Christians and Modern Israel:
Theologically complicated? Maybe. Ethically? Not so much.
By Calvin L. Smith
Once again conflict in the Middle East raises that perennial question: How should Christians view and respond to the modern State of Israel? Debate focuses on several issues Western Christianity has traditionally grappled with, for example, the sanctity of life, when is war justified, theodicy (why God allows suffering), and what did Christ mean when He taught, “Blessed are the peacemakers”.
Yet that same Christ, or Messiah (“Christ” is derived from the Greek for “Messiah”, Hebrew “Mashiach”) was Jewish, from a nation God called His own. And one day this Jewish Messiah will return, not like before, as a lamb led meekly to His death, but as Conquering King, a Davidic King. This and their theological view that God retains a plan for the Jewish people likewise shape how some Christians view today’s Jewish state. Add to that a long, shameful history of the Church’s maltreatment of the Jews and brutal anti-Semitism and it becomes clear that Christians need to get this issue right.
Christian theology exploring Israel and the Jewish people tends to focus on discussions such as who are the people of God, whether God retains a plan and purpose for them, who owns the land, and the role, if any, of Israel in eschatology (theology of the end times). Yet for theologically uninitiated Christians it can all be quite complex, even bewildering. Few have the time, resources or in some cases even the inclination to grapple with, for example, concepts such as supersessionism (whether hard or soft, punitive, economic, or whatever), covenant theology versus dispensationalism, or the number, nature and present status of the Old Testament covenants. In a busy, time-precious, postmodern-influenced world, people seek short, simple, sometimes emotive, yet definitely compelling narratives that quickly communicate their beliefs and values.
Some Christians who militantly oppose Israel have grasped this and effectively broadcast a version of the anti-Israel narrative so prevalent in the world today: that of an Israel as a pariah, racist, warmongering state. This anti-Zionist Christian narrative, couched in theological language, presents Israel as the complete antithesis of their perception of a Christian worldview and values. Thus, for some Christians who have not grappled with either the complexity of the Middle East situation or the theological debate surrounding Israel and the Jewish people, this narrative can be appealing. When casualties are mounting rapidly in Gaza, for some Christians this is not the time to debate theologically whether the Jews remain God’s chosen people or if He has brought them back to the land. Rather, a simple, seemingly Christian, anti-Israel narrative, uncritically embraced, provides an immediate ethical response to the situation, a short, compelling narrative fitting in with their view of the world and God.
The problem is, if we are to move away from the theology behind the issue and focus instead on the Middle East conflict solely from a quick-fix, ethical narrative perspective, then actually the narrative of Israel as inherently evil could not be more distorted or further from the truth. From Christians arguing from an ethical viewpoint there is actually a rather strong case for maintaining that in a battle of good versus evil in the Middle East Israel is, in fact, one of the “good guys”.
Consider how in the past few weeks the world has learned of unimaginable Islamist butchery in Syria and Iraq perpetrated by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS/ISIL) against Christians, Muslims and ancient religious groups and sects.. The reality, though, is that these horrors are nothing new. Beheadings, suicide bombings and countless other atrocities in the name of Islamism have been perpetrated, sometimes filmed and distributed throughout the West since 9/11, while Taliban-controlled Afghanistan endured it for years prior to the attacks on America. It is just that now, as this violent seventh-century mind-set sweeps across whole swathes of the Middle East and threatens not only the region, but also the West from ISIL jihadists returning home one day, that everyday folk are sitting up and taking notice. It is not insignificant that at various recent anti-Israel protests in Europe the ISIL flag—the same flag flown by those currently pillaging, raping, torturing and beheading their way across the Middle East—is being waved blatantly at protests on the streets of Europe, not just some distant land.
