With God on Our Side: Christian Zionism

I recently viewed With God on Our Side [1], a new documentary made by Christians, for Christians about Christian Zionism. I was reminded once again about how influential a force Christian Zionism continues to be in supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestine and justifying billions of dollars of U.S. aid to Israel. One of the results of this movement has been to de-legitimize and make invisible the presence of Palestinian, Lebanese, and Egyptian Arab-Christians. The movie holds up their voices and critiques Christian Zionism from their on-the-ground perspective. By juxtaposing the perspectives of everyday West Bank Palestinian Christian farmers, teachers, and other residents to the Biblical certitudes of Christian Zionists in the U.S., With God On Our Side offers us insight into just how destructive the impact of the latter has been.

There are many forces that influence U.S. foreign policy regarding Israel/Palestine such as the U.S. military, the U.S. arms industry, multinational oil companies and the U.S. strategy to try to control access to oil, the U.S. government’s desire for a proxy military force to carry out U.S. foreign policy goals in the area, and the often-noted Jewish pro-Israel lobby. Although generally acknowledged to be influential, the Jewish lobby’s power is likely to be seriously overestimated, especially when compared to the powerful pro-Israel Christian Zionist movement.

Christian Zionism is the broad, organized movement of Christians for the return of Jews to their “promised land,” and Jewish sovereignty over the historical area encompassing present-day Israel and, depending on the version, all of Jerusalem, Palestine, Syria, and parts of Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.

Some Christian Zionists believe that Jews must return to Israel before the End Times can begin (the End Times consist of all the apocalyptic events that will precede the coming of the Millennium as described in Revelation). Christian Zionist organizations and leadership both represent and influence the approximately 70 million evangelicals in the U.S., most 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. 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. With God on Our Side does a very effective job of pointing out how this would destroy the substantial Palestinian Christian communities that remain in the area.

Millions of other Christians don’t necessarily believe in an End Times scenario but do believe that God gave the Jewish people a deed to the land and He doesn’t change his mind. They also believe that God said “I will bless those who bless you and him who curses you I will curse.” (Genesis 12:3) They fear what might happen to our country if we don’t bless Israel. (According to biblical scholars the word “Israel” referred to the Jewish people, not to the land that is currently the political state of Israel.) There is also a more liberal or humanitarian branch of Christian Zionism that believes that Jews have been oppressed by Christians for a long time and that Christians have a god-given mandate—a debt and obligation–to protect Jews from further attack and to atone for Christian maltreatment by uncritically supporting the state of Israel.

Historically, the belief by 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 that popularized this idea [2]. By the 17th century, the conversion of the Jews was a major Christian concern, with many theologians predicting that this conversion and subsequent restoration was imminent [3]. In addition to William Blake, restoration was promoted by Napoleon Bonaparte, John Locke, Sir Isaac Newton, Lord Byron, Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, Herman Melville, Samuel Coleridge, John Milton, George Elliot, Robert Browning, and many others.

The Christian Zionist movement was well established in England and the United States by the mid-nineteenth century. When the small Jewish Zionist movement emerged in Europe at the end of the century, it did not have the clout and connections to swing significant support for a Jewish homeland. However, with Christian Zionist help in gaining access to the corridors of British imperial power and Christian Zionists in top government positions, the idea of a Jewish homeland gained serious credibility. It also aligned with key British political goals in the Middle East at a time when the Ottoman Empire was collapsing. In 1917, Christian Zionist Lord Balfour was able to achieve a British Declaration to support the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine [4].

The influence of Christian Zionism is evident today in widespread uncritical Christian support for Israel. U.S. foreign policy specialist Walter Russell Mead has written that this support “…is one of the most potent political forces in U.S. foreign policy…The American public has few foreign policy preferences that are this marked, this deep, this enduring—and this much at odds with public opinion in other countries.”[5] A July 2006 poll by the Pew Forum of Religion and Public Life found that 42 percent of all people in the U.S. believe “Israel was given to the Jewish people by God” and that 35 percent believe that Israel is “part of the fulfillment of biblical prophecy about the Second Coming of Jesus.” A slightly later poll by Zogby International found that 31 percent of people in the U.S. believe or strongly believe that Israel must have all the “promised land,” including Jerusalem, to prepare for the Second Coming [6]. Most of these people support Jewish settlement in the West Bank, oppose an independent Palestinian state, and many are active with their donations [7] and their votes [8] to promote their views.

Many of the powerful Christian conservatives in the U.S. have been Zionist, including Tim LaHaye, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell [9], Benny Hinn, Ralph Reed, Billy Graham, and Gary Bauer. Their over two hundred advocacy groups include the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem [10], Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, Christian Coalition, Southern Baptist Convention, Bridges for Peace, Jerusalem Friendship Fund, Jerusalem Prayer Team, Stand with Israel [11], Christian Broadcasting Network [12], International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Family Research Council, Council for National Policy, and Christians for Israel/USA [13]. 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 [14]. This money goes to a wide variety of projects including bringing 250,000 Russian and Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Christian Friends of Israeli Communities works with U.S. churches to “adopt” Jewish settlements in the West Bank [15]. They now fund programs in over a third of the Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories [16]. Many of these groups run “Holy Land” tours bringing hundreds of thousands of Christian tourists to Israel.

