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Saturday, August 30, 2014

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Journalist traces genesis of Christian Zionist movement

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When Israel announced plans to withdraw from the Gaza Strip unilaterally, there was an uproar from right-wing circles in Israel. Christian Zionists, particularly in the United States, joined these voices of opposition, surprising no one.

In common with most religious Jews in Israel and abroad, Christian Zionists maintain that the Jewish claim to the territories captured in the Six Day War is divinely ordained, that there can never be a Palestinian state and that a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is impossible.

Indeed, in keeping with biblical prophecy, some Christian Zionists go so far as to say that Israel’s borders should stretch from the Nile River in Egypt to the Euphrates River in Iraq.

Christian Zionists are a force to be reckoned with, commanding attention, if not a measure of apprehension.

Victoria Clark, a seasoned British journalist, has written a book about them. Allies for Armageddon: The Rise of Christian Zionism (Yale University Press) charts the history of this evangelical movement in the United States and Britain and its influence on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

To Christian Zionists, Israel’s existence is proof that the world is hurtling toward Armageddon and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. As far as they are concerned, two prophesied steps in God’s plans have already been fulfilled. The Jews have been restored to their ancient homeland after an exile of about 2,000 years, and Israel has miraculously survived Arab onslaughts.

Now, Christian Zionists await the  cataclysmic Battle of Armageddon in  Megiddo, Israel, during which two-thirds of all Jews who have refused to accept Jesus as their personal saviour will be slain in a final battle. With the defeat of the Antichrist, a 1,000-year era of  peace and prosperity will be rung in.

As wacky and dangerous as this prophecy is, 31 per cent of Americans believe that Israel should have all of the Promised Land to facilitate the Second Coming, judging by a survey she cites.

Christian Zionists, therefore, are hardly on the fringe of  American politics, Clark says.

In essence, Christian Zionism is grounded in a creed known as millennarianism, whose roots she traces back to 16th-century Britain.

Among its proponents was a London goldsmith, Thomas Tany, who proclaimed himself a Jew and declared his intention to lead Jews back to Jerusalem.

Clark, whose previous books have been on Christianity, says that the heyday of British-syle millennarianism occurred from the late 18th century to the the mid-19th century.

It was during this period that a graduate of Oxford University, Lewis Way, appeared on the scene. Way, a lawyer and a major figure in millennarianism, was persuaded that the mass conversion of Jews would bring about the restoration of Israel.

According to Clark’s research, no fewer than 50 books on the subject of the Jews’ return to Palestine were published between 1796 and the end of the century.

She credits a British aristocrat, the Earl of Shaftesbury, with being the first millennariast, or restorationist, to blend the biblical interest in Jews and their ancient homeland with the cold realities of foreign policy. Thanks to him, she notes, Britain’s foreign secretary appointed the first British consul in Jerusalem in 1839.

Not surprisingly, Arthur James Balfour, after whom the 1917 Balfour Declaration is named, was a restorationist. So were two other British statesmen, Winston Churchill and Lloyd George.

“We Zionists represented to them a great tradition for which they had enormous respect,” wrote Chaim Weizmann, the future president of the World Zionist Organization.

Shifting her focus, Clark writes that the Puritans, the forerunners of the first  British colonists in the New World, identified with the sufferings of the Israelites during their Babylonian and Egyptian captivities and modelled themselves after Jews.

Fast forwarding to the 1940s, Clark says that Harry Truman, the U.S. president who recognized Israel after it declared independence, shared Balfour’s reasons for backing the Zionist project. Like Balfour, he was consumed by the emotional conviction that the Jews were entitled to return to their ancestral homeland.

By the age of 14, Truman had read the Bible five times, and was partial to Psalm 137: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion…”

Clark says that Menachem Begin was the first Israeli prime minister to forge relations with Christian Zionists in earnest. He appointed a special representative to their community, and soon Christian fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell were signing full-page ads in major U.S. newspapers affirming their belief in biblical prophecy and Israel’s right to the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula.  

She notes that Begin’s campaign to shore up evangelical Christian support for Israel went hand in hand with his courting of Orthodox Jews, a constituency that regarded the building of settlements in the territories as a solemn religious duty.

Clark credits Falwell – the recipient of the first Vladimir Jabotinsky medal ever awarded to a gentile – with converting Jesse Helms to the cause of Christian Zionism. A conservative Republican senator from North Carolina, Helms was chairman of the Senate’s powerful foreign relations committee.

She adds that when Benjamin Netanyahu was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, he took care to cultivate Christian Zionist luminaries.

Clark sketches pen portraits of the most important ones, from Pat Robertson and John Hagee to Hal Lindsay and Benny Hinn (a Palestinian by origin).

She also describes the activities of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, a Dutch initiative, and takes note of the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, an outfit run by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. In her view, no one has done more than Rabbi Eckstein “to accustom American Jews to the novel notion of teaming up with Christian fundamentalists for the greater glory and safety of America and Israel.”

Although Clark is usually objective in her treatment of the Christian Zionist movement, she claims, rightly or wrongly, that these latter-day restorationists exacerbate the Arab-Israeli conflict and pour more fuel on the Muslim world’s grievances against the West.

The jury is still out on her claim, but in the meantime, Allies for Armageddon is a useful primer on a historic and influential movement.

 

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