Unholy Alliance: Christian Zionists and the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict

Imagine thousands of people cheering and shouting for Israel in the huge Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. On stage, Ehud Olmert, the mayor of Jerusalem, proclaims: “God is with us. You are with us.” The crowd hollers, whoops and some blow the shofar. But none of those present is Jewish. Outside the auditorium Leanne Cariker from Oklahoma is carrying a placard that reads, “Just say No! to a Palestinian state.” Next to her stands another group of demonstrators, Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn. They oppose the state of Israel.

This conference, the annual meeting of the U.S. Christian Coalition for Israel, began with a video-taped benediction from the White House. When Tom DeLay, the powerful, born-again majority whip in the House of Representatives, addressed the audience, he asked them, “Are you tired of all this? Are you?” “Nooo!” they roared back. “Not when you’re standing up for Jews and Jesus, that’s for sure!” he replied. DeLay was followed by Pat Robertson, the coalition’s founder, who dwelt on Arab plans to drive Israel into the sea and the sins of Arafat and his “gang of thugs.”

At another rally in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 2002, thousands of miles away from the ruins of Nablus and Jenin, tens of thousands of American Jews (and many of their non-Jewish supporters) gathered to show solidarity with Israel. Speaker after speaker had one simple message: “America and Israel united against terrorism.” Janet Paraschall, representing Christian broadcasters in the U.S., made it clear in her speech that support for Israel was now a litmus test for those who claimed to be America’s moral majority. “We represent millions of Christian broadcasters in this country. We stand with you now, and forever.”

Since September 11, 2001, there has been an explosion of Christian fundamentalist support for Israel in America. The Christian Right (there are approximately 40 million on this side of the political spectrum in the U.S.) has had some influence on U.S. policy over the last three decades. Presidents Carter, Reagan and George W. Bush all claimed to be “born-again Christians.” But, with Bush’s election, the Christian Right has gained extraordinary influence over American foreign policy relating to the Middle East in general, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular.

Asked if he believed whether Ariel Sharon was a man of peace, and if he was satisfied with his and his own government’s assurances that there was no massacre in Jenin, Bush gave his infamous reply: “I do believe Ariel Sharon is a man of peace.” Coupled with Reverend Jerry Falwell’s remarks in the first week of October, 2002 — “Mohammed was a terrorist. I read enough of the history of his life, written by both Muslims and non-Muslims [to know] that he was a violent man, a man of war.” — many Arabs and non-fundamentalist Christians were incensed and placed on alert. The “war on terrorism” appeared to turning into a Christian war against Islam and Arabs.

The main interpretive challenge for those of us who are secular-minded (including me, who was once an evangelical, 35 years ago) is to recognize that Christian Zionists read the daily news as signs of God’s presence in the world. They don’t separate mythic stories about the meaning of life and God’s intervention in our affairs from the use of reason to order our affairs.

Beliefs matter — but some beliefs have very bad consequences.

Christians Dream of a Home for Scattered Jews

Most of the books written on Zionism focus on the writings of early Jewish leaders like Moses Hess, who in 1862 wrote Rome and Jerusalem, and mark Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State (1897) as the seminal Zionist text. Ironically, however, the Zionist dream was articulated by Christian Zionists many years before Jewish involvement in the dream of restoring a “Jewish state” in Palestine. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, for example, British Puritans (and Americans like the theologian Increase Mather) wrote several treatises on God’s plan to restore the Jews to their homeland.

By the early nineteenth century, theological and philosophical works proposing the return of land to Jews had proliferated so widely as to have an effect upon contemporary politics. A long line of British politicians — Palmerston, Lloyd George, T.E. Lawrence and Allenby — were Christian Zionists (or fellow travelers). The Christian Zionist project became political reality when Arthur Balfour proclaimed in his famous “Declaration” of 1917 that Palestine become the homeland for the Jewish people. He believed a modern state of Israel was part of the divine plan announced in Old Testament prophetic literature. However, the Arabs were basically excluded from God’s promise to Abraham: “I give you this land [Palestine] to your descendants” (Genesis 12:8). Palestinians were not permitted their own narrative or sacred myths.

