Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

Theologians Examine the Moral and Ethical Issues Raised by Zionism

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Spring-Summer 2015

Edited by Donald E. Wagner and Walter F. Davis,  
250 Pages,Pickwick Publishers (199 W. 8th Ave., Eugene, Oregon, 97401).  
Both within Judaism and Christianity, the philosophy of Zionism has stirred much controversy. Christian Zionists, for example, believe that God promised the land of Israel to the Jewish people and that the second coming of Christ will not occur until they are resettled in their ancient homeland. Then, the Battle of Armageddon will ensue, and the world will come to an end. Those Jews who have not by this time converted to Christianity, will be consigned to Hell for eternity.  
This book provides a challenging conversation on theological and ethical issues arising from both Christian Zionism and other aspects of Zionism, a conversation which its contributors believe is vital to the quest for a just peace in Israel and Palestine. The eleven authors offer a diversity of religious faith, academic research and practical experience as they represent all three Abrahamic faiths and five different Christian traditions. Among the many themes that run through this book is the contrast between exclusivist narratives, both biblical and political, and the more inclusive narratives of the prophetic Scriptures, which, its advocates argue, provide the theological foundation and the moral imperative for human liberation.  
In the Introduction, Donald E. Wagner, National Program Director of Friends of Sabeel North America, and Walter T. Davis, co-chair of the education committee of the Israel/Palestine Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and Professor (Emeritus) of the Sociology of Religion at San Francisco Theological Seminary, write that, “Long before the issuance of the Balfour Declaration (1917), Zionists, both Christian and Jewish, had adopted a compelling public relations phrase, ‘a land without people for a people without a land.’ While the phrase had a convincing ring, the facts on the ground pointed to a different reality.”  
Population 94 Per Cent Christian and Muslim  
They point out that, “The actual population of Palestine in 1897 was 94 per cent Palestinian Christian and Muslim, whereas the Jewish population was approximately 5 per cent … Some historians have noted that the source of the ‘land without a people’ myth may have been the British evangelical Christian writer and lobbyist Lord Shaftesbury, who in an article published in the Quarterly Review in 1839 called for England to support a Jewish state in Palestine and used the phrase ‘a country without a nation for a nation without a country.’ Whether Shaftesbury invented the phrase or Zionist leaders generated it is beside the point. The mythistory of Palestine being ‘a land without a people’ was successfully marketed and branded.”  
In an essay dealing with “Political Zionism from Herzl (1890s) to Ben Gurion (1960s),” Davis and Pauline Coffman, professor and director (Ret.) of the School of Adult Learning at North Park University in Chicago, point out that prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, David Ben Gurion, the Zionist leader, never mentioned “the elephant in the room — the presence of over 1.3 million Palestinians who for decades had been resisting Jewish settlement.”  
They note that, “This reticence to mention ‘the Arab problem’ in public was characteristic from the inception of Zionism, although most, including Herzl himself, recognized that a Jewish state would require the forceful removal of Palestinians. In a diary entry of 1895, Herzl had written: ‘We must expropriate gently the private property of the state assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment in our country.’ … At a meeting of Jewish Agency executives in June 1938, Ben Gurion declared, ‘I am for compulsory transfer. I do not see anything immoral in it.’”  
“We Have Taken Their Country”  
They point to Ben Gurion’s statement to Nahum Goldmann, President of the World Jewish Congress in 1956: “If I was an Arab leader, I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural; we have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, it’s true, but that was two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?”  
In the authors’ view, “Ben Gurion also introduced a major contradiction in Labor Zionism’s commitment to a secular state by using the Bible as the foundation for Israeli nationalism. Although he too was a thoroughgoing secularist, Ben Gurion saw the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine as a reflection of the Biblical stories of exodus from exile in Egypt and the conquest of the land of Canaan. ‘Since I invoke Torah so often,’ he declared, ‘let me state that I don’t personally believe in the God it postulates … I am not religious, nor were the majority of the early builders of Israel. Yet their passion for this land stemmed from the Book of Books … (The Bible is) the single most important book in my life.’”  
