Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Should Christians Support the State of Israel?

       As Americans, we are often told that our country should support the state of Israel, if only because it is the only democracy in the Middle East (which ignores Egypt, Lebanon, and, at least ostensibly, Syria). We are also told that Israel is our only ally in the region; and when it is pointed out that we have, or have had, other allies in the Middle East, then Israel becomes our only "reliable" ally. For the moment, let's pretend that no American military personnel were killed by Israeli air strikes in Egyptian waters; friends don't attack friends, after all. Similarly, we will pretend that the Israeli government has never spied on our government; because allies don't do that to each other - right? So let's accept as valid the premise that it is in our country's best interests to support the state of Israel.
       But it has to be said that much of the unspoken argument for this support comes, not from a geopolitical perspective, but rather from one based in religion. Now, no one will be surprised if a majority of Americans who are Jewish favor American support for Israel. (It would be more surprising to find Jewish-Americans who are opposed to support for Israel, although there are surely some who hold this position.) Likewise, few will be surprised to find that there is widespread support for Israel among American Protestants, and especially Evangelicals. Why? And is this support warranted?
       Part of the story has to be told from the time immediately after the end of the Second World War. The attempt by the Nazis to exterminate the "undesirables" they found in Germany and in the  regions of Europe and Asia which they conquered - Communists, homosexuals, those found to be physically crippled or mentally incompetent, and, of course, the Jews - led to the deaths of millions of people. Add to this the utter destruction of countless cities, towns, and villages, and there were hundreds of thousands of displaced peoples with no homes to which they might return; and, in the case of the Jews, even if their homes were still intact, the treatment they had received at the hands of their "neighbors" was itself an incentive to find a new place to live. As such, many Jews sought to emigrate to Palestine, the ancient homeland of the Jewish people.  Centuries before, Palestine had been incorporated into the Ottoman Empire, having been a battleground between Christians and Muslims who both sought to control Jerusalem and the surrounding area, each religious group asserting its own claims to the Holy Land, in addition to the claims made by the Jews, as the heirs of Abraham, to whom the land had been given by God.  The Jewish refugees were welcomed by some of the Arab residents of Palestine, but while the Arab Christians might not have objected, and perhaps some of the Muslims might even have been willing to accept some Jewish settlement, many other Arabs did not, and tensions rose.  In time, the difficulty of maintaining order in the region led the British, who had taken charge in Palestine according to a mandate from the League of Nations in 1920 after the end of the First World War, and who had been confirmed in the same mandate by the United Nations after the Second World War, to announce on February 7, 1947, that it would terminate its participation in the mandate, returning it to the United Nations to administer. An eleven-nation Special Committee appointed by the United Nations to study the question reported on August 31, 1947, that the mandate should be terminated and that Palestine should be granted independence at the earliest possible date, with the territory being partitioned between the Arabs and the Jews. The vote for independence was unanimous; but the motion for partition received only seven votes in favor.  On November 29, 1947, U.N. Resolution 181, which called for an end to the mandate by no later than August 1, 1948, and which created three zones - one under Arab control, one under Jewish control, and an internationally-controlled zone containing Jerusalem - was approved with thirty-three votes in favor, thirteen votes opposed, and ten abstentions. The representatives of the Palestinian Jews accepted the partition; the leaders of the neighboring Arab states, all of whom voted against partition, obviously, did not. The United States voted in favor of partition, as did the Soviet Union, and the vast majority of its allies. On May 14, 1948, hours before the mandate was to come to an end, David Ben-Gurion, Prime Minister-elect of the nascent State of Israel, issued a declaration of the existence of that state's existence, effective as of midnight on May 15, 1948, when the U.N. mandate expired and British authority in Palestine was no longer in effect. Eleven minutes after midnight on the fifteenth of May President Truman recognized the provisional Jewish authority as the de facto authority of the new Jewish state.  After the first Arab-
Israeli War, which began on May 15th with the invasion of Palestine by armies from Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, and Iraq, supported by contingents from Yemen, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan, and ended March 10, 1949 (the ceasefire being ratified on July 20, 1949), the new state found itself in control of all the areas set aside for the Jews under the partition plan, plus almost sixty percent of the Arab areas, including West Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank of the Jordan River. In the midst of the war, the provisional government was replaced by a government elected on January 25, 1949; and the United States formally recognized the State of Israel on January 31, 1949.
