Contrary to expectations, Israel’s cause gets more support from fundamentalist and evangelical Christians than from the US Jewish community
It is almost a truism in political discourse in Europe that the strength of the Israeli lobby in Washington is based on the power and reach of the US Jewish community. In fact support for a Jewish homeland in the Holy Land is almost as old as America itself, has had broad grassroots support for centuries, and has mainly been fuelled by non-Jewish constituencies.
At present Jews comprise approximately 1.8% of the US population. Taking account of the percentage of the US population expressing strong support for Israel in public opinion polls, this indicates that at most Jews make up approximately 3% – 5% of Israel’s supporters in the US. This position seems to have applied for much of American history. Who and why then are the key supporters of Israel in the US?
John Adams, summarising early American views, declared: “I really wish the Jews again in Judaea an independent nation “. From early on US support for Israel, a form of Gentile Zionism, fell into two main camps. First Prophetic Zionists saw the return of the Jews to the Promised Land as a realisation of a a biblical prophecy, and secondly a form of Progressive Zionism which saw the return of the Jews as part of God’s plan to uplift and improve the lives of downtrodden and unbelieving people – part of a broad programme of bringing enlightenment to the world through promoting American ideals.
Christian Zionism originated in the Bible, and in particular the Old Testament, generated by perceived historical similarities between the America of that era and the ancient Hebrew experiences. In early days, the ideals, language, and heroes of the Old Testament were an important every-day experience to many Americans. For much of early US history instruction in biblical Hebrew was mandatory at Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. Preachers and pamphleteers often described the US as a new Canaan, “a land flowing with milk and honey”, and parallels were drawn between the Hebrews and the Americans, who had (in the case of the Hebrews) or could (in the case of Americans) lose the blessings of God who had led them into their promised land, if they disobeyed him.
This huge groundswell of support came to a head in 1891 [the First Zionist Congress was held in 1897] when the Methodist lay leader, William Blackstone, presented a petition to President Benjamin Harrison asking the US to convene a Congress of European powers to request the Ottoman Empire to turn Palestine over to the Jews. The 400 signatories were overwhelmingly non-Jewish, and included the chief justice of the Supreme Court; many senior members of Congress; the future President William McKinley; the mayors of Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Washington; the editors or owners of the leading east coast and Chicago newspapers; a wide range of Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic clergy; and senior business leaders. All at a time when the Jewish community was quite small and powerless, and no Israel lobby existed.
Progressive Zionism continued as a strong force in American politics through most of the 20th century), reflected in the strong support (on the part of the Democratic party and many on the left) for a Jewish return, and then on its establishment, for the state of Israel itself.
In recent decades, and largely based on a view that Israel is now “safe”, and increasing concerns about its treatment of Palestinians, that non-religious progressive support has waned somewhat. During the same period the support of Prophetic (religious) Zionism has dramatically increased, particularly since the six-day war in 1968. The speed and decisiveness of Israel’s victory seemed miraculous to many Americans, and Israel’s conquest of the Old City brought the Temple site under Jewish hands, fulfilling in the eyes of some Christians a biblical prophecy. This proved a catalyst for the evangelical revival movement and Prophetic Zionism itself in the US.
Prophetic Zionists had become more numerous after the Civil War. A particularly important school of prophetic Zionism was generated by dispensationalism, an evangelical, futurist, and literal biblical interpretation that understands God to have related to human beings under different Biblical covenants in a series of periods in history. With its roots in the Reformation, it eventually rose to prominence in the early 19th century. It introduced into American evangelicalism and fundamentalism the concept of Israel’s unique significance in Christianity and in particular it assigned a decisive role to a restored Jewish state, with Jerusalem as its capital, in future history.
Prophetic Zionism may however have already passed its high water mark. Most events that dispensationists expected in Israel have not actually occurred. This, and a growing concern about the skewed level of support for Israel, has led many of the newer dispensationalist leaders such as Craig Blaising of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and leading figures in the evangelical mega-church movement, such as Rick Warren, founder and pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, to move closer to traditional Christian views in this area, which are less literalist and more metaphorical interpretations of the Bible. The direct relevancy of Israel in US politics will therefore decline. This will reduce the support for Israel from the Protestant, evangelical and fundamentalist churches.
Published in Doctrine and Life, Dominican Publications, Spring 2014