two state solution

Christian Zionism, Evangelicals, and Israel

Deal W. Hudson
Published April 30, 2009

Rev. Stephen Sizer probably knows more about Christian Zionism than anyone in the world. At least, it seemed that way as we sat in the coffee shop at a Border’s bookstore in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Reverend Sizer has been an Anglican priest for 30 years, serving a parish in the UK with the quaint name of Christ Church Virginia Water.

Two of Reverend Sizer’s books, Christian Zionism (2004) and Zion’s Christian Soldiers (2007) are considered indispensible for understanding the steadfast support of U.S. Evangelicals for Israel. On the last leg of a speaking tour, Reverend Sizer was gracious enough to speak with me about the reasons why Evangelicals have become such a strong political lobby for Israel.

Reverend Sizer started the story with the “Six-Day War” of 1967, when Israel took occupation of East Jerusalem, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza strip. “Many leading Evangelicals, such as L. Nelson Bell, the father-in-law of Billy Graham, welcomed that war as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy,” he said. In Christianity Today, Bell wrote, “That for the first time in more than 2,000 years Jerusalem is now completely in the hands of the Jews, gives the student of the Bible a thrill and a renewed faith in the accuracy and validity of the Bible.”

Israeli politicians, Reverend Sizer went on, seeing the opportunity for strengthening U.S. support, started courting leading Evangelicals like Jerry Falwell, Pat Boone, Anita Bryant, and Pat Robertson. Out of gratitude for his public support, the Israeli government gave Falwell the gift of a Lear jet for his personal travel. And with the election of the Evangelical Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Ronald Reagan in 1980, the strong pro-Israel stand found its way into the White House.

The 1967 war was followed in 1970 by Billy Graham’s feature-length film His Land and the publication of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, the best-known apologia of Christian Zionism. The following year, Dr. Carl F. H. Henry organized the Jerusalem Conference of Biblical Prophecy, attended by 1,500 delegates from 52 nations. Welcomed by Prime Minister Ben Gurion, many of the speakers proclaimed that Israeli control over Jerusalem was an irrefutable sign that God’s final “dispensation” had begun. For Reverend Sizer, the theology of “dispensationalism” among Evangelicals is what best explains the rise in Evangelical support for Israel since the 1967 war. (Dispensationalist theology is taught in the notes of the highly influential Scofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909.)

Dispensationalism comes in various forms, but the common thread is a division of biblical history into discreet “dispensations,” culminating in a final dispensation through which God will deal directly with the Jews when Israel has been reestablished. The Church, in other words, is distinguished from Israel, which is responding to a distinctive set of God’s promises. Reverend Sizer summarized it this way: “God has a separate plan for the Jews – there are two covenants, two people, and two faiths.”

Since Christ will not come to earth to establish His kingdom, and the Jews cannot be saved, Israel must be allowed to settle on the land given to the Jews by God. According to Reverend Sizer, this is the reason Evangelicals not only support the settlements on the West Bank but also help to finance them. Reverend Sizer thinks part of the reason President Carter lost the support of Evangelicals was because he began to vacillate on the settlements.

Reverend Sizer went on to explain that there were, of course, historical forces at work in forging the relationship between the United States and Israel. Until 1980, the world was split into two factions, communism and democracy, and “Israel was seen as the bastion of democracy in the Middle East, as our friend. As communism declined, Islam became the enemy, and the U.S. once again needed Israel on its side.”

Reverend Sizer disagrees with the dispensationalist view of Biblical history, as you discover in Zion’s Christian Soldiers, but he is not interested in waging a theological war with America’s Evangelical community. A gentle man with a ready smile, he wants to meet with Evangelical leaders, so that “we can all be made more aware of our working assumptions.” When I got together with him, Reverend Sizer had just spoken with a group of several hundred Evangelicals in South Carolina. “It was a delightful meeting, no one got exercised – it was a constructive conversation.”

Most Catholics live in a world well apart from discussions of dispensationalism, the Second Coming, and the role of Israel in the final days. But, as I learned from Reverend Sizer, these are not merely in-house theological concerns belonging to our Evangelical brethren; they are assumptions that have had – and will have – a powerful influence on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and especially in negotiations between Israel and Palestine.

A two-state solution means, from the dispensationalist viewpoint, that Israel would be denied its existence on all the land bestowed by God. That’s why Pat Robertson protested so strongly against Ariel Sharon’s removal of the settlements from the Gaza strip, and later said Sharon’s subsequent coma and death were the result of God’s wrath. Robertson’s outburst was unseemly and disturbed the Israelis, but it was evidence of the deeply held convictions in the Evangelical community that Israel must never give up any of the land gained in the 1967 war.

