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Will fundamentalist Christians and Jews ignite apocalypse?

First in a two-part series


In September, thousands of Christian Zionists met in Jerusalem for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot to cheer on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and to declare their unconditional support for the state of Israel. Organized by the International Christian Embassy, the meeting appeared to be a love-in as much as a rally. “Walking here, I heard many times, and many people said, ‘We love you, we love Israel,’ ” Sharon said. “May I tell you we love you. We love all of you.”

On the face of it, the love affair between conservative Christians and Israel’s hawkish head of state seems unlikely, but mutual interests notoriously make for strange bedfellows. Many fundamentalist Christians embrace the state of Israel because of its role in their own end-of-time theology. For its part, the right wing in Israel welcomes the economic and political support it receives from conservative Christians around the world and particularly in the United States.

Religion and politics. It’s an incendiary combination anywhere, and particularly in the Middle East where Christian fundamentalists, often working in tandem with Jewish Messianic settlers, promote the formation of a Greater Israel that they believe will usher in Armageddon itself. Many of this country’s most ardent Christian supporters of Israel welcome that prospect. Others who don’t subscribe to the end-of-time theology of “dispensational premillennialism” worry that the agenda pushed by the tactical alliance between Jewish and Christian fundamentalists will transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a battle between two nationalities into a war of civilizations that will engulf the world.

“It’s a very tragic situation in which Christian fundamentalists, certain groups of them that focus on Armageddon and the Rapture and the role of a war between Muslims and Jews in bringing about the Second Coming, are involved in a folie à deux with extremist Jews,” said Ian Lustick, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, a consultant on the Middle East to the last four presidential administrations and the author of the book For the Land and the Lord: Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel.

Whether the Bush administration is reflecting the views of the Christian right or responding to them is difficult to say, but some Mideast analysts are convinced they are seeing their effect played out in U.S. support for Sharon’s hard-line policies. “I think in general it’s safe to say Christian fundamentalism has an influence on the administration and specifically with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Kathleen Christison, a former CIA political analyst and the author of Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy.

“There is a group of people in the Defense Department and in the vice president’s office who are very, very pro-Israeli and very pro the Likud Party in Israel,” said Christison, who named Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; Undersecretary of Policy in the Defense Department Douglas Feith; adviser to the Defense Department Richard Perle; Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff Lewis Libby Jr.; and Elliot Abrams on the National Security Council staff.

The United States’ current and exclusive focus on Islamic fundamentalism is a case of what some argue is selective blindness.

“We pay a lot of attention to Islamic extremism, but we don’t pay a lot of attention to Christian extremism or the extremism in the Jewish religion that is being used to justify what is going on today,” said James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, speaking about the turmoil in the Middle East. Zogby argues that despite disclaimers to the contrary the United States is waging a war on Islam at home and abroad even as it tacitly supports extremist settlers in the occupied territories Israel controls.

Since Sept. 11, suspected Muslim charities have been shut down by the U.S. government without the government offering any evidence that these charities have links to terrorists, Zogby said. At the same time, a known terrorist organization such as the Jewish Defense League is not placed on the government’s list of terrorist organizations, he said.

“Without question, we are subsidizing those settlements. Money is money,” said Zogby, noting that Israel is not only the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid but the only country that receives its foreign aid in cash without going through the Agency For International Development and without being held accountable to the General Accounting Office for what it does with U.S. aid.

“We say settlements are unhelpful or counterproductive, but every single effort to sanction Israel for building settlements or to take international steps to stop Israel from building settlements, we block,” Zogby said. “We’re massive enablers of Israel’s bad practices.”

Ordinary people

Gershom Gorenberg, author of The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount, remarks that depictions of those who believe they are living in history’s final days are often cartoonish, drawing too rigid a separation between mainstream religion and beliefs that are relegated to doomsday cult status. An American-born Israeli journalist who is an associate at the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, Gorenberg has studied the spectrum of Messianic belief both in Israel and in the United States.

“The fact is that millions of quite rational men and women, belonging to established religious movements around the globe, look forward to history’s conclusion, to be followed by the establishment of a perfected era. They draw support from ideas deeply embedded in Western religion and culture. You don’t need to go to central Africa to find them; they live in American suburbs; they work in insurance offices and high-tech startups. Some are influential leaders of America’s Christian right,” Gorenberg writes.

An article in the May 23 issue of The Wall Street Journal headlined, “How Israel Became a Favorite Cause of Christian Right,” discusses the effects on U.S. foreign policy of the alliance between the Christian right and traditional supporters of Israel. “More than any other single factor, it explains why there has been so little pressure from a Republican White House on Israel to curb its crackdown on Palestinians,” write Wall Street Journal reporters Tom Hamburger and Jim VandeHei.

