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Is Zionism more "Christian" than "Jewish"?

January 30, 2014 at 1:42 am

poll of American Jews published by Pew Research this week had a headline finding that many will perhaps find surprising: “Jews’ feelings for Israel are equaled or even exceeded by those of white evangelical Protestants.”

Pew found that 82 percent of white evangelicals “believe God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people” compared to less than half of many of Jewish Americans who believe the same. In fact, the proportion of Jews who believe as much (40 percent) is actually lower than the general public in America.

With Israel doing everything it can to market and present itself as “the Jewish state,” this may all come as a surprise. But take a step back and consider some other salient facts.

Think of the biggest Israel lobby organization in the US today. Your first thought may turn to the influential group AIPAC, the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee. But you’d be wrong.

While there is certainly no doubting AIPAC’s political clout in Congress, the biggest Israel lobby in terms of membership is in fact Christians United For Israel – CUFI.

Founded in 2006 by the anti-semitic fundamentalist mega-pastor and Christian Zionist John Hagee, CUFI claims a membership of no less than one million. Its Facebook page has more than one million subscribers “liking” it. AIPAC’s website only claims that over “100,000 citizens from across the country work with AIPAC staff”.

How could this be? Exploring some of the beliefs of what one could call evangelical “Christianists” gives part of the answer.

A large number of Christian fundamentalists have a frankly anti-semitic theology. They believe that during the “end times” many or most Jews will convert to Christianity – and the rest will be doomed. “When the Jews have come to the end of themselves, they will turn to God and receive Yeshua [Jesus] as their Messiah,” as one Christian Zionist website puts it.

Is it time to start paying more attention to Zionism’s roots in Christian fundamentalism?

Israeli scholar Shlomo Sand’s latest book“The Invention of the Land of Israel” did not create as much of a stir as his last major book, “The Invention of the Jewish People” – which is a shame because it is just as excellent.

In it, Sand has a fascinating chapter on the subject of Christian Zionism, subtitled “And Balfour Promised the Land”. This is a reference to Britain’s infamous Balfour Declaration, which promised to hand Palestine, a wholly inhabited country, over to the Zionist movement (regardless of the wishes of the Palestinian people).

Sand draws attention to Christian Zionism not merely as a strange periphery, but instead putting it at the very foundation of this colonial movement’s history.

He traces Christian Zionism back to British imperialists of the 19th century – and even further back to the 4th century, with the pilgrimage to Palestine of Helena, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine.

During the First Crusade, Sand notes, “the militant pope Urban II praised the ‘children of Israel’s’ biblical conquest of the Holy Land and implored their Christian successors to follow in their footsteps.” The result, of course, was a European invasion of Palestine, and a slaughter of Muslims, Jews and even eastern Christians during the barbarism that was the Crusades.

Also according to Sand, during Cromwell’s era: “Some English scholars of the period searched for roots that would link them biologically to the land of Canaan.”

In the 18th century, Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, was a highly influential Christian Zionist and “one of the most influential figures in Britain during the Victorian era… [he] can perhaps be thought of as the Anglican Herzl”.

Shaftesbury sought to convert Jews to Christianity and “cultivated the idea of Jewish-Christian restoration in the Holy Land… some scholars believe it was he who first coined the well-known phrase that [mis-] characterized Palestine as ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’,” Sand writes.

Today, some influential Christian Zionists revere Shaftesbury. Thomas Ice, the director of Tim LaHaye’s “Pre-Trib Research Center” cites him as a “lover of Zion” in a long essay on the “Rapture Ready” website. (LaHaye is the co-author of the multi-million-selling “Left Behind” series of religious apocalyptic novels.)

Christian Zionism is not as popular in the UK today as in Shaftesbury and Balfour’s times. But their ranks certainly include Tony Blair and, as I reported recently, probably Richard Kemp, the former army colonel who regularly appears on British TV to defend Israel’s war crimes. This is the man who thinks Palestine solidarity activism is an “evil conspiracy of de-legitimization.”

Ultimately, Zionism is a political movement of colonialism. It odious justifications, religious and otherwise, are not as relevant as its deadly effect on the peoples of the region. Nevertheless, we’d be well served to understand this malign phenomenon better.

An associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.