But the Taliban and ISIL are not the only versions of Islamism. Others include the rulers of Gaza—Hamas—associated with the Muslim Brotherhood (motto: Islam is the solution). Hamas openly seeks the destruction of Israel. They teach hatred of Jews on children’s television. They glorify the culture of suicide bombings and parade their children in camouflage and toy suicide belts. Since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 over 11,000 rockets have been fired at the Jewish state (excluding around 3,500 in the last month or so), deliberately aimed at Israeli civilians. During the latest round of fighting we have learned (once again) that Hamas use their own civilians as human shields, seek maximum civilian casualties among Gazans to influence world opinion, hide their weaponry in UN humanitarian facilities, control, manipulate and rough up journalists, and execute opponents out of hand. They have even executed their own tunnel diggers to keep details of these tunnels secret. Hamas rules Gaza with an iron fist and everyday Gazans cannot oppose them. It was even reported last week that twenty people were shot out of hand simply for protesting the war.
For Christians considering the issue from an ethical perspective, how can any of this possibly be compared with a liberal, Western-type democracy—Israel—that holds free elections, provides its 1.5 million Arab with citizenship rights (including voting, serving in the army or standing for parliament), responds to provocation rather than initiates it, announces beforehand details of military action so civilians can evacuate an area, provides hundreds of tonnes of humanitarian aid even as it battles Hamas, and sets up a field hospital to treat wounded Gaza civilians? Moreover, Israelis, whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian, enjoy far more rights and freedom than citizens of other countries in the region. Religious rights are protected, not just constitutionally, but upheld in the courts too. Israel produces technological and medical inventions and breakthroughs that the whole world benefits from. Conversely, Hamas openly boasts that while Israelis thirst for life they thirst for death and martyrdom.
We could go on, but the point is made, namely, that in the Middle East there is currently a destructive and horrific force for evil sweeping across the region. Aside from ISIL, but there are also other Islamist groups and organisations that make war on both Arabs and Israel, bringing utter misery. Al Qaeda, Hamas, ISIS, Hezbollah… their methods may differ but their aims and world vision are similar. And they all hate and despise Israel, a small nation on the front line in the battle against Islamism. Behind the scenes Western militaries and intelligence agencies work closely with Israel, learn from her security experiences in one of the world’s roughest neighbourhoods, and benefit from valuable intelligence she has accumulated.
Make no mistake, if Israel falls Islamism secures a major coup, and other liberal democracies in the West will find themselves in the firing line. European intelligence services are already deeply concerned about radicalisation. The bombings in London and Madrid were violent illustrations of were it can lead. Meanwhile, this mindset has been at the forefront of the various pro-Gaza, anti-Israel protests seen of late across Europe. It is not insignificant that some of these protests have been accompanied with attacks on Jews and an alarming display of anti-Semitism that chants, “Death to Jews”. European Jews are shocked at events in recent weeks. Many fear for their safety. Indeed the chants, hatred, calls for boycotts and disinvestments, and now violence, is a painful reminder of the 1930s and where that eventually led. Neither is it just the mob speaking, with several “anti-Zionist” politicians fanning the flames of hatred. Imagine getting away with what George Gallow M.P. said last week about Israel/Israelis if instead he had ranted about Scots, Spaniards, women, Blacks, Muslims, gays, Pakistanis, Christians, or whatever.
Does Israel get it right every time? Of course not, no nation does. Whether civilian deaths by US drones targeting terrorists in Afghanistan or Pakistan, the carpet-bombing of Dresden to help end the Second World War, civilian casualties caused by NATO protecting Kosovars, and so on, war is a fundamentally horrible business. While sometimes necessary, the lesser of two evils, in war innocent civilians are always caught up in utilitarian military decisions and operational errors. But surely there is a difference between those who seek to maximise civilian casualties, whether ISIL’s onslaught upon all in its path, or in Hamas’ case the death and martyrdom of their own to achieve Islamism’s aims, exploiting the suffering of their own people for political gain, and those who do all they can to avoid civilian casualties (both their own and the enemy’s)? How many armies give up a tactical advantage to drop leaflets to civilians letting the enemy know which areas they plan to attack next?