       There is no denying the horrific experience of the Holocaust, or the need for a safe refuge for the Jewish refugees in the postwar world, or the logic which concludes that the best, and perhaps only, way to protect the Jews against any recurrence of any acts of antisemitism as was displayed by the Nazis is a Jewish state which has the power to act to protect its people against any enemies who might seek their annihilation. There is also no denying that the uphill battles against seemingly overwhelming odds fought time and again by the armed forces and people of Israel against those who sought their destruction is worthy of some admiration. The stunning victories of the Six Day War in 1967, and the hard-fought battles of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, for example, might well be described as legendary.  But the history and the reasons so far are all geopolitical and secular.  Is there any outstanding reason for deliberate Christian support for the state of Israel?
       As best as I can determine, Christian support for the state of Israel has as much, or more, to do with Christian eschatology as it has to do with any secular reasons, as good as these reasons may (or may not) be.  As I follow this line of reasoning, in order for our Lord Jesus Christ to return - the "Second Coming," as it is sometimes described - it is necessary for the following "pieces," among others (the list is not exhaustive) to be in place:

  1. Israel had to exist as a state. Thus, for many, the declaration of May 14/15, 1947, started the "countdown clock" for the initiation of the "end times," setting the stage for our Lord's return.
  2. The Temple in Jerusalem had to be rebuilt.  There are some additional cultic requirements associated with the reconsecration of a rebuilt Temple, if and when that happens, steps toward the fulfilling of which are reportedly being pursued by certain American protestants; but central to this is that Israel must, obviously, continue to exist, and continue to remain in control of the Temple Mount and the City of Jerusalem.
       Additionally, there may, or may not, be an invasion of Israel from the north by the forces of "Gog and Magog," sometimes associated with Russia and its allies; there may or may not have been a restoration of the Roman Empire in the form of a European union of some sort, although the current European Union is larger than the ten states usually identified as constituting the renewed Roman Empire; and there may, or may not, have been a battle fought at "Armageddon," although the exact location is unknown, and subject to speculation.  
       Are they right?  Who knows?  I know I don't.  But we've certainly had more than our share lately of the "end of the world" prophecies that have fallen flat on their faces: the "end"of the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012, and the "blood moon" last month; these sorts of predictions have been going on, and influencing people for generation after generation.  Now, when I was asked about the Mayan calendar, and the blood moon, and this prediction, and that prophecy, I would give the same reply: "You know, when the disciples asked, 'What is the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?' He said to them, 'But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.' So if our Lord didn't know, or wouldn't tell, we aren't meant to know anything more than that we are to focus our attention on doing what we are supposed to be doing.  That way, if we depart this life before He returns, no worries; and if we're doing what we're supposed to be doing when He returns, no worries.  It's win-win either way."  I think the same is true for these concerns for the "need" for there to be a state, in the man-made, secular sense, of Israel: we're worrying about something over which we have no control, when God can, and will, make what needs to happen happen, when it needs to happen.  It's not as if our Lord is lurking anxiously somewhere overhead in the clouds, waiting for us to somehow make all the arrangements in order for Him to return.  Rather, if He tarries, it is to give us the time we need to repent of our sins, and to confess them, and to take the steps needed to transform our lives, to turn away from the ways of the world and embrace instead the ways of the kingdom of heaven. He delays as an act of mercy and compassion, and not because we've yet to rebuild the Temple of Solomon, or breed a perfect red heifer, or meet any other condition someone thinks humans have to do in order for our Lord to return.
       So, should Christians support the state of Israel?  That's a question each of us will have to decide on its merits: but I think we can do so without having to be concerned about whether or not our support will have any influence on whether, or when, our Lord will return.  Rest easy, brethren!  God will make that decision on His own; and all we need to do is to decide what is right in terms of how our friends and allies in Israel are doing in relation to us, to their neighbors, and to the people who live within their borders: Jews and non-Jews alike.  Let us also remember that, when we cast things in terms of Jews and Arabs, it is all too easy to fall into the false assumption that "Arab" means "Muslim."  In many instances, especially in many places in the Holy Land, that "Arab" or "Palestinian" is a Christian; quite often, an Orthodox Christian.  Sadly, the recent turmoil has caused many of our Christian brothers to flee their ancestral homes - an aspect of the tragedy in the Middle East all too often overlooked; and one which the policies of the Israeli government should more often be held accountable, but is not.  May the Lord God have mercy on us all.