As a horrifying humanitarian crisis unfolds in Palestine/Israel, observers have been alarmed by the Israeli leadership’s deployment of religious rhetoric and colonialist talking points in its response to the Hamas attacks.
“You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible. …. And we are fighting our brave troops and combatants who are now in Gaza … this chain of Jewish heroes, a chain that… started 3,000 years ago.”
Two days later he added:
“We will not realize the promise of a better future unless we, the civilized world, are willing to fight the barbarians … The Bible says that there is a time for peace and a time for war. … Today, we draw a line between the forces of civilization and the forces of barbarism… May God Bless Israel.”
The widespread assumption that Netanyahu’s religious rhetoric is a cynical appeal to his right-wing base isn’t incorrect, but it isn’t the only explanation—and it may not even be the primary one. The success of his military campaign (and perhaps his political future), depends on Netanyahu framing the conflict (and Israel’s place in it) in such a way that it garners political and financial support from the United States.
The standard working hypothesis for U.S. pro-Israel support is that it’s fueled by conservative Christians who support Israel because it aligns with their interpretations of End Times prophecies. This argument was recently laid out by Sarah Posner, who concludes that “at the heart of Christian Zionism is not a love for Israel but rather Christian nationalism.”
And there is data to support such an explanation. According to Pew, while 55% of Americans as a whole have a favorable view of Israel, that number jumps to 80% among White evangelicals. And further, among evangelicals who support Israel, up to 50% have suggested End Times prophecies are part of their motivation.
There are surely some whose uncritical support of Israel is motivated by End Times prophecies, though there’s significant disagreement on that point. What I would argue instead is that Christian Zionists in the U.S. are largely motivated by an entirely different ideological commitment. If you listen closely to Netanyahu’s language it’s clear that he’s attempting to appeal to evangelicals by invoking some of the foundational mythologies of America—the colonialist assumption that Christianity is a civilizing force.
Politicians regularly deploy religious rhetoric for a variety of reasons, but in cases of justifying violence, the intent is to portray themselves as a divinely-appointed authority while dehumanizing the other and rendering their deaths disposable—in Netanyahu’s case, the deaths of over 11,000 Palestinians, most of whom are women and children. Colonialist logic is tragically simple: deploy religious narratives to describe the other as savage in order to justify savage acts upon them.
The founding myths of America regularly draw from a legacy of settlers who utilized religious language to portray Christian colonialism as a civilizing process in order to justify violence against the indigenous inhabitants. Citing Columbus, in 1493 Pope Alexander VI issued Inter Caetera (known as the Doctrine of Discovery), one of the most influential legal texts in history. The document stated that the Pope could “give, grant, and assign” any land to Spanish and Portuguese colonizers that they “discovered,” which was not already “in the actual possession of any Christian king.”
This was driven by a binary logic of Europeans perceived as Christians and the indigenous people as “enemies of Christ” who would be civilized through forced conversion. Drawing on a supersessionist logic that it was the Christian’s sole role to “subdue the earth,” the Pope believed it was their divine right to steal any land they found and kill anyone standing in their way.
Colonizers quickly interpreted this document by imagining themselves as reenactors of the Canaanite conquest. In his personal diary, in fact, Columbus claimed he was divinely guided like “the people of Israel when He led them out of Egypt.”
In 1513, Martin Fernandez de Encisco reasoned that “the Spanish king [who was appointed] by the pope . . . might justly wage war against [Native Americans], kill and enslave those captured in war, precisely as Joshua treated the inhabitants of the land of Canaan.”
In 1552, Pedro de Santander concluded: “This is the Land of Promise, possessed by idolators, the Amorite, Amalekite, Moabite, Canaanite. . . . Since we are commanded by God in the Holy Scriptures to take it … [and] to put them all to the knife.”
Not to be outdone, the Puritans regularly invoked the Canaanite conquest as they entered their “Promised Land.” In his Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), Cotton Mather imagined the Puritans as cosplaying a divinely inspired genocide by describing Native Americans as “Ammonites” and “Indian Amalekites.” In his racial taxonomy, drawing on the Curse of Ham/Canaan mythos, Mather believed the surviving Canaanites escaped to Africa (their black skin allegedly evidence of the curse of perpetual slavery).
He subsequently speculated that “[Native] Americans may be the Posterity of those Canaanites, who after the Wars of Canaan, set up their Pillars in Africa.” In other words, for the Canaanite conquest to be complete, Mather believed they had to fully annihilate Native Americans. This is demonstrated in his recounting of the Mystic Massacre of 1637 where roughly 700 Pequot Indians were burned alive:
“Men as the Pequots, whom the First Planters of New-England found in the Wilderness. …These Ammonites perceived that they had made themselves to sink before the New-English Israel… Five or Six Hundred of these Barbarians were dismissed from a World that was Burdened with them.”