I am, frankly, disturbed at the number of everyday Westerners who repeat the mantra that Israel “deliberately” targets children, even though figures now coming to light demonstrate the complete opposite, that casualties consist of a disproportionate number of men of fighting age (a fact which, bizarrely the Israel-haters have now turned on its head, to now ask why Israel is deliberately targeting young men!). It is quite one thing to say Israel—or the US, or Britain (by all means let’s point these things out, but let’s be consistent and not demonise one country)—is careless in combat, but quite another to say she deliberately targets civilians and engages in genocide. Many people cavalierly who use the word are ignorant of its correct meaning. Yet others know too well what it means, and accusing the Jewish state of it represents the ultimate slander.
So from a basic narrative perspective it is all about, quite simply, good versus evil. Now, arguably there is a case for those Christians with limited religious, political and historical knowledge of a highly complex region and situation to choose not to comment or express an opinion on the issue (the problem is when those with little knowledge opine strongly or else unwittingly swallow the anti-Israel narrative, by default associating themselves with the Israel haters). And it is also OK for more knowledgeable Christians, if they feel they must, to criticise some of Israel’s methods. But in a battle that is quite clearly between good and evil in the region, one struggles to see how some Christians move far beyond this to regard Israel as inherently evil, always focusing criticism upon the Jewish state and never the other side. That some Christians may do so by ignoring Islamism is bad enough. That some, in their intense dislike or hatred of Israel, suggest that actually groups like Hamas and Hezbollah are not really so bad is surely antithetical to orthodox Christian values. The ideology, methods and actions of such groups do not compare either with Israeli or Christian values. But that some Christian anti-Zionists will march with those who seek the annihilation of Israel, or that several have even shared platforms at Islamist events with those who condone Islamist suicide bombings as an acceptable form of resistance defies explanation.
Part of it, of course, is the media’s fault, whether selective reporting based on editorial politics, or more ominously how some media outlets may receive finances from organisations, and even countries, with their own agenda. Consider how countries like Qatar—allies of Hamas—exercise financial influence in the West, which arguably extends beyond finance to influence decision makers and opinion shapers. Christians therefore need to make a concerted effort to move beyond our everyday media diet of superficiality and sound-bites to explore the conflict widely and thoroughly. Looking at the current Gaza war through the filter of the big four or five media outlets yields quite a different story to the partial version currently being reported in much of the West.
In summary, in the parlance of our Americans cousins, it is a “no-brainer”. For those Christians wanting a quick, effective and compelling narrative, there are two disparate choices: this is about good versus evil, Israel versus an Islamist tidal wave which threatens not only the Middle East, but also eventually the Western world. If in doubt consider the target and aims of the 9/11 conspirators. Little has changed in terms of the aims, though quite a lot with regards to how closer these people are to consolidating their presence and aims in the West. Some cynics may argue that the West has some answering to do in this regard, that they helped cause the current mess in the first place. They may have a point. But these were Western, not Israeli, decisions, and it is increasingly looking like the West may have to pay a price for years to come fighting radicalisation from within. So is now really the time, as the West agonises about its foreign policy errors, for Christians to ditch a key country in the region that shares many of our values and stands against an evil that threatens Christians, Jews and peaceful Muslims the world over? Even non-religious observers are now coming to the conclusion that it is a simple case of deciding who the good and bad guys are. But make no mistake, standing up for Israel will be increasingly costly. Hatred of Israel is spilling over not only towards Jewish people who are not Israelis, but also those who speak in Israel’s defence. Whether Muslim clerics ostracised for standing against anti-Semitism, the Palestinian university professor visiting Auschwitz with students who lost his job and reputation, intellectuals being publicly mocked by their peers, or Christians who have lost longstanding friends over the Gaza war, standing for good comes at a price.
