Disenchanting Zionism

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March 29, 2010

“This land is mine, God gave this land to me.” For many, these words evoke the haunting melody from Otto Preminger’s 1960 feature, Exodus. However, those words were not in the Academy Award-winning soundtrack composed by Ernest Gold. Christian Zionist and singer Pat Boone scribbled them down on a Christmas card after the movie was released as described in coverage by the Jerusalem Post of Boone’s “Christmas present to the Jews.”

This week, I watched Exodus for the first time in many years. Adapted from Leon Uris’ similarly-titled novel), the storyline differs substantially from that of the real Exodus 1947, a dilapidated packet steamer overloaded with Jews, which left France for Haifa. In the horrific narrative of the actual Exodus, the ship was rammed and taken over by the British, who towed it to Haifa and re-boarded the immigrants on other ships to send them back to France. After France refused to force the hunger striking passengers to disembark, the British took them to Germany, where they were interned in former concentration camps. Public outcry resulted in a change of policy by the British, who subsequently used Cyprus for the internment of Jews trying to immigrate to Palestine.

In the movie version, Ari Ben Canaan, played by Paul Newman, manages to sneak hundreds of refugees from Cyprus onto the ship, where it is then blockaded by the British. American nurse Kitty Fremont pleads with a British general, who she mistakenly assumes to be Jewish, to intervene as those aboard the ship are becoming dangerously weak due to their hunger strike. The general responds, “Now I find myself asking, how can any man let it happen, Jew, Gentile, Buddhist, Mahometan, no matter who he is.” Now fifty years old, the movie was a simplistic, somewhat cheesy, revisionist view of Israel’s founding. However, it’s massive popularity was based on its universal message of Jewish human rights, not a “divine right” to the land.

Preminger’s Exodus is a reminder of a past when Zionism evoked different images than it does today. Then, anyone who believed that Jews had the right to live in peace could be considered pro-Israel. There was no requirement for the acceptance of a literal interpretation of futuristic Biblical prophecy.

The negative connotation of the word “Zionism” today is frequently contributed to Muslim propaganda and anti-Semitism, a term which has been largely redefined to mean objections to Israeli government policies. Certainly, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian struggle has played the primary role in tarnishing its image. However, there is a factor in this equation which continues to be an elephant in the room when it comes to Jewish dialogue. The word Zionism is increasingly equated with the term “Biblical Zionism,” a worldview in which a partnership of Christian and Jews are working frantically to move the hands of the prophetic clock, and to advance their respective, albeit different visions of the messianic age. One does not have to be an anti-Semite or a “pro-Palestinian propagandist” to fear this agenda, and the explosive mix of those in all three Abrahamic faiths who are fixated on bringing an end to human history.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has described the Iranian regime as a “messianic apocalyptic cult” while simultaneously encouraging the promotion of Christian end times hysteria and Jewish extremism, and has referred to his enemies as “Amalekites”, the tribe that biblical Israelites were instructed to destroy down to the last woman, child, and farm animal.

In the joint venture of Biblical Zionism, the Jewish partners are substantially outnumbered by the Christian millennialists, now a growing phenomenon in South America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. Last week, I added to my collection of videos of “Davidic dance,” an expression of millennial fervor in which these charismatic Christians are embracing their “Hebrew roots” replaying the role of ancient Hebrews preparing to take on the Amalekites of the world in preparation for the end times. The video clips are from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, Singapore, Zambia, and numerous other nations. Today these events are viewed as expressions of support for Israel, but millennialism is volatile and history has shown that ecstatic expectations of philo-Semitic obsession can turn ugly when Jews do not fulfill their assigned role in the drama.

Today’s Zionism is promoted by Christian television networks around the globe twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and in books that have been sold by the millions. This Zionism is defined by apocalyptic images of coming wars and maps of a greater Israel that spreads from the Nile to the Euphrates. It is a Zionism that is clearly based on identifying Jews of the world as a race and as being in some way inherently different than all other humans. This is a Zionism that naturally repels everyone, of any religion or nationality and including many Christians worldwide, who object to a simplistic and dualistic narrative in which the forces working for God and those working for the devil are about to reach their climatic battle in the modern state of Israel.

