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November 23, 2014 | 1st Kislev 5775

Christian Zionism? Is it good for North American Jews and good for Israel?

CCAR Convention, April 2, 2008
“Christian Zionism: Is it good for North American Jews and good for Israel?”
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President, Union for Reform Judaism

Let us imagine the following: A group of Christian Americans affirm their deep love for the State of Israel. This love, rooted in their Evangelical Christian faith, is expressed through concrete acts of support and commitment. While remaining resolutely non-political, these Americans visit Israel whenever they can, condemn acts of terror directed at Israeli citizens, provide generous financial support to Israelis in need, and are the first to raise their voices when Israel is under military attack.

If this were to happen, what should we as Jewish Americans be saying to this group of our fellow citizens? The answer, it seems to me, is quite simple. We should be saying: Thank you.

I don’t deny that I would have some concerns. Knowing something about their religious beliefs, I would wonder if they were trying to bolster the Jewish state in order to fulfill their prophecies of Armageddon and the Second Coming. And I would wonder too at what it might mean to make common cause with those who oppose both a woman’s right to choose and basic justice for gays and lesbians.

Nonetheless, as weighty as these considerations might be, they would not lead me to change course. For me, the reestablishment of the Jewish state demonstrates the triumph of the Jewish spirit over the vicissitudes of history; and yes, surely I would prefer that others embrace Israel for the same reasons that I do. In my experience, however, motivations are notoriously hard to judge. Given the profound dangers that Israel faces, and assuming that support for Israel is not being used as a cover to convert Jews, then perhaps if people are doing the right things for the wrong reasons, the sensible course is to see that as their problem and not mine.

As for the right to choose and rights for gays and lesbians, these are not incidental matters for Reform Jews; they speak to our most fundamental convictions about human dignity and the proper reading of our tradition. Still, in order to advance both our interests and our principles, our Reform Movement frequently joins in coalitions with certain groups on certain issues while disagreeing with them elsewhere; and the fact is that neither abortion rights nor gay rights has been a litmus test when we determine which alliances are appropriate for us and which are not. The Catholic Church, for example, opposes our positions in both of these areas, and yet we work with the Church on immigration and economic justice and a range of other matters where our values are closely aligned. As a matter of logic and justice, therefore, we cannot apply a standard to Christian Zionists that we do not apply equally to others.

And yes, I have other concerns as well. I can think of no compelling reason why American Christians should not raise money for the Jews of Israel, but I must tell you that it is a phenomenon that leaves me uncomfortable; we seem to be taking the culture of schnorr to a whole new level. If time permits, I will return to this subject later. But on balance, I remain committed to the proposition with which I started: Christian Zionists, as I have defined them, are entitled to our gratitude, and are surely not a threat to the Jewish state. And I believe that Rabbi Eckstein tries to operate largely within the parameters that I have described.

But here is the problem: The Christian Zionists that I have described are not the dominant strain of Christian Zionism in America today. Indeed, when most Americans, Christian or Jewish, think about Christian Zionism, they think about something else altogether. They think about Pastor John Hagee and Pastor Rod Parsley; they think about Christians United for Israel and the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. In short, they think about the people and institutions that have set the course of Christian Zionism and have defined its character in American eyes.

Let us step back for a moment and define our terms.

Approximately one-fourth of Americans, or 75 million people, identify as Evangelical Christians. Evangelical Christianity has its roots in the Bible belt fundamentalism of the early 20th century, which was rural, small-town, and sometimes racist, but it has moved in new directions in the last fifty years. Today it can best be described as a post-fundamentalist phenomenon, characterized by respect for biblical authority, a high Christology, a commitment to evangelizing (which means making converts), and a commitment to public life. Evangelicals are a diverse group. In the public realm, there is near unanimity on opposing gay marriage and abortion, but much difference of opinion on everything else.

Overwhelmingly, Evangelicals are sympathetic to Israel, as are most Americans, but while most Christian Zionists are Evangelicals, it would be a mistake to think that most Evangelicals are Christian Zionists. Christian Zionists are those in the Evangelical community for whom the doctrine of Jewish restoration is central to their theology and the support of Israel is central to their Christian practice. Assigning numbers is difficult, but many experts suggest that perhaps 20 million Americans can be classified as Christian Zionists.

In these circles, as I’ve indicated, the most prominent organizational presence by far is John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel. Hagee has brought together under the CUFI banner the leading religious and political voices of Christian Zionism, including Gary Bauer, Pastor Jonathan Falwell, and Pastor Rod Parsley. Make no mistake: these are leaders with deep emotional and religious ties to the Jewish state and who care profoundly and sincerely about her welfare. And therefore many ask: Can’t we work with them on the agenda that we share – love for Israel, travel to Israel, philanthropic support for Israel – and put aside the issues on which we disagree? Can’t we build a selective alliance with them on the same basis that we build a selective alliance with other religious groups?

And the answer is: no, we cannot.

