By Gilbert Schramm (5/23/21)
Reader beware. I am not a theologian and I rarely discuss theology. Recent events, however, have led me to some thoughts I believe are worth sharing. The recent brutal violence directed against Gaza is one of those events. As the news coverage went on, I caught an interesting idea. I only heard it in passing and cannot quote it exactly, but I think my impression was enough to make my point. Former US ambassador to Israel, Ron Dermer was speaking. He made the point that only about 2% of the American electorate are orthodox Jews. What makes Israel’s voice in American politics so powerful is really the support of Christian evangelicals (almost 25% of the US electorate by some counts). Dermer described them as the backbone of support for the increasingly brutal Israeli regime today.
Christian evangelical support from Israel seems to be rooted in a single literal interpretation of scripture that suggests that Christ will only return to earth after the Jews return to Israel and rebuild the Temple on the Mount. What they fail to understand is that the process of “rebuilding the temple on the Mount” was intended as a metaphor for personal self-transformation. In this context it is worth thinking about the term “exile” as well.
If one studies Jewish history, one will find that probably the most productive and creative periods of Jewish thought happened while they were in exile. It was during the Babylonian exile that Judaism left its early associations as a merely tribal cult and took on a truly universal tone. It was in Europe that the Rabbinical Judaism of today evolved. Contact with other cultures—the experience of being a stranger and learning from it is a vital part of self-transformation and development… When Black slaves sang about “crossing over the Jordan River” or “crossing over into Zion” they weren’t actually planning to visit the Middle East. Neither were the masses of Jews who give their holiday toast by saying “next year in Jerusalem.” In a similar way the metaphor of “rebuilding the temple” is about personal spiritual transformation.
It is ironic then, that Christian evangelicals have so strongly supported Trump. After all, in many ways he is a poster boy for what they claim to abhor. He is a verified conman, a business failure, a chronic debtor, a sexual libertine, and he lacks almost every quality that evangelicals and Orthodox Jews claim to value.
The problem with literal interpretations of the Bible run very deeply through this whole debate. Apparently, before the temple on the mount can be legitimately rebuilt, a ‘red heifer’ must be found and sacrificed. It must be perfect and without blemish. There are apparently groups in Texas who are trying hard to breed such a creature. They are (naturally) working on cows (because that is what the word heifer means in English) using new genetic technologies in pursuit of an animal that could conceivably bring a huge price…Wait! Wait! In the language of the bible a “heifer” could be a goat or a sheep! Do people not understand that language changes over time? Do people really believe they can use modern science to somehow pre-empt the word of God? After all the Christian right tend to abhor the use of genetic science for vaccines, etc.
The problem is that any ideology that is based on the idea of a “chosen people” (whether they are White Supremacist, German Supremacist, or Zionist Supremacist) is by definition exclusionary. The basic problem with exclusionary politics is that once established, there is no end to them. Time after time Jewish prophets retired to the wilderness and then returned to accuse most other Jews of not being good enough to deserve salvation or qualify as “the chosen people.” Who is really to say? I would think that if you believe in a Christian God of forgiveness and salvation, you would tend towards withholding judgment. (But that smacks more of Christianity than of old-style Judaism.)
Some Orthodox Jews believe that judgment day will condemn Christians to hell-fire, and some Christians believe that Jews would do not recant will go to the same fire. The plain truth is that only very narrowly perceived self interest has created this unstable and uneasy alliance. The fact that the very anti-Semitic, white supremacist Trump was so popular with Netanyahu is a symptom of this rather gross convergence.
The genius of Christ was that he turned an old prophecy (that a descendant of King David would return as the Jewish Messiah) into a metaphor. This was not a down-sizing of prophecy, it was an up-scaling. Nevertheless, large groups of Jews in biblical times rejected Christ. They had expected the descendent of King David to be a king and conqueror in a worldly sense—with all the trappings of worldly power and glory. Christ had transformed the kingdom into a metaphorical one—one with universal appeal. It was a much more powerful message. The fundamentalist literalists should remember that Christ explicitly spoke in parables…
In medieval times, it became a virtual heresy for Jews to think that they could pre-empt the will of God by returning to Israel before the proper signs were in place and before the Temple was duly consecrated. To try to create those “signs” or fake that “consecration” by using modern genetic science to cook the books is pretty strange. This is why when the idea of political Zionism took root in the late 19th century, most traditional Rabbis were strongly opposed to it. It is worth noting that most of those early Zionists were both not very religious and also embraced a lot of frankly racist and supremacist views.