When negative images of Zionism are used in extremist Islamic media, they are frequently and quite properly disregarded as propaganda. However, Israel’s millennialist allies describe with enthusiasm a bloodthirsty and rampaging Zionism, including graphic descriptions of what are described as biblical prophecies of nuclear war. Why should their propaganda not be taken seriously when they advertise their personal relationships with, and awards from Jewish leaders, politicians, and organizations?

In recent years, Israel has attempted to engage in a number of rebranding projects to turn focus away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to promote other images of the nation’s beauty, tourism, technological advancement, and other accomplishments. But contrary to canards about Jewish control of the media, Israel cannot begin to compete with the worldwide access of Christian broadcast media, largely controlled by the same charismatic stream of Christianity which dominates international Christian Zionist activism. Turn on a television in any hotel room in Asia, Africa, Europe, or the Americas and you have a good chance of finding a charismatic televangelist promoting the millennialist brand of Zionism.

As the phenomenon of global Biblical Zionism grows, so has its embrace by Israeli politicians. Netanyahu’s speech at the Christians United for Israel (CUFI) gathering in Jerusalem, held on the night of Joe Biden’s recent visit to Israel, demonstrates the significant political role of his Christian Zionist supporters. When Netanyahu gave his speech at the AIPAC Policy Conference he repeated a warning he gave at the CUFI rally two weeks earlier. Netanyahu described a “relentless international campaign to undermine Israel’s legitimacy.” Just prior to introducing Netanyahu at the CUFI event, John Hagee had stated, “There is a blatant attempt in the global media to separate Israel from its historic covenant God gave to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Israel does not exist because of a decree made by the United Nations in 1948. Israel exists because of a covenant made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob 3500 years ago and that covenant still stands.”

That is a religious belief held by many Jews and Christians, but what are the ramifications of imposing these beliefs on the rest of the world as political policy?

“Israel, the Jewish State, is not a political entity,” describes Gary Cooperberg, the former foreign press spokesperson for Meir Kahane in his 2001 post titled “Biblical Zionism is the Only Path to Peace.” He continues, “It is the beginning of fulfillment of Biblical Destiny. It concerns not only the Jewish People, but all nations of the world. Redemption has clearly begun, and all the nations are being judged by G-d. The nation of Israel too is being judged by how it behaves. The terror we see in Israel today is in direct correlation to the failure of our leaders here to conduct national policy according to Biblical mandates.”

Christian nationalists in the U.S. use similar terminology, describing this country as being divinely ordained as part of the redemptive process of the world, as well as a tool for God’s judgement of other nations. A textbook titled America’s Providential History includes a timeline of the world which marks 1789 as the creation of “the first Christian Republic.” The text closes with America’s decline due to apostasy, and provides guidelines for transforming America through a return to the will of God. Once transformed, the texts describes “foreign policy in this Christian world order will be conducted by missionaries and members of the Christian trade community who know how to represent the cause of Christ abroad.” (The authors of the textbook credit two history “experts,” David Barton and Peter Marshall, who are currently serving on the advisory board for the Texas State School Board of Education whose changes to curriculum guidelines have caused national controversy.)

Is it Israel’s legitimacy that is under attack as Netanyahu and Hagee claim, or the Biblical Zionist belief in the divine right to a greater Israel? Is Israel’s status as a modern state aided or harmed by increasingly equating the term pro-Israel with Biblical Zionism? Certainly there is political potential in the partnership with Christian millennialists in nations around the world. Conversely, the embrace of Biblical Zionism as a justification for Israel’s existence threatens to permanently alienate everyone else, as well as drive Israelis further into the clutches of their millennialist Christian partners. For the millennial-minded Christian wing of this Biblical Zionist partnership, the growing alienation of Israel is not a problem since it is a necessary prerequisite in their end times narrative.

