Unquestioned Support for Israel Wasn’t Always the Way for Conservative Christians

John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel.

As civilians in southern Lebanon fled an impending Israeli ground offensive, over three thousand Christian advocates converged in Washington D.C. to demand U.S. support for Israel. This was the summer of 2006. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon had entered its second week when affiliates of the newly formed organization Christians United for Israel (CUFI) met with lawmakers in solidarity at a time when the international community urged the U.S. to pressure Israel on its use of excessive force. The destruction and civilian death toll didn’t alter the message of CUFI founder and chairman, Pastor John Hagee, as he insisted that U.S. Christians should unequivocally support Israel because while “all other nations were created by an act of men… Israel was created by an act of God!”   

Today, Christians United for Israel is the largest US-based pro-Israel organization and claims approximately 10 million members. Its network of operations includes government relations and lobbying, church and pastoral outreach, a college campus program, and an Israel experience for public figures. As a Christian Zionist organization, it espouses an ideology that sees the state of Israel and its expansive control over Palestine as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Its more quotidian adherents—or ‘new’ Christian Zionists—contend that beyond eschatology, support for Israel is essential to a theology of global redemption, Christian salvation, and protection of ‘covenant people.’

Although it’s become normative to associate evangelicals with Christian Zionism or to interpret their alliance as a desire to bring about the end times, such ideological positions were relatively marginal within American Christianity until the Six Day War in 1967—almost 20 years after the establishment of Israel. Indeed, initial U.S. Christian responses to the establishment of the state of Israel were more diverse, informed as they were by U.S. and Middle East Christian first-hand experiences in the region in the years leading up to and following 1948. An examination of this political and theological pluralism challenges the assumption that today’s Christian Zionism has been a unified and de facto stance for even the most right-wing of American Christians.

After Israel’s creation in 1948, U.S. Christians were generally more concerned with the humanitarian crisis facing displaced and dispossessed Palestinians than with Israel’s significance to Christian eschatology. This concern wasn’t only informed by reports from U.S. Christians living within the British Mandate of Palestine but also by their relationships with local residents. 

American Christians had established a presence in the Middle East—including Palestine—since the nineteenth century with the expansion of Protestant missions abroad. They developed an expansive network of social service institutions when their efforts to directly convert Muslims largely failed and they turned their attention to local Christians. Although historically paternalistic in their engagements with Middle East Christians of ‘bible lands,’ as they reached the 1930s and 40s they gradually transferred control of their institutions to indigenous Christians as mainline Protestant missionaries began to reckon with the assumptions and structures of power that undergirded their projects.

When the termination of the British mandate on Palestine occurred on 14 May 1948, these missionaries and other American Christian observers in the region such as diplomats, educators, and clergy became eyewitnesses to overlapping crises in the region. Although the displacement of Palestinians from their homes started before 1948, the birth of the Israeli state exacerbated depopulation of Palestinian villages as Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) engaged in offensive measures to consolidate land and facilitate transportation within Israel’s new borders.  

Several IDF operations were particularly notorious in carrying out these new measures such as operations Dani and Dekel which authorized the removal of Palestinians in Lydda and Ramle—two towns that presented logistical obstacles to Israeli transportation between settlements. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and IDF deputy commander (and future prime minister himself) Yitzhak Rabin ordered the expulsion of the Palestinian populations of Lydda and Ramle in July 1948 that ultimately led to the removal of 50,000–70,000 Palestinians.

The American Friends Service Committee (Quakers) in Ramallah took in refugees from Lydda and Ramle and workers sent alarmed letters to co-religionists in the United States regarding the condition of refugees. Reverend Willard and Christiana Jones share in their writings that they converted their schools into makeshift medical centers and temporary encampments to assist the influx of Palestinians. 

According to a policy paper from the U.S. State Department, the number of displaced Palestinian persons numbered 725,000 by May 1949. Although Palestinian repatriation and compensation for property was required under the UN Partition Agreement of 1947 and UN Resolution 192, Israeli Foreign minister Moshe Sharett objected on the basis “that their [Palestinian] return would disturb the homogeneity of Israeli areas.” 

In response, Christian leaders in the Middle East petitioned the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP). The Vicar General of the Syrian Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch pleaded with the Chairman of the UNCCP that “[Refugees] have had to leave their homes and their property and wander throughout the Near East, wretched, miserable, and at the mercy of intemperate nature. It is time to put an end to their suffering.” His concerns were echoed by the President of the Apostolic Commission with the Maronite Patriarchate who argued that Palestinian repatriation was the only solution.

American Christian delegates expressed similar concerns as their Middle Eastern Christian counterparts. Father MacMahon, an American clergyman appointed head of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), supported the repatriation of Palestinians to their land and property. According to a memo of the Meeting of Committee for Holy Land Appeal, Father MacMahon was firm in his conviction that “the only solution for the refugee problem was repatriation, a point of view on which he was supported by several members of the committee.”  

What is glaringly absent from this archive of on-the-ground assessments was a theological concern with the meaning of Israel’s establishment. Editorials from U.S.-based Christian publications such as Commonweal and Christian Century drew attention, rather, to the inequity of the UN partition plan, questions on U.S. moral authority, the status of holy sites, and Palestinian refugees. 

Although more conservative and evangelical outlets such as Moody Bible Institute Monthly and The Pentecostal Evangel did assess the events of 1948 through the prism of Biblical prophecy, their analyses weren’t connected to similar experiences from the region nor did they represent mainstream views of U.S. Christians at the time. In fact, Israel’s creation confused many Christian dispensationalists who since the nineteenth century had argued that Jews would not be restored to the land in ‘unbelief.’ A writer in the Pentecostal Evangel reminded readers of this eschatological tenet in late May 1948, writing: “The Lord will restore this kingdom in His own time. In the meantime, Israel is trying to restore herself. It is not God’s plan and not God’s time.”

In an op-ed published on 19 October 1949 in Christian Century, Francis J. Bloodgood stressed the need for American Christians to support the cause of justice in Palestine: “It will be no good for us Western Christians to wash our hands and say that we will have nothing to do with the violence being meted out to innocent sufferers in the Holy Land.” Today, Christian Zionists and their political activism push Bloodgood’s call to moral conviction further from reach. They do so without engaging this recent past of diverse approaches to Israel and Palestine, and without interrogating their implicitness in conjuring roles for Israel and Jews to play in their Christian theology. Perhaps in this new Christian century, American Christians will marshal the courage to challenge them.