As the year 1800 approached, several pre-millennial theologies (pre-millennialist Christians believe Jesus must first return before the golden age can occur) emerged in the insecure aftermath of the French and American revolutions. Utopian groups flourished as the world appeared to turn upside down. During this period a maverick Irish Anglican priest, John Nelson Darby (1800–1882), popularized a new school of thought called dispensationalism.

As he traveled incessantly in Europe and North America, Darby’s message took deepest root amongst evangelical clergy and laity in America between 1859 and 1877. Darby saw little good in the modern world — which appeared headed for obliteration — and only God’s intervention could redeem it. Darby believed biblical prophecies could be interpreted literally and predictively.

Laying the groundwork for modern fundamentalism, Darby believed ordinary people could grasp the Bible’s meaning. A millennium is ten centuries. If the Old Testament prophets spoke of “Israel,” they were referring to the Jews, not the Church. If the author of the Book of Revelation predicted a mighty, bloody confrontation between Jesus and Satan outside Jerusalem on the plain of Armageddon, then this is precisely what would happen. Darby imagined that the entirety of history could be divided into seven dispensations, or epochs. He was, oddly enough, participating in the intellectual ethos of his day. Did not Marx envision history as moving through stages from feudalism to communism? What about Darwin’s shocking views of human evolution moving, without God’s prodding, from ape to human?

For Darby each dispensation ended when human beings became so degraded that God had to punish them. History moved from catastrophe to catastrophe — the Fall, the flood, the crucifixion of Christ. Now, human beings were in the penultimate epoch, the time of grace, which God would soon bring to a shuddering halt. The millennium could not be reached before the horrific battle between the Antichrist, with his mighty forces of evil, and Christ, eyes ablaze and sword in hand. This is the period of the “great tribulation.” This horror could not take place, however, before the Jews returned to their homeland. Christians would escape the horrors of this mother of all battles, however, since God had promised to snatch them away, “taken up in the clouds,” as the Revelation text has it, before the blood begins to flow. Today, some fundamentalist Christians hang pictures of a man gazing in astonishment as his wife is raptured out of the window.

During the time of the great tribulation, Jews will have the opportunity to turn to their Messiah for deliverance. For the pre-millennial Christians, history is a battleground between the forces of good and evil. Conceded to Satan, history’s only hope lies in its own destruction. But contemporary dispensationalists, like Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham and Hal Lindsey, allow a speck of light into this darkened world. If Christians turn from sin, they can stave off God’s judgment on America. Karen Armstrong, author of The Battle for God (2002), thinks dispensationalism is actually a revenge fantasy, wherein the humiliated elect can look down upon those who ridiculed them.

Yet this basic dispensational narrative framework as developed by Darby structures the mythic belief system of millions of American (and Canadian) Christians living in the twenty-first century. Through Darby’s incredible influence, dispensationalism became the pre-eminent way of reading the Bible amongst Christian evangelicals. In Canada, a network of Bible Institutes (one of the most famous being William “Bible Bill” Aberhart’s Prophetic Bible Institute) fed dispensationalist ideas into the “Bible Belt” of Alberta, B.C’s Fraser Valley and interior, as well as into some more moderate evangelical churches. Scofield’s Bible is the beloved “Bible of fundamentalism.”

But it was the establishment of Israel in 1948 that fueled dispensationalism with tremendous nervous energy. They took the restoration of the Jewish nation as a sign that history was moving rapidly towards the final events. When Israel captured Jerusalem in the 1967 war, many dispensationalists thought the end of the world was just around the corner.

