Why Christians (Should) Care about Zionism
Guest post by Dr. Anne Perez
Herzl Travel | Wiki Commons
Many Christians may not know about Zionism, but Zionists have certainly known about Christians. The visionary Theodor Herzl is considered the father of the Zionist movement – a cultural and political movement that began in the late 19th century advocating for a Jewish national homeland or state in the territories of the ancient Land of Israel. This Austrian secular Jewish journalist spent himself to pursue an internationally-recognized homeland for the Jewish people, establishing the Zionist Organization as a vehicle towards this goal. But when he momentously toured Jerusalem, he recoiled, reflecting that, “when I remember thee in days to come, O Jerusalem, it will not be with delight. The musty deposits of two thousand years of inhumanity, intolerance, and foulness lie in your reeking alleys. The one man who has been present here all this while, the lovable dreamer of Nazareth, has done nothing but help increase the hate.”
I remember when I first read the above-quoted passage from Herzl’s diary, I was stricken by his bitter aside on the “dreamer of Nazareth”. It was yet another reminder of how Herzl – like other European Jews of his era – experienced systematic social and political antisemitism, either through outright legal exclusion or as part of a constant low simmer (and then occasionally rolling to a boil) of prejudice against Jews, oftentimes done by Christians or in the name of Christianity. Years before Herzl embraced the Zionist cause, he had even considered a mass Jewish conversion to Catholicism as a mechanism to end the centuries-long alienation of Jews in Europe. The process of Emancipation – the introduction of economic, social, and educational equal rights for Jews in countries across Europe in the nineteenth century – was uneven, and in some places, political and even violent opposition to Jewish inclusion was intensifying at the turn of the twentieth century. Perhaps for that reason alone Christians would benefit from a clearer understanding of what Zionism is, how it developed, and its ongoing impact today. But even more than these early associations between Zionism and Christianity, there have been and continue to be many other ways Christianity and Zionism intersect, and I propose Christians therefore owe it to themselves as well as to those impacted by Zionism to obtain a basic familiarity with the history and perspectives surrounding it.
One of the major reasons that Christians should care about Zionism is because millions of Christians already do. “Christian Zionism” has existed since the inception of the Zionist movement, including both Christian support for “Jewish” Zionism (redundant as that term is), as well as forms of Zionism with specifically Christian content or theological rationale. The phenomenon of Christian Zionism is so vast that its analysis by scholars and pundits has created what historian Daniel Hummel has identified as somewhat of a “cottage industry”. There are varied and oftentimes overlapping motivations surrounding Christian Zionist beliefs and activism, rooted in theology, Biblical hermeneutics, humanitarian concerns, and/or geopolitical visions. Today Christian Zionist groups like Christians United for Israel, which reports as many as ten million members and hosts regular summits that assemble pastors, lay Christians, and Israeli officials, and facilitate lobbying campaigns with United States congresspeople and policymakers. The Day of Prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem links millions of Christians across 175 countries annually to lift Israel up in prayer. These are some of many of the ways a significant contingent of Christians support of Zionism; and I would argue that therefore all Christians would benefit from knowing more about the basis and impact of this.
Zionism matters not only for Christian Zionists, but for other Christians for whom Zionism has directly affected their lives, such as Jewish Israelis who believe in Jesus and Christian Palestinians. For both Jewish and Palestinian (as well as other Arab) believers in Jesus, perspectives on Zionism are generally filtered through the experiences they share with their compatriots. Many Jewish Israeli believers share the value of a Jewish nation state for their own national and cultural expression or even physical survival. But conversely, many Palestinian Christians have experienced Zionism as a threat to their own national and cultural expression or survival; Palestinian Christians were included among the 750,000 refugees from the 1948 war and establishment of Israel, and of those further displaced since Israel’s victory during its war with Egypt, Jordan and Syria in 1967. Palestinian Christian organizations like the ecumenical liberation theology group Sabeel and the evangelical Bethlehem Bible College have testified to Christians worldwide regarding the more damaging effects of Zionism on their communities – such as ongoing military occupation and Jewish civilian settlement of the Palestinian West Bank, the humanitarian impact on the closure of Gaza, and the disparities in funding, opportunities, and political representation for Palestinian Israeli citizens in Israel. Some groups like Musalaha (meaning “Reconciliation” in Arabic) and the drafters of the Larnaca Statement have sought to build bridges between Jewish and Palestinian believers. The complex interplay of experiences, challenges, and hopes among Jewish and Palestinian believers in Jesus with regard to nationalism, theology and even survival, make Zionism a pressing issue for these brothers and sisters in Christ.
