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Bob Dylan and Christian Zionism

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.Bob Dylan has made a reappearance in the public eye this past year with the release of his album Shadows in the Night and the issuing of a set of outtakes from his classic mid-1960s LPs. The state of Israel—situated in the Middle East, allied with the U.S. government, idolized by millions of American Christians, and at odds with most of its neighbors—has been in the news virtually non-stop since 1967.

Given Dylan’s identity as a famous Jewish American with a reputation for lyrical sociopolitical commentary, is there confluence? Do Dylan and Israel intersect?

Christian Zionism is a mixture of theology and ideology in which evangelical Protestants support the modern nation-state of Israel. More specifically, Christian Zionists support the Israeli government in its hawkish foreign policy and domineering domestic policy. Christian Zionists in the United States have difficulty discerning a difference between the national interests of the U.S. and those of Israel. In practice, the two are merged and support for Israeli interests becomes a test not only of sound U.S. policy but also of loyalty to God. Identification of born-again Christians with Israeli politicians and the Israeli military is of relatively recent origin. It was intertwined with Cold War ideology in the 1960s and 1970s but has its roots further back in dispensational premillennial theology.

Part of the late 1970s evangelical revival in the U.S. was a growth of Zionism among American Christians. It dovetailed with the migration of millions of ex-passive and ex-Democratic voters into the hawkish Republican Party. It was also connected with the popularity of Hal Lindsey’s book The Late Great Planet Earth, which depicted Israel and the communist Soviet and Chinese governments as military opponents in the soon-to-occur Battle of Armageddon. Hence politics and religion, nationalism and exegesis, were combined into a potent movement. The Moral Majority of Jerry Falwell and the 700 Club of Pat Robertson were two institutional manifestations of this movement.

This was the national religious context at the time Bob Dylan was converted to Christ in 1978-79. It would have made some sense if he had become a new leader of the Christian Zionist movement. He is Jewish. Even before his conversion, he believed in God and was familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. In Hibbing, Minnesota, his parents were leaders in the local Hadassah (a women’s Zionist organization) and B’nai B’rith. He spent some of his boyhood summers near Webster, Wisconsin, attending Herzl Camp, a Jewish summer camp with a Zionist focus. He visited Israel in the early 1970s. He was interested in End Times prophecy and embraced the premillennial dispensational interpretation of Lindsey. And yet Dylan did not become a leading Christian Zionist. Why not? There are three reasons.

Dylan’s newfound Christianity was in many ways less-culture-bound than the average American evangelical at the time (partly because it was new and he approached the Bible with the fresh eyes of a convert). The type of Christianity to which Dylan belonged during his early months as a believer was the latter-day Jesus Movement. The Jesus People had a Christ Against Culture theological ethic which meant that they strived to be less culturally-co-opted (worldly) than mainstream Christians in America. Of course, the Jesus People had their own cultural traits but support for the Israeli government and support for Cold War militarism and U.S. imperialism were not among these traits.

A second reason that Dylan did not go the route of Christian Zionism is that he had a more-spiritual, less-politicized understanding of Bible eschatology (study of the Last Things or End Times). The late nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century theological movement known as dispensational premillennialism is often credited or blamed for post-1967 Christian Zionism among American evangelicals. But this is not accurate. The Scofield Reference Bible has little to do with the devotion to the Israeli government—mostly to the Likud Party—that is so prevalent among evangelical Christians belonging to the Republican Party.

From the perspective of Bob Dylan and similar premillennialists, C.I. Scofield and the dispensationalists (including Lindsey) were correct in saying that God has not forgotten his promises to the Jewish people. The Old Testament promises cannot simply be spiritualized or applied to the Church. That is too self-serving and not faithful to the scriptural record. Israel as an ethnic and historical entity did not disappear with the first advent and promises given to Israel did not simply vanish. Traditionally, Christians believe that in the Last Days there will be a consummation of those promises in a way that includes not only the Church but also Israel. Dylan and other believers think that Jesus Christ will reign from Jerusalem but it will not be a specifically Jewish kingdom. It will be a universal Kingdom that includes the believing remnant of Israel. According to Revelation—one of Dylan’s favorite books—the New Jerusalem will bear the names of the twelve apostles of Christ and the twelve tribes of Israel.