In historical and linguistic terms, the origin of the word “Hebrew” is not clear. I tend toward the theory that it is the word “Habiru,” which occurs on a very ancient Egyptian inscription. In that context it referred to a group of wandering vagabonds, even bandits, who lived on the outskirts of what then was considered civilization. In fact, many Jewish prophets described their own people this way. Those prophets tended to uphold the rights of the oppressed, dispossessed, and underprivileged. It would be nice if proponents of Zionism would consider the roots of their own tradition (and its moral implications) as they view the plight that they have brought upon the Palestinian people today. People who aspire to be truly Christian should certainly do the same.
For the record, Christians in the US should know that the current Israeli regime makes little if any distinction between the Arab and Christian Muslims it oppresses. The attitude seems to be that if they are not Jewish, they simply don’t matter. The Christian Arab population of Bethlehem (for example) has dropped dramatically in recent years.
In closing, I think both Jews and Christians should remember that even in the Bible, Palestine was never the original homeland of the Jewish people. They looked for it for years. In the end, they fought their way into it and took it by force. History records that they only managed to hold it for a very short time. The idea that Jews were forcibly exiled by the Romans is largely a myth. By Biblical times, the vast majority of Jews had already moved on from Palestine voluntarily. After the Babylonian exile, they had a universal faith that didn’t require them to live in a certain place. That is why, as St. Paul sought to make converts in Jewish communities of the time, he was writing letters to the Ephesians (in Turkey), the Philadelphians (in Jordan) the Thessalonians and Corinthians (in Greece), the Romans (in Italy) and the Philippians (in Bulgaria). But oddly, perhaps, not to the Jerusalemites…
The point of all this is to suggest that productive activism in support of a just solution to the conflict between Palestine and Israel might lie in greater efforts by American activists to create better outreach and more effective messaging to Christian evangelicals. Sadly, a lot of liberals tend to dismiss religious views out of hand. I consider myself very liberal, yet I have never been hostile to religion per se. I think liberals might make more progress with changing the views of Christian evangelicals if they made a little more effort to understand the predicates of Christian and Jewish thought and tried a little harder to speak their language. That might be an important move towards peace and justice in Palestine. Even our smallest towns have active churches. It is a matter of reaching out and trying to find a pastor or priest in your community who is willing to engage in a meaningful but polite discussion.
One thing I found very useful was a recent op-ed published in the LA Times (A way of thinking about Israel that isn’t helpful and may even be dangerous. By Clifford M. Kulwin Sat, May 22, 2021 ). Jewish Rabbi Kulwin questioned the idea of “loving Israel.” Along the way he mentioned the Haredim:
“… the very traditional Jews who see Israel as the modern incarnation of God’s will, which is at least serious and consistent, as these are the folks intent on building ever more settlements on the West Bank to fulfill God’s promise.
The Israel they love has gotten a boost during the Netanyahu years, and may get even more of one in the next government, whose ruling coalition will likely have right-wing extremists like we’ve never seen before: the Kahanists, who don’t believe in rights for non-Jewish Israelis and have emboldened violence toward Arabs and gays.
Theirs is an Israel I would find difficult to love.
Similarly, evangelical Christians love Israel — they really love Israel. Their money and influence outweigh the fabled “Jewish lobby.” But the Israel they love is the one that will herald the second coming of Jesus; in the words of Israeli historian Anita Shapira, they are imbued with “the idea of the Jews returning to their ancient homeland as the first step to world redemption.”
This is an Israel I am supposed to love?
I am an American, born and raised here, and as such I am obligated to cheer what I admire, criticize what I don’t, serve if needed and participate in American civil society knowing that what’s best for us as a people may not always be best for me as an individual. That’s fine. My responsibility is not to “love” the U.S.; it’s to be a citizen.
Same thing with Israel.”
There are some things I believe and others I am sure of. One thing I am sure of is that people of all faiths (and people who just want to live in peace), could all benefit from an approach like this.
Other sources of information on this topic:
Kairos Palestine: A word of faith, hope, and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering (https://www.kairospalestine.ps/sites/default/files/English.pdf)
For anyone who wants to quickly get up to speed on these more historical aspects of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict the two books by Shlomo Sand (The invention of the Land of Israel and The Invention of the Jewish People) are indispensable reading. Academic but fascinating and well documented.