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Zionism: Christian Zionism

by David Krusch

Christian Zionism can be defined as Christian support for the Zionist cause — the return of the Jewish people to its biblical homeland in Israel. It is a belief among some Christians that the return of Jews to Israel is in line with a biblical prophecy, and is necessary for Jesus to return to Earth as its king. These Christians are partly motivated by the writings of the Bible and the words of the prophets. However, they are also driven to support Israel because they wish to “repay the debt of gratitude to the Jewish people for providing Christ and the other fundamentals of their faith,” and to support a political ally, according to David Brog, author Standing With Israel: Why Christians Support the Jewish State.

Christian Zionists interpret both the Torah and the New Testament as prophetic texts that describe future events of how the world will one day end with the return of Jesus from Heaven to rule on Earth. Israel and its people are central to their vision. They interpret passages from the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Isaiah as foreshadowing the coming Christian era. The New Testament Book of Revelation is read by many Christians as a prophetic text of how the world will be in the End Times.

Christian support for Israel is not a recent development. Its politcal roots reach as far back to the 1880s, when a man named William Hechler formed a committee of Christian Zionists to help move Russian Jewish refugees to Palestine after a series of pogroms. In 1884, Hechler wrote a pamphlet called “The Restoration of Jews to Palestine According to the Prophets.” A few years later, he befriended Theodor Herzl after reading Herzl’s book The Jewish State, and joined Herzl to drum up support for Zionism. Hechler even arranged a meeting between Herzl and Kaiser Wilhelm II to discuss Herzl’s proposal to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. The two men remained close friends up until Herzl’s death in 1904.

An important milestone in the history of Christian Zionism occurred in 1979, almost a century after William Hechler approached Herzl and offered to mobilize Christian support for a Jewish state: the founding of the Moral Majority. Founded by Rev. Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority was an organization made up of conservative Christian political action committees that succeeded in mobilizing like-minded individuals to register and vote for conservative candidates. With nearly six million members, it became a powerful voting bloc during the 1980s and was credited for giving Ronald Reagan the winning edge in the 1980 elections. One of the Moral Majority’s four founding principles was “support for Israel and Jewish people everywhere.”

In 1980, Falwell, who ran a television ministry that reached millions of viewers, said of Israel: “I firmly believe God has blessed America because America has blessed the Jew. If this nation wants her fields to remain white with grain, her scientific achievements to remain notable, and her freedom to remain intact, America must continue to stand with Israel.” Falwell disbanded the Moral Majority in 1989, but conservative Christians have remained vocal supporters of Israel though they lacked a strong formal structure for pro-Israel political action.

Christian Zionists, through their volunteer work, political support, and financial assistance to Israel and Jewish causes, have shown that they are stalwart friends of Israel. They have donated large sums of money to support Israel, including to charities that pay the costs of bringing Jews from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia to Israel. For example, Pastor John Hagee has raised more than $4.7 million for the United Jewish Communities. Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to help poor Jews across the world move to Israel.

When Israel’s tourism industry was at a low point between 2000 and 2003 due to the Palestinian War and terrorism, Christian tourists visited Israel in numbers that were sometimes greater than that of the Jewish community. Televangelists such as Pat Robertson and Benny Hinn visited Israel during this period and used their broadcasts to tell their millions of viewers it was safe to visit Israel. Another pro-Israel group, the Christians’ Israel Public Action Campaign, sponsored four missions to Israel. Christians also helped the Israeli tourism industry and economy from home by attending “Shop Israel” days where Israeli merchants would come to America and sell their products.

Despite their support for Israel, many Jews however, are uncomfortable with Christian Zionists. This discomfort is fed by Christian anti-Semitism, Christian replacement theology, evangelical proselytizing, and and disagreements over domestic and political issues.

Dispensationalist Christianity, an interpretive or narrative framework for understanding the overall flow of the Bible, teaches that Christianity did not replace Judaism, but that it restored lost elements of it. The dispensationalist view of the Bible is that the Old Testament is foreshadowing for what will occur in the New Testament and, at the end, Jesus returns to reign on Earth after an epic battle between good and evil. Israel plays a central role in the dispensationalist view of the end of the world. The establishment of Israel in 1948 was seen as a milestone to many dispensationalists on the path toward Jesus’ return. In their minds, now that the Jews again had regained their homeland, all Jews were able to return to Israel, just as had been prophesied in the Bible. As described in the Book of Revelation, there is an epic battle that will take place in Israel after it is reestablished — Armaggedon — in which it is prophesied that good will finally triumph over evil. However, in the process, two-thirds of the Jews in Israel die and the other third are converted to Christianity. Jesus then returns to Earth to rule for 1,000 years as king.