This mythology of divine conquest is built into the American imagination, most obviously in the concepts of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism, and is even cited as legal precedent. The Doctrine of Discovery is enshrined into several documents that claim the United States has privileged rights to Native American land, including the Monroe Doctrine and an 1823 Supreme Court decision in the case of Johnson v. McIntosh, which declared that the “discovery” of America by Christian nations gave them the “sole right of acquiring the soil.”
As Steven Newcomb, cofounder of the Indigenous Law Institute, has noted, the 1826 Tennessee Supreme Court decision Cornet v. Winton upheld the Christian colonialist underpinnings of the Johnson ruling, claiming the U.S. was simply following the model of “the Israelites under the guidance of Moses and Joshua” who “extirpated the inhabitants of the countries they invaded.”
But importantly, these documents also trace the gradual Enlightenment evolution of colonialist language from the more explicitly religious binary of Christians/enemies-of-Christ to the secularized language of civilized/savages. In Johnson v. McIntosh, Native people are called, “heathen,” “barbarous” and “Indian savages,” while the settlers are called “Christians” and “civilized inhabitants.” Europeans are said to have a right to the land because they brought “civilization and Christianity.” The religious rhetoric of heathens who had to convert to Christ was gradually replaced by the secularized language of savages who had to be civilized to become part of the State.
This (alleged) divine justification for genocide and/or assimilation isn’t merely part of America’s distant past but is baked into the contemporary understanding of Christian nationalism. A 2021 PRRI survey found that 30% of all Americans and more than 50% of White evangelicals agreed with the statement: “God intended America to be a new promised land where European Christians could create a society that could be an example to the rest of the world.”
The mythology of Canaanite conquest undergirds the “Jericho March” rallies that took place in the wake of the 2020 election, of Christians blowing shofars during the January 6th attack of the Capitol building, and of political campaigns such as Doug Mastriano’s bid for PA governor, whose wife told supporters, “When the Israelites came into their Promised Land . . . God had to move in mighty ways to remove their enemies. . . . Our Promised Land is Pennsylvania and we’re taking it back.”
Which brings us back to Israel/Palestine. Netanyahu and American Christian nationalists not only invoke similar religious rhetoric in their desire to expand their “Promised Land,” but they also start with a parallel us vs. them religiously-coded binary that envisions Native Americans and Arab Muslims in a similar category of the “savage” other. This rhetoric, in fact, serves a dual purpose for Netanyahu.
On the one hand, it resonates with the faction of Israelis who see themselves following in the footsteps of those who, in addition to serving as a solution to European antisemitism, imagined Zionism as an extension of the European colonialist project. For example, in 1896, Theodore Herzl, the founder of Modern Zionism, declared that Jews in Palestine would “form a … rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should remain … in intimate connection with the whole of Europe.” And in 1937, David Ben-Gurion, who would become the first prime minister of Israel, said:
“We came to this country with the consciousness that… we had also a great civilizing task to achieve here and that we could be of great help to our Arab neighbors. … The greater our colonization work … the more will be recognized by our neighbors abroad and … with the blessing of European culture.”
On the other hand, the same Netanyahu rhetoric also resonates with American Christians who, since 9/11 (and even more so since 2016), have been fed a steady stream of portrayals of Muslims as terrorists and barbarians such that, even in 2021, 74% of Republicans and 50% of all Americans agreed with the statement: “Islam is at odds with American values and ways of life.”
In other words, to be an American is to be a Christian. Therefore, since Muslims are portrayed as enemies of civilization—i.e. as enemies-of-Christ—a significant percentage of Americans are inspired by Netanyahu’s religious rhetoric, imagining themselves as mutually engaged in defending Western [Christian] Civilization. That Netanyahu is neither Christian nor American only emphasizes how thoroughly the transition has been made to the barbarian/civilized secular framework.
The utilization of religious rhetoric for political power and the justification of violence reveals how those privileged by a colonialist history tend to read themselves into the Bible as the main characters, as virtuous, as saviors. A colonialist interpretation compels us to align ourselves with Moses, Daniel, Jesus, the Good Samaritan. Consequently, many aren’t trained to read the Bible from the margins, to see themselves in Hagar, the countless unnamed women, the man left for dead on the road to Jericho, or Simon the Cyrene. This is ironic, for much of the Bible is written from the perspective of those on the underside of empire; the systemic forces of injustice are imperialist forces like Egypt, Babylon, Rome.
In his 1989 essay, “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians,” Native American scholar Robert Allen Warrior notes that Jewish and Christian theological discourses on justice and liberation are inadequate from a Native American perspective, as the same God who brought about the deliverance from slavery also commanded the conquest of others.
Given their history on the underside of colonization, when Native Americans read the Bible, they identify with the indigenous inhabitants of the land. As Warrior puts it, he reads the Bible “with Canaanite eyes.” What would it look like to unlearn a colonialist hermeneutic and read Scripture through the lens of the poor, the imprisoned, the oppressed? How about through the lens of the Israeli hostages? The Canaanites? The bombed and left-for-dead Palestinians?