They cite the recent book, Chosen Peoples, in which sociologist Todd Gitlin and journalist Liel Leibovitz ask, “Why the continuing support, encouragement, and tolerance for the (religious) settlements and their expansion by one Israeli government after another? Why the consistency with which secularists have yielded to religious, millenarian settlers, even, at times, against strong opposition from the left?” They respond: “The answer must have something to do with the spiritual hold exercised by the settlers … The existence of a Jewish state was not sufficient unto itself … It was never the ultimate goal of Zionism … Zionism has always been a messianic movement at heart. Even its secular leaders acknowledged, however vaguely, the mission articulated by Isaiah and other prophets: ushering in peace and justice for all. That is why it remains so popular with Jews the world over.”  
Jewish Triumphalism of Universal Justice?  
Of particular interest is the chapter written by Rabbi Brant Rosen, for many years a congregational rabbi in Evanston, Illinois and the co-founder and co-chair of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council. He asks: “What is the Judaism we seek to affirm? Will it be based on values of Jewish triumphalism or on values of universal justice and dignity for all of God’s children? If the answer is indeed the latter, what would such a Judaism possibly look like?”  
Rabbi Rosen believes that, “We must affirm without hesitation that the voice of God speaks to us whenever the Torah exhorts us to pursue justice, to stand by the oppressed, to call out the oppressor, and to affirm universal values of dignity for all who dwell on earth. Conversely, we must be prepared to assert in no uncertain terms that those aspects of biblical and religious tradition that espouse triumphalism, xenophobia, and the extermination of indigenous people are not the voice of God at all … Jewish peoplehood became deeply invested with a religious exceptionalism that increasingly viewed the Jewish nation as God’s exclusively Chosen people … We cannot and should not gloss aspects of Jewish tradition that express a decidedly xenophobic belief in Jewish superiority over other peoples and religious traditions.”  
He recalls many Jewish voices which have rejected that formulation. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, for example, wrote that, “We cannot fail to recognize in the claims of Jewish superiority a kinship and resemblance to the similar claims of other national and other racial groups which have been advanced to justify oppression and exploitation. Such claims have been used in defense of the imperialistic exploitation of the yellow and black races by the whites on the ground that they were ‘the white man’s burden.’ They are the grounds for the German persecution of Jewry … They were in the past the grounds on which our own people rationalized their conquest and expropriation of the Canaanites. The highest ethical thought of our day views all such claims to the superiority of one race, nation or caste as detrimental to the interests of humanity and hence as essentially vicious.”  
Jewish Theology of Liberation  
Advocating a Jewish theology of liberation, Rabbi Rosen writes: “A voice that affirms claims of theological superiority in the name of one people cannot be the voice of God. A voice that asserts God’s word to humanity was vouchsafed exclusively to the children of Abraham cannot be the voice of God. A voice that looks to the messianic day in which all nations will ultimately serve the God of Israel cannot be the voice of God … The State of Israel is now the living embodiment of Judaism as empire. It demonstrates, all too tragically, the consequences of the quasi-Faustian bargain we have made with political nationalism. The Jewish people, for centuries, the victims of empire and guardians of a sacred tradition that promoted a spiritual alternative to the veneration of human power has betrayed its unique spiritual vision in favor of idolatrous nation-statism and militarism … In this sense, a Jewish theology of liberation would represent a return to certain profound religious strains in biblical and rabbinic tradition. It would mean affirming, as 1 Samuel would have it, that the overwhelming desire for national power is itself a kind of idolatry and a turning away from God. It would mean responding to national tragedy as the rabbis did: with the affirmation that mighty empires may come and go, but the Jewish people have survived because we have affirmed a transcendent power much greater than any human power.”  
In an essay concerning “Evangelicals and Christian Zionism,” Gary M. Burge, Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School, discusses the group Christians United for Israel, organized by Pastor John Hagee of San Antonio, which has been embraced by Zionist organizations. “Hagee frightens more than he inspires,” writes Burge. “Not only does he believe that his theological commitments give him biblically defensible views on Israel, but his eschatology has led him to call for America to strike out militarily against Israel’s opponents. Using the language of the Book of Revelation, Hagee looks to Iran as the incarnation of evil: ‘It’s 1938 all over again, Iran is Germany. Ahmadinejad is Hitler.’”  
Hagee’s answer, Burge points out, is to “launch a war that will end all war since it will bring an end to human history.” It is wrong to believe that Hagee’s views are in any way representative of evangelical theology. Burge reports that, “… most evangelical theologians are characteristically agnostic with regard to modern Israel’s theological significance. The proposition that we do strongly reject is that to be critical of Israel is the same as being anti-Semitic. Israel began as a secular state, the nation barely reflects the beautiful national aspirations of the scriptures, and it has made choices that would inspire harsh criticism from any Old Testament Prophet such as Amos or Isaiah.”  
