By Paul Kivel
Christian Zionism refers to the movement of Christians who interpret the Bible to say that God gave the Jews the divine right to rule over Israel, which they interpret to encompass the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and Jerusalem including Haram al-Sharif (the Temple Mount). It is much more than a pro-Israel, pro-Zionist lobby. It is a widespread network of individual and institutional support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine that has taken various forms over the last 400 years.
The Christian Zionist movement has a significant impact on U.S. foreign policy in Palestine/Israel. This movement is powerful, extensive, well-organized, and effective. At times it works with and supports the Jewish pro-Israel lobby, but it is completely independent and has its own religious and political agenda.
According to Pastor John Hubers with the Institute for the Study of Christian Zionism, today Christian Zionism is characterized by a few core beliefs including:
1. God’s covenant with Israel is eternal, unchanging and unconditional.
2. The Bible gives Christians the obligation to support Israel, otherwise harm will come to them and to the United States. Many Christian Zionists cite Genesis 12:3 as proof of this mandate: “I will bless those who bless you and him who curses you I will curse.”
3. The prophetic books of the Bible such as Daniel and Revelations refer to current times, not Biblical times.
4. The modern state of Israel is a catalyst for the final prophetic countdown to the end of the world.
A substantial number of Christians support Israel as a vehicle for accelerating the end-time prophecies so heavily emphasized by Christian fundamentalists. But there are also many Christians who do not believe in End Time scenarios who uncritically support Israel because of the other Biblical mandates mentioned above. According to Pastor Hubers, “It would not be an exaggeration to say the majority of American Christians who give uncritical support to Israel today have been influenced in one way or another by the tenets of Christian Zionism whether they buy the package or not.”
Christian Zionist organizations and leadership both represent and influence the approximately 70 million evangelicals in the U.S., a majority of whom are passionately committed to supporting the state of Israel no matter what its policies and have great antipathy towards Muslims and Arabs in general — and Palestinians in particular. Besides lobbying for pro-Israeli expansionist policies, Christian Zionists also provide a tremendous amount of direct financial support to Israel, coordinate a large pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian constituency, and give direct aid to illegal settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. In fact, as the rest of this article documents, the history of the creation of and continuing support for the state of Israel has been largely determined by ruling class Christian Zionists in Britain and, more recently, in the U.S.
Historically, the belief by some Christians that Jews must be gathered to the “Holy Land” dates back to 1585 when Rev. Thomas Brightman advocated Jewish restoration in Palestine. One of his students wrote a treatise in 1621 which popularized this idea. By the 17th century the conversion of the Jews was a major Christian concern, with many theologians predicting that their conversion and subsequent “restoration” was imminent. Belief in the critical nature of the Restoration of the Jews to Palestine wasn’t exclusive to theologians. It was promoted by Napoleon Bonaparte, John Locke, Sir Isaac Newton, Lord Byron, Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, Herman Melville, Samuel Coleridge, John Milton, George Eliot, Robert Browning, and many others.
In 1811, Rev. Lewis Way generously funded the recently established London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews. But perhaps the most important 19th century Christian Zionist was Irish pastor John Darby (1800-1882), a missionary for the idea of Jewish restoration for over 60 years, who traveled extensively preaching this cause. His fervor about conversion and restoration of the Jews and the alignment of this policy with British imperial interests gathered many influential supporters, including the extremely well-connected Lord Ashley, a very prominent British politician. Lord Ashley was the person who popularized the phrase, “A nation without a country for a country without a nation,” a phrase not widely used by Jewish Zionists until the mid-twentieth century campaign to sell the world on the concept of a Jewish homeland.
The beginnings of a Jewish Zionist movement came together in the mid-nineteenth century fueled by rising nationalism and anti-Semitism throughout Europe. This Jewish movement was strongly supported by British Christian Zionists who had three major goals. They wanted to rid England of Jews (anti-Semitism); they wanted to establish a British trade outpost in the Middle East in preparation for the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (British imperialism and capitalism); and they wanted the Jews to be restored to Palestine so Biblical prophecy could be fulfilled (Christian Zionism). There was also humanitarian concern on the part of a small number of Christian Zionists, such as well-known author George Eliot, for the plight of the Jews in Russia during the period of pogroms. By supporting Jewish Restoration as it was called, prominent Britons could be humanitarians on behalf of the Jews while not having to accept them as residents of Britain or its colonies — anti-Semitism under the guise of Christian charity and self-interest.
Christian hegemony has always worked to further extend, and then to justify, the imperial ambitions of Christian ruling elites by pitting Arabs and Jews against each other. The British had designs on the declining Ottoman Empire and were in competition with the French for influence in the area. Palestine was a political division of the Ottoman Empire and viewed as a prime area for extending British influence. Historically, Arabs and small numbers of Jews had lived together in Palestine for long periods of time in generally amicable relationship. Christian Zionism created the impression that Arabs and Jews had competing interests and Palestine could only be ruled by one or another of the two groups. They conveniently believed Jews had the prior moral claim on the land, even though there were only a few thousand Jews settled in the area.
