christian Zionists’ support for the expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank as part of God’s grand plan. If the Palestinians are not allowed their own state, he points out, they will soon outnumber Jews in Israel, which would spell the end of the safe Jewish homeland.

Dr John Green, director of the Institute of Applied Politics at Ohio’s Akron University, has spent 20 years studying the influence of Christian fundamentalism on American politics. He estimates that of the 29 million to 30 million Christian Right who voted in the 2000 elections, 10 million to 15 million were Christian Zionists.

In the Reagan era of the early 1980s, when Christian Zionism first emerged as a considerable political force, it was Moscow rather than Baghdad or Ramallah that was the seat of all evil. But since September 11 it has been much easier to talk of the “clash of civilisations” and describe the “war on terror” as a mighty battle between the Judaeo-Christian world and Islam, between the people of the Bible and the people of the Qur’an. However, it would be more accurate to speak about the influence of a “pro-Israel lobby” than simply that of a “Jewish lobby.”

The largest Christian Zionist presence in Jerusalem — a non-profit-making charity called the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ) — was set up by two Afrikaaners. In 1980 the Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, presented the ICEJ with the vacated Chilean Embassy. Since then the organisation has moved twice to bigger premises. ICEJ’s staff now numbers 60 and its income, estimated at US$8m. (£4.4m.) in 1999, half of it from American donors, is spent on helping to bring about the fulfilment of the prophecies. Funding the transportation to and resettlement of new immigrants in Israel, buying bullet-proofed school buses, building secure playgrounds for settler children and laying on the autumn festivals, which are always addressed by grateful Likud prime ministers, are a few of its activities. Branch offices around the world work at lobbying and pressurising foreign politicians.

Sabeel, the Palestinian organisation hosting this week’s conference in Jerusalem, cannot match ICEJ for wealth and influence, but is determined resist the spread of a version of Christianity that it believes is actively undermining the search for a just peace in the Holy Land. Until the beginning of March, Sabeel could draw strength from having secured the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, as the conference’s keynote speaker. However, he has now withdrawn from attending in person, explaining that his capacity to act as a “bridge-builder in the Holy Land” would be imperilled by his attendance.

His decision has dismayed the conference organisers. But his very withdrawal signifies the extreme sensitivity of the situation in Israel, and the role which Christian Zionism — and criticism of it — plays at this time.

Posted: Apr. 8, 2004 • Permanent link: ecumenism.net/?p=6672
Categories: TabletIn this article: Christian Zionism, Israel, Sabeel
Transmis : 8 avril 2004 • Lien permanente : ecumenism.net/?p=6672
Catégorie : TabletDans cet article : Christian Zionism, Israel, Sabeel

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