Zeal for the End of the World  
The chief complaint of theologians with the Christian Zionism advocated by Hagee and others, notes Burge, “is the way in which this zeal for the end has shaped the ethic of Christian Zionists. Passion for seeing the Second Coming of Christ has come before a passion for justice and fairness. For instance, when presented with the remarkable losses of about 4 million Palestinians living under military occupation, Christian Zionists and others typically stand unmoved. Land cannot be returned and negotiations are against God’s will. During the summer of Hurricane Katrina, Hagee showed us the depth of his opposition to fair play for Palestinians. When the Israeli settlers were removed from Gaza by their own government, he issued a challenge during his interview with Bill Moyers: ‘I want to ask Washington a question. Is there a connection between 9,000 Jewish refugees being forcibly removed from their homes in the Gaza Strip now living in tents and the thousands of Americans who have been expelled from their homes by this tremendous work of nature, the hurricane Katrina? Is there a connection there? If you’ve got a better answer, I’ll like to hear it.’ Notice carefully what has just been said. God punished America with Hurricane Katrina because America supported the withdrawal of the Gaza settlers. It is this sort of outrageous interpretation that stuns and embarrasses mainstream evangelicals.”  
An essay by political scientist Herman Reuther and Rosemary Radford Reuther, a theologian who has taught at the School of Religion at Howard University and the Claremont Graduate School, shows how American Jews in the 19th and early 20th centuries largely opposed Zionism, in both its Jewish and Christian formulations. They write that, “The American Jewish community … reacted with outrage when Christian Zionists in 1891 appealed to President Harrison to support a renewed Jewish state in Palestine … These American Jews saw in Christian Zionism a scheme for deportation that threatened their status as U.S. citizens. For these Reform Jews, Judaism was a universal religion of Jews who were citizens of many nations. They even deleted the prayer for messianic restoration to Jerusalem from their prayerbook. Only with the outbreak of Nazi anti-Semitism in the 1930s and the systematic effort to exterminate Jews in Europe did the majority of Jews become converted to the support of Zionism in the 1940s.”  
A Muslim Voice  
A Muslim contributor, Mustafa Abu Sway, who teaches at Al Quds University in Jerusalem, describes the unequal treatment of Palestinians within the State of Israel and makes clear that his opposition to Zionism has nothing to do with any hostility to Judaism or Jews. In his view, “Today’s situation has nothing to do with religion per se. The original Arab population of the Holy Land belonged to different religions. There were Jebusite Arabs in control of Jerusalem before Prophet David became king; some of their Arab descendants have for the last two thousand years adhered to Christianity and most of them for the last fourteen hundred years to Islam. The Palestinian people lived ten thousand years ago in Jericho, the oldest known agricultural settlement in the world, seven thousand years before the Jewish sojourn took place, and over time they have practiced various religions. The history of the Holy Land is like a woman who is meant to survive the many husbands she has had over the years, with children from all of them. She grants legitimacy to her newest husband only if he treats all her children from previous marriages equally and with compassion. If not, there will always be one more suitor who pledges to do better.”  
The book concludes with a postscript by the Rev. Naim S. Ateek, a Palestinian Anglican priest, founder and director of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. He writes that, “In its evangelical Protestant manifestation, Zionism functions to justify and support the ongoing humiliation and dispossession, not primarily for the sake of Jews, but to hasten the return of Christ and be saved or be condemned to Hell … In its liberal Christian manifestation, Zionism serves as a ‘price-tag’ theology providing Christians with a vehicle of repentance for the guilt accrued during centuries of European Christian anti-Semitism which culminated in the Holocaust.”  
Stripping Word of God of Holiness  
The Rev. Ateek quotes from the document “Kairos Palestine: A Moment of Truth,” a document issued by Palestinian Christians in 2009. It states: “… we declare that any use of the Bible to legitimize or support political options and positions that are based upon injustice, imposed by one person on another, or by one people on another, transform religion into human ideology and strip the Word of God of its holiness, its universality and truth.”  
These essays are written from a variety of theological perspectives, Christian, Jewish and Muslim. What they have in common is their commitment to justice as a precondition for a lasting peace in the Holy Land. Since religion is so deeply intertwined in the dilemmas faced in the region, it is appropriate for men and women of faith to address the contentious issues involved. •

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.