Although these Christians do hope for a Messianic age, the majority of them do not wish for the deaths of thousands of Jews during Armageddon. Dispensationalist Christians believe that the Jewish people, not Christians, are the ones who were promised Israel in the Bible. In their view, Christianity did not come into existence to replace Judaism, but to restore it. This view has surpassed replacement theology as the dominant form of Christian thought regarding Israel in America today. Jews who are suspicious of Christian Zionist motives are usually unaware that many Christian supporters of Israel have abandoned replacement theology.

Aside from anti-Semitism and Christian replacement theology, many Jews are wary of the fact that many evangelical Christians simply want to convert them to Christianity or speed up the Second Coming of Christ. David Brog refutes this claim:

“Evangelicals who support Israel most certainly do want to convert people. Evangelicals who don’t support Israel also want to convert people. The mission of sharing the ‘good news’ of Jesus Christ is central to being an evangelical. But it is important to note that this is not about converting just the Jews — Christians want to share their faith with Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and their Christian friends and neighbors who have yet to be born again. The important question is this: Is evangelical support for Israel merely a tool in the effort to convert the Jews? Is this merely some scheme to soften the Jews up so that they can better sell Jesus to them? And the answer to this question is absolutely not. If anything, the opposite it true.

Christian Zionists say Jews have no reason to distrust their motives for supporting Israel because they do not believe they can speed up the Second Coming of Christ. In the Gospel of Matthew, it is written that Jesus said about his return, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.”

Pastor John Hagee, a longtime supporter of Israel, based at the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, heads Christians United for Israel (CUFI), a pro-Israel group established in 2006. Hagee has denounced replacement theology, and says of Israel: “We believe in the promise of Genesis 12:3 regarding the Jewish people and the nation of Israel. We believe that this is an eternal covenant between God and the seed of Abraham to which God is faithful.” Evangelical leader Pat Robertson echoed this statement while on his tour of Israel during the Israel-Hizbullah war, saying, “The Jews are God’s chosen people. Israel is a special nation that has a special place in God’s heart. He will defend this nation. So Evangelical Christians stand with Israel. That is one of the reasons I am here.”

Pastor Hagee claims that he and other Christian Zionists support Israel because they owe a debt of gratitude to the Jewish people, and not because they want Jews to convert to Christianity. The Jewish people gave the world Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the prophets, of whom there were “not a Baptist in the bunch...The Jewish people do not need Christianity to explain their existence. But Christians cannot explain our existence without Judaism. The roots of Christianity are Jewish.”

Jews are also uncomfortable with Christian Zionists because most have few other common political interests besides their support for Israel. The majority of American Jews are politically and socially liberal. Christian Zionists are on the whole politically conservative Republicans who, for example, oppose abortion and gay marriage, and support prayer in public schools. Most Jews are particularly concerned over what they see as the Christian Right’s efforts to weaken the separation between church and state. The Anti-Defamation League’s director, Abe Foxman, has been particularly outspoken and has said that if the domestic agenda of the Christian Right ever materializes, it will turn American Jews into “second-class citizens in our own country.”

Christian Zionists are also more conservative on Israel than many Jews. They favor Israel maintaining all of its settlements in the West Bank, and were opposed to the Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Some prominent Christian Zionists have been highly critical of Israeli government policy of giving over parts of Israel to the Palestinian people. Christian Zionists, like followers of the Israeli Right, believe that Israel should never cede any section of Israel to the Palestinians because Israel was given to the Jews by God. After former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon implemented the disengagement plan from the Gaza Strip and then fell ill a few months later, Pat Robertson claimed that his illness was divine retribution for giving up part of biblical Israel. When asked about Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s convergence plan to evacuate settlements in the West Bank, Robertson said, “It’s an absolute disaster...I don't think the holy God is going to be happy about someone giving up his land.”

Conservative Christians, in general, are viewed as particularly influential with the Bush Administration and Republican Congress, and Christian Zionists are consequently viewed as also having greater access to decisionmakers. It is not clear, however, that pro-Israel Christians have exerted decisive influence on any significant decisions and their clout is expected to decline if Democrats regain the White House and/or the majority in Congress.

Sources: Brog, David. Standing With Israel: Why Christians Support the Jewish State. FL: Frontline, 2006.; Wikipedia; David Brog; International Fellowship of Christians and Jews; Christians United for Israel; JTA; Q and A with Kathryn Jean Lopez, “Jews And Evangelicals Together: Why some Christians are pro-Israel,” National Review Online, (May 22, 2006); Tovah Lazaroff, “‘Evangelicals the world over are praying for Israel,’” The Jerusalem Post, (August 9, 2006).