By the early 1970s, books, films and television specials brought the pre-millennial dispensationalist perspective to millions of Americans and Canadians. Hal Lindsey’s lamentable The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), written in slangy, racy prose, predicted a Soviet-Ethiopian invasion of Israel and the destruction of Tokyo, London and New York. He also told readers that “the most important sign of all — that is the Jew returning to the land of Israel after thousands of years of being dispersed. The Jew is the most important sign to this generation.” This text has sold anywhere between 15 and 25 million copies, has led to several films and helped along Lindsey’s consulting work with members of Congress, the Pentagon and Ronald Reagan. Reagan even invited him to address a National Security Council briefing on plans for a nuclear war with Russia. Apocalypse is very big business these days.

Who Are the Christian Zionists and What Do They Believe?

There are today over 200 different evangelical organizations committed to Christian Zionism in the U.S. and Canada. The U.S. Christian Coalition for Israel forms an umbrella organization. The most militant Christian Zionist group is the International Christian Embassy-Jerusalem (ICEJ), founded in 1980 to “comfort Zion” (Isaiah 40:1–2). Its headquarters is housed in the former home of Edward Said, a prominent critic of Israel’s actions and policies and a Palestinian scholar living in exile in New York City. Other powerful groups are Bridges for Peace and Jews for Jesus. But there are many more organizations, and some, like Exobus and Ebenezer Trust, fund the transfer of Jews from Russia and eastern Europe to illegal Israeli settlements. These groups have an immense combined pedagogical power, pumping their ideas and political strategies into American culture through church life, rallies, prophetic Bible conferences, tours to Israel, films, books, magazines, videos, pamphlets, websites, well heeled lobbies and insider political trading. During the 1960s, the Christian Right learned how to use modern media and marketing techniques to great effect.

We can identify seven distinct tenets of Christian Zionism. First, the Bible is taken literally. Although the Jewish temple described by the prophet Ezekiel has not yet been built, it must one day replace the Dome of the Rock.

Second, the Jews remain God’s “chosen people.” Christian Zionists also believe that God’s promises regarding the land apply in perpetuity, and were ecstatic when Jerusalem came under Israeli control in 1967. At the Third International Christian Zionist Congress, held in Jerusalem in February, 1996, under the auspices of the ICEJ, some 1,500 delegates from over 40 countries proclaimed: “According to God’s distribution of nations, the Land of Israel has been given to the Jewish people as an everlasting covenant. The Jewish people have the absolute right to possess and dwell in the Land, including Judea, Samaria, Gaza and the Golan.” For Palestinians and Arabs these are exceedingly provocative words.

Christian Zionists resist every move of the U.S. government, international agencies and civil-society associations to press Israel for the implementation of UN Resolution 242 — that Israel leave the Occupied Territories. Inevitably, too, Christian Zionists applaud the settlement movement. Theodore Beckett, chair of the Christian Friends of Israel Community Development Foundation, initiated an “adopt-a-settlement” program amongst evangelical churches.

Christian Zionists believe Jerusalem is the eternal and exclusive Jewish capital. The ICEJ sponsored various receptions marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the “Reunification of Israel.” In 1997, they placed an ad in the New York Times stating that “Christians call for a United Jerusalem,” signed by ten evangelical leaders, including: Pat Robertson, chair of the Christian Broadcasting Network and then president of the Christian Coalition; Oral Roberts, founder and chancellor of Oral Roberts University; Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority; Ed McAteer, president of the Religious Roundtable; and David Allen Lewis, president of Christians United for Israel.

“We, the undersigned Christian spiritual leaders … [support] the continued sovereignty of the State of Israel over the holy city of Jerusalem,” the advertisement read. “We support Israel’s efforts to reach reconciliation with its Arab neighbours, but we believe that Jerusalem or any portion of it shall not be negotiable in the peace process. Jerusalem must remain undivided as the eternal capital of the Jewish people.” Readers were instructed that the “battle for Jerusalem has begun, and it is time for believers in Christ to support our Jewish brethren and the State of Israel.”

