Excerpt: The Christian Roots of Zionism

Some scholars would agree with the opinion expressed by historian Evyatar Friesel in a 2006 essay titled ‘‘Zionism and Jewish Nationalism’’:

‘‘The author is aware of the historical interest in certain non-Jewish quarters, especially in nineteenth-century England, toward the restoration of the Jews to the Holy Land. An examination—admittedly not systematic enough—regarding the relationship between these ideas and the emergence of Zionism suggests only a very marginal and indirect influence.’’

Other scholars, myself among them, have found a more direct and powerful connection between Christian Zionism and Jewish Zionism. As historian of ideas Richard Popkin noted in the early 1990s, ‘‘Much of Zionism has its roots in Christian rather than Jewish doctrine.’’

Among those doctrines is the tendency in the Protestant churches to read biblical narrative and prophecy in a more literal and historical manner than had been the tradition in either Rabbinic Judaism or in the Orthodox or Catholic Churches. Equally relevant is the millennialist trend in Protestant history. By the mid-twentieth century, three centuries of Christian enthusiasm for a return of the Jews to their land created an atmosphere in the West in which previously inchoate and unrealizable Jewish aspirations for a revived national home could take shape and find direction.

In the United States, The Fundamentals, a series of essays published between 1910 and 1915 by conservative evangelical theologians, emphasized the necessity to believe in the literal truth of scripture. This helped reify the relationship between the Jews of the present and the Israelites of old. In the view of many in the Christian West, Palestine was understood to be ‘‘empty,’’ and this emptiness should be filled by Jews, the descendants of the land’s ancient biblical inhabitants. The phrase ‘‘a land without a people for a people without a land’’ conveyed this view in a very concise and pithy manner. The idea was first promoted by Christians.

In 1853 Lord Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley-Cooper) wrote that Palestine was ‘‘a country without a nation’’ in search of ‘‘a nation without a country.’’ He made this observation during the Crimean War, when the continued viability of the Ottoman Empire came into question. With the weakening of the Ottoman Empire, continued Turkish rule in Palestine came into question. In Shaftesbury’s view, first expressed two decades before the Crimean War, Christians needed to support a Jewish restoration so as to prepare the stage for the Second Coming. As Shaftesbury was a friend and relative of Henry John Temple Palmerston, the British foreign minister, his views had considerable weight. Palmerston opened a British consulate in Jerusalem in 1838. Two years later, Shaftesbury wrote that ‘‘Palmerston has already been chosen by God to be an instrument of good to His ancient people.’’ A half century later, the phrase ‘‘a land without a people for a people without a land’’ was popularized by Anglo-Jewish novelist Israel Zangwill.

From Zangwill’s writings the phrase, translated into many languages, became a mainstay of Zionist polemics. The phrase was utilized in a number of ways, some more sophisticated than others. While some advocates of Zionism used it to imply that Palestine was empty of people, that suggestion was contradicted by the reports of many Western visitors. The phrase was most pointedly used to claim that the Arabs of Palestine had no distinct Palestinian identity. They were ‘‘Arabs,’’ not a cohesive national group. That Palestine was not ‘‘empty’’ (in either the demographic or political sense) soon became clear to some Jewish observers. This was ruefully acknowledged in the telegram sent home by two rabbis from Vienna who visited Palestine in 1898, the year after the First Zionist Congress: ‘‘The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.’’

More explicit Jewish warnings about the presence of the Arabs of Palestine were offered by the Zionist philosopher Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginzburg) and his disciple Isaac Epstein. In his Hebrew-language essay ‘‘The Truth from the Land of Israel,’’ Ginzburg wrote that ‘‘we tend to believe that Palestine is nowadays almost completely deserted, an uncultivated wilderness, and anyone can come there and buy as much land as his heart desires. But in reality this is not the case. It is difficult to find anywhere in the country Arab land which lies fallow.’’ Isaac Epstein, in a 1907 article in the Hebrew-language periodical Hashiloah, called the Arab presence in Palestine ‘‘The Hidden Question.’’ Epstein had settled in Palestine in 1886. After twenty years in Palestine he warned his fellow Zionists that they would have to confront a painful reality: ‘‘There resides in our treasured land an entire people which has clung to it for hundreds of years… the Arab, like all other men, is strongly attached to his homeland.’’

But Epstein’s project was not to assign blame. He wrote, ‘‘The Zionists’ lack of attention to an issue so basic to their settlement is not intentional; it went unnoticed because they were not familiar with the country and its inhabitants, and furthermore, had no national or political awareness.’’ Now that Zionist settlement had grown (in the twenty-five years preceding his 1907 essay), Epstein called on the movement to ‘‘distance itself from every deed tainted with plunder… When we come to our homeland, we must uproot all thoughts of conquest or appropriation. Our motto must be: Live and let live! Let us not cause harm to any nation, and certainly not to a numerous people, whose enmity is very dangerous.’’

These expressions of concern for the future of Jewish-Arab relations did not have much resonance at the time, either among Jews or among Christians. Jewish Zionists were for the most part refugees from persecution who were engaged in building the infrastructure of a future state. Few of them paid attention to the claims of the majority population. Christian Zionists, whose motivations were more theological than practical, did not address the ‘‘Arab Question.’’ For the more politically and religiously conservative among these Christians, the Arabs were the interlopers in Palestine, even if they were Christian Arabs. They had no part to play in God’s plan for the Holy Land and should therefore be encouraged to emigrate. The perception that Palestine belonged to the Jewish people outweighed the reality of an Arab presence. At the beginning of the twentieth century less than 10 percent of Palestine’s population was Jewish, but many Christians, especially in the United States, thought of it as a Jewish land.

