This is part twelve of Professor Paul Merkley’s series, “The Isolation of Israel.” Access to the previous installments can be found by clicking on the following links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3,Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, and Part 11.
Peril and Opportunity for Israel in recent political developments
In this series of essays, I have identified a variety of forces that have entered the world since the advent of the so-called Arab Spring — all of which, I have argued, have magnified the isolation of Israel. I see opportunity as well as peril for Israel in this increased isolation.
While the general effect of recent events has been to reduce the ability of Arab governments to govern and therewith tentatively reduced their ability to wage war against Israel, the very possibility of anarchy throughout the region might, on the other hand, inspire throughout the Arab world the will for inclusive unity. Arab history provides many examples of the emergence in something like present conditions of some charismatic individual – Abdul Gamal Nasser of Egypt will serve as the original of this recurring type — who finds a way to use the moment to awaken the Arab nations to realization of the full advantage of their great numbers and to act as one in performance of the most noble task that Allah offers to mankind – the elimination of the Jewish race. This task, Arab leaders say in chorus, is clearly mandated in the Qur’an and other recorded words of the Prophet. The question for us outsiders is not (as some commentators in our midst assume) whether this exegesis is correct – that is, whether the Qur’an and the Hadithahreally do say these things — but whether the people believe that they do. And clearly they do so believe – today, more than ever.
The cry to drive out the Jews is becoming louder on “the Arab street.” It would therefore be wrong to imagine that Israel is more secure this year than two years ago — even though Iran is clearly being cut down to size, even though Egypt is immobilized by poverty, even though King Abdullah of Jordan is facing increasing challenge in the streets, and even though Syria is going over the cliff.
World opinion about Israel
And yet I believe that there exists a greater threat to the existence of the Jewish state and the Jewish people than the combined force of Arab and Muslim hostility. The principal manifestations of this greater threat are to be found right here, in our world, not in the Middle East or anywhere else. I speak of the distressing growth of anti-Zionist rhetoric among western thinkers and politicians, leaders of opinion, and most particularly among leaders of the churches.
So far in her six decades and more of life, the greatest advantage that the State of Israel has enjoyed in the struggle with her eternal enemies has been the basic goodwill towards Jews and respect for the history and traditions of Israel that currently characterize public opinion. This advantage, I believe, derives ultimately from our religious tradition, and more specifically from the prestige of the Bible. Should that advantage be lost – should the basic respect towards Israel and the Jews that currently informs our public policies be overtaken by distrust and hostility, our governments would waste no time before abandoning the burden of defending Israel against the mindless, massive anti-Zionist campaign that goes on relentlessly at the UN and in the best journalistic and academic circles in the Western world.
Today, spokesmen for Islam are demanding and increasingly achieving the right to advance Islamic teaching and tradition in the public arena and to make secure in public law essential details of the peculiar culture that they say derives from that tradition. Increasingly, they demand that our government’s purposes and policies withstand the test of examination in the light of the truths of Islam. Meanwhile, the Judeo-Christian tradition has simply been shut out of public discourse. By contrast, in 1947, when the decision was taken to allow a State of Israel to come into the world, the public and most of the respected shapers of public opinion were expressing confidence that the larger values and purposes of our Judeo-Christian tradition could not be in contradiction of the purposes and values of the best philosophy and the best science. The best way of achieving sound policies in any area of life, it could be argued openly in those days, was to consult the Judeo-Christian tradition – to listen to the accredited leaders of the churches and the synagogues and to the best of the intellectuals who came from that tradition.
Those days are gone.
The foreign policies of governments stand upon their political leaders’ confidence that they have better ways than the rest of us do of understanding the will of the people. For expression of the will of the people in most matters they go nowadays to opinion polls. There, for the time being at least, a substantial advantage is regularly to be found for Israel. But politicians also go to the leaders of organizations that claim to represent the opinion of significant groups in wholesale terms. When it comes to wholesale expression of “Christian opinion” policy makers look to the leaders of the denominations and to interdenominational organizations. In the matter before us, they look to the World Council of Churches, the leaders of the many denominations, the many National Councils of Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, to the many NGOs that claim to be carrying out benevolent purposes; they go to a short list of renowned preachers; and they look to journals which advertise themselves as journals of Christian opinion.
