Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Jews and the Perils of Christian Zionism | Righting America

by William Trollinger

 Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister, Tzipi Hotovely,  Rabbi Dr. Shlomo RiskinDavid Nekrutman and Rabbi Dr. Kenneth BranderPastor John Hagee and Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 11, 2018. Photo courtesy of the Center for Jewish–Christian Understanding and Cooperation 

In his recent Tikkun article, “Today’s Christian-Jewish Zionist Alliance Imperils American Jewry,” Jim Sleeper (author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York) makes the fascinating argument that America at its best bears the marks of something like a “Judeo-Puritan” consensus. As Sleeper sees it, 

[while] early Protestant Christianity in America gave to conscientious dissent a legitimacy and strength that Hebraism had not, . . . Hebraism offset Christian tendencies toward monkish or airy otherworldliness with a moral order grounded concretely in law.

For Sleeper, this “civic-republican balance of public obligation and inner integrity” was perhaps best seen in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s. Sleeper argues that these movements cannot “be understood without reference to the Puritan and Hebraic wellsprings from which King [who quite explicitly drew upon the Hebrew Scriptures] and others drew the strength to face dogs, fire hoses, and even murder.”

The contemporary Christian-Jewish Zionist alliance is a far, far cry from the civil rights and antiwar movements. Much more important, it is an alliance of convenience that places American Jews in great peril. Sleeper – who “is deeply supportive . . . of Israel’s flourishing” – points out that the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) has eagerly embraced folks like Steve Bannon – who has tight connections with white nationalist and anti-Semitic groups – as well as right-wing fundamentalist firebrands such as John Hagee. All of this is quite problematic:

ZOA members who indulge an [extremely apocalyptic] Christian Zionist theology . . . are hollowing out American Jewry’s and the American republic’s fragile foundations. They’re enlarging the frightening civic vacuum into which have swept Glenn Beck, the torch-bearing, anti-Semitic Charlottesville rioters, and the perpetrator [of the] Pittsburgh synagogue massacre.

Many American evangelicals are Christian Zionists; that is to say, they are big supporters of the state of Israel. Much of this has to do with their belief in some version of dispensational premillennialism, the apocalyptic system developed by John Nelson Darby in the middle of the nineteenth century. According to this system, reading the Bible (in particular, the books of Daniel and Revelation) provides a sure guide to the past, present, and future of history. As regards the present, we are living in a time of increasing apostasy and decadence. But near the end of our current historical moment the Jews will return to Palestine, which will be followed soon by Christ’s return in the air to retrieve the faithful. After this “rapture” there will be seven years of “tribulation,” followed by the return of Jesus and his army of saints to annihilate the enemy and establish God’s millennial kingdom. 

All this to say that, in the contemporary version of dispensational premillennialism, the State of Israel is a biblically foretold sign of the second coming of Jesus. Hence the Zionism of the Christian Right. And organizations such as the ZOA are quite willing to work with the Christian Right, as they are all in for Israel. 

But it is very important to note that according to dispensational premillennialism, in the end Jews must either accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, or they will be consigned to hell. And while Jewish Zionists can shrug this off as nonsense, it should give them pause that, for folks in the Christian Right, Jews as Jews don’t matter. As Robert Smith cogently observes in his excellent book, More Desired Than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism, “Darby [the architect of dispensational premillennialism] viewed Jews not as real persons, but as literary tropes in his world of prophecy interpretation” (158). Thus, and as I note in my review of Smith’s book (which Sleeper quotes), it “might make sense in the political short-term” for Jewish Zionists to welcome support from the Christian Right, but “enabling such typecasting carries with it significant dangers, given that the prophetic script can change (particularly if Jews do not play their Christian-assigned roles).” 

Jews are but bit players in the evangelical apocalyptic drama. Not a reassuring word for Jews, notwithstanding Christian Right support for Israel.