In describing the transformation of the Republican Party by religious conservatives during the past 20 years, the two reporters detail how conservative Christian Republicans once suspected of intolerance and even anti-Semitism have become some of the staunchest supporters of Israel.

Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and a host of other conservative Christian leaders now lobby on behalf of Israel and support the most hard-line Israeli positions. Many fundamentalist Christian groups finance efforts to resettle Russian Jews in Israel, often in settlements in the occupied territories that offer settlers special tax breaks and financial inducements to move there.

“You have a number of very conservative Christian groups that support settlements because they see this as a way of strengthening Jewish hold on the land of Israel because in their mind this is important for end-of-time theology and part of hastening the Second Coming and the conversion of Jews that would be entailed in some of the theology. One would think that would be a good reason for conservative Jewish groups not to be involved with these groups, but they have made a pact to focus on political goals. They leave the proselytizing at the door when they entered into joint activity,” said Lewis Roth, president of Americans for Peace Now, a U.S. branch of the Israeli movement Peace Now.

Esther Levens, president of the National Unity Coalition for Israel, an alliance of Christian and Jewish organizations founded in 1993-94 to support Israel, said the coalition has a hard-and-fast rule against members proselytizing. Beyond that, Levens said she doesn’t probe too deeply into the reasons why many Christian groups have chosen to partner with the coalition.

But end-of-time theology is an important motive to many. For biblical literalists, particularly those who subscribe to dispensational premillennialism, a theology articulated by British preacher John Darby in the 19th century and popularized today by such books as Hal Lindsay’s The Late, Great Planet Earth or the Left Behind books by the Rev. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, the Rapture is near at hand in which Christ’s faithful will be caught up in the clouds and given new, immortal bodies while the rest of the population faces the horrors of the last seven years of human history. Israel plays a key role in this theology, which posits that the Second Coming requires Israel to be reconstituted and the Jewish Temple, destroyed in 70 A.D., rebuilt. According to the script many Christian fundamentalists read from, the Antichrist will desecrate the rebuilt Temple, which will be followed by a period of tribulation when earthquakes, plagues and all the other furies outlined in the Book of Revelation will come to pass. This in turn will be followed by Jesus’ return to earth. At that time, according to some Christians, those Jews who accept Jesus will enter the kingdom along with faithful Christians. Others will perish violently.

Jews have their own Messianic reading of the future. No apocalypse. No mass conversion of the Jews. No second coming of Jesus. For fundamentalist Jews, the establishment of the state of Israel and the extension of its sovereignty to the West Bank, Gaza and even further, is part of the process of world redemption. Eventually, Jewish rule will extend beyond the borders of the present state of Israel to the entire land of Israel described in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Temple will be rebuilt, and the Messiah will arrive, ushering in the redemption of the world.

For both fundamentalist Christians and Jews, an end to human history as we know it is connected to a transcendent imperative that necessitates actions that others see as risky, provocative and aggressive. For both groups, Israeli settlers are the vanguard troops in a campaign of action rooted in believers’ reading of the Bible.

“Certainly Jewish Messianism inspires this sort of affinity and sense of entitlement to these territories and to the land of Israel itself,” said Geoffrey Aronson of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, a nonprofit organization in Washington that tracks the growth of settlements in the occupied territories. “That idea, that the Bible has some sort of contemporary relevance to Israel’s territorial breadth and extent, is reality. It affects the entire political spectrum that one of the basic presumptions of the Israeli Jewish community is that they live and claim title to the state of Israel and perhaps areas beyond it by right, and it’s a right that’s recognized in the Bible. Ultimately, this sort of idea has been a very important motivator of the Jewish community in Palestine for the past hundred years,” said Aronson.

The Bible as property deed

While the notion of biblical entitlement to the land of Israel was latent in the founding of the state of Israel, religious claims were soft-pedaled by early Zionist leaders. Opposed by many Orthodox Jews who believed it violated the rabbinic injunction to avoid human efforts to bring redemption, Zionism was a predominantly secular movement that appealed to Jews and non-Jews alike by arguing that providing Jews a homeland of their own would end Jews’ condition as a persecuted minority and make Jews into a people like any other.

If arguably a streak of secular Messianism underlay the Zionist enterprise, it was the Six Day War in 1967 and the swift and surprising victory Israel achieved in that war, doubling in less than a week the amount of territory it controlled, including the prized city of old Jerusalem, that provided the impetus for the settler movement and the development of a Jewish fundamentalism that had been largely dormant for 18 centuries.

Even secular Israelis regarded the victory as a kind of miracle while for others, especially religious Zionists, the conquest of the West Bank was proof of a divine plan at work. “As never before, Messianism became a respected ideology, powering the movement that settled Jews across the West Bank,” Gorenberg writes. He adds that Israel’s victory became part of another story, too: the resurgence of Christian fundamentalism in the last third of the 20th century.