In the late nineteenth century, Christian Zionists such as William Hechler introduced Theodor Herzl, head of the emerging Jewish Zionist movement, to the Turkish Sultan (who controlled Palestine), to the German Kaiser, and to major British politicians including Lord Balfour and David Lloyd-George.
The Jewish Zionist movement did not have the clout and connections to swing significant support for a Jewish homeland. But with Christian Zionist support in gaining access to the corridors of British imperial power and Christian Zionists in top government positions, the idea of a Jewish homeland gained widespread support because it also served key British political goals in the Middle East.
After a hundred years of lobbying by Christian Zionists, and more recent work by Jewish Zionists, in 1917 anti-Semitic Christian Zionist Lord Balfour was able to achieve a British Declaration to support the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. This Balfour Declaration also guaranteed protection of the civil and religious rights of the Palestinians. In 1939, the British government went further and, while still supporting a Jewish homeland, also assured the Palestinians that Jewish migration would be limited and committed itself to the establishment of a Palestinian state within the next decade.
By the end of the 19th century, Christian Zionism had also gathered momentum in the United States. A disciple of Rev. John Darby, the apocalyptic preacher William Blackstone, decided that to hasten the second coming,the U.S. should make the ingathering of Jews to Palestine a priority of U.S. foreign policy. In 1891, he delivered a petition to President Harrison, signed by over four hundred prominent U.S. Christian politicians and business leaders urging a focus on a Jewish homeland. This was before Herzl composed The Jewish State (1896) and before the first Jewish Zionist Congress (1897). Blackstone was recognized as a “Father of Zionism” at a major Jewish conference in 1918. Not a friend to Jews, like most prominent Christian Zionists, he ardently believed that when the Jews did gather “…in the land of Israel [they] were destined to suffer and die during the reign of the Antichrist and to burn in hell for the rest of eternity.
The United States, lobbied by both Jewish and Christian Zionists and in conjunction with its own imperial interests and anti-Arab and anti-Islamic biases, eventually came to replace Britain as the main supporter of Israel in the Middle East. In 1948, President Truman, although not a believer in the end times scenario, did believe in the Manifest Destiny of the U.S. to lead the countries of the world to freedom. He also used his reading of the Bible to justify U.S. recognition of the State of Israel minutes after its independence was declared. At another level, Truman, believing the U.S. was in an international conflict with the evil and godless Soviet Union, wanted to beat them to the punch with this foreign policy coup because of the significance of Israel to the Christian “free” world.
For many Christians in the United States, U.S. support for Israel was not just for the Jews. The special role of the United States in the restoration of the Jews fulfilled their expectations about the unfolding of history and confirmed their beliefs about the United States’ unique role and mission — its manifest destiny to fulfill the divine plan. In other words, they believe the continued existence of the Jewish people and their promised return to Palestine was proof “for the existence of God and for His power in history.” It also confirmed the truth of the Bible and of Biblical prophecy.
Even today, for many Christian Zionists, the day Israeli independence was declared — May 15, 1948 — is considered the single most important date in the twentieth century because it was a sign of God’s plan being fulfilled. Israel is sometimes referred to as “God’s timepiece” by major Christian Zionists, such as Hal Lindsey.
But despite Truman’s support and widespread popular enthusiasm for this newly created state, general U.S. foreign policy did not place much emphasis on support for Israel until the 1967 war which forced U.S. policy makers to reevaluate Israel’s usefulness as an ally to the empire. Meanwhile, in the 1950s and ‘60s, Christian Zionist efforts to focus attention on support for Israel began to pick up momentum. In 1970, the publication of Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth, which has since sold over 30 million copies in 54 languages, launched the rise and consolidation of the current generation of Christian Zionism.
Recent U.S.-based Christian Zionist efforts to support the state of Israel are just a new chapter in an old tradition of apocalyptic Christianity, which is an influential subset of Christian hegemony. Not only does it promote an unconditional support for Israeli policies and expansion, but it also promotes long-standing western Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism that fuels further violence in the Middle East and anti-Arab and anti-Muslim violence in the U.S. In the rhetoric of Christian Zionists, Palestinians have no claim to the land, have no legitimate grievances, and should simply be driven from the area and dispersed to other Arab countries. Deeply reminiscent of U.S. genocidal policies towards Native Americans, the level of racism and Islamophobia in Christian Zionist policy promotes an uncompromising, expansionist, no-peace-negotiation stance on the part of Israel and the U.S. towards the Palestinians and continues to be a major obstacle to any progress in ending the violence and creating a lasting and just solution to the crisis in this area of the world.
Most of the powerful Christian conservatives in the U.S. are and have been Zionist, including Tim LaHaye, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Benny Hinn, Ralph Reed, Billy Graham, Franklin Graham, John Hagee and Gary Bauer. Their over 200 advocacy groups include the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, Christians and Jews United for Israel, Christian Coalition, Southern Baptist Convention, Bridges for Peace, Jerusalem Friendship Fund, Jerusalem Prayer Team, Stand with Israel, Christian Broadcasting Network, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Family Research Council, Council for National Policy, Christians for Israel/USA, and what has become the largest of them all with over five million members, Christians United for Israel.