What these governmental policy-makers do not fully appreciate – being, for the most part, not active members of any church whatever – is that there has been for forty years or so a growing gap between opinion held among the leadership, the elites, of these organizations and their laity. This gap is quickly exposed when denominational meetings turn to resolutions on matters of “social policy” – such as abortion, definition of marriage, and so on.
During the last sixty years or so, beginning roughly at the end of the Eisenhower Years, leaders of the churches and clergy generally have lost their claim to a corner on the public square. As the public philosophy has become secularized, the views of religious spokesmen are not wanted by governments nor by editorialists and certainly not by academics. Over this time, “religious leaders” have struggled ceaselessly to get themselves taken seriously again.
“Christian opinion” is simply not wanted by policy makers. What is wanted is the best opinion of mankind. To be taken seriously as a voice for mankind, it is indispensable to be in step with global opinion. And global opinion, as every schoolchild knows, is expressed pre-eminently at the United Nations. Related to this consideration is the fact that opinions on all matters must be expressed in the specialized vocabulary that has developed in universities – the best universities, that is, not the bible colleges.
At this level of things, elites in the churches have become comfortable exchanging views with elites in other sectors of public life – with academically-certified critics of society, the people who write the editorials, with the people who head up the unions and the professional organizations.
The Zionist moment (1946-1948)
The State of Israel would not have come into the world in the first place had not the great majority of members of the churches of the West been convinced of moral rightness of the Zionist argument – at a time when ordinary people were still struggling to absorb the previously unimagined reality of the Holocaust, and while a couple of hundred thousand Jews were in displaced persons camps or floating over Mediterranean water without hope of being accepted into the national life of any Christian people. Few clergymen were comfortable articulating the anti-Zionist argument in this context.
The Zionists won their contest for popular support in 1947 in large part because the distinctively biblical foundation of the Zionist argument resonated well at that hour, even with non-believers. It was a time for large utopian visions. Political philosophers and moralists of all stripes believed that Hitler’s defeat had made possible the realization of all the great idealist hopes, ranging from universal human self-government, through the banishment of disease, universal literacy, even, some said, a universal language (Esperanto) — all the many good things bound up in Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms program.
Zionism certainly met the requirement of an idealistic program. The notion of Restoring the Jews to the Land of Israel resonated well at a time when the statesmen were talking boldly about building a new world and tearing out the darkest pages of the history books. It was generally believed in that hour of greatest danger for the Jews and for Judaism that restoration of the Jews to the land of Israel was coming about as the end result of a long process clearly anticipated in the prophetic books of the Old Testament and authorized by Christ as well as by the apostles and the leaders of the Early Church. The creation of a Jewish state met the requirement of a true final solution to the Jewish problem, one that acknowledged the right and the ability of Jews to govern themselves as a nation among other nations. (Not incidentally, it would also have the benefit of obviating problems anticipated in many democratic jurisdictions, including Canada, to follow upon massive immigration of European Jews to our shores.)
Anti-Zionism in the churches today
Today, Church leaders are far from united on the reading of history that satisfied most of them in 1947. Equally, they are divided over the theology that sustained that reading. Church leaders do not respond well today to the suggestion that there was anything idealistic or noble about the Zionist solution which is described in most university textbooks on history today as an imperialistic maneuver. In fact, the possibility ofreconsidering the decisions that the UN General Assembly took on November 29 1947 is on the lips of a growing number of church leaders. In large part, this reversal is owing to the powerful spirit of anti-Zionism operating in intellectual circles in which church leaders generally move.
The clearly-expressed goal of anti-Zionist leaders in the churches today is to turn “decent opinion” as thoroughly against Zionism as it wasfor it in 1947. This is the key to understanding the ruthlessly illogical tactic of denunciation of Israel as an “apartheid state.” An essential step towards achieving the isolation of Israel from the decent opinion is to deprive Israel and the Jews of the advantage they had in Christian opinion generally at the time of the Partition Debate in 1947, when most Christians responded positively to the image of the Jews as the heirs of Abraham, the People of God.
The instinct of governments to distance themselves morally fromIsrael has already begun to take hold in Europe. This is reflected in the pattern of quick visits of discovery to Ramallah and to the Palestinian refugee camps undertaken by European politicians and by European churchmen and the growing pro-Palestinian bias in policy statements of the EU. There are alarming signs that something similar is happening in strategic sectors of opinion in the USA, Canada and Great Britain.
It is in this light, therefore, that I will turn in the last of these essays on the Isolation of Israel to the theme of vilification of Israel in the Churches today.