In the 1930s, the Nazi rise to power and the subsequent worsening situation of the Jews of Europe made the implementation of Zionist aims all the more urgent. Protestant groups in the United States reacted in different ways to this threat. The leading Protestant intellectual journal the Christian Century was skeptical about reports of German atrocities against Jews. Once the proof of these atrocities was demonstrated in 1943, the journal still withheld its approval for a refuge in Palestine for the Jews of Europe. Among the most eloquent and forceful voices for the establishment of a Jewish state was liberal Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr argued against the Christian Century’s critique of Zionism, a critique endorsed by many of his colleagues in the clergy. Niebuhr was one of the leaders of the American Christian Palestine Committee, a pro-Zionist group that had hundreds of members. His support for Zionism was couched in decidedly nontheological terms. He wrote, ‘‘I belong to a Christian group in this country who believe that the Jews have a right to a homeland. They are a nation, scattered among the nations of the world. They have no place where they are not exposed to the perils of minority status.’’

After World War II and the shocking revelations about the murder of two-thirds of Europe’s Jews, there was a great surge of American public support for Zionism, support expressed in the public reaction to the United States’ immediate diplomatic recognition of Israel. A 1948 opinion poll concluded that 80 percent of the American public favored the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. But the editors and readers of the Christian Century were not among that 80 percent. Rather than recognize that there was grassroots American Protestant sympathy for Zionism, the journal attributed President Truman’s decision to recognize Israel to ‘‘the New York vote’’—code for the Jewish vote.

Reading the Christian Century’s articles in the light of later developments, it seems that these reservations about creating a Jewish state were the opinions of a small elite. As Truman biographer David McCullough has noted, Truman’s motives in granting Israel diplomatic recognition were both political and religious. Writing of the 1948 elections, McCullough noted that ‘‘beyond the so-called ‘Jewish vote’ there was the country at large, where popular support for a Jewish homeland was overwhelming. As would sometimes be forgotten, it was not just American Jews who where stirred by the prospect of a new nation for the Jewish people, it was most of America.’’

In 1948 President Truman, in keeping with American public opinion, granted Israel diplomatic recognition despite the protestations of many senior officials in the U.S. State Department, Secretary of State George Marshall among them. Though historians are divided on the reasons for Truman’s decision, they are agreed that among the deciding factors was Truman’s sincere belief in the accuracy and historicity of biblical narrative and prophecy. In 1953, only a year after he left the presidency, Truman affirmed explicitly his biblical understanding of the United States’ recognition of Israel. In a conversation at New York City’s Jewish Theological Seminary, the rabbinical school of Conservative Judaism, Truman was introduced as ‘‘the man who helped create the State of Israel.’’ Truman, visibly moved by that statement, said in response, ‘‘What do you mean helped create? I am Cyrus, I am Cyrus.’’

Truman’s response evoked the words of the Blackstone Memorial of 1891, which called on President Harrison to act as ‘‘a modern Cyrus to help restore the Jews to Zion.’’ Truman’s successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was not known as an enthusiastic supporter of the State of Israel, but it is clear that he, too, thought of modern Israel in biblical terms. Both in private conversation and in his diary, Eisenhower referred to Israelis as ‘‘Israelites,’’ and it seems that he imagined that these modern Israelites were deeply religious. When an aide explained to the president that the Israeli leadership was assertively secular, he was astonished.

This ‘‘biblical’’ reading of modern Israel also surfaced in American popular culture. Ten years after Israel’s establishment and five years after Truman’s Cyrus comment, Leon Uris published his novel Exodus, which became a great American bestseller. Within two years of its publication, Exodus was made into a successful Hollywood film by director Otto Preminger. One of the novel’s two central protagonists, Kitty Fremont, is an American Christian woman whose Zionist sympathies stemmed from an encounter with Jewish survivors of World War II. She serves as a nurse on the refugee boat Exodus and later, in 1948, in British Mandate Palestine. There she falls in love with Zionist leader Ari Ben Canaan. When Kitty meets members of the newly organized Jewish army, she has ‘‘an electrifying revelation’’:

‘‘This was no army of mortals. These were the ancient Hebrews! These were the faces of Dan and Reuben and Judah and Ephraim! These were Samsons and Deborahs and Joabs and Sauls. It was the army of Israel, and no force on earth could stop them for the power of God was within them!’’

This fictional evocation of the idea that Israel’s nascent army was the army of biblical Israel reborn had its real-life counterpart in the career of Orde Wingate, a British officer who helped shape the ethos and tactics of the Haganah. This was the Jewish fighting force that would become the formative element in the Israel Defense Forces. Thus Christian Zionism’s contribution to the establishment of the State of Israel went beyond ‘‘theological support’’ to encompass concrete, practical contributions, such as military planning and assistance, as well as providing models of successful agricultural settlement and technological innovation.


From ZEAL FOR ZION: CHRISTIANS, JEWS, AND THE IDEA OF THE PROMISED LAND by Shalom L. Goldman. Copyright © 2010 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

slgoldm@learnlink.emory.edu'

Shalom Goldman is Professor Of Religion at Duke University. His most recent book is Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews, and the Idea of the Promised Land (UNC Press, January, 2010).