A.C. Gaebelein was a consulting editor for the original Scofield Reference Bible (1909), a contributor to The Fundamentals (1910-15), and a prominent Bible teacher at 9781137482341premillennial conferences. He was an evangelist to Jews in New York City and was very pro-Jewish in the sense of having a love for Jewish people. He was knowledgeable in Hebrew, was an Old Testament scholar, and edited Our Hope, a Bible prophecy magazine that looked forward to God’s eventual restoration of the Jews to Palestine.[1] However, unlike fellow dispensationalist William Blackstone, Gaebelein “consistently warned against alliance with the Zionists.” In 1905, he wrote, “Zionism is not the divinely promised restoration of Israel . . . [It] is not the fulfillment of the large number of predictions found in the Old Testament Scriptures, which relates to Israel’s return to the land. Indeed, Zionism has very little use of argument from the Word of God. It is rather a political and philanthropic undertaking. . . . The great movement is one of unbelief and confidence in themselves instead of God’s eternal purposes.”[2]

Gaebelein exemplified a type of premillennial eschatology that had apolitical or anarchistic implications. As George Marsden notes, “Premillennialism taught that no trust should be put in kings or governments and that no government would be specially blessed by God until the coming of the King who would personally lead in defeating the forces of Satan.” This perspective not only dampened Gaebelein’s enthusiasm for Zionism but it also led him to oppose U.S. involvement in World War I, in 1917, before he eventually succumbed to worldly pro-war jingoism.

Today, few Christian Zionists are taking their marching orders from the Scofield Bible. It is not a common item of study or interest. Dispensationalism is a small subsection of evangelicalism. Since the 1970s, far more evangelicals have been influenced by the teachings of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Paul Crouch, John Hagee, et al., than by C.I. Scofield, J.N. Darby, Lewis Sperry Chafer, John Walvoord, et al. It is true that the televangelists have embraced a watered-down version of dispensational eschatology, but even that was not handed down directly from Scofield. It is mostly just an emphasis on “Jesus is coming back soon. Israel’s re-founding in 1948 was a sign of the End. America must be Israel’s friend.” There is not much theology there.

For most evangelicals, glorification of the modern state of Israel comes much more out of a few verses in Genesis 12 than from the Day of the Lord chapters in Daniel, the rapture passage in I Thessalonians, or the tribulation/millennial chapters in Revelation. Even the Genesis passage is often a scriptural pretext for worldly geopolitics that centers on devotion to specific governments—namely, the United States and Israel. Whether in the context of the Cold War, the War on Terror, anti-Arab/Muslim sentiment, or Jewish ethnic (not religious) loyalty, this is more political than theological. God is being used in service to Country.

Modern Israel is not ancient Israel. Many Orthodox Jews opposed the pre-1948 Zionist movement because they believed that the re-creation of Israel must be effected by the Messiah himself. Israel is officially a Jewish state but this refers to ethnicity, not religion. Theodor Herzl (father of modern Zionism), Chaim Weizmann (founding president of Israel), and David Ben-Gurion (founding prime minister of Israel) were secularists if not atheists. They did not embrace the religion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yet, blank-check support for the Israeli government is the norm among Bible-believing white Protestants.

The national anthem of modern Israel—and before that, the anthem of the Zionist movement, adopted by the First Zionist Congress in 1897—is “Hatikvah” (The Hope). Its lyrics are secular, with no mention of God, Abraham, Moses, or the Torah. The song uses the biblical word Zion twice but, removed from its context and divorced from God, its meaning has lost its spiritual dimension. The Zionist/Jewish folk song “Hava Nagila” is also secular.

Even when the ancient Hebrew governments were officially linked to Judaism, unthinking support for political leaders was folly, with the prophets being a continual reminder of this fact. After the united kingdom of Saul, David, and Solomon split into southern and northern kingdoms, the majority of the subsequent rulers were bad, according to Scripture. In Judah, 10 of the 18 kings “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD.” The track record in Israel was even worse: 19 of the 19 kings were evil.[3] It is unclear why Jews or Christians should assume that Begin or Netanyahu are any better than these ancient rulers.