“The Jewish conquest of Jerusalem provided ‘proof’ of premillennial doctrine. It amplified hopes for the Second Coming; it spurred some people to predict just when the great event would take place. …

“Christian millennialists eagerly watched the Middle East for more signs. In time, some moved from being onlookers to being participants, offering support to Israel -- or to the Israelis deemed most likely to make prophecy come true,” Gorenberg writes.

Now some conservative Christians not only raise money for Israel, they meet in breakfasts and monthly briefings organized by the Israeli Embassy and participate in schemes to build the third Temple in Jerusalem. In 1998, for instance, the Canaan Land Restoration Inc. of Israel was established by Clyde Lott, an American cattleman and a Pentecostal minister.

Responding to verses in the Book of Numbers that say only the ashes of an unblemished red heifer that has never been yoked can purify a priest to enter the Temple, Lott joined forces with Rabbi Chaim Richman in Israel in an effort to raise red cattle suitable for Old Testament sacrifices. An Internet page for the Canaan Land Restoration, Inc., solicited tax-deductible contributions that would cover the costs of shipping red cows from the United States to Israel. Lott’s project is now idle because of internal problems and fear of an impending war, but Dean Hubbard, the vice president of the now-bankrupt organization, said the idea is to regroup and refocus when they can. “It’s staggering to see how it’s all on schedule,” Dean Hubbard said of the pace of world events.

The Web site of one Christian Zionist organization states that “Today, tens of millions of Protestant Christians in the United States and more around the world support Israel with an uncritical fervor, exceeding even Jewish support.”

“There are a lot of forces at work here,” said Jim Besser, a writer for The New York Jewish Week and The Baltimore Jewish Times. “There are evangelical Christians who support Israel simply because they believe it is biblically mandated for them to do so. There are also those who support the right wing in Israel because of their views of the end-time prophecies. They believe Israel will play a central role just by view of getting destroyed. These are not necessarily distinctive groups. There are different motivations. The third element of the equation is that a lot of political conservatives are increasingly supporting the right wing in Israel because of purely geopolitical reasons. They see Israel as the front line in the battle against terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism,” Besser said.

Not all evangelical Christians are unqualified supporters of Israel, of course. A letter sent to President Bush from 40 evangelical Christian leaders this past summer called upon him to employ an even-handed policy toward Israeli and Palestinian leadership and noted that the “American evangelical community is not a monolithic bloc in full and firm support of present Israeli policy.”

Still, many of the most prominent names in the evangelical world support Israel unconditionally and are opposed to Israel negotiating a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

“The feeling among evangelicals is that any effort to create peace in the Middle East is ultimately a trick,” Besser said. “If you pick up any of Hal Lindsay’s books or Pat Robertson’s books, it’s all laid out there in quite a lot of detail by many of these popular evangelical authors. The demands of these prophecies are very much in the minds of many of these evangelicals who are so vocal in their support of Israel right now.”

The intransigence of certain Christian fundamentalists mirrors that of many right-wing Israelis, notably the ultra-nationalist religious settlers on the West Bank who view the conquest of the West Bank as part of a plan for divine redemption and who oppose a peace settlement that would involve Israel ceding any inch of territory it controls. For many of these settlers, rebuilding the Temple, an activity that would almost inevitably involve the destruction of the Dome of the Rock, Islam’s third-holiest site, which is believed to lie on the ruins of the old Temple, has become a rallying cry.

A little-known force

In his book For the Land and the Lord, Ian Lustick writes that Americans and Israelis alike share a dangerous ignorance of the animating beliefs of Jewish fundamentalists despite the importance fundamentalists have assumed on the Israeli political scene since 1967.

Haim Dov Beliak seconds that statement. A rabbi in California, Beliak studied at the Merkaz Harav yeshiva in Israel. Headed by the messianic Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, the yeshiva was at the ideological center of the settler movement in the 1970s when Beliak attended it. According to Beliak, neither the Jewish community in the United States nor the American public at large knows much about the settlers. “There is a profound lack of curiosity about them,” Beliak said. “They are very problematic because they are going to cause World War III. They are not dealing with a normal political reality. There’s a complete denial of any rights that the Arabs might have.

“Many of these settlers simply want to come in where Palestinians are living and say a Jew lived here 75 years ago so they should be living here now, or that 1,500 years ago Jews controlled the land so Jews now should control the land. There’s an attempt to use the Bible as a land deed claim,” said Beliak.