The battle for Jerusalem includes the restoration of the Jewish temple. Here the connection between extremist Christian Zionists and extremist Jewish organizations turns very nasty. Several extremist Jewish organizations, among them the Temple Institute and the Temple Mount Faithful, have made attempts to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock. Less well known is that Zhava Glasser of Jews for Jesus actually praised Gershon Salomon, founder of the Temple Faithful, for his impeccable credentials. Speaking before the Jerusalem Christian Zionist Congress in 1998, Salomon asserted: “The Jewish people will not be stopped at the gates leading to the Temple Mount.… We will fly our Israeli flag over the Temple Mount, which will be minus its Dome of the Rock and its mosques.”

The sixth axiom of Christian Zionists is antipathy towards Arabs and Palestinians. Some of their statements curdle the blood. Virulent anti-Arab and Orientalist stereotypes that have abounded over the history of Christianity permeate Christian Zionist texts and websites. The group Christian Action for Israel posts statements like this one: “Israel and Palestine living peacefully, side by side (the suicide bombers shall lie down with the victims) is a dream of diplomats disconnected from reality.” And this one: “Since the time of Dr. Goebbels [head of the Nazis’ propaganda machine] there has never been a case in which continued repetition of a lie has borne such great fruits. Of all the Palestinian lies there is no greater or more crushing lie than that which calls for the establishment of a separate Palestinian state in the West Bank.”

The renowned fundamentalist apologist Wilbur Smith, in his little paperback Israeli/Arab Conflict and the Bible (1967), asserts that the “Arabs have been hating Israel century after century. Indeed that began in the very days of the patriarchs when the foundations of Israel were being laid.” Smith accused the Arabs of lacking in “amiability and love” (they are descended from Ishmael, a “wild man”) and have exhibited “unceasing hatred” through the centuries. Franklin Graham, Billy’s son and heir to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, said that the “Arabs will not be happy until every Jew is dead. They all hate the Jews. God gave the land to the Jews. The Arabs will never accept that.”

Christian Zionists view the UN with distrust and hostility. In their apocalyptic imaginations Yasser Arafat and Saddam Husseim vie for the role of Antichrist. Thus, Christian Zionists oppose any peace process or movement to legitimize Palestinian claims to Jerusalem and the West Bank. “We are all supposed to support the notion of a Palestinian state,” says Christian Action for Israel. “But why? We know perfectly well what it would be like. Why should we wish for another gangster-satrapy to be added to the Arab roll of shame, busy manufacturing terrorists to come here and slaughter Americans in their offices?”

The final tenet of Christian Zionism is its nihilist longing for Armageddon. The titles of many Christian Zionist books indicate a pathological focus around death and suffering. Consider only some of the titles of Hal Lindsey’s books: The Late Great Planet Earth (1970); Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth (1973); The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon (1981); The Road to Holocaust (1989); and The Final Battle (1995). In The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, Lindsey claims: “We have witnessed biblical prophecies come true. The birth of Israel. The decline in American power and morality.… The threat of war in the Middle East.… The Bible foretells the signs that precede Armageddon.… We are the generation that will see the end times … and the return of Jesus.”

The Politics of the Unholy Alliance

The establishment of political links between American Christian Zionists and the Israeli government and its Jewish lobbies is one of the most remarkable developments in recent history. The turning point for the American Christian Right was Israel’s occupation of Arab lands after 1967, which occurred as the U.S. was mired in Vietnam, apparently losing. The cultural mood in America was tense, divisive and morbid. But Israel’s stunning victory moved Jerry Falwell to turn worshipfully to Israel, propelling him into the political arena. Falwell, a powerful exponent of a muscular Christianity, was enraptured with General Moshe Dayan, crediting him with the victory over the Arab forces. Falwell thought there was no way Israel could possibly have won the war, “had it not been for the intervention of God Almighty.”