When talking about his Jewish roots with Martin Keller in July 1983, Dylan said, “I ain’t looking for them in synagogues with six pointed Egyptian stars shining down from every window, I can tell you that much.” Dylan apparently views the Star of David as a pagan or occult symbol rather than a biblical symbol of the historical King David. The Star of David was the symbol of the Zionist Movement, beginning in the 1890s, and was placed on the flag of Israel when the modern state began in 1948.

Dylan’s views on peace and international relations are partly motivated by his understanding of eschatology. When it was released in 1983, “Neighborhood Bully” was widely seen as a pro-Israeli-government song and it fueled speculation that Dylan had returned to Judaism. This appears to be an incorrect interpretation. In a 1984 interview, Dylan said, “You can’t come around and stick some political-party slogan on it [the song]. If you listen closely, it really could be about other things.” He claimed ignorance regarding Israeli politics. Asked if he had resolved for himself the Palestinian question, Dylan said, “Not really, because I live here.”

Dylan suggested that the song was referring to Israel during the days of the future Battle of Armageddon rather than to the current Israeli government. Quoting the lyrics of “Neighborhood Bully,” Kurt Loder of Rolling Stone asked Dylan if he felt that the U.S. should send troops to help Israel in the Lebanon War (1982-85). Dylan responded, “No. The song doesn’t say that.” Loder asked if the American Jewish community should be more supportive of Israel. Dylan refused to identify with contemporary political Zionism, saying, “You’re making it specific to what’s going on today. But what’s going on today isn’t gonna last, you know? The battle of Armageddon is specifically spelled out: where it will be fought and, if you wanna get technical, when it will be fought. And the battle of Armageddon definitely will be fought in the Middle East.”

Despite his much-publicized visit to Israel in 1971, this 1984 distancing of himself from political Zionism was nothing new for Dylan. In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War (1973) between Israel and Arab states, rumors circulated that Dylan’s 1974 tour with the Band was a pro-Israeli effort. The rumor was unfounded. After a concert in Atlanta, Governor Jimmy Carter hosted a party for Dylan and his entourage. Carter brought up his own visit to the Holy Land a couple years before. He later recalled, “When I mentioned Israel, Dylan changed the subject and said he and his wife had recently been to Mexico and had enjoyed that country, too.”[4]

“Neighborhood Bully” appears on Infidels. The inner sleeve of that album features a photograph of Dylan kneeling on the Mount of Olives above Jerusalem. The Old Testament book of Zechariah prophesies that the LORD, in the person of the Messiah, will stand on the Mount of Olives during the Battle of Armageddon. Not only will God come to rescue his people but he will be accompanied by “all the holy ones [saints].” This leads to God becoming “king over all the earth.” This passage is paralleled by the New Testament book of Revelation. The Mount of Olives imagery and the Rolling Stone interview indicate that “Neighborhood Bully” had less to do with the current Lebanon War and more to do with the future Battle of Armageddon.

Dylan’s son-in-law, singer Peter Himmelman, is a Zionist. Supporting Israel’s widely-perceived disproportionate military response against Hamas and civilians in Gaza, Himmelman directly rejected Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. He told a reporter, “For Jews, turning the other cheek is a sin.” His pro-Israeli-government song “Maximum Restraint” was reminiscent of “Neighborhood Bully” in its biting tone but was clearly about contemporary events, not about the coming Day of the LORD prophesied in the Hebrew scriptures.[5]

A third reason that Dylan did not go the route of Christian Zionism is that he remained an anarchist in his ideology after his conversion. As a Christian anarchist, he remained uninterested in human governments, elections, laws, and policies—even those of the Israeli government. He recognized his Hebrew heritage and paid homage to the heroes of Israelite history but he was not interested in a movement characterized by narrow ethnic identity and the power of government. Entering into Christianity through the latter-day Jesus Movement, Dylan shares not only the movement’s American counterculturalism and premillennial eschatology but also its anarchism, which serves as a counterweight to politically-minded Zionism.

