Andrew Walker: Epistles of Straw

November 2000
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Comment on this column Amidst the almost unanimous support for Israel in the American and British press, as the Middle Eastern conflict continues, I noticed a lone voice of protest in the Sunday Telegraph on October 15th.

Not, I might add, as a major item to set alongside Con Coughlin's piece on Islamic Terrorism, or Daniel Johnson's extreme right-wing article in the Telegraph the previous day, but as a little letter tucked away on the comment page by the travel writer, William Dalrymple, entitled "Outrageous Israel."

Dalrymple speaks with some knowledge of the conflict, having travelled throughout Turkey, Syria, Egypt, and Palestine for his brilliant book on the remnants of ancient Christian communities, From the Holy Mountain. In that book, Dalrymple was particularly distressed at the treatment of Palestinian Christians (mainly Maronite and Orthodox) by the Israeli authorities. Clearly, he has formed a dim view of Israel's intentions towards their neighbours, pointing out in his letter that Israel remains in violation of "no less than 50 UN Security Council Resolutions".

Indeed, he sees the Palestinians as heroic, as they take to the streets with stones and slings, fighting like David against the Goliath of Israel's helicopter gunships.

There is a feeling abroad, however, that sympathy for Palestinians, even though their legitimate case for a sovereign state is overwhelming, is tantamount to anti-Semitism. It is as if supporting Arabs and their right to land is another way of saying that you are against Jews. But it seems to me that the overwhelming support for Israel in the West has little to do with pro-Semitism and certainly not a backing of Jewish Zionism. It is just that we find Israel less foreign than dispossessed and angry Arabs acting for all the world like refugees demanding a right to state citizenship.

When you move from East to West Jerusalem, it is like moving from a Third World country to Europe; or when you look at the miracle of Israeli irrigation against the aridity of Gaza or the West Bank, it highlights Jewish "know-how" against a seemingly "know-nothing" culture. In short, looking at Israel, with its American dollars and technological assurance, presents us with a picture of a world that seems to be analogous to our own.

Of course support for Israel also has to take account of accrued centuries of deeply sedimented European guilt. From the pogroms of Edward Plantagenet in England during the 13th century, to Martin Luther's anti-Semitism during the Reformation, or from the Tsarist repression of Jews in the 19th century to the charnel houses of the holocaust in the Third Reich, Jews have suffered the most terrible persecution.

All decent people cannot fail to recognise that centuries of shed innocent Jewish blood cries out for justice. Beginning in the 19th century, and accelerating with the Nazi attacks on Jewish property and person in the 1930s and then the Nazi terror of the Second World War, justice came to mean "land". And this brings us to Zionism.

Interestingly, the cry of "how long, O Lord," that came from the lips of Russian Jews in the mid-19th century, was a plea for any safe homeland - more a prayer for refuge or sanctuary than statehood. But with the publication in 1896 of Herzl's "The Jewish State", European Jewish Zionism focused on a return to Palestine - but not as a religious crusade or as an insistence on Jewish supremacy.

Classical Zionism was secular in tone and left in its political vision. Martin Buber, the existentialist philosopher, thought of Zionism more as a state of mind than a territorial annexation, but even the territorial Zionists talked of peaceful co-existence with the Arabs who had lived in the "holy land" for generations. The influential British Zionist, Dr Chaim Weizmann, said of the Palestinians, "Not a hair of their head shall be touched".

Historical events made such promises hard to fulfil. Weizmann could not have foreseen the fall of Ottoman-run Jerusalem to the British in 1917. Nor could he have known of Britain's dithering over Palestine in the early 1940s, or of its Pontius Pilate policy of washing its hands of the whole Palestinian affair in 1948, leaving Jew and Arab to fight it out for supremacy.

Since then, the Six Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 gave the kiss of death to the old socialist Zionism with its dreams of reconciliation, or at least of peaceful accommodation. For the last 20 years, we have been living in an era of post-Zionism. Israel has been more pragmatic (Rabin/Barak) but has also seen Jewish fundamentalism, with its settlements on the West Bank, come to the forefront, backed by Ariel Sharon and the Likud party.

It is a curious irony of the fragmented world of Jewish Orthodoxy in Israel that one increasingly hears the ringing Jewish-American tones of intolerance and intransigence.

To mention America and fundamentalism reminds us of one of the most curious features of western support for Israel: the long-running saga of that other Zionism, which is Christian support for the restoration of the Jews to Israel. This probably has its modern origins not in conservative evangelicalism but in the Presbyterian founder of the Unitarian Society (and the discoverer of oxygen), Joseph Priestly.

Hot on the heels of the French Revolution, Priestly preached in 1794 a sermon which described the Revolution as the earthquake described in Revelation 11:3. In a published pamphlet, he went on to predict the restoration of the Jews to Palestine, insisting that it was Britain's destiny to facilitate Christianity's "elder brother" in returning home to Judea.