This is not a matter of whether or not we should be engaging in respectful dialogue with Evangelicals and Christian Zionists. We should always be supportive of such dialogues and we should embrace in friendship all of our Christian brothers and sisters. It is precisely for that reason that at the invitation of Rev. Jerry Falwell I traveled to Liberty University, addressed the student body, and engaged in discussion with university officials.

But we are talking here not about dialogue but about political alliances, which demand of us a higher standard and which require both common values and common interests. And I suggest that we should not enter into such alliances with Christian Zionists for two primary reasons.

The first is that Jews should not enter into alliances of any kind with those who do not speak respectfully of other faith communities. And sadly, tragically, Christian Zionist leaders have engaged in repeated attacks, expressed sometimes in shocking and unacceptable language, directed against other religious traditions. This is not a matter of highlighting differences in belief but of making use of overheated rhetoric that spews hatred and vitriol toward the Muslim and Catholic faiths. We are talking here about attempts by some religious leaders to exploit prejudice to advance their own theological agenda. Islam has been a particular target of these attacks, and no attempt has been made to separate terrorists and extremists from the vast majority of Muslims.

For example, Rod Parsley has written about Islam that “America was founded, in part, with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed.” And John Hagee referred to the Roman Catholic Church as “the great whore” and called it a “false cult system” and “the apostate church.”

The Jewish community has a special responsibility to oppose such rhetoric. Supremely sensitive to the power of words, we have responded aggressively to all who express anti-Semitic or anti-Israel sentiments. And not only that. Jewish leaders and communal bodies have also demanded that public figures not only refrain from this language but denounce and distance themselves from others who engage in such attacks.

Yet many in the Jewish community seem unwilling to abide by the standards that we ask others to meet. By what right do we expect others to walk away from those who make anti-Jewish or anti-Israel statements when we will not walk away from those who make anti-Islam or anti-Catholic statements?

Jewish leaders who have established relationships with Christian Zionists leaders, including Pastor Hagee, and who disagree with my position, have told me that these relationships have enabled them to influence and moderate some of the more extreme views that Hagee and others hold. That seems fair enough; if you have a friendship with someone who expresses troubling positions, you should make use of that friendship to offer a corrective. The problem is that the reservations that are expressed are apparently expressed in private, if at all; rarely if ever do Jewish friends and allies make public statements critical of Pastor Hagee’s or Pastor Parsley’s pronouncements. But the contradiction is obvious: when anti-Jewish statements are uttered, we expect public responses from communal leaders and will settle for nothing less.

In short, no more double standards, please. They undermine our message and call into doubt our integrity. We Jews are among those who believe that the diversity of our society is a blessing that enriches us all, and we are tireless advocates for a tolerant America. Yes, we have deep religious convictions, but we never claim a monopoly on truth, and we respond forcefully and emphatically when others speak of Jews with hatred or disdain. If these are the expectations that we have created for ourselves, we must expect no less from others. And if there exist in our midst religious leaders who choose to demonize other religious traditions, they do not belong in our camp and we do not belong in theirs.

Finally, and most important, we should avoid alliances with Christian Zionists because what they mean by support of Israel and what we mean by support of Israel are two very different things. Christian Zionists, and especially Christians United for Israel, do not offer unconditional support for the Jewish state. They offer support for a particular religious vision, particular Israeli leaders, and particular political factions, all of which reflect their own prophecy-driven view of the Middle East.

The heart of Pastor Hagee’s message is to be found in these words: “Stop giving the land away. The land belongs to you. Keep it.”

In short, mainstream Christian Zionists are, by their own admission, not “”advocates” of Israel but “Biblical advocates” of Israel, and this means that they oppose any territorial concessions by the Government of Israel for any reason whatsoever. It follows that their vision of Israel rejects a two-state solution, rejects the possibility of a democratic Israel, and supports the permanent occupation of all Arab lands now controlled by Israel.

Are they entitled to such views? Of course. But we are entitled to say, and are obligated to say, that such views may advance their theology but they do so at the expense of Israel’s security and well-being. If implemented, in fact, these views would mean disaster for Israel, and would lead to diplomatic isolation, increased violence, and the loss of Israel’s Jewish majority.

It might be helpful to remember that the current government and the four previous governments of Israel have all supported some version of a two-state solution; while the details differ, all are based on a negotiated agreement that would provide peace and security both for Israel and for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. It might be helpful to remember as well that such a position is supported by the Government of the United States, by the Democratic and Republican parties, by the last four American presidents, by all the current presidential candidates, and by the overwhelming majority of the American Jewish community. To say this is not to say that such a solution is attainable in the short run; in my view, it probably is not. But there is a huge difference between those who ask Israel to work patiently for a two-state solution that may be a long time coming, and those who ask that the principle of such a solution be replaced by the vision of an apartheid state with a Jewish minority, despised by the world and eternally at war with its neighbors.

Recently some Christian Zionists leaders have claimed that while they oppose a two-state solution, they do not interfere in Israel’s internal affairs. But of course they do. In July of 2007, Pastor Hagee and other Christian Zionist leaders wrote a letter to President Bush stating that “land for peace is a failed policy of the past.” That is interference. In November of 2007, at the time of Annapolis, Christian Zionist representatives, along with some Jewish leaders, met with President Bush’s National Security Advisor to demand that the issue of Jerusalem be taken off the table in any negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. That is interference. And Christian Zionists actively opposed the disengagement from Gaza and supported the settlers who were resisting the evacuation. That is interference as well. Again, they have every right to express these views, but we have a right and an obligation to make clear what they are saying and what it means for the Jewish state.

