The contradiction at the heart of Christian Zionism

Christians march in an annual parade during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot in Jerusalem.Reuters

A Christian Zionist organisation is planning an interfaith Feast of Tabernacles conference which has drawn the wrath of Israel's Chief Rabbinate.

A statement signed by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef reads: "We have learned that missionary elements [working on behalf] of the Christian Embassy in Jerusalem are organizing a large conference during the Sukkot holiday. Some of this organization's goals are to convert Jews [to Christianity]."

The statement continues: "Even though it may be that the conference organizers are friends to the State of Israel, in practice the event constitutes a spiritual danger and undermines [the state's] Jewish character."

Here's the contradiction at the heart of Christian Zionism, or much of it, at least.

Christian Zionists have a genuine theological commitment to the State of Israel, whose existence is regarded as a fulfilment of prophecy, and a desire to see the safety and prosperity of Jewish people. There's often a sharp awareness of how Christians have treated Jews in the past and a desire to make up for it, as far as possible.

But most of them believe that God's desire for Jews is that they become Christians, and that – not surprisingly – is a problem for Jews.

It has to be said that most Christian Zionists are more nuanced in how they approach proselytism. Not all of them talk about Jews becoming Christians; they are to become Messianic believers, or accept that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. Furthermore, they are publicly wary about targeting Jews for conversion. One of the most influential Christian Zionist organisations in the US is John Hagee's Christians United for Israel (CUFI). In a 2010 article for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Hagee wrote: "Like all people of faith, we Christians firmly believe that our religion is true. But we also believe in religious freedom and have enormous respect for the Jewish faith. The first rule adopted by Christians United for Israel was that there would be no proselytizing at our events. CUFI exists only to honor and support the Jewish people, never to convert them."

However, whether Hagee thinks that Jews need to repent and turn to Christ is not quite as clear-cut as the quote suggests. He's also said that he rejects the so-called 'Dual Covenant' theology, which teaches that Gentiles are saved by faith in Christ and Jews by keeping the Torah. It seems more likely that he has simply detached proselytism from CUFI's agenda.

What about the Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, whose plans for an interfaith gathering have – not for the first time – touched a raw nerve in Israel's religious establishment? A position statement by its Executive Director Emeritus, Malcolm Hedding, says that the fact that Israel does not comprise all its historic territory is because of its "spiritual condition". He writes: "As a nation, Israel remains in rebellion against Jesus of Nazareth and this factor has more to do with her present struggle than we are prepared to admit!...Jesus is a Jewish Messiah and the only way of salvation."

It is undoubtedly true that ICEJ doesn't see its prayer gatherings as proselytism. But it's also true that it shares the normal evangelical belief that salvation is through Christ alone. Conversion might not be part of the strategy of Christian Zionist organisations – they would lose far too much credibility when it came to relating to Jewish partners if it were – but it's still an integral part of their theology.

So for evangelical Christian Zionists – which is most of them – there are fundamental questions about their relationship to Jews which are not really resolvable to the satisfaction of both sides. Jews are glad to be supported unconditionally, as Christian Zionists do, but at the same time they are deeply wary of their hidden agenda. An article on Christian Zionism in the Jewish Post is headlined 'Israel's Most Hated Friend'. However, in a telling conclusion, author Alana Goodman concludes: "Christian Zionists may have some faults, but we can't waste time waiting for a 'perfect' friend of Israel to come along. There are too many people who hate the Jews unconditionally, and not nearly enough who love us the same way."

For some, this contradiction at the heart of Christian Zionism is only one of its flaws. Critics see it as based on a mistaken reading of Scripture and contributing to the continued impasse between Israel and Palestine. While not all Christian Zionists are politically active, some take very definite positions. Pat Robertson in a 700 Club broadcast said that the incapacitating stroke suffered by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was because he was "dividing God's land" (he had enforced the withdrawal of Jewish settlers from Gaza). The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was for the same reason: "For any prime minister of Israel who decides he going carve it up and give it away, God says, 'No. This is mine.'"

In a part of the world where everything is political, theological support has a way of morphing into something else. Recent opposition to President Obama's hard-won agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons drew heavily on the perceived threat to Israel of a bad deal. The evangelical constituency on which many Republican politicians rely was vocal in its criticism of the President, lending its weight to the opposition.

Christian Zionism, particularly in its political form, has far more traction in the US than in the UK – and among Christians in the Holy Land, who see the effects of a narrow religious nationalism daily, it has none at all. In 2006 senior Palestinian Christian leaders from the Roman Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Anglican and Evangelical Lutheran Churches issued the Jerusalem Declaration on Christian Zionism, describing it as a "false teaching that corrupts the biblical message of love, justice, and reconciliation". It does not oppose Zionism as such, but stresses that Jews and Palestinians should be able to live together, saying: "We call upon all people to reject the narrow world view of Christian Zionism and other ideologies that privilege one people at the expense of others."

Here, too, is a dilemma for Christian Zionists: how can they express whole-hearted support for Israel and at the same time hear the voices of those for whom this support carries a very different message?

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