Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin writes in Religion News criticizing the Israeli Ministry of Education for earmarking money for a youth biblical leadership program in the West Bank developed and lead by evangelical Christians. To put it simply, the Israeli government is giving money to evangelical Christians to run a summer camp for Jewish youth on biblical leadership in the occupied Palestinian territories. (Let the absolute bizarro nature of that statement sink in for a moment.)
In the piece Rabbi Salkin contrasts the key differences between the mainstream exegetical understanding of the Bible within both Judaism and Christianity. He makes a number of theological arguments from a mainstream Jewish perspective as to why this political move is theologically suspect. As he correctly notes, an evangelical Christian view of "Biblical leadership" is going to (surprise!) be based on evangelical Protestant Christian theology as opposed to a Jewish theological understanding of what constitutes genuine Biblical leadership. Flatly stated, the Israeli government is paying evangelical Christians to under a cover of "Biblical leadership" to covertly convert Jewish youth into, if not outright Christianity, a Christianized Judaism. Actually an evangelical Christianized Judaism.
So far as they go Rabbi Salkin's points are all valid, but then he goes on to say that the reason this policy is happening is a simplistic cynical calculation on the part of the hard right Israeli government. At this point his analysis falls apart I believe.
Stories like this one to me are emblematic of the high weirdness of our times, of the breakdown of traditional worldviews, and the bizarre intermixing and alliances between all kinds of strange bedfellows. It’s this larger movement globally that liberals (like Rabbi Salkin) are really missing at this crucial moment and therefore are unable to mount a creative, powerful response.
A significant portion of the high weirdness of our times is the deeply apocalyptic nature of the present. In this specific instance, what I think Rabbi Salkin misses is precisely the inherent apocalypticism and why there is a much deeper logic at play than simple cynical theological realpolitik.
This piece endeavors to explore that apocalyptic tie-in.
Since we’re about to explore the mother of all internet flame war topics let me preface this by stating unequivocally that I’m opposed to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank (though I was also opposed to their unilateral withdrawal from Gaza). It’s worth mentioning however that my opposition to the occupation is pretty well meaningless given the facts on the ground. In other words, if the two state solution ever had a legitimate chance (a seriously open question) it certainly does not any longer. The reality is that the Palestinians are not ever going to gain a state. They will be a stateless people. At this point that line has been crossed and there’s no turning back. Meanwhile liberals still talk about some kind of Two State Solution. The only technical solution at this point is a binational state which practically I think is a total non-starter.
This piece is not about how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, as I think it’s already been “solved” (or rather dissolved). That is, the Palestinians lost. My "solution" to the Palestinian question is basically to move all the Palestinians to Montana or Wyoming. In this scenario, Palestinians would literally be given a state. That’s obviously an absurd proposition but unfortunately at this point it seems more rational than still holding out some vain hope for a Two State agreement.
This piece is much more about the worldview and religious evolution (or arguably devolution) that has occurred that has caused this situation to come to pass—a situation intriguingly represented by this story of the Israeli government sponsoring an evangelical Christian-led biblical camp for Jewish youth in the occupied territories.
To get a sense of that (d)evolution we need to set some context.
Zionism and Christianity are the two main branches of apocalyptic messianic ancient Judaism. They branch out in very distinct directions but ultimately are linked to the same tree.
Christianity is a form of apocalyptic Jewish messianism most clearly. Jesus was an itinerant healer, exorcist, and teacher advocating for the renