This past Thursday, I attended “Thank G-d for Israel,” an event organized by Campus Bible Fellowship, a Christian group at my college. The group facilitated the event to express their support for the people and land of Israel. Though the speakers at this event don’t necessarily represent the extent of Christian views on Israel, the language, ideas, and feelings in their speeches provided a window for me to interrogate my own evolving stance towards Israel.
I wanted to go because the event guaranteed to be different from the host of other Israel offerings on campus, which have begun to feel a little stale. Also, who hasn’t heard the notion that Evangelical Christian support for Israel is guided by a hidden eschatological agenda? The Christians want, so the story goes, the Jews to return and establish a strong Israel because that is a necessary precursor for Jesus to return. What was this myth about and would it come out in their speeches, I wanted to see.
Their love for Israel was pure.
Unbridled by political angst or ambivalence, the Christian speakers stood by Israel no ifs, ands, or buts. I couldn’t recognize myself in their unrestrained love for Israel. Had Peter Beinart not gotten to them? Where was the political discontent? Were they not ‘troubled’ by either the situation in the West Bank or the gender discrimination at the Western Wall?
So many of the phrases which have come to dominate the Israel conversations in which I participate were absolutely nonexistent in their speeches. Palestinians, human rights, occupied territories, national sovereignty, two-state solution. None of these issues factored into the Christians’ support for Israel. The differences in our discourses stood for fundamentally distinct approaches to Israel.
I felt like my fourth grade self at the Israeli Day Parade – a time before I really conceived of thorny matters such as negotiations, terrorism, or concessions. Israel, as portrayed at “Thank G-d for Israel,” was an unadulterated land of milk, honey, and simplicity. The Jewish rights to the land – all of it – went unquestioned.
The highlight speech, for me, came from the dean of Baptist Bible Seminary. The minister had spent time in Israel, serving as an aerospace engineer for the IDF working on F-16 fighter jets. In some ways, his speech mimicked the standard (clichéd?) Hasbara dictums: Israel wants peace; Israel has no partner for peace; there will be peace when the Palestinians want peace. It also bore such trademarks as an extensive contrast between Jewish powerlessness during the Holocaust and modern Israeli strength.
Still, in other ways, the minister’s address was a change in course from stale formulas. I appreciated hearing a different voice as he outlined his motivations for supporting Israel from an explicitly Evangelical perspective. He spoke clearly and articulated his views on the theological, political, and historical justifications. He closed with this remarkable quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “To abandon the land would make a mockery of all our longings, prayers, and commitments. To abandon the land would be to repudiate the Bible.”
At times, it wasn’t clear if the speakers were expressing their love for Israel the state, or just Jews more generally. The State of Israel, in their talks, seemed to exist as a natural extension of the Jewish people. Or, perhaps it was that the State functioned as a synonym for the Jews. In one speaker’s words, the event was called to recognize “the blessings emanating from Israel and the Jewish people.”
The Campus Bible Fellowship vice president, a nice girl in my 17th Century Brit-Lit class, expressed the Jewish people-Israel linkage well. She traced her love of Israel back to a Christmas, years ago, when she gifted her boyfriend an Israeli flag. Now she just loves the Jewish people so much! “You are, after all,” she professed, “God’s chosen people. And we are here to support you – because, no matter how hard I try, I could never become a Jew.” Well that’s not exactly true, I whispered to the girl sitting next to me.
The Baptist minister was careful to point out that we Jews are, in fact, still the chosen people. I wasn’t positive how this reconciled with his faith. Still, throughout the evening, nothing triggered any suspicions of an end-of-the-world Zionism, that is, a support for Israel based on beliefs that it will bring about the Rapture.
I recognize that the speakers at this “Thank G-d for Israel” event don’t stand for the array of Christian views. Still, their language, ideas, and feelings were valuable insofar as they pushed me to question my own evolving stance towards Israel.
Part of me envied the ways the Christians at this event looked at Israel with such straightforward support. Their love for Israel was uncomplicated, and that’s not to say uninformed or naïve. They simply knew what they believed and stuck with it, in no uncertain terms.
They forced me to consider what I’ve sacrificed as I’ve attempted to develop a more ‘nuanced’ view. I realized that in my pursuit of an open, honest, and sometimes critical stance I’ve abandoned the warm Zionism I used to feel. Is that a cost I am comfortable paying?
On the other hand, what have I gained by taking up a position which favors ambivalence over certainty? When a news items criticizes an Israeli move, say the construction of additional settlements, I’m much slower to attribute it to media bias against Israel. I’m increasingly willing to acknowledge that a lot of the issues in Israel, for instance gender discrimination and issues of religious pluralism, are in real lousy shape. These issues color my thoughts and leave me with great uncertainty.
At the end of the day, for now, the only thing I am left confident of is the value of staying ambivalent.