How Neo-Cons Became Honorary Christians

The expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948 and the disastrous decision to lie about it made an Israel Lobby in America necessary. Christians were willing participants in this destructive process from the beginning. The stated purpose of “interfaith dialogue” in the US after 1945 was for Jews and Christians to work together to oppose anti-Semitism on American soil—and there’s no reason to suspect that that most participants weren’t completely sincere about that. But Christians were also looking to Jews to help them manage their guilt and their bewilderment about the Holocaust. In some ways this was relatively easy to do, because US Christians did not have the same tradition of anti-Semitism as European Christians. But helping people manage their trauma is a tricky business, because those who do so can quickly learn to exploit it, if there is something they want very badly. Of course, Jews were more traumatized by the Holocaust than Christians, but they understood it better—it was simply a much larger and more terrifying version of what they had always gotten from Christians. On the other hand, the immensity of the Holocaust was too much for most American Christians to comprehend.

This was to some extent because Americans also have a kind of willed innocence where certain unpleasant realities are concerned—thinking and talking about the Holocaust upset certain middleclass sensibilities, although most decent American Christians probably would have admitted that it was an important subject. The entire Holocaust seemed unbelievable—nobody could really explain why it had happened, or even how it happened. The world turned to Jews for an explanation, since they had been most directly impacted. And indeed it was Jews (Hilberg, Arendt, Milgram) who generally came up with the most reliable writing about the Holocaust, with Stanley Migram arriving at perhaps the most satisfying explanation of why it had occurred. But Jews concentrated on the psychological aspects of systemic evil in Nazism, whereas those aspects of Christianity that had for many centuries been most closely associated with Christian anti-Semitism were ignored by both Christians and Jews.

If American Christians really wanted to know what caused German Christians to murder millions, they might have looked closely at their own belief in the redemptive violence of Christ’s crucifixion. Throughout the history of Christianity in Europe, it was usually when public displays of emotion about Christ’s crucifixion were most visible—around the time of Easter week, for example—that anti-Semitic outbursts were likely to happen. If Christ’s bloody death redeemed followers to eternal life, what about the Jews that voted to crucify Jesus, and continued to reject him in modern times? But it was precisely this troubling core dynamic of Christian thaumaturgy, and its historical association with anti-Semitism, that Christians didn’t want to look at. Such an inquiry was likely to lead American Christians to a dark place where they weren’t ready to go.

In addition to reading the writing of Jewish intellectuals, meeting with leaders of the organized Jewish community offered Christians some sense of meaningful response to the horror of Auschwitz. And both Jews and Christians could do this in the name of community-building in the US, without either side required to go explain or explore their own beliefs. By simply showing up for “interfaith dialogue” with Jews, Christians were able to convince themselves that they were doing something important about ending anti-Semitism. That, in turn, helped them get a handle on the guilt they were beginning to feel, as it became clearer that the political anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust had arisen directly from Christian anti-Semitism. The power of the Israel Lobby was prefigured by the rich irony of American Jews absolving “good” American Christians of guilt by association with “bad” German Christians, which became un unspoken and often unconscious dynamic of interfaith dialogue between Christians and Jews.

But why had anti-Semitism been a part of Christianity for so long? The unwillingness of US Christians to look critically at their own theology turned out to be a missed opportunity, for the liberal Protestant establishment was soon overwhelmed by a rightwing evangelical movement that greatly outnumbered them. The ultra-conservative Christians of the Religious Right generally belonged to denominations or embraced theologies associated with anti-Semitism in the past, but were quickly adjusting to the loss of anti-Semitism (which had now become a supreme example of politically incorrectness) by finding new objects of hatred in gays, Muslims and “secularist humanists.”

By the late 1960s and 1970s Jewish leaders were, on the other hand, beginning to identify with the new Jewish state Israel, which they saw as a kind of living representation of Judaism in the world of realpolitik. For the more important Jewish leaders, supporting Israel suddenly gave them legitimacy—now they were associated not merely with a religion but with an important geo-political entity. And there was another reason, again mainly unspoken: it made Jews look good in the eyes of the goyim—they were a people with no land who had taken over a land with no people, as the Zionists liked to say, and they had made the desert bloom! No more would they been seen as cloth jobbers, money speculators and subversive intellectuals with coke-bottle glasses—now their excellence as soldiers, farmers and nation-builders would be crystal clear to the non-Jewish world.