Gershom Gorenberg cites Kahanist Gary Cooperberg, in his book End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount. According to Gorenberg, Cooperberg sent a fax to journalists after fellow Kahanist Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 Purim massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers during prayers at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs. He stated that Goldstein’s “desperate act of love for his people… will some day be recognized by all Jews as the turning point which brought redemption upon us.” Gorenberg explains that Goldstein had told friends days before the massacre that he had a plan to stop the peace process.

John Hagee describes the murder of Yitzhak Rabin as part of a divinely ordained plan. “The shot that killed Yitzhak Rabin launched Bible prophecy onto the fast track,” he pronounces in his book Beginning of the End, and proceeds to describe those Jews who desire peace as “cultural or ethnic Jews who place no great importance on the religious beliefs of the Jewish people.” Hagee continues with his frequently used narrative that Israel, in its quest for “peace at any price” will “entrust its security to the Antichrist,” therefore partnering in the formation of the the “New World Order.”

It is curious that Jews who would not think of embracing Kahanism will happily endorse the partnership with Christians who promote Kahanists and their own parallel religious fanaticism. For some reason, the Christian version is viewed by many, on both the left as well as the right, as somehow harmless and inconsequential.

The language of both Christian and Jewish extremists is increasingly employed by Israeli political leaders. Mayor Nir Barkat was interviewed by the BBC’s Owen Bennett-Jones about the controversy over the housing units being built in East Jerusalem. Barkat, who also spoke at the March 8 CUFI event, was described as the “secular” candidate when he ran for mayor of Jerusalem. This past week, he defended the building in East Jerusalem in a way that clearly shocked his BBC interviewer.

Barkat: “Jerusalem is mentioned in the Bible 663 times… Jerusalem is not mentioned in the Koran even once…”

Bennett-Jones: “Are you really saying that because it was Jewish 2000 years ago, it should be Jewish now? And the basis of it is that you were there 2000 years ago and it’s mention in the Bible more often than the Koran talks about Jerusalem?

Barkat: “That’s number one and the other of course is natural - we are the majority in the city and we claim it more than any body else, and indeed it was united in ‘67…”

Bennett-Jones: “If everyone went back to where we were 2000 years ago, I mean, it would be a crazy world. There would be wars everywhere.”

Barkat: “So what’s your point then?”

Prior to introducing Netanyahu on March 8, John Hagee made it very clear that the CUFI rally was a show of political force in favor of an “undivided and eternal Jewish Jerusalem.” Hagee’s selection of verses were startling given the emphasis of the evening. He quoted roughly from Deuteronomy 6 about the promised land for the Israelites, “He will give you houses you did not build, he will give you wells you did not dig, and he will give you vineyards you did not plant.”

If we are going to cherry pick verses from the Torah as a guide to specific political activism, perhaps a better choice would be Deuteronomy 16, which describes Pesach, and also includes the words, “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof.” Justice, justice, shall you pursue so that you may live and possess the land that the Lord your God is giving you. This is a verse which has been the foundation for Jewish social justice for centuries.

There are those who have not lost their dedication to social justice. Didi Remez is well-known for his participation in regular Friday protests in East Jerusalem and his own blog, Coteret. Ten days ago, while protesting in Bili’in, Didi was shot five times in the legs and groin, with plastic bullets. Despite his wounds, which required stitches, Didi downplayed his own injuries, joking on Facebook about the damage to his blue jeans and showing deference to the Palestinians who were more badly wounded. I did not know until reading Bernard Avishai’s article that Didi is the great-grandson of David Remez, who was a close friend of David Ben-Gurion and Israel’s first Minister of Transportation, and that Didi was also a combat officer as well as the grandson of the former Israel Air Force chief Aharon Remez.

Those protesting in East Jerusalem are fighting for justice for families like the Ghawis, who were evicted from their home in Sheik Jarrah in August, a family whose story is recounted along with that of the Al Badr family in Hebron by Leon Wieseltier in the New Republic. The Ghawis’ former house became the subject of recent news when the settlers who moved into it were filmed celebrating Purim with a song praising the memory of Baruch Goldstein.

Hopefully the word “Zionism” can some day be reclaimed. Not just to include those who simply love Israel, but who also believe in justice for everyone.

ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by SimonAbramson.com