If Christian scenarios of the end of time involving the anti-Christ and Armageddon sometimes seem outlandish or bizarre, fundamentalist Jewish schemes for redemption can appear no less so. Beliak reported efforts underway by some Zionist groups to track down the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, who disappeared in 276 B.C. when they were carried off into captivity. Scouts are looking for the descendents of these tribes in Africa and Asia, and a group of people in Burma and another in Peru are being seriously investigated.

“The lengths of this search is almost comical,” Beliak said. “The hope is that these people will discover their Jewishness, reconvert to Judaism and therefore they will need a place to live and then it will be legitimate to displace the Arabs who are living [in the occupied territories.] …

“It is fantastic the lengths of religious nationalistic jingoism these people are prepared to go to,” said Beliak.

Beliak and others distinguish between those settlers who move to the West Bank and Gaza for ideological reasons and those who are drawn by the economic inducements offered them and who would resettle if similar opportunities were provided elsewhere. It’s the first and smaller group that forms the core of the settler movement: Israelis who because of fundamentalist religious views or extreme nationalism believe all of the occupied territories should be incorporated into the state of Israel, despite the Arab population living there.

Practically speaking, there is no distinction between the settler movement and the current Israeli government headed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Beliak said.

“Sharon is the architect of the settler movement, and he’s the practical engineer of the idea that there is no room for the Arabs to live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea in their own political entity,” Beliak said. “They can live there as laborers and choppers of wood and drawers of water but only if they eschew any political aspirations.”

According to Peace Now, since February 2001 when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took office, 34 new settlements have been established in the occupied territories. Close to 400,000 settlers now live in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, and their presence poses what many analysts call the biggest obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The growth and entrenchment of the settlers, whose population has doubled since the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords were signed, have proved to be Jewish fundamentalists’ greatest success. But Ian Lustick said fundamentalists in Israel have experienced reverses, too, notably the peace accords themselves and the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

“The peace process showed they actually had to assassinate an Israeli leader to stop a Palestinian state from emerging,” Lustick said. “The need to rely on spectacular violence is something they wanted to avoid relying on. They wanted to naturalize Israeli rule over the whole of Greater Israel and to trivialize the question of the Arabs. The intifada, the first and second one, has made it impossible for Israelis to not see the Arabs, to see the West Bank and Gaza as just extensions of Israel.”

Lustick called settlements the main reason for the failure of the Camp David negotiations.

“Barak was proposing at Camp David that all settlements and all roads leading to them would remain under Israeli sovereignty. That was the achievement of the settlers’ movement, that even a dovish prime minister would begin a peace conference with such a hawkish and unworkable proposal, therefore leading to the second intifada and the current disastrous circumstances we see today,” Lustick said.

A worldwide phenomenon

Reading the Bible as a set of predictions about the future sends chills through many mainstream theologians. “No reputable Catholic theologian or certainly no reputable mainline Protestant theologian would look at the Bible this way,” said Jesuit Fr. John R. Sachs, who teaches at Weston Jesuit School of Theology near Boston. Americans’ growing interest in the apocalypse forms part of a worldwide phenomenon, said Sachs, with conservative, literalistic, fundamentalistic movements in religion taking place in vast areas of the world today.

Decrying Christian fundamentalist theology and its influence on U.S. Mideast policy strikes Baylor University professor Marc Ellis as hypocritical, even though Ellis acknowledges he would like to see the political sway of fundamentalists curtailed.

“Most of the Christian and Jewish support for the state of Israel has come from liberal sources. Now liberal Christians are beginning to understand that something is wrong with those policies, but those policies have already had their effect,” said Ellis.

A professor of American and Jewish studies at Baylor, Ellis points out that if some fundamentalist Christians promote the state of Israel, so too in the past did prominent liberal theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr and other Christians, if for different reasons.

“Liberal Christians supported Israel out of guilt over the Holocaust. Fundamentalist Christians have supported Israel because of biblical eschatology,” said Ellis.

“Jews were the vehicle through which Christians renewed their own theology after the Holocaust: the recovery of the Hebrew Bible that had been so denigrated in Christian theology, the recovery of the prophets, the Jewishness of Jesus. Jews were seen as carriers of those values that Christians needed to embrace,” Ellis said. “It’s about how Christianity renewed itself in the face of atrocities it was responsible for. Jews were elevated where once they were demeaned.”

What Ellis called “the political naiveté” of liberal Christians who saw Jews only as innocents has played a large role in contributing to a steady deterioration in the conditions Palestinians live in that he said threatens to get worse still if the United States invades Iraq.

“It’s been getting worse from the beginning, since 1948, and it’s been getting worse since 1993 when Oslo was signed. Everything that has been gained since 1993 has been wiped out in the last two years. Now there are three million Palestinians on the West Bank who are in virtual prison, or worse. They are under closure. No one delivers their food. You have an entire population in prison but without the perks of prison,” said Ellis.

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 2002