There was apparently no downside to the dream of Zionism—Judaism in search of Jewish identity need look no more. One became a good Jews by uncritically supporting the Jewish state, whereas Christians could prove how free of anti-Semitism they were by uncritically supporting it. After sixteen hundred years, major reconciliation of Christians and Jews! This happy picture was not sullied by any mention of the Palestinians’ tragedy, partly because information about it had been suppressed in the West, and partly because those who knew something kept their mouths shut rather than face a firestorm of denunciation by ecstatic Jews sincerely convinced that it was all a lie. The role of the Israel Lobby would be precisely to make sure nobody ever found out about what had happened to the Palestinians in 1947-49, and to keep those who did know something from talking about it. They would do this by keeping the Holocaust in the public eye as much as possible. If Jews were always the victim, how could the Palestinians be victims? Public opinion in the US tended to accommodate only one victimized group at a time.

Because of the confluence of these mainly unspoken needs, Christians and Jews adopted certain unconscious but highly charged roles that would govern “interfaith dialogue” between Christians and Jews for the rest of the 20th century. The main rule was, Don’t say anything bad about Israel. After a decent (or indecent, if you prefer) interval this was followed by its inevitable corollary: Say anything bad about Israel, and you will be publicly denounced as an anti-Semite.  But these extreme conditions didn’t faze most Christians—if uncritical support for Israel was required for overcoming anti-Semitism, Christians were willing to do it.

None of this was conducive to speaking frankly, of course—nor, one must add, did it encourage anything like trust or respect. It did create an elephant in the interfaith parlor which only got larger and more fractious as the years went by.  The name-change of the National Conference of Christians and Jews to the more mundane National Conference for Community and Justice may have occurred partly because of a claustrophobic sense of divisions that nobody was allowed—or could allow themselves—to talk about. To speak candidly about the origins of Israel in front of certain audiences, to mention the undeniable fact that ethnic cleansing had been used to dispossess Palestinians, and that torture and death squads were regularly used on Palestinians inside and outside Israel, was to invite a riot. Even today, campus speakers on Israel/Palestine are the only oneds that regularly require police protection.

Christians also used interfaith connections for their own corrupt purposes. As Peter Novick convincingly demonstrates in The Holocaust in American Life, Catholic leaders used interfaith connections to try to suppress the American production of The Deputy, asking “their Jewish dialogue partners to put pressure on the Jewish producer and director to cancel the play, or at least to join them in denouncing it.” The Deputy (a play that questioned Pope Pius’ unwillingness to speak out against the Nazi Holocaust) had been produced at a time of “tense politicking at Vatican Council II in Rome over a declaration repudiating anti-Semitism and absolving Jews of culpability in the death of Jesus.” According to Novick, the American Jewish Committee “did its best, albeit unsuccessfully, to prevent the play from going on—and made sure that church officials knew that it had tried.” The national tour was canceled, probably as a direct result of combined Catholic/Jewish pressure to do away with it.[1]

Needless to say, a play should never be closed down because it criticizes organized religion, any religion; and using it as a poker chip in such backstage tummeling is another example of how the Nazi Holocaust corrupts everything. If American Catholics and Jews had to suppress a play about the Holocaust to get the Pope to stop blaming Jews for the death of Jesus, the entire project of reconciliation had, certainly for the people involved in the suppression, no meaning whatsoever. Similarly, the postponement of candid discussion about Israel was both stupid and tragic, because as time went on the elephant in the parlor got bigger and bigger; and in the total absence of tough love from American Jews, the political class in Israel kept moving to the right until it had completely embraced the neo-fascist Jabotinsky form of Zionism. There was still no talk about what had happened to the Palestinians, because few people knew about it, and most Americans didn’t want to know about it.

But the few people who did know were often Jews such as Noam Chomsky, who insisted on telling the truth. Chomsky was universally condemned by major Jewish leaders and organizations as a monster, a crypto-Nazi and a betrayer of all Jews everywhere. As a young man involved in union politics, I was told by “progressives” that Noam Chomsky suffered from a form of mental illness that caused him to criticize the government of Israel because he could not come to terms with the fact that he was Jewish. He was, in other words, a self-hating Jew.