Many other Christians may not place themselves in a Zionist camp but still consider engagement with Israel an important component of their spiritual development, particularly through tourism or pilgrimage to the Holy Land. These Christian visitors (who incidentally constitute a significant percentage of visitors to the country each year) may not understand how the modern state of Israel connects to the biblical context that draws them to it. Most Christians want the opportunity to see the topography and feel the climate of the scriptures in person, to provide a concrete frame of reference for the parables and travels of Jesus and of other events during which God entered human history in such unique ways. In absence of a time machine, however, Christian visitors must pursue this in a contemporary society, economy, and government. For the millions of Christians who visit Israel, a basic awareness of the history, values, and conflicts of the contemporary country does not only edify their own understanding of the region but helps us to be more considerate guests.
Finally another reason Christians should care about Zionism is because legacies of Christian antisemitism contributed to the rise of the Zionist movement, and antisemitism continues to reverberate in discussions regarding Zionism today. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) has offered a working definition of antisemitism adopted by governments and organizations worldwide, and has specifically included certain types of criticism of Zionism as expressions of antisemitism. Concurrently, the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, written and co-signed in large part as a response to IHRA’s definition, suggests that antisemitism and opposition to Zionism do not have a direct relationship; anti-Zionism is not inherently antisemitic, but offers ways to identify when and how antisemitism can operate in contexts of anti-Zionism. For signatories of the JDA and for other organizations who take issue with equating antisemitism and anti-Zionism, automatically subsuming criticism of Zionism into antisemitism creates more problems than it solves: if this equation does not accurately address the roots of antisemitism it can remain unchecked, especially during a steady rise of antisemitic incidents, and furthermore this equation can dismiss legitimate humanitarian concerns for Palestinians and other countries in the Middle East. Both phenomena – unchecked antisemitism and unchecked humanitarian crises among Palestinians – are dangerous. Christians therefore should understand something of Zionism if we are going to better understand antisemitism – a goal that we are arguably indebted to do, given the outsized role Christians, the Church, and aspects of Christian theology has played in its history and in some cases its contemporary manifestations (just in January 2023 a hate group projected a laser image of a cross with a swastika onto a high rise-building in Jacksonville, Florida, but less sensationally, we would unfortunately likely find antisemitic assumptions and prejudices within our own church congregations).
While millions of Christians already do care about Zionism for a variety of reasons, many others continue to have no concept of what Zionism is despite the role Christians have played within the Zionist movement, the role Christians have played in the antisemitism that contributed towards the formation of Zionism, or the popularity of Christian visits to the Jewish state that Zionism established. Reading about the impression Jerusalem made on Zionist founder Theodor Herzl and his visceral association between the suffering of his people and Jesus – the founder of our own faith and identity – was just one of many instances that prompted me to care in my initial journey as a (Christian) historian of Zionism. It is my hope that brothers and sisters in Christ who are not called to historical vocations will still care enough to learn more and apply this knowledge to their own outlooks and circles of influence.
Anne Perez is the author of Understanding Zionism: History and Perspectives (Fortress Press, 2023). She earned a PhD in History at the University of California, Davis and an MA in Theological Studies at Bethel Seminary San Diego (now Pacific Theological Seminary). Dr. Perez now lives and works in Alabama as an independent scholar, adjunct history instructor, and parent.