Transcript: Why Zionism is Both Important and Contested
Layton Friesen: Good day everyone. I am Layton Friesen. I am the Conference Pastor of the EMC. I’d like to welcome you to a conversation today on the topic of Zionism, and more specifically, Christian Zionism. Our guest today is Don Lewis, who is a professor of church history at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C. In 2010 he published a book with Cambridge entitled The Origins of Christian Zionism: Evangelical Support for a [Jewish] Homeland. And then this upcoming August he is publishing a new book called A Short History of Christian Zionism: From the Reformation to Today which will appear with InterVarsity Press Academic. And you can read all about that book on the InterVarsity Press website. I should also say that Don is a very good friend of mine. He’s been a personal mentor of mine for a number of years. He has a very keen heart for the issues that pastors face, but today we are talking about Zionism. And so, Don thanks for agreeing to talk with us today about this issue.
Don Lewis: Thanks for having me, Layton. It is good to be talking with you.
LF: So, just to start off could you clarify for our listeners, in kind of layman’s terms, what is Zionism?
DL: Let me answer that in two ways: first, historically, and then in today’s world in the context of the Middle East.
So first historically, Zionism was a political movement that arose in the late 19th century among European Jews who wanted to form their own homeland in Palestine. Of course, Zionism succeeded in doing so in 1948 when the State of Israel was established. That’s the historical meaning of the term. Today the term Zionism is broadly used to describe anyone supportive of the modern State of Israel.
The word in the Middle East today is used in a far more negative way than the historical understanding.
In the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis, the term Zionism has come to mean something much more sinister. In that context it is used to mean the disenfranchisement of the Palestinians, their displacement from their homes and even cultural genocide waged against them by the Israeli state. When you use the term in that context it means something quite different than the way we use it in western academia in particular.
LF: Tell us then, what is Christian Zionism? What makes Zionism a particularly Christian thing in some aspects or manifestations?
DL: Christian Zionism is the belief held by many Christians that the Bible teaches that the Jews have an on-going claim to a home in Palestine and that Christians should support that claim by supporting now the State of Israel.
But there are many different forms of Christian Zionism, so defining it is really difficult—but that’s the basic idea. And my take on Christian Zionism is the biblical mandate for a Jewish home in Palestine.
LF: Why is it important for Christians in Canada like we are, to understand Zionism and to understand Christian Zionism?
DL: With Zionism the answer is clear. Zionism is one of the most important movements politically in the 20th century and remains highly contested. It was very contested in the 1940s. Since the 1940s, Israel has been at the centre of global politics since its founding.
And Christian Zionism is far more important than most people realize. Many people are convinced that it is very important and that it is a growing influence in global politics—this view is held by people both who love the movement, and those who hate the movement.
Just a few weeks ago the former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer caused quite a stir when he suggested that Israel should shift its focus from cultivating support of American Jews for Israel, many of whom are increasingly critical of Israel, and instead focus his efforts on American evangelicals, whom he called “the backbone of Israel’s support in the United States.” (Washington Post, 27 May 2021). Now in saying that he wasn’t saying anything that Benjamin Netanyahu hasn’t said repeatedly, but it did cause a stir.
What is surprising and interesting is that Christian Zionism is now turning up in all sorts of places and is influencing global politics, not just American politics. The Trump administration’s move of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was followed by a similar move by the government of Guatemala which is one of the most strongly Charismatic countries in Latin America. In both cases, the influence of Christian Zionism is clearly evident. President Trump’s repeated endorsements of the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights and the West Bank has pleased many Christian Zionists, and Christian Zionism is now influential in the politics of various African states as well.
LF: So, let’s think about this from the perspective of the Jews. Everybody wants a homeland, but why has this been a particularly urgent and poignant question for Jews?
DL: That’s another big complex question. Let me try to answer with four short points.
First, ethnic nationalism.
In the late 19th century, there was a rise in ethnic nationalism throughout Europe. Zionism, I think, has to be seen in that context. Many groups in Europe began to demand national recognition and recognized boundaries for their own people group. One thinks of Greece which achieved its independence, Hungary, Bulgaria and many other groups demanding it, some receiving it, and some didn’t. That’s the first simple point – ethnic nationalism.
Second, is the longing for Jerusalem in traditional Judaism
Jerusalem has long been central to Jewish national identity. The longing on the part of Jews to return to their ancient homeland has been there ever since their expulsion by the Romans in the early centuries of the Christian era, and it has been nurtured every day in the daily prayers of Jews. So, demands for a Jewish homeland would seem to make sense in that context.
But [the] third point, and this is where it gets really complicated, is the historic opposition to Zionism from within the Jewish religious tradition.
This is often obscured, and people don’t understand this, but this really complicates this story, because traditional Judaism for many centuries has objected to any Zionist movement.
The Babylonian Talmud which was written in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD and became the basis of the Talmudic tradition in Judaism and became the mainstream Jewish religion or theology throughout the Middle Ages into the modern age, insisted that only the Messiah would bring about this restoration of the Jews. And it specifically forbade Jews to attempt to return “en masse,” to Palestine, although it allowed for individual Jews to return if possible, as an expression of their spiritual longing, to be buried in the land of Palestine as a final pious act. That history is really obscured especially by contemporary Zionists and Christian Zionists.
The fourth point is the rise of secular Zionism.
If you have this tradition and you have Zionism in the late 19th century, what changed? Well, it’s really important to understand that the leaders of Zionist movement, the Jewish Zionist movement, in the late 19th century and early 20th century were resolutely secular Jews, not religious Jews. In fact, their strongest opponents came from Jewish rabbis who thought that Zionism was secular and secularizing. Even in 1948 when Israel was formed, a large number of Jews—perhaps the majority throughout the world some scholars think—doubted the wisdom of the Zionist agenda. There were many anti-Zionist Jews, and there are still anti-Zionist Jews.
LF:That’s very interesting. Can you tell me about how Christian Zionism began then?
DL: The term itself is very new. I mentioned it was only, really, first used at the turn of the 20th century, and if you actually do a Google search for its use in written sources it was hardly used up to the 1980s, but since then it’s really taken off. Before the 20th century the Christian idea—that the Jews would be restored to Palestine—was called, as I said, “Restorationism,” not Christian Zionism.
As to how old this idea is—this is certainly contested by historians and it’s one of the points of my book. My argument in the book is that the idea arose really in the 1520s among some Reformed thinkers in the Calvinist wing of the Reformation. It was never a Lutheran or an Anabaptist position. The physical “restoration” of the Jews became popular amongst the English Puritans and it became mainstream in England by the mid-1600s.
LF: These people would argue that Christian Zionism is rooted in the scriptures, wouldn’t they? Where would they find support for that?
DL: There’s lots of support for it in the Old Testament depending on how you understand the Old Testament and how it plays out in the New. One can trace the belief back to Genesis where God promises Abraham the land, and then again to Moses. The land promise actually is repeatedly made in the Old Testament. And you will also find in Genesis a command that has become the mantra of the Christian Zionists: “Whoever blesses you, I will bless, and he who curses you, I will curse.” Which they take to mean whoever blesses modern day Israel, I will bless and he who curses modern day Israel, I will curse. Often cited as well is Jeremiah 31 which speaks of a Jewish return. These are the passages most frequently cited in Christian Zionist discourse.
LF: And what about from the Jewish perspective? Jewish Zionists: did they argue their case using these Old Testament scriptures?
DL: Generally, no. In fact, what’s really surprising about the Israeli declaration of independence is that it really has no reference to God; just sort of to a vague Jewish tradition. Historically the Jewish attitudes to a return to Palestine are interesting in light of what has happened in the 20th century.
As I said, for centuries the Jewish people were told by the rabbis that efforts to return to Palestine were bound to fail and that it was heresy to bring back the Jews without the Messiah doing so.
What is interesting however, is that in Israel today some of the most radical Jewish Zionists, especially the Jewish settlers in the West Bank, in the occupied areas, are picking up Old Testament arguments from the Christian Zionists to justify their occupation of lands taken since 1948, often citing the texts out of Deuteronomy and Joshua as a modern blueprint.
LF: The 19th and early 20th century Zionists were largely secularists as you said, how did Zionism become mainstream in the Jewish community?
DL: Slowly. It took a long time. There was a great fight within the Jewish community world-wide and as I have said, not all Jews even today are Zionists. The original leaders of the Jewish Zionist movement became fed up with waiting for the Messiah to return the Jews and many of them were often atheistic Marxists. So Marxist Zionists were a long way from religious Jews or from the Christian Zionists.
It would seem that up to 1945, probably the majority of Jews were not Zionists. The Jews who had dominated American Jewry up to that time were strongly anti-Zionist. Even in 1948, it is doubtful that the majority of Jews throughout the world were Zionists. A lot of them thought the idea of a nation state was a bad one, even a dangerous one for world Jewry. Many feared that creating a Jewish state would make their situation in the countries where they lived much more difficult. Some thought that the world was trying to create a new ghetto in the Middle East where Jews would be open targets for their enemies.
LF: How then did the Zionists succeed in creating the State of Israel?
DL: The short answer is the Holocaust. The wave of sympathy for the Jews that arose throughout much of the world once the horrors of the Holocaust became apparent after 1945, did an enormous amount to contribute to a change of heart toward the Zionist proposal—both on the part of Jews but also on the part of many Christians. Many people believed that the Jews should have a place of refuge and sanctuary and were persuaded that supporting the establishment of a State of Israel was the solution.
And the Zionists, to give them their credit, were great propagandists for their cause. And they had a great deal of support from key international leaders, including President Truman who recognized the Israeli state, much to the chagrin of the state department, within just a few hours of the Israeli declaration of independence. American support was crucial for the Zionist cause and in founding Israel and has remained so ever since.
LF: In 1917, the British government made a public promise to support the creation of a national home in Palestine for the Jews—this was known as the Balfour Declaration. I’m wondering, was Christian Zionism influential in issuing the Balfour Declaration, or were there other kind of non-religious factors behind it?
DL: Yeah, that’s a really important question because the Balfour Declaration was hugely important—the single most important event between the beginning of the Zionist movement and the establishment of the State of Israel. And historians dealing with the Balfour Declaration—especially Jewish historians—have largely downplayed any influence other than Jewish influence. But in my book, I argue that they are wrong to ignore this important religious factor. It’s a fascinating, complex history, full of intrigue and deceit on the part of the British.
But one has to remember and appreciate that in 1917 Britain was desperate. By the fall November-December of 1917, when the Balfour Declaration was made, they were losing World War I. At the very time the declaration comes out, Russia withdrew from fighting Germany, so Germany was greatly strengthened. So, in the course of the war, they secretly promised Palestine to the French, and then they secretly promised it to the Arabs if they would rise in revolt against the Ottoman empire (which they did, of course) making life more difficult for their German ally, and then they publicly promised part of Palestine to the Jews. But what is, I found absolutely astounding, is we now know from recently released diplomatic correspondence, that months after the Balfour Declaration was made, as late as January 1918, the British were prepared to renege on the Balfour Declaration and give Palestine back to the Ottomans—this is Ottoman Turkey—if they would abandon their support of Germany in World War I and become neutral. So, yeah there were all these factors happening. The British were incredibly deceitful. But Christian Zionism I argue is very strongly behind the Balfour Declaration. Balfour himself was raised by a mother who was very dedicated to Christian Zionism.
LF: What happened to the religious Jews who had been opposed to Zionism up to this point?
DL: After the Holocaust, it became much more difficult for religious Jews to maintain their opposition to Zionism. And some Jews, even today, even ultra-orthodox Jews living in Israel, are opposed to the Israeli state which feeds them and clothes them and protects them and supports them, but they don’t think that the Jewish state is the state that God promised because the Messiah didn’t create it. Jewish anti-Zionism is far from dead and that may come as a surprise to a lot of people. In fact, it is growing rapidly among secular Jews outside of Israel, especially in the United States, and especially among younger American Jews. The rise of anti-Semitism has really complicated this for younger American Jews, who are suspicious on the one-hand of the morality of an ethno-state and what they regard as the oppression of Palestinians, and are tempted, I think falsely tempted or wrongly tempted, to believe that anti-Semitism across the globe would simply disappear if the State of Israel disappeared. Anti-Semitism is not just related—there was anti-Semitism well before the State of Israel came on the scene.
I argue that the triumph of the Zionist cause required a revolution—this is again a very controversial thing. I haven’t seen other people argue this, but I think it is very true—it required a revolution in Jewish theology to justify it. In effect, most Jews gave up on the hope of a personal Messiah. Perhaps not explicitly, but in practice. The Jews had been told for centuries that they should wait for the Messiah to return. He would usher in the return to the land. For many, that aspect of the Messianic hope died with the establishment of the State of Israel. One of the greatest revolutions in Jewish theology happened and yet few people seem to have noticed it.
It is interesting now how some religious Zionists are spinning Jewish history to convince people that the Jews have always been supportive of the return. It is true that many Jews have wanted to go to Palestine to die in the holy land, but that is very different from the idea of the Jews returning en masse. The former was allowed, the latter mass return was forbidden.
LF: But wasn’t the establishment of the State of Israel a triumph, a great triumph for Judaism and for the Jewish people generally?
DL: Well, it certainly was a triumph for the Zionist cause. But we have to realize that Zionism and Judaism are not the same thing. I want to make five brief points here. This is such an important question and very difficult, I think, for Western Christians to understand.
First, you have to understand the original Zionist vision for Israel.
The key founders of the State of Israel—David Ben Gurion (the first president), Menachem Begin, Golda Meir and others were strong secularists, not religious Jews. Their aim, in fact, was to establish a secular Jewish state, not a religious Jewish state. In other words, they wanted a homeland for Jews, not a homeland for Judaism. Marxist Zionism was their religion; this was atheistic and certainly not traditional Judaism. And they wanted not only a secular state, but a secularizing state—one that would welcome the poor, ignorant but devout religious Jews around the world and then educate them through the army and the school system to see the light of secularism and thus become like them—happy, secular Jews. They believed that the Israeli school system and the army would be the two key institutions that would introduce these poor, benighted, religious Jews and turn them into secular Jews like themselves. So that’s the first one.
Second is the problem that arose.
Unfortunately for the secularists, Ben Gurion made a number of concessions to the ultra-orthodox Jews in the 1950s. His first concession was he allowed their young men exemption from military service so they could devote themselves to the study of the Torah. The second concession was he allowed them to have a separate religious school system for their children. And thirdly, he left the rabbis, or put the rabbis, in charge of the defining of Jewish identity and rules regulating marriage and divorce, which are a great frustration for many secular Jews in Israel today. It’s in fact common for secular Jews in Israel to be married in Cyprus rather than Israel so that their marriages do not fall under the religious jurisdiction of the Orthodox. So, these concessions in the long run came home to roost.
Third point is waves of Jewish immigration to Israel since 1948.
This is another challenge for the secularists dream—is the impact of waves of Jewish immigration into Israel. In the wake of the Six-Day War in 1967 the Jews in Arab countries found that they had to flee Arab nations where they had lived for centuries. They largely immigrated to Israel—especially the poor among them who were generally very religious. The richer Jews went to the USA. Their practice of strict forms of Judaism had been part of the religious and cultural identity that had enabled them to survive for centuries being Jews in Muslim countries. And so, when they came to Israel, they greatly strengthened the Jewish religious community in Israel.
There has been another wave of immigration in the last few decades as many Jews have immigrated to Israel from Russia, but they tend to be right-wing secular nationalists, and therefore not particularly religious.
A fourth point is demographics.
Although the founders of Israel were secularists who wanted a secular state and a secular society, Israel is now far more religious and devout than its founders ever envisioned—far more devout than it was in 1948. This is not the sort of Israel they had in mind. And the religious Jews tend to have much higher birthrates than the secular Jews, so this has also contributed to Israel being far different from what the secular Jewish Zionists had expected. The demographics of the situation suggest that in the future both Israeli and American Jews may be far more intensely religious than they’ve been in the past. Secular Jews have few kids and tend to be less attached to their Jewish identity. Religious Jews have many more children and are becoming increasingly devout.
But there’s a fifth point here that really does complicate it.
This is not easy for people outside of Israel to appreciate, but Israel is deeply divided today. I’m not referring to the division between the Arabs and the Jews. I’m referring to the division between the secularist Jews and the devout Jews. Some in the Israeli army even fear a civil war breaking out between secular Jews and religious Jews. The two groups live in totally different cultural worlds and the tension between them is very high, especially as the religious Jews gain more and more influence in the life of Israel and try to impose their strict religious views on the wider society, such as in the strict observance of the Sabbath which is deeply resented in a place like Tel Aviv.
LF: Why is Christian Zionism so controversial among Christians?
DL: Well, it’s controversial because Christians disagree on particularly how to understand the land promises of the Old Testament. Were they conditional? One of the important points they make is that the land promises of the Old Testament are not specifically repeated in the New Testament. One of the most important scholars making this argument has been my former colleague, Bruce Waltke. He has argued that in the New Testament, the land promises are picked up and expanded—that they are in effect universalized. They’re not repeated in the way they are from the Old Testament. So, in Romans 3 the rabbi Paul speaks of what Abraham and the prophets were promised, and any Jew reading a Rabbi, would expect him to say that they were promised “the land,” but Paul says instead that we are promised “the universe,” not just a few hundred square miles of sand in the Middle East.