In other words, Christian Zionists have had a major impact on British and U.S. foreign policy in Israel/Palestine and the surrounding area. They originated the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine and promoted the idea with the English and U.S. government. They supported and encouraged Jewish Zionists, introduced them to key political leaders and built up broad public support for a Jewish homeland in both countries. Key British Zionists crafted and lobbied for the Balfour Declaration and U.S. Zionists lobbied for U.S. recognition of Israel in 1948 [17]. They also have worked hard to increase U.S. military and economic support for the state of Israel while simultaneously creating a broad-based culture of uncritical support of Israeli policies and expansionism.

More recently Christian Zionists in the U.S. have undermined peace talks by supporting Israel’s “right” to all of the West Bank and Gaza. Christian Zionists have also been very successful at maintaining on-going, large-scale public support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine through sermons, tours, exhibits, amusement parks, books, and radio and TV broadcasts.

Perhaps most disturbing, Christian Zionists have popularized Islamophobia and anti-Arab oppression through the media (such as the “Left Behind” books) and through their lobbying efforts. They have also supported belligerent U.S. foreign policy options directed towards Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria because of these countries’ “threats” to Israel.

Focusing mainly on the Jewish lobby, the mainstream media has provided little coverage of the role of Christian Zionists in undermining peace efforts in Israel/Palestine. This film, With God on Our Side, is a useful resource for breaking that silence by highlighting the voices of Palestinian Christians. Although it does not challenge Christian dominance and claims that Christians can provide solutions to the conflict, it can help Christians reexamine their uncritical support for aggression, expansion, and inflexibility by the Israeli government based on virtually unlimited political and military support from the United States. Appealing to ideals of Christian brotherhood and speaking from their unique position in the politics of the area, the film clearly demonstrates that Palestinian Christians have much of importance to add to the discussion within the Christian community about how Christians can best support efforts for peace in Israel/Palestine.

[1] With God on Our Side, dir. Porter Speakman Jr., Rooftop Productions, 2010. http://www.withgodonourside.com/index.html

[2] The World’s Great Restauration [sic] or Calling of the Jews and with them of all Nations and Kingdoms of the Earth to the Faith of Christ. Pieterse, Jan P. Nederveen. “The History of a Metaphor: Christian Zionism and the Politics of Apocalypse.” Christianity and Hegemony: Religion and Politics on the Frontiers of Social Change. Ed. Jan Dederveen Pieterse. New York: Berg Publishers, 1992. 199.

[3] Popkin, R.H. “Some Aspects of Jewish-Christian Theological Interchanges in Holland and England, 1640-1700.” Pieterse 202.

[4] All this despite the fact that at the eve of World War I only about one in a hundred Jews in the world had signaled their active support for Zionism. Fromkin, David. A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. London: Phoenix Press, 2000. 294.

[5] Mead, Walter Russell, “The New Israel and the Old: Why Gentile Americans Back the Jewish State.” Foreign Affairs July/August 2008. Available at http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/64446/walter-russell-mead/the-new-israel-and-the-old.

[6] Both polls are cited in Allies in Armageddon (Victoria Clark, Yale University Press, 2007, p.5).

[7] Evangelical contributions to Israel are estimated to be more than $1 billion a year. Victor, Barbara. The Last Crusade: Religion and the Politics of Misdirection. London: Constable, 2005. 187.

[8] The Christian Israel Political Action Committee (CIPAC) has 7 million people who are either members of this lobbying group or who contribute financially. Victor, Barbara. The Last Crusade: Religion and the Politics of Misdirection. London: Constable, 2005. 210.

[9] Falwell said in 1981: “To stand against Israel is to stand against God.”

[10] The ICEJ was founded in 1980 as an international, non-denominational symbol of Christian Zionist support for Israel’s incorporation of all of Jerusalem when it declared the city its capital but received no international recognition of its land grab.

[11] Stand for Israel, a collaborative creation of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian coalition, conducts an annual U.S. wide day of prayer for Israel which connects with 100,000 churches. Clark, 233.

[12] The Christian Broadcasting Network controls nearly 90% of religious radio and television in the U.S. and is dominated by Christian Zionists. Byler, J. Daryl, “Disturbing the Peace: Christian Zionism Shapes U.S. Policy.” Peace Office Newsletter, Mennonite Central Committee, Vol. 35 #3 (July-Sept. 2005): 12. The CBN broadcasts in 180 countries in 71 languages. (Clark, 158.)

[13] Salaita, Steven. Anti-Arab Racism in the USA: Where it Comes from and What it Means for Politics Today. London: Pluto Press, 2006. 170.

[14] Broadway, Bill, “The Evangelical-Israeli Connection,” Washington Post 27 March 2004, Sec. B. (Quoted in Salaita, 181). See also Zev Chafets, “The Rabbi Who Loved Evangelicals (and Vice Versa)”, New York Times 24 July 2005.

[15] Kirsch, Jonathan. A History of the End of the World, HarperOne, 237.

[16] Broadway, Bill, “The Evangelical-Israeli Connection,” Washington Post, 27 March 2004, Sec. B. (Quoted in Salaita, 181).

[17] A Gallup poll in June 1948, a month after Truman recognized Israel, showed that almost three times as many Americans “sympathized with the Jews” as “sympathized with the Arabs.” Cited in Walter Russell Mead, “The New Israel and the Old: Why Gentiles Americans Back the Jewish State,” Foreign Affairs Vol 87 #4, July-Aug. 2008.

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