It is important to remember, however, that the unspoken decision of Christians not to discuss their doubts about Israel to their “interfaith dialogue partners” was to a large extent the creature of institutional Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic. Why? Christians overlooked the evil of Zionism because they were overwhelmed by the evil of Hitler. Christianity, the single social instrument in the West that could both explain and expiate evil, had been itself complicit in the greatest example of evil the world had ever seen. If the only way Christians could reconcile to Jews was to support Israel uncritically, they felt they had to do it. Remember that there was no theory of evil, either secular or religious, that could even begin to explain why German Christians had behaved as they did. Nor was there any immediate explanation for the next potential genocide that was now looming on the horizon in the threat of nuclear war.

Indeed, it was because nobody could explain the sudden emergence of so much evil in the middle of the 20th century that evangelicalism arose in Christianity, and extreme religious nationalism in Judaism. Both evangelicalism and religious nationalism actually fed the evil that had driven people to create them; but both, in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, seemed to serve the need for apocalyptic solutions to apocalyptic problems.

Most Jews had never had enough organization power to engage in systemic evil, either in Europe or the US; but in Israel, for the first time, Jews had some power. With that power, they were to learn the addictive nature of sadism and aggression, which are not things that most people are anxious to discuss. And since nobody dared to talk about it, the political class of Israel, once they got a taste of it, naturally wanted more. How nice not to be the victim for once, and to try one’s hand at a little oppression of the natives!

This was formulated in memorable form by the German Jewish journalist Henryk Broder:

“Israel is presently more perpetrator than victim. But that is good and it is right. After all, for nearly two thousand years the Jews were in the role of the perennial victims, and their experiences in  this role were bad indeed. Perpetrators mostly have a longer life expectancy than victims, and it is much more fun to be a perpetrator.”[2]

This disgusting endorsement of brutality was made by Broder in the German forward to A Case for Israel by Alan Dershowitz.

What Zionists now wanted, in other words, was what Christianity had always had, which was redemption through violence—but the Zionist settlers of Israel had no idea how habit-forming it was, and especially they had no idea how dangerous it was to the future of the Jewish people. Nor did they realize how fast the world was changing, and to what extent people outside Israel were internalizing the idea of universal human rights. Meanwhile Israelis were still stuck in 1948, in a time when human rights for Jews could only be guaranteed by taking away the rights of Palestinians.

* * *

Christians were desperate to expiate their guilt for the Holocaust, and Zionists were more than willing to take advantage of that desperation. It was also for this reason that those Christians and Jews that engaged in “interfaith dialogue” were engaging in a kind of hypocritical game that neither could control. Certain they never arrived at anything like real dialogue—or at least the kind of dialogue one has with people if one happens to care about them. When they sat down to have dialogue with Jews, Christians really cared more about expiating their own guilt than they did about the Jews with whom they were supposedly in dialogue. One reason for this desperation was no doubt a growing (sometimes unconscious) lack of confidence in the ability of Christianity to expiate sin. Christians were ready to let anti-Semitism go, but they did not really want to know why it had been there so long, nor did they want to know what was likely to take its place.

The evangelical movement in America quickly filled the vacuum with Islamophobia, the strident projection of guilt, anger and fear onto Muslims, and a world mission of defeating Islam and converting Muslims to Christianity in the “10-40 window,” those 28 or so Muslim-majority countries located in the forty degrees north of the equator. Many rightwing evangelicals, including Franklin Graham, supported both the Gulf and Iraq wars because they saw it as a chance to proselytize Muslims; and almost all the evangelical churches that had missions began to concentrate on the “10-40” window. As always, there was little introspection about how much of that mission would be various forms of cultural imperialism, and whether evangelicals could really help people in those countries, and how.

For Jewish leaders in the US, the rise of the ecstatic rightwing evangelicals were not such a bad deal as one might imagine. In fact, the growing political power of the Religious Right in the US produced a new kind of inclusive nomenclature, proving that American meritocracy extended to entire religions as well as to individuals—as long as the Jewish leaders involved did not look to closely at, or protest too strenuously about, the grandiose specifics of evangelical Christian world mission.

Jews were now to be upgraded to something known as “Judeo-Christianity,” a bogus expression invented by rightwing evangelicals to promote Christian nationalism and advocate in the public square for certain evangelical values without being called anti-Semitic. Jews were now to be allowed into that part of the conservative establishment that was encouraging coalition with the evangelicals of the Religious Right; and the expression “Judeo-Christian values” was unveiled to pre-empt any question of anti-Semitism. Jews were perceived as a difficult group that had a baffling tendency to vote Democratic, but whose institutional leadership was practically a domestic extension of the rightwing parties of Israel; it could therefore be used to whip the intelligentsia into line when American corporate interests were threatened in the Middle East. The expression “Judeo-Christian civilization” was used to reassure Jews that if and when the evangelicals succeeded in making their form of Christianity a state religion, Jews would have nothing to fear.