Dave Kelly, Dylan’s personal assistant in 1979-80, recalls the singer’s dealings with the Lubavitch (Chabad) group from Brooklyn. Kelly recalls, “I saw when the rabbis first were sent to him—[they] were the cutting edge people in America, among the Orthodox Jews, and pretty much pulling the strings in Israel at the time. And he [Dylan] was very much against them at the time. He used to go to Israel himself, no security and just turn up, just wander around. . . . [But] he wasn’t pro-Israel [in a political sense] at all, that I can see. Not at all.” Kelly continues, “I know they had a lot of power in Israel, to move the election in favor of one politician over another. And I don’t think he [Dylan] liked that. And that sort of made him very resistant. Because these were just The Man again. Just the Jewish rabbi version of The Man. He was very, very resistant because he’s a rebel.”[6]

It should go without saying that Dylan’s disinterest in political Zionism has nothing to do with anti-Semitism but it must be added because some—although not most—anti-Zionists are motivated by dislike or fear of Jews as a race of people. This motivation has often been exaggerated and exploited by supporters of militaristic Israeli governments, but it is a real motivation for some critics of the Israeli state. Anti-Jewish sentiment plays no role in Dylan’s rejection of the glorification of modern Israel. Not only is Dylan ethnically Jewish, but he has remained interested in this heritage following his embrace of evangelical Christianity. Becoming a Christian does not mean a rejection of one’s Jewish heritage since Christ himself and all of his original disciples were Jews.

Bob Dylan did not reject his Jewishness when he knelt before Yeshua, whom he saw as the Jewish Messiah. From a spiritual point of view, Dylan did not see Christianity as a rejection or replacement of his Jewishness. He saw it as a completion or fulfillment. From the perspective of traditional Judaism, this is a patronizing or insulting thing to say but it is, nonetheless, the perspective of Jesus and the first-century Jews who followed him. This is the teaching of the New Testament, which was composed almost entirely by Jewish writers. Dylan’s 1980 gospel album Saved featured Jeremiah 31:31 on the inner sleeve: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah.” It is significant that he chose a Bible passage that bridges the gap between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, between Judaism and Christianity.

Since the early 1980s, Dylan has maintained some ties to the Orthodox Jewish community in the United States, but he has shown little interest in contemporary Israel. For him, the truths of Judaism are spiritual not political. In a 1984 interview, Dylan remarked, “I think politics is an instrument of the Devil. Just that clear. I think politics is what kills; it doesn’t bring anything alive.”

This article is adapted from the new Palgrave Macmillan book The Political World of Bob Dylan: Freedom and Justice, Power and Sin by Jeff Taylor and Chad Israelson. © 2015. All rights reserved. The book was reviewed by Ron Jacobs for CounterPunch in October.

Notes. 

[1] David A. Rausch, Arno C. Gaebelein, 1861-1945: Irenic Fundamentalist and Scholar (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1983).

[2] Paul C. Merkley, The Politics of Christian Zionism, 1891-1948 (Portland, Ore.: Frank Cass, 1998), 66.

[3] The Old and the New Testaments of The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version (Camden, N.J.: Thomas Nelson, c1946/52), “Bible Study Helps” (c1962), 12-15. (The Kings of Judah and Israel)

[4] Knockin’ on Dylan’s Door: On the Road in ’74 (A Rolling Stone Book) (New York: Pocket Books, 1974), 56.

[5] Matthew 5:38-48; Renee Ghert-Zand, “Jewish Rocker Sings Israel Support,” The Times of Israel, July 25, 2014; Jonathan Mark, “Gaza: With God on Our Side,” The Jewish Week, July 30, 2014.

[6] Interview with Dave Kelly by JT, November 1, 2014. Kelly may be inadvertently overstating the influence of the Lubavitchers on Israeli politics but Dylan’s negative reaction to the perception of politicized religion makes sense.

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Jeff Taylor teaches politics and writes books.  

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