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews alone, with a donor base of 500,000, raised around $250 million for Israel between 1995 and 2005. This money goes to a wide variety of projects, including bringing 250,000 Russian and Ethiopian Jews to settle in Israel. Christian Friends of Israeli Communities works with U.S. churches to “adopt” Jewish settlements in the West Bank. By 2006 they had funded programs in over a third of the Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories. Many of these groups run tours of the “Holy Land,” bringing hundreds of thousands of tourists to Israel.
These Christian groups with a Christian Zionist agenda — all of them tax-exempt and therefore government subsidized non-profit organizations — raise and spend millions of dollars lobbying in Washington on behalf of Israel and its occupation. They also intervene in the foreign policy debate on the Palestine-Israel issue. For example, after the Al-Aqsa Intifada began in 2000, Christian Zionist groups sent thousands of visitors to Israel on Solidarity Missions.
Recently, Christian Arabs in the Middle East and U.S. Christian denominations have been denouncing Christian Zionists and their war-mongering and imperialist policies, but with little effect. In 2006 Arab leaders of the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, and Lutheran churches in Jerusalem jointly declared that:
“Christian Zionism is a modern theological and political movement that embraces the most extreme ideological positions of Zionism, thereby becoming detrimental to a just peace within Palestine and Israel. The Christian Zionist programme provides a worldview where the Gospel is identified with the ideology of empire, colonialism and militarism. … We call upon Christians in Churches on every continent to pray for the Palestinian and Israeli people, both of whom are suffering as victims of occupation and militarism.
Beyond their lobbying, funding, and organizing work, Christian Zionists have had an even more powerful longer-term impact on mainstream Christian views of the Middle East. Today, tens of millions of Protestant Christians in the United States and more around the world support Israel with an uncritical fervor, often exceeding even Jewish support. They also supported the war against Iraq in large numbers and currently are pushing for war with Iran. The majority of U.S. Christians who give unqualified support for Israel today has been influenced in one way or another by the tenets of Christian Zionism disseminated over the last 150 years by conferences, missions, the Moody Bible School, the Scofield bible study guide, sermons, tracts, articles, and best-selling books and movies such as the “Left Behind” series. Because of this legacy and the constant labelling by Zionists of any criticism of the Israeli Occupation of Palestine as anti-Semitic, Christian organizations are often confused about how to respond to illegal and internationally condemned Israeli policies.
Some Christian groups such as Churches for Middle East Peace have a history of supporting demands for Palestinian liberation, and some have criticized Christian Zionists. However, Christian Zionist propaganda and Jewish pro-Israeli campaigns have made it difficult and challenging for most mainstream Christian groups to take a critical stand against Israeli aggression. In addition, they know Christian Zionists are no less willing than their Jewish pro-Israel lobby counterparts to brand criticism of Israel’s policies and actions as anti-Semitic.
It is clear the Christian Zionist lobby has established a pervasive influence in Washington DC. Decades ago, Jewish pro-Israel leaders recognized the crucial resources that Christian Zionists could bring to their campaign for unqualified support for Israel’s aggression in the Middle East. U.S. ruling elites and the U.S. military/industrial complex have their own imperialist agendas and are only too willing to “respond” to lobbying from Jewish and Christian Zionists when it suits their purposes.
All of these groups thrive on a climate of unending war on terror and on media portrayals of Muslims and Arabs as irredeemable enemies of western civilization. Together they foster an environment of fear and hatred among a large constituency in the United States who support war, dehumanization, and violence towards Palestinians, Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Afghanis–all those in West Asia who are outside of Christianity and its designated protectorate, Jews in the Holy Land. As journalist Victoria Clark notes, “One has to look back as far as the Crusades to find another example of such a large group of outsiders involving themselves in the Middle East on a religious pretext….” Policy analyst Walter Russell Mead echoes the significance of the Christian Zionist movement when he writes, “One thing, at least, seems clear. In the future, as in the past, U.S. policy toward the Middle East will, for better or worse, continue to be shaped primarily by the will of the American [Christian] majority, not the machinations of any minority, however wealthy or engaged in the political process some of its members may be.”
U.S. policy in the Middle East is shaped by diverse forces, such as U.S. foreign policy goals, the Dept. of Defense, and the military/industrial complex, including the arms, aviation, and oil industries. The Jewish pro-Israeli lobby and the governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia also play significant roles. But we are missing a crucial piece if we ignore the centuries-old role Christian Zionism plays in shaping policy decisions and public opinion, in supporting the Jewish Zionist agenda, and in providing direct support to the Israeli government and Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It is time for us to understand and challenge the role Christian Zionist institutions and leaders play in supporting Israel’s devastating occupation of Palestine and fomenting continuing aggression and war throughout the Middle East.