The entire issue of whether Christian evangelicals in America would continue to proselytize Jews was finessed in an interesting but dishonest way: the Religious Right would give uncritical support to the government of Israel; in return, institutional Jewish leaders would say nothing regarding the fact that evangelicals taught that Jews would go to hell unless they converted to Christianity. Later the issue of proselytizing Jews would be even more subtly finessed by a little-known provision in the dispensationalist playbook — namely, that during the End Time (the Christian evangelical term for the Second Coming of Christ), Jews would for reasons unknown suddenly convert to Christianity as the New Jerusalem arrived. The recalcitrant ones, those Jews who for some reason refused Jesus’ kind offer of conversion to Christianity, would be mass-murdered by God, who would thereby neatly finish in the End of Days what Hitler had started back at the Wannsee Conference in 1942. As long as Jews kept quiet about the essentially anti-Semitic nature of this juvenile and astonishingly bigoted theology, evangelicals would give uncritical support to whatever government had gotten itself into power in Israel. In concert with this cultural development, the Protestant old-boy network that still controlled most of the capital in the American corporate upper class would let some of “them” into the conservative establishment.

The turning point was the emergence of Henry Kissinger as a modern Mandarin of American imperialism. Some report a moment in the early 1980s when Kissinger derisively referred to a roomful of people at the Council on Foreign Relations as “You Episcopalians—“ Many of the Christians present were not Episcopalians (the days when Anglicanism dominated the boardrooms of America had passed some time before) but they all knew what Henry meant. There were going to have to open their ranks to let in some new blood. And the new ones would have to have power, not just vague and—to them—meaningless trappings of prestige.

This set the state for the empowerment of the neo-conservative movement. Neo-cons in those days were—and many still are—essentially upper-mobile, rightwing Zionists afflicted by an extreme case of ambition, aggression and power worship. They understood that if America continued to uncritically support the Likudniks in government in Israel, no concessions to the Palestinians or the Arab states would ever be necessary. Of course, the result would be permanent war, sometimes covert and sometimes hot, but their sons would never have to fight in it; and it would enable—and even encourage—the corporate upper class to set up a new neo-colonial apparatus in the Middle East. In return, Israel would become the mafia enforcers of American “interests” in Arabic-speaking lands, becoming in the process a super-militarized, highly armed camp of Arab-hating soldiers and fighter pilots, bristling with the will and the psychological need to kill Arabs on a regular basis. Jewish leaders in the US were seen—correctly—as uncritically supporting this process, by destroying or de-legitimizing every person or organization that questioned it. But the neo-conservatives went beyond the goals of most Jewish leaders, whom they wished to manipulate but not emulate. If the US could intervene in the affair of the Middle East, why couldn’t it intervene everywhere in the developing world, openly and unapologetically?

The neo-conservatives hit upon the idea that America would be in a much better shape to intervene on Israel’s behalf if overt or covert intervention were central to American policy everywhere in the world. Neo-conservatism was the Jabotinsky school of Zionism writ large, applied not just to Palestinians but to everybody in the developing world; and since this translated into a new and particularly lethal version of early 20th-century gunboat diplomacy, a great many old-time conservatives were attracted to it, including people who cared nothing about Israel or the Middle East. People in the Third World who did what American policy-makers demanded of them would be rewarded; those who didn’t would be imprisoned or killed. The idea of international cooperation would be completely abandoned. Behind the policy-makers would be the US corporate upper class and its phalanxes of hired intellectuals, because only those leaders created by the marketplace could really be trusted.

The neo-cons were extremely savvy about public relations and influence generally, since they, like other Zionists, tended to see the defense of Israel as mainly a public relations problem. They invented extremely effective new methods (neo-con foundations, for example) to provide political cover for their activities and goals, also providing money to buy off their political opponents and marginalize the rest. Under the tutelage of neo-cons, the “Judeo-Christian” label was more about promoting American “interests” (that is, empire) throughout the developing world, in which effort the Israelis were to be the errand boys and arms suppliers. But this idea existed and was promoted on pretty much the same wave-length as the rightwing evangelicals of the Religious Right during their rise in the 1980s and 1990s.. Call it “Judeo-Christianity,” or simply the neo-con’s unapologetic appeal to American domination, it boiled down to the same thing: some lucky Jews were to be allowed to sit at the table of empire if they did as they were told, kept the Arabs in line, and agreed not to say anything bad about the ancient Protestants that still controlled the corporate upper class, particularly that part of it interested in keeping energy based on fossil fuels (the same part that would later swing the entire Republican party behind climate denial). The old-boy network of Episcopalians and other Protestants that had mainly controlled the corporate upper class before the 1980s would now do their part by increasingly including Israel, and certain of its rich American proxies, into their imperial calculations.

