Thinking Rationally About Jews, Israel, and Zionism: Leon Weseltier’s “The Lost Art”

The Western Wall in Jerusalem. (Photo: Wayne McLean)

In a timely and refreshing piece for The New Republic‘s “Washington Diarist” column, Leon Weseltier writes about the “lost art” of simultaneously supporting and criticizing Israel. His words resonate particularly strongly with me, as I grew up in a strain of Christianity that emphasized a strong, almost religious devotion to the Jews. Many well-known and influential Christian leaders (John Hagee, for example) have built entire ministries on admonishing Christians to “support” Israel. In many cases, the discussion on this matter in the Church has become over-simplified and departed from rational and logical thought. This is something that needs to stop; it needs to stop and be replaced by a concerted effort to understand the true nature of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism and all the different issues that go along with it. 

I’ve heard more sermons preached on Genesis 12:1-3 than probably any other and they all more or less took the form of: “Bless the Jews and God will bless you.” Though it was often said in slightly more words, the overly-simplistic logic and bad theology was almost always present. Furthermore, this concept of “supporting the Jews” was often implied to include, by extension, unfaltering and unquestioning support for the modern Israeli state and it’s policies and actions. I’m no theologian, but I can quite confidently say that to take that Scripture (or any other, for that matter) and extend it to mean that Christians should always support the actions and policies of the modern State of Israel, even when they stand in opposition to Christ’s teachings, is simply invalid.

A refreshing development, as Weseltier notes, would be people (Christian Zionists included) learning to disentangle their support for the Jewish people from support for the government of the state of Israel. I, for example, support Israel’s right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people and as a sovereign nation, but I also support the bid of the Palestinian Arabs to have their own state in line with the original United Nations resolution governing the division of land in Palestine; I support freedom for the Jews, but I also support freedom for Palestinian Muslims and Christians; I believe Hamas should stop firing rockets into Israel from Gaza, but I also believe that Israel should stop illegally building settlements on land that doesn’t belong to it.

If anything, the most prominent thing that’s needed is a little bit of balance in the way Zionists think about Israel. Some of you may have heard the catchphrase, “America: love it or leave it” at some point in your lives and–hopefully–you understand the underlying fallacy. In the same fashion, it’s possible to support Israel and simultaneously not support every action or policy of the Israeli government.

Further Reading:
The Crisis of Zionism: Undeterred by Unavoidable Realities

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2 thoughts on “Thinking Rationally About Jews, Israel, and Zionism: Leon Weseltier’s “The Lost Art”

  1. By the way, Pastor Steve Khoury from Bethlehm and Jerusalem speaking at Will Roger United Methodist Church, SUNDAY, MAY 6, AT 8:25 AM AND 10:50 AM. Location: 1138 S Yale, Tulsa. I helped him out for a week when I was in Israel. He’s a good guy, great pastor and I had a great time. I will most likely be at my regular church-home though –

  2. I work with the Campus Israel Alliance here at ORU, and there are many reasons for supporting the nation-state of Israel and its people both theologically, historically, and politically, although I don’t plan to give you all those here.

    We can not divorce the people from the modern state, since the state provides one of the only safe places in the world for Jews to exist and have equal rights as others today and in the past.

    I think that on some of the grass-roots level that the church may have over simplified its support, but this always happens with the public in most cases, especially political and theological ones.

    Has the Church over-simplified its support? If they define support as always standing with, and never disagreeing or speaking out on certain policies, than yes. But maybe there can be another way of supporting them, which entails always supporting while being willing to speak out on certain policies in the proper format. It is crucially important for people to voice their political views of support for Israel, so I do not discount their support. When it comes in terms of political capital, it is important for us to say that Israel is its own nation, and knows what the best is for its people, and that it is doing the best that it can do, as it is only 1 partner of a hopeful 2 partner peace. Those that support Israel have a hard time learning about the modern history of Israel, and will only do so through organizations that support Israel like CUFI, which John Hagee oversees; CUFI does a pretty good job at doing that.

    The passage in Genesis is an extremely basic understanding, but I think most people don’t just go for it as a ‘bless me’ campaign, but sadly because that is the easiest verse to remember! Most people recognize that the Jewish people are God’s chosen people still, and want to see their homeland safe and support by their US government.

    When I go to the hill to talk to Senators and Congressmen, or when I send an email to my Rep.s, the importance is the overall support of Israel as a whole.

    Theologically when we see Jews in mass return to the homeland that God has promised them, this is a political as well as a theological reality. Later, they are recognized as having the ability to have their homeland by the UN, and attacked on all sides by Arab nations. The thing is, with all the anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment all throughout the world, and in the UN, it is important for the US to be seen to publically support Israel, while at the same time, tell it what it thinks about its internal policies in private. If we strongly criticize our great friend and ally in the Middle East in public, this basically supports the gross anti-Israeli sentiment all over. If you have a friend that is going through a hard time, but still your friend, you don’t tell him all the stuff he is doing wrong in front of his enemies(the reason why he is having a hard time), you tell him privately. This is a political principle that is easy to be personally understood.

    The 48 Armistice line or the 69 line or the West Bank lines(whatever you want to call them) is not an international or official border between Israel and Palestine. There is a security barrier yes, but all actual borders are dependent on the final peace agreement between Israel and the current Palestinian (Pal.) authority leaders. This is what UN res. 242 talks about. So there is really nothing internationally illegal going on here. By the way, there are plenty of Christian Zionists (as well as Israelis themselves) who do think that Israel should stop building settlements. There are Zionists for 1-state and 2-state solutions, when I go to a conference like I will this summer done by AIPAC or CUFI, it is crazy to see how people have a lot of different views on the issues, but our overall political goal is this: to get the US to be strong supporter of state of Israel, support Israel’s right to defend herself, and assist her sovereignty when necessary, to support peace in the region(the Quartet), and let the leaders make decisions for themselves in internal policies(just as they don’t criticize us openly for our internal policies). So the idea that “Israel should stop building settlements on land that doesn’t belong to it” does not stand up, because the final agreement has not been made. Why? Because the Israelis have not been willing to negotiate? No, they have been trying to get the Pal.s to come to table for a while. Right now, they are saying the settlements are the main issue to peace, which is not true. You can’t have peace unless the two sides come together. Historically the settlements are not the issue. When Israel removed all Jewish communities and gave over control of Gaza, this proved the point that land is completely acceptable for a trade in peace. All the current plans in the Israelis offices include land swaps from the West Bank places that the Israeli government used to build communities, and trade it for land in Judea-Samaria, or the presently controlled Israeli administered areas. The Pal.s need to come to the table, Israel is waiting, the world is waiting. When the Pal.s try to go to the UN, when the previous UN resolution tells them to work it out with Israel, it goes against the very UN itself. To be clear: I support a demilitarized Palestinian statehood that recognizes Israel as a Jewish-state and Israel’s right to exist, and even with received land quid pro quo for the settlement land. But to begin: They have to talk to each other. In the past the Pal.s have said “Israel needs to stop settlement building before we come to the table”, did Israel do it? Yes! And they waited, and waited. What happened? At the last couple of days of the settlement freeze, the Pal.s asked for another longer extension of no settlement building. It is clear to the world that the settlement issue was not and is not the pre-condition to coming to the table or having peace in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

    It is best when we consider these things with the historical facts. Danny Ayalon the Dpt. Foreign Minister of Israel presents them very well in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XGYxLWUKwWo I ask you readers to consider this, and if you doubt him, check up on your facts with good sources.

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