Remember the Palestinians

Deal W. Hudson
Published May 3, 2010

The Holy Land is a place of stories. Everyone has a story about Israel and the occupied territory called Palestine by those who live there. Many of the events are drenched in blood – often that of relatives present or past – which is why, when story is pitted against story, death against death, little progress is ever made.

Even visitors have their stories – not about death but about their encounters with Palestinians and Israelis, who sadly become the occupied and the occupier when you arrive there. For the past 43 years, Israel has exercised a military occupation over much of what we call the Holy Land. When visitors take the time to learn about the lives on both sides of the walls, barriers, fences, roads, and settlements that now separate the peoples, their stories will change – just as mine did.

Like most Americans, when I went to the Holy Land for the first time in 2004, I considered Israel our best friend, ally, and the only democratic nation in the Middle East. And, as a Christian, I’ve always felt a special affinity with the Jews; the horrors of the Holocaust were enough for me to justify the re-founding of the nation of Israel after World War II.

I still believe all these things, but without the naïveté that tells the story as if it were the ‘good guys versus bad guys.’ There are no white hats here, except for those mostly unknown individuals on both sides who refuse to yield to the hate that pits “Arab” vs. “Jew.”

I’ve been to the Holy Land four times in the past six years. I’m certainly no expert, though much of my time there was spent talking to those who were, including Israeli generals, journalists, rabbis, activists, and members of the government. On the Palestinian side, I’ve met with the present president and prime minister, members of the Palestinian administration, mayors of towns on the West Bank, priests, and activists. I’ve also had the privilege each visit of meeting with the patriarch, the papal nuncio, and the head of the Franciscan Custos. (On two of my trips, I was also blessed to have the late Robert Novak and his wife Geraldine in my small group.)

Most Americans know very little about Israel, apart from the typical boosterism they read and hear in the media, and those who go on tours are usually kept away from the occupied territory. Thus, the average American knows even less about life among the Christians and Muslims in the occupied territory called Palestine, a land encompassing places like West Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, Hebron, Nablus, Ramallah, and, of course, the rubble-strewn Gaza strip.

Israel has occupied this territory since the Six-Day War in 1967. It withdrew from the Sinai in 1982 as part of the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt, and technically withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but it remains the de facto occupying power by virtue of its military lockdown of Gaza’s borders. A limited degree of rule was granted to the Palestinian National Authority over the occupied territories in 1994 by the Oslo Accords.

As I consider how my attitude toward the Israel-Palestine conflict changed, the reasons all arise from the fact that Palestinian lives and property are completely subject to the designs of the Israeli government and the force of the Israeli military. There is no rule of law in the occupied territory – men and women are taken into custody in the middle of the night, houses and land are confiscated, centuries-old olive groves are cut to the ground.

Slowly, little by little, the fabric of life – knit over centuries in these cities and villages – is being torn apart. When they’re old enough, the children leave for other parts of the world, and their parents don’t blame them. Business and agriculture suffer, especially as the water resources are gobbled up by the burgeoning Israeli settlements, and the freedom of movement is increasingly restricted.

During Holy Week in 2004, I saw how the Israeli tractors dug huge trenches along the Mount of Olives to build their “safety fence.” The fact that this property belonged to convents, monasteries, and Catholic schools didn’t matter – one sister who objected to the unannounced early morning digging on convent property was told to “get back inside” with a gun pointed in her face.

If any kind of solution is to be found, Israel must respect all people’s rights, including Christians, Muslims, and Jews. This is no zero-sum game; there will be two winners or two losers.

The respect for rights needs to be observed even in the face of danger, such as the rocket bombings of Sderot that led to Israel launching daily bombing attacks on Gaza from December 27, 2009, to January 18. Yes, the citizens of Sderot had every right to be protected, but at the cost of 762 Palestinian non-combatants’ lives, including over 300 children? This was the nadir of the United States’ hands-off attitude toward Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Israel has legitimate security interests – the wave of suicide bombings that led to the 2002 Intifada fundamentally changed the relationship with Palestine. But some of Israel’s “security” initiatives – like the barrier around Bethlehem – seem to be more about stealing land for settlements.

The fact is, there will be no peace in the Holy Land until the occupation ends. The chances of this have gotten worse rather than better since my first visit. Not only are Israel and Palestine at an impasse, they are approaching another boiling point.

