Christian Zionism's Own Reality Check

07.12.12 7:30 PM ET

Growing up in the evangelical church, support for Israel was simply part of the culture. It was just accepted that the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, heralding the Last Days and the return of Jesus to the earth. In Sunday school we performed plays from the Old Testament. This history was part of our own history, and the miracle of the modern State of Israel was seen as proof that God continued to work in the world.

The Palestinians… who were they? They didn’t figure in. They were invisible.

Like many who grow up in the church, in high school I started to have doubts about some of the simple narratives with which I was raised. Eventually, it was a conversation with a professor at the Christian college that I attended that brought home the basic truth that, while both sides have suffered and bear a measure of blame for the conflict, there’s no way to square the message of Jesus with support for Israel’s policies of occupation and settlement.

So when I read Christians United for Israel director David Brog’s post on Tuesday, in which he detailed Christian Zionists’ views on Israel, I felt a strong familiarity. Just as with the way I learned about the conflict as a child, the Palestinians went unmentioned. They were invisible.

Brog cited two Bible verses, familiar to any Sunday school kid like myself, one from the Book of Genesis and another from the Book of Joel, to justify Christian Zionists’ belief that “all of the land of Israel—including the West Bank—belongs to the Jewish people.” But it’s worth noting that, while Jesus said a lot about helping the poor, being peacemakers, and living righteously, he said absolutely nothing about land, or the importance of controlling it. So it’s odd that Christian Zionists should make control of land such a focus of their advocacy.

The truth is that the Holy Land is claimed by two peoples, Jewish and Palestinian, and the reality is that the Israeli occupation, and the settlement enterprise that it sustains, exacts daily hardship and suffering on Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians, as shown in a recent 60 Minutes report. Brog’s argument, and the apparent lack of concern it shows for the actual human beings impacted by the policies that Brog supports, seems to me utterly divorced from Jesus' message of mercy and forgiveness. It’s difficult for me to understand how anyone claiming to follow the Jesus of the Gospels could overlook this suffering in favor of two (far out of historical context) Old Testament verses. Israel clearly has legitimate security concerns in the West Bank, especially in the wake of the disastrous Second Intifada. But those concerns are exacerbated, rather than diminished, by introducing religious justifications into the mix.

I was also struck by Brog’s explanation for CUFI’s refusal to criticize any Israeli policy. “At CUFI’s creation, our founders made an important and controversial decision,” Brog wrote. “They concluded that no matter what their personal views, they do not wish to sit in the safety of America and tell the Israelis what to do. Israel is a democracy, and a rather vibrant one at that. CUFI’s mission is to support the democratically elected government of Israel rather than dictate to it.” But, of course, criticizing is not dictating. Is there any other government in the world to which Brog outsources his own moral judgment in this way? Does this special dispensation apply to all democratically elected governments? For instance, does Brog believe that the democratically elected government of Turkey is similarly above criticism? I doubt it.

Finally, while Brog complains in his piece that misconceptions about Christian Zionism are the result of "anti-Christian bias", it’s worth noting that CUFI’s own message of support for Israel is unfortunately often couched in language that reveals a deep and troubling anti-Muslim bias. In a 2006 interview, CUFI’s founder Rev. John Hagee insisted that “Those who live by the Koran”—i.e. all observant Muslims—“have a scriptural mandate to kill Christians and Jews.” In 2007, Hagee said that dividing Jerusalem between Israelis and Palestinians – which is broadly understood as necessary for any workable peace deal—“would be like giving it to the Taliban.” Hagee’s sermons constantly promote a war between the Judeo-Christian world and Islam. Indeed, Hagee’s views were judged to be so extreme that Sen. John McCain rejected Hagee’s endorsement in 2008.

I note also that CUFI's upcoming conference in Washington, D.C. will feature Steven Emerson and Frank Gaffney, two speakers with long histories of false, inflammatory, and offensive statements about Muslims and the Islamic faith. It’s ironic, to say the least, that Brog complains about "anti-Christian bias" while his own organization promotes the very same against Muslims.

I offer these questions and criticisms as someone who shares an evangelical background with Christian Zionists. The stories of the Old Testament, the moral lessons that they impart, the wrestling with tough ethical questions that they contain, are part of my religious and cultural heritage, of which I’m immensely grateful and proud. But our common New Testament heritage calls upon us to be peacemakers and strivers for justice. To stand silently in the face of suffering does not honor this heritage. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has taken an enormous toll on both peoples. It has more than enough voices uncritically committed to one side or the other. What we need—now more than ever—are voices encouraging both sides to make the tough concessions required for peace.