The Zionist part of the Faustian bargain was to help get the Likudnik political class in Israel get what it wanted, after the collapse of final status talks in 2000, which is the ethnic cleansing of the remaining Palestinians, either slowly (by making life unbearably difficult), in installments, or all at once. By controlling almost half of the West Bank, the Israelis have made the two-state solution nearly impossible. Under a one-state solution, on the other hand, they will be able to do whatever they want to the Palestinians; and without question they will—if there is no external or internal pressures to stop them—kill and ethnically cleanse the Palestinians by the millions. The will finish the job of ethnic cleansing begun in 1947-1949.

Zionism, and then neo-conservatism, were the outgrowth of western-style imperialism, and were only incidentally a religious phenomenon at first; but this desperate and mistaken collaboration has gradually become one in which religious nationalism is by far the most dynamic, unpredictable and dangerous factor within the conservative foreign policy coalition. It is all the more volatile because of the guilt, fear and anger arising from the Holocaust and the Nazi nightmare, a free-floating trauma that nobody has been able to explain or deconstruct. For that reason, it still drives decisions made about the present and the future. Christian evangelical leaders have recently striven to adopt a more mainstream image, and embraced centrist and even progressive concerns; but the evangelical voting bloc within the Republican Party will be a reliable source of support for imperial wars for some time, not to mention torture, Muslim-baiting and obscurantism generally. But the most problematic reality is that both evangelicals and Zionists are still quite prepared to give religious labels to their organizational behavior—in other words, both are likely to support and promote the idea of a worldwide religious war against Islam, whether covert or overt. This is the most dangerous outcome of the Zionist collaboration with the Religious Right.

For neo-cons, the irrational and tribal side of the evangelical/neo-con deal has far out-stripped every other consideration; and that is what increasingly makes neo-conservatism a cult rather than a considered geo-political worldview. This has alarmed the paleo-conservatives, first because there are now almost as many Jewish billionaires as Protestant ones, but also because the old-boy Prods can no longer control the volatile Zionists they had originally hired on as errand boys and mercenaries.

The paleos are alarmed for a reason that should also alarm us, but not because it inconveniences a few rich Protestants. The neo-con approach to problem-solving is no longer rational, or based on enlightened or even informed self-interest, but has become an apocalyptic movement based on identification with the Holocaust, driven by an almost complete internalization of its trauma and an ever-present and semi-hysterical death worship of the six million. The basic neo-conservative idea is that both America and Israel must exist in a state of permanent war, an idea that neo-cons first expressed in their public letter to Netayahu in 1996 pleading against a peace deal with the Palestinians. But what country can remain in a state of permanent war? Why is that better than peace? Permanent war is an abomination, and people who believe in it are insane.

The apocalyptic, victimology-driven Jewish neo-cons who want permanent war do not flinch for a moment at the potential loss of Jewish lives; indeed, they have lived for years in a moral and emotional universe in which it is assumed as self-evident that the world hates the Jews, everybody is against them, and a new Holocaust is on the way. In fact it is so self-evident and so necessary to their weltanschauung that the neo-cons that believe in it will do almost anything to make it happen.

The more Jews that die: the more children murdered: the more the neo-cons can trumpet to the world that everybody really does hate them. Their solution is an apocalyptic one, borrowed from the most hysterical and blood-obsessed form of Christianity, but going the Christians one step better—to the neo-cons the objective is not to win the Final Battle, but to lose it, thereby acting out to ecstatic completion the total authenticity of their victim status. The apocalyptic solution is, at bottom, a dangerous, narcissistic form of public suicide that seeks the destruction of the world as its answer to the paradoxes of the human dilemma.

LAWRENCE SWAIM is executive director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation.


[1] Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life  (New York: Mariner Books, 2000), 143-144.

[2] Hajo G. Meyer, The End of Judaism (Amsterdam: G. Meyer Books, 2007), 188.