And then when Jesus quotes the Psalm that says, “the meek shall inherit the land,” he changes it to say “the meek shall inherit the earth.” That is, the people of God have been promised the whole world and not just a small piece of land that the Jews had been hoping for.
So Waltke argues that the promises to God’s people are much larger than the original land promise. They are now for the whole people of God—both Jews and Gentiles together—and together, they are going to inherit the kingdom which is far grander and more glorious than the original land promises.
LF: Is Christian Zionism largely an evangelical movement today? And if that is the case, why is that?
DL: Yes, it is, although it hasn’t always been. Support for Christian Zionism comes from Evangelicals (and especially from Charismatics in particular). One scholar recently said that the international Christian Zionist movement speaks in tongues. It’s an apt way of summarizing what we see today. But having said that, it has appealed to a wide range of Christians down through the centuries since the Reformation.
As I suggested, it began in the second generation of the Reformation in the Calvinistic wing of the Reformation. It became mainstream in English Puritanism, and especially in American Puritanism. And it was commonly held in the United States at the time of the revolution, and even by Unitarians in the United States in the early 19th century. Up to about 1900, the movement was largely dominated by people in the Reformed tradition—that is Calvinist Presbyterians, Evangelical Anglicans, Congregationalists and so on.
But in the twentieth it was advocated by leading 20th-century mainline theologians such as Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr. The Roman Catholic Church has long been opposed to Zionism, and only recognized the State of Israel in the 1990s. There have been some important Roman Catholic advocates of Christian Zionism in the last 50 years who have deeply influenced this shift in Roman Catholic attitudes.
But after World War II, and in light of the Holocaust, many liberal Christians, in fact the bulk of support for the State of Israel came from the liberal Christians—not from Evangelicals. They were supportive, but not politically active. They supported the idea of creating a Jewish homeland, but they did not always support it for theological reasons but rather for humanitarian reasons or political reasons. I wouldn’t classify these Christians as “Christian Zionists.” They were Zionists and they were Christians, but they don’t fit my category of Christian Zionists because while they supported Zionism, they didn’t do so because they believed that a Jewish homeland was guaranteed by Scripture.
Having said that, I believe that it is still true that the most vocal advocates of Christian Zionism today are found among the ranks of Evangelicals and especially amongst Charismatics in the worldwide charismatic movement.
LF: So, what do you think is the greatest challenge right now for the whole project of creating Israel as a homeland for Jews?
The greatest challenge in my mind is how Israel can reconcile its ambitions with the Jewish religious heritage that is expressed in the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s interesting in 1917 when the British cabinet was considering the Balfour Declaration, they referred the draft of the declaration to the Chief Rabbi in the United Kingdom before it was made public. He responded by saying something that I think is absolutely crucial. Arguing that its provisions for the rights of those living in the land, which are there in the Balfour Declaration, that they were most welcome.
He wrote: “The draft declaration is in spirit and in substance everything that could be desired. I welcome the reference to the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” The Balfour Declaration says that the Jewish presence won’t negatively affect those who are already there. Then he goes on: “It is but a translation of the basic principles of the Mosaic legislation.” He’s citing Leviticus 19: 33 and 34. That’s the moral standard that Zionism held up in 1917, this reference to Lev 19:33,34.
So, I think the greatest challenge is for Israel to live up to Judaism’s professed ethical code in dealing with non-Jews in Palestine.
LF: What wisdom then do you have for Christians who genuinely believe that Jews should have a homeland, and who are also concerned about how Palestinians are being treated in the process?
DL: I think we need to start with the fact that Christians have to make clear that they love the Jewish people, and in the same breath, make clear that they love the Palestinians. And we have to speak truth to our friends, whether Jewish or Palestinian.
As a Jewish friend said to me recently, “A true friend tells you the truth, even if it hurts. A true friend calls you to your best self.”
For us with the Jews, the Hebrew scriptures which we share with Judaism are full of concern for justice, fairness, generosity to the outsider. We have to hold on to our biblical convictions about these matters and not allow them to be side-lined or ignored. This is so important but at the same time so difficult. There are no easy answers to the problems we face. No political solution that would appear to be practical and acceptable to both sides.
I hope in my own humble attempt to make sense of this very convoluted and difficult history that it will help others to understand the profoundly complex problems that the world is facing and help us as Christians to discern how we might speak the truth in love.
LF: That’s fascinating and very helpful. Thank you so much for talking with us today Don.
DL: You are very welcome Layton. It was my pleasure. Blessings.