Some Christians may challenge the view that no nation is truly good in God’s eyes, including a secular country like Israel. I agree to a degree, and this is the problem with limiting the discussion to a quick-fix narrative rather than detailed theological inquiry. Yet most Christians probably have little difficulty recognising the evil nature of the leaders and ideologies underpinning Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Soviet empire or today’s North Korea, juxtaposing those with the freedoms and values (imperfect, indeed sometimes un-Christian as they are) of essentially democratic nations. Likewise, in a region where violent, cruel Islamism is rampant and growing, Israel and her values surely stand out as its antithesis. In short, Christians today seeking to draw upon an ethical narrative response to the Middle East situation have a choice to make: Is Israel, despite its imperfections, problems and failures, more good than evil? Or are Israel’s Islamist enemies, who seek her obliteration, kill with impunity, glorify death, and cause abject misery, more good than evil? From a theological perspective, how Christians respond to the modern State of Israel may be a complex issue for some. But ethically, I think not so much.
Below are several comments and reports readers may find helpful. It’s a mixed bunch, some less supportive of Israel than others (some not at all), mainly published through respected mainstream outlets, but which readers might find helpful as they reflect upon this issue.
Benny Morris, “When Did Britain Lose Faith in Israel?” Daily Telegraph (11 Aug 2014). Benny Morris, an Israel university professor, is one of the so-called New Historians that have challenged Israeli and Zionist versions of history.
The Gospel Coalition, “Nine Things You Should Know About Hamas” (5 Aug 2014). This piece is posted without comment. The Gospel Coalition is an Evangelical, somewhat Reformed network not especially know for its support for Israel.
Sam Harris, “Why I Don’t Criticize Israel”. From his blog (27 July 2014). Sam Harris is a liberal and one of the leading so-called New Atheists.
Hilik Bar, “How many Israelis must die before we are ‘allowed’ to defend them?” The Guardian (Comment is Free section), 20 July 2014. Hilik Bar is deputy speaker of the Knesset, secretary general of the Israeli Labor party, and chair of the Knesset caucus to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Jon Henley, “Antisemitism on rise across Europe ‘in worst times since the Nazis’”, The Guardian (7 Aug 2014). This piece is notable given it was published by a British newspaper which is highly critical of Israel.
Yair Lapid, “The Betrayal of the Intellectual”, Huffington Post (8 Aug 2014). Lapid is Israel’s Minister of Finance and the head of Yesh Atid, Israel’s second largest political party. Here he comments on Western intellectualism’s moral relativism vis-à-vis the current conflict.
David Bernstein, “Forty questions for the international media in Gaza”, Washington Post (31 July 2014). Helpful piece highlighting the gaps in reporting of the current Gaza war.
Times of Israel, “IDF indiscriminately killing in Gaza? Data says no”, Times of Israel (8 Aug 2014). This article reports on a BBC article published on 8 August questioning civilian casualty statistics in the current war. Since then, the BBC has modified the story, which was given wide coverage across the world and social media, several times. Details of modifications and suggested motives are speculated here.
ITV News, “George Galloway Investigated Over Anti-Israel Speech” (7 Aug 2014). Includes a video of the Member of Parliament’s declaration that Bradford is an Israel-free zone and Israelis are not welcome there.
William Booth, “Auschwitz trip: ‘I have no regrets,’ says Palestinian professor”, The Independent (13 April 2014). Further details of the Palestinian professor detailed above who organised a student trip to Auschwitz.
Judea Pearl, “BDS, Racism and the New McCarthyism”, Los Angeles Review of Books (16 March 2014). Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, which promotes East-West understanding and tolerance. He is the father of Daniel Pearl, a Jewish journalist who was beheaded by Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and his murder filmed.
Efraim Karsh, “It’s Anti-Semitism, Stupid”, Jerusalem Post (8 Aug 2014). In this comment Karsch, a professor of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London. looks at the media coverage of the current war in Gaza and anti-Semitism more widely.