Henceforth, support for a restoration of Jewish lands took two courses in the Christian West. The mainstream course was political. First Lord Shaftesbury and then the jingoistic Victorian prime minister Lord Palmerston publicly supported the Jewish diaspora to return home. In Britain, this partly pragmatic, partly ideological stream ran its course with the British foreign secretary Balfour's declaration in the early years of the 20th century that there should be a Jewish homeland.

The secondary course was an apocalyptic underground stream, which has mainly been associated with the prophetic school of thought known as premillennialism (the idea that Christ will return before a literal reign of the saints on earth for 1,000 years). Premillennialism is on the whole pessimistic about the future of the world, seeing calamity and disaster as the destiny for the majority of humankind. It looks for a way out in the "rapturing" of the Christian saints from earth in a secret meeting "in the air" with Christ. Meanwhile, a great tribulation is visited on those unfortunate enough to be left behind.

The calamitous tenor of the premillennial schema was an echo of schoolmaster James Bicheno's The Sign of the Times, written in 1793, but 19th-century prophetic interpreters went beyond Bicheno, insisting that they were in the "end time". A sign of this terminus of history was that Jews would be restored to Israel, because God was going to rescue the people of the first covenant by appearing to them as the risen Messiah. This would lead to a wholesale repentance and the reconciliation of the Jewish people with God.

The restoration of the Jews to Palestine was championed by a barrister and Anglican clergyman Lewis Way, who in 1815 took over an obscure missionary society, The Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews. His cause was taken up by Edward Irving and a group of scholars devoted to the prophetic scriptures called the Albury Circle. In their journal, The Morning Watch, they devoted thousands of pages to establishing a premillennial system in which the restoration of the Jews to Israel was a cardinal doctrine.

In the 1830s, another prophetic circle regularly met in Powerscourt in Ireland and from there the movement known as the Brethren developed and honed a premillennial system. The work of John Nelson Darby was seminal in this endeavour, and it was his interpretations that crossed the Atlantic later in the century and formed the basis of The Schofield Bible (first published in 1909), which made dispensational theology, with its premillennial culmination of human history, accessible to American evangelicalism.

The prediction of Jewish return became a cornerstone of holiness evangelical traditions, the Pentecostal movement after the Azusa Street revival of 1906, and the evangelical mainstream of Protestant denominations, especially the Southern Baptists.

Since 1948, when the state of Israel was established, millions of evangelicals worldwide have seen this fulfilment of prophecy (or is it actually a self-fulfiling prophecy?) as a sign of the end time. Not only has the state of Israel been heralded as virtually the penultimate event in the prophetic timetable to the second coming, but Israel as God's chosen people of the first covenant have been enthusiastically supported, as they await their wholesale conversion to Christ in the imminently expected millennium.

The message from Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth - a book which has sold a staggering 30 million copies - together with the television ministry of Jack Van Impe, and the more scholarly work of Dallas Theological Seminary, is "don't mess with Israel". Any why? Because, they say, God has preordained that Jews should return to rule in the land of their fathers. Not much comfort for Palestinians - Muslims and Christians - here.

Of course, we could dismiss the underground stream of Israeli support as marginal to political life. However, if the author Paul Boyer is correct, the mainstream flow and the underground rivulets converged in the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who showed evidence that he was influenced by the premillennial view.

The Other Zionism is problematic because Israel's political actions are judged by prophetic criteria, rather than by ethical ones. Palestinians already have First World and anti-Muslim prejudices to contend with, plus a hostile American foreign policy (with Gore choosing an Orthodox Jew as running mate and Bush pledging himself to be "a friend to Israel'). But they also have to face an amoral indifference from many Christian conservative groups, because Arabs are just cardboard cut-outs in the great premillennial drama, where Israel is destined to conquer and her enemies to be scattered.

From a Christian ethical standpoint, it seems to me that there is much to condemn in the Palestinian mindset - from the unrestrained passion of the police and crowd that tore apart the two Israeli reservists in Ramallah, to the terrorist approach that thinks children and families are fair game in the drive to political self determination.

But from that same ethical standpoint, Israel is not specially favoured before God in the ethical stakes. There is no prophetic injunction that can rightfully put aside Israel's actions on the grounds that they are fulfilling God's purposes.

Israel's actions are to be judged, like Palestinian ones, according to the court of human decency. By that court it remains true that hundreds of thousands of Jews are still despised and rejected throughout the world, not least within the Christian churches - especially in parts of Eastern Europe. But right-thinking support for Jewish safety and flourishing in the world - even if it extends to political support for Israel and the safety of her borders - are not legitimate grounds for despising Palestinian aspirations to a peaceful yet sovereign country of their own.

It is Barak himself who has admitted that Jews and Palestinians are "condemned to be neighbours". At the very least, Jewish Zionism has always believed in the very biblical notion of neighbourliness. I fear that secular western "sniffiness" at Arab culture, when combined with Christian Zionism, prefers the partisan language of victors and victims to friends.

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