I know that there are those in the Jewish community who argue for working with Pastor Hagee and accepting his support, and they offer a variety of rationales for doing so.

The claim that we hear most frequently is that there is a diversity of opinions within the Jewish community, and just as we work with Jews who oppose a two-state solution, so too should we work with Christians who oppose a two-state solution. But this is a bogus argument. Surely there are broad areas of agreement related to Israel within our community, and we are happy to work with other Jews in all those areas where agreement exists. But most members of the Reform Movement do not participate in Jewish events that call for settlement expansion or that oppose the principle of territorial compromise by Israel. And we speak out when our fellow Jews use fundamentalist theology as an argument against a two-state solution. We also work hard to make certain that dollars raised through communal structures are not expended in the territories. And in all cases our views reflect the majority position of the community. In other words, the fact that anti-democratic and extremist views exist within the Jewish community does not make those views acceptable or right. We oppose them when they appear in our own ranks, and so too must we oppose them when they come from outside.

The other claim that is made is that hard-nosed political realities require us to make common cause with Christian Zionists. The argument here is that these are difficult times for the Jewish state. Hamas is a radical, religiously fanatic organization, committed to Israel’s destruction. Americans, meanwhile, discouraged by a collapsing economy and disillusioned by our failures in Iraq, are tiring of overseas commitments. Under these circumstances, Israel needs all the friends it can get, and the conclusion is that Christian Zionists are an important source of support.

I agree with these concerns, but I would draw precisely the opposite conclusions.

In the first place, the central principle of pro-Israel advocacy in America for half a century has been that it must be moderate, centrist, and insistently bi-partisan, able to draw advocates from both sides of the political aisle. The reason for this is that American support for Israel relies as much or more on shared democratic values as it does on military and strategic factors, and emphasizing those common values is the most important task of Israel’s friends in this country. Keep in mind too, as I have stated, that there are no major differences between the political parties on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and both parties support the two-state solution advocated by the Clinton and Bush administrations. And finally this: American Evangelicals are not moving toward Pastor Hagee; they are moving away from him. All the evidence that we have indicates that Evangelicals are tired of stridency and desire more pluralism and moderation, and they see their future far more with Rick Warren than they do with John Hagee. And most Evangelicals, like most Americans and most Israelis, support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In other words, this is the worst possible time to draw Israel into America’s culture wars. On Israeli-Palestinian politics, John Hagee and the CUFI are extremists. They do not represent Evangelicals, do not represent Republicans, and do not represent the American heartland. In expressing contempt for other religions and rejecting territorial compromise under any and all circumstances, their views run against the American grain. Those who advocate embracing them now are misreading in a monumental way the American political and religious landscape.

It is important for me to say a few words in Pastor Hagee’s defense. Those who know him tell me that he is a warm and engaging man who has deep respect and esteem for Israel and the Jewish people. Unlike many other Evangelical leaders, he makes no effort to share the Gospel with Jews, and does not mention Jesus to Jewish audiences. Also, he does not read the Bible to mean that Armageddon will be accompanied by a Jewish Holocaust. Furthermore, as others have pointed out to me, he does not need our permission to do what he does. That is quite right, and I have no desire to engage in a campaign against him or the organization that he heads. But I do believe that we should recognize the dangers and keep our distance.

Specifically, I think that we should refrain from participating in the “Night to Honor Israel” road shows that Pastor Hagee sponsors. I have listened to my colleagues who have chosen to do otherwise and have tried to understand. But my view is that most of the time, these evenings will not increase our political clout. They will reduce our political clout and drive away our allies. And I cannot accept the argument from Jewish leaders that they can endorse CUFI events, appear as speakers at these events, accept CUFI money, and still distance themselves from the positions that CUFI embraces.

These are challenging times for Israel and her people. Israel’s government is not blameless, to be sure, but from the Palestinians we see only relentless terror. Surely the Palestinian national movement, in its various manifestations, is one of the ugliest and stupidest national movements in modern history. Just once we would like to see a Palestinian leader come forward and say: the Jews are not in intrusion here, or an accident of history. Just once we would like to hear them say: in coming to Palestine, the Jews have come home. Just once we would like to see a Palestinian Rabin.

But in the meantime, as understandable as it might be in these circumstances, we must not fall victim to a theology of despair. It is important to remember, even now, that peace may take time, but it is not forever beyond reach. It is important to remember, even now, that Israel has friends, and Jews have friends—our own government most important among them. And it is important to remember that Israel’s greatest friends and most important defenders are not the fundamentalists or the extremists, or those who, with utter confidence, take their orders directly from God; rather, her greatest friends are those who work for an end to this terrible conflict, and who pray for peace for all who live in the land that we all call holy.

Thank you very much.

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