Zionism is a very obvious example of religion bound up with politics. The majority of the early Zionists at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries were secular Jews, while the majority of orthodox Jews opposed Zionism. But it did not take long for Zionist leaders to start appealing to the Hebrew scriptures to support their claim to the land. This is how Ilan Pappe describes this development:
The fusion of socialism with Zionism began in earnest after Herzl’s death in 1904, as the various socialist factions became the leading parties in the World Zionist movement and on the ground in Palestine. For socialists, as one of them said, the Bible provided ‘the myth for our right over the land.’ It was in the Bible that they read stories about Hebrew farmers, shepherds, kings and wars, which they appropriated as describing the ancient golden era of their nation’s birth. Returning to the land meant coming back to become farmers, shepherds, and kings. Thus, they found themselves faced with a challenging paradox, for they want to secularize Jewish life and to use the Bible as a justification for colonizing Palestine. In other words, though they did not believe in God, He had nonetheless promised them Palestine. For many Zionist leaders, the reference in the Bible to the land of Palestine was just a means to their ends, not the essence of Zionism … With Herzl’s death in 1904, and the rise of his successors, Zionism homed in on Palestine and the Bible became even more of an asset than before as proof of a divine Jewish right to the land…From that moment on, the Bible became both the justification and the route map for the Zionist colonization of Palestine.1
Many writers have used the word ‘messianic’ to describe the new fervour among Israeli Jews after the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in the Six Day War of June 1967. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, for example, has written: “The Israeli public were overcome by the intoxication of national pride, military arrogance, and fantasies of the glory of messianic deliverance.”2
The Bible is still being used as the basis for Jewish claims to the land, as Ilan Pappe explains:
Israeli educational textbooks now carry the same message of the right to the land based on a biblical promise. According to a letter sent by the education ministry in 2014 to all schools in Israel: ‘the Bible provides the cultural infrastructure of the state of Israel, in it our right to the land is anchored.’ Bible studies are now a crucial and expanded component of the curriculum – with a particular focus on the Bible as recording an ancient history that justifies the claim to the land. The biblical stories and the national lessons that can be learned from them are fused together with the study of the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. There is a direct line from this 2014 letter back to the evidence given by David Ben-Gurion in 1937 to the Royal Peel Commission (the British inquiry to try to find a solution to the emerging conflict). In the public discussions on the future of Palestine, Ben-Gurion waved a copy of the Bible at the members of the committee, shouting: ‘This is our Qushan [the Ottoman land registry proof], our right to Palestine does not come from the Mandate Charter, the Bible is our Mandate Charter.3
At the present time, there are around 600,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. It is estimated that around a third of these are economic settlers taking advantage of favorable economic conditions for buying properties. Around a third are described as ideological settlers who are there because they believe that the West Bank is part of Eretz Israel which was promised by God to Abraham and his descendants. No doubt we have all seen on television pictures of these settlers saying ‘This land is ours because God promised it to us.’
Under this heading, we need to include Christian Zionism. Support among Christians for the idea of Jews returning to the land goes back to the Puritans in the 17th century and became stronger during the 19th century – especially in the USA. It is a strange irony of history, therefore, that there was such a thing as Christian Zionism long before the Zionist movement itself came into existence. And it can be argued that Christians played a very significant role in preparing the ground for the acceptance of the Zionist vision in Europe and America. The Rev William Henry Hechler, for example, who was chaplain at the British Embassy in Vienna, befriended Theodore Herzl in the year 1898, just a few weeks after the publication of Herzl’s The Jewish State, and played a significant role in encouraging Herzl’s Zionist vision and eventually introducing him to the Kaiser, the German Emperor.
Many Christian Zionists today have a very clear agenda and are prepared to support the state of Israel and its policies almost without question. Their biblical interpretation and theology dictate clear political stances in relation to Israel. Here, for example, is a Jewish Messianic leader, Daniel Juster, who believes that biblical teaching about justice and the land must take precedence over any human concepts of human rights and international law:
My contention is that although these types of reasoning [about human rights] will dominate the councils of the unredeemed institutions of the nation, such reasoning must not dominate those who embrace biblical faith … If the Jewish people do not submit to the law of God and are instead a lawless people, or if they replace God’s law with human laws which contradict that law, they will find themselves suffering and resisted by God himself. By the same rule, if Palestinians refuse to recognize what God says about the Jewish people and their connection to the land of Israel, then suffering will result … So if the Palestinians do not acknowledge God’s promise, they are foundationally unjust and are themselves resisted by God and lose their rights in this land.4
At the present time it’s estimated that there are anything between 50 and 80 million evangelical Christians in the USA who enthusiastically support the state of Israel. 81% of white evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump, and it’s thought that evangelical Christians probably make up around a quarter of Donald Trump’s power base. His Vice-President, Mike Pence, is a very committed and articulate evangelical Christian, and some months ago there were photographs circulating of a group of pastors standing around Trump at his desk in the Oval Office and praying over him. An evangelical pastor took part in the ceremony of the opening of the new American Embassy in Jerusalem, and it has been suggested that Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem was in part pay-back to the evangelical community for their consistent and enthusiastic support.
This is an excerpt from a presentation by Colin Chapman at the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide Seminar, October 9, 2018. Click here to listen to the entire lecture titled: Can Religion and Politics be Separated in the Middle East Today?
1 Pappe, Ilan, Ten Myths about Israel, Verso 2017, 31–32.
2 Raz, Avi, The Bride and the Dowry. Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians in the aftermath of the June 1967 War, Yale 2012, 267.
3 Pappe, Ilan, Ten Myths about Israel, 39–40.
4 Juster, Dan, ‘A Messianic Jew Looks at the Land Promises’, in: The Land Cries Out. Theology of the land in the Israeli-Palestinian context, ed, by Salim J. Munayer and Lisa Loden, Cascade 2012, 68,79