Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Is Israel Our 51st State?

My church has been in the throes of an Israel fixation for a couple of years now. One day we walked in and found an Israeli flag hanging in the foyer. Before long, the leadership team was organizing trips to the Holy Land complete with full media participation. Then came invitations to local Messianic Jews to speak, then a Jewish music festival, a Passover celebration, and as my bulletin from this past Sunday informs me, a Hanukkah celebration coming soon. What in the name of David Ben-Gurion is going on here?

Well, for one thing, our savior was Jewish and it is impossible to fully understand his life and teachings without an appreciation of that fact. Christians still read the Old Testament, read and believe it. The Old Testament speaks often of the Jewish people as God’s chosen ones. We are warned to come against those chosen people at our peril.

For hundreds of years Christians took those warnings to mean that we as Christians should not persecute Jews, but that we should honor them and treat them with respect and kindness. When the Jewish people were being massacred by the thousands at the hands of Hitlers’ Nazis, it was Christians who led the charge for their deliverance. In light of history’s record of terrible treatment of the Jewish people at the hands of the Christian church ( see; The Inquisition), we have naturally evolved towards a much more favorable view of the Jewish people, partially as a way of assuaging the guilt of our awful past. I understand and support that evolution.

But in 1948, with the establishment of the modern nation-state of Israel, something began to change in the Evangelical world. Suddenly, everything was about the “end-times”. Books were written, seminaries taught about it, and an endless stream of predictions about Armageddon began to dominate discourse about Israel. Now, support for and protection of God’s chosen people morphed into support and protection for the nation of Israel. This is not a distinction without a difference.

America has strategic interest that match the strategic interests of Israel, and accordingly, they are our ally. In the screwed up world of the middle east, Israel is the only country that even looks and feels like a modern state to me, so I understand why we support them strategically. But, our church needs to calm down with the over-the-top middle school crush-style devotion to Israel as if it is some sort of litmus test for biblical fidelity to the Jewish people.

For one thing, which Jewish people are we referring to? There are roughly 14 million Jews on the planet. Around 6 million of them live in Israel, or about the same number who live in America. So, there are more Jews who live and have citizenship outside of Israel than there are citizens of the state of Israel. So, which Jews do we claim to support? And, exactly how far does this support and devotion for Israel go? Are we to have a death wish in this matter? Contrary to some of the rhetoric I hear from the pulpit of my church, Israel is not our 51st state. It is a modern, fully functioning nation, with its own strategic interests. Do you think for a minute that Benjamin Netanyahu wouldn’t stab this nation in the back if he thought it would advance Israel’s interests? Sure he would, and he would be right to do so, a feckless and ineffective leader if he did not. Right now, our interests are aligned, but when they diverge, he will fully advance his agenda, and we will advance ours. A little clear eyed realism would go a long way towards disabusing us of the silly notion that what’s good for Israel will always be good for the United States. The Jewish people and the State of Israel are not and have never been interchangeable terms.

So, knock it off with the Hanukkah celebrations, and while you’re at it, take the Israeli flag out of the foyer. I would hate for someone from a Muslim background to walk into our church to investigate Jesus and mistakenly think he had stumbled into the Jewish Community center.