Many Israelis believe it’s in their best interest to seek a two-state solution and end the occupation, and many Palestinians know that further radicalization of Islam will only ensure the occupation will last for years to come. Therein lies the only hope the region really has – that new leadership will emerge on both sides, tired of the conflict and ready to put aside old stories of violence and loss in favor of something new.

Give the Two-State Solution Another Look

Deal Hudson
Published August 30, 2010

Direct peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine will resume on September 2 in Washington, D.C. The announcement of the talks has been greeted with a polite but skeptical nod from the media and a rolling of the eyes from experts in the realpolitik of international affairs.

The assumption behind these dismissals is that peace talks have become ritualized face-saving gestures for all parties concerned – Israel, Palestine, and the United States – but serve as no more than a way of maintaining the status quo in the Middle East.

No doubt that all three countries have political factions that would strongly oppose any agreement containing concessions that, in their eyes, gave away too much or too little in land, water, or political autonomy.

In other words, the received wisdom on the state of play between Israel and Palestine is that a standoff exists, and the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is going to continue far into the future. The standoff suits not only Israel and Palestine but the other Muslim countries of the Middle East who, for reasons of their own self-interest, have distanced themselves from the Palestinians.

The facts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are easily arranged to fit this scenario: Too much history, and too much blood, creating too many ideologically aligned factions always ready to fight rather than seek a solution through compromise.

During time spent in the region over the past six years, I’ve met enough people of goodwill, on both sides, to have some hope that the political deadlock will one day be broken, a two-state solution will be found, and both Israelis and Palestinians will be freed from the militarized, interlocking existence they have been living since 1967.

Israelis are increasingly concerned about the impact on their national character of maintaining the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. Generations of Israeli men and women have fulfilled their required military service at checkpoints, security barriers, and through the various uprisings (intifadas). Israelis are asking whether this service is coarsening their moral outlook, encouraging an oppressor mentality. The bombardment and invasion of Gaza at the end of 2008 cost Israel’s international standing dearly. Zionist immigration has been steadily dropping since 2000 – perhaps due to the perception by the world’s Jews that Israel has been made a less than desirable place to live.

Palestinians, especially those in walled cities like Bethlehem, have children who have never seen the Mediterranean Sea that lies only a few miles to the east. Unable to secure travel visas, they have lost touch with relatives who live only a few miles away, on the other side of the local barrier and checkpoint. The economy has become increasingly dependent on foreign aid, since business can hardly prosper where every road is blocked with a checkpoint that may or may not be open when you get there, and if you can obtain a visa.

Palestinian young people, especially those who travel abroad for college, are choosing to live elsewhere. The decline in the Christian presence on the West Bank has much less to do with Muslim hostility than loss of economic opportunity.

In a meeting with a retired Israeli general a few weeks ago in Tel Aviv, I asked him whether a two-state solution was still possible, given the fact that Israel would lose its military presence in a land where terrorists have vowed its destruction. His answered surprised me, along with all those in the room: “The time will never be perfect for negotiations, so we must do something now, and figure out how to make it work.”

The general’s attitude is echoed by many of the leaders I’ve talked to in recent years from both Israel and Palestine. But this leadership will have to figure out a way to control or neutralize their countrymen who would rather take up arms than give up any land or settlements. However, there are also many who simply want to end the madness.

Both sides have agreed to a one-year deadline to resolve the basic issues in the way of an agreement. The issues are many, but the most contentious include the drawing of borders, the status of Jerusalem, the Palestine military, the Jewish settlers – now numbering 500,000 on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem – and the “right of return.” The last of these, I am told, could be the deal-breaker, but a modest compromise solution has been floated that might satisfy both President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu (but could cause them both complications at home).

It’s been widely reported that the United States used its muscle bringing about these talks and marked “a rare success for U.S. diplomacy in the region.” The presence of Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, and King Abdullah of Jordan, also invited to the talks, will provide the opportunity to gather much-needed regional support for any progress made during initial negotiations.

There are many wild cards that could end the negotiations abruptly, not the least of which is a newly nuclearized Iran. Thus far, Israel has not sent its air force – perhaps the best in the world – to take out Iran’s nuclear reactor, as many expected. Perhaps this is a sign that Netanyahu is willing to give the peace talks a chance. Abbas, it can be hoped, appreciates Israel’s restraint and will arrive on September 2 determined to take advantage of what may be the last chance for a Palestinian state.