Relations between the Israeli government and Christian Zionists were really cemented when Menachem Begin, leader of the right-wing Likud Party, was elected prime minister in May, 1977. The Likud Party included hard-line militant figures like Raphael Eitan and Ariel Sharon, who supported an increasingly powerful settler movement. Exquisitely attuned to the war for the hearts and minds of non-Israelis, particularly the American public, Likud began using biblical names like “Judea and Samaria” to refer to the West Bank. Evangelicals openly and eagerly welcomed Likud leaders.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president, and dispensationalists like Billy Graham had his ear. His famous depiction of the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire” is pulled right out of the dispensationalist’s kit bag. With Reagan in the White House, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and Christian Zionists found a pipeline to political influence. In the spring of 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, launching a lethal attack on the Palestinians and their Arab supporters. Before the invasion, however, Begin sent Sharon to enlist Reagan’s support. In late May, Secretary of State Alexander Haig gave Sharon the green light. Shortly afterward, ads appeared requesting evangelical support for the invasion. Reagan’s dispensational sympathies are chilling for the secular Left. This perverse theology feeds military build-up, anti-nuclear-disarmament sentiments and a careless attitude to the environment.

Begin enjoyed a unique relationship with Jerry Falwell. In 1979, Begin gave Falwell a Learjet for his personal use. In 1981, he awarded him the prestigious Jabotinsky Award for Zionist excellence at a gala dinner in New York City. Before bombing Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, Begin called Falwell before calling the U.S. president. The defeat of Shimon Peres in 1996 brought Likud back to power with Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister. While he was Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Netanyahu worked the “prayer breakfast for Israel” circuit and similar venues. His stock-in-trade address proclaimed that, for “those who knew the history of Christian involvement in Zionism, there is nothing either surprising nor new about the steadfast support given to Israel by believing Christians all over the world.” Zionism was “but the fulfilment of ancient prophecies.” Christian Zionists were “ardent proponents of facilitating the return of the Jews to their desolate homeland” (the Oxford English Dictionary defines “desolate” as uninhabited, ruined, neglected, barren). He knew his audience.

Within months of his election, in cooperation with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, Netanyahu convened the Israel Christian Advocacy Council, and flew 17 American evangelical and fundamentalist leaders to Israel for a tour of the Holy Land. While there they also attended a conference where they signed a pledge that “America never, never desert Israel.” Several of these advisory council members supported a Christian Zionist, pro-Israel ad in the April 10, 1997 New York Times, which called for a “united Jerusalem” and implored evangelicals to support the Likud position on sovereignty over Jerusalem, and which was intended to counteract a prior ad commissioned by the Churches for Middle East Peace. The crafty Netanyahu convinced the Christian Zionists that their ad should plead that “Israel not be pressured to concede on issues of Jerusalem in the final status negotiations with the Palestinians.” Netanyahu was amazingly adept at using the Christian Zionist organizations in Jerusalem to undermine pressure from U.S. and European governments and civil-society associations to negotiate with the Palestinians.

Some Beliefs Have Bad Consequences

Dispensationalism is not the divine ordering of history. It is a mythic story invented by certain human beings who wish to be swept up into a mighty drama of cosmological scope. The impending U.S. war against Iraq and unwavering U.S. support for Israel’s defiance of the UN and international law is made possible, let me be so bold to say, largely because of the dispensationalist, apocalyptic narrative that has gained hegemony in the war for the hearts and minds of fear-ridden Americans, still trembling from the sight of the collapsing towers. The U.S. government has obvious, crass, materialist reasons for invading Iraq and sustaining Israel. But we on the Canadian Left cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that many millions of Americans see world events refracted through the lens of prophetic beliefs. Bush’s “war on terrorism” would never have played at all — he would have been denounced as a fool — had not a goodly segment of the American public been culturally well conditioned to respond to his phrase within the parameters of its peculiar dispensationalist understanding of world history.

This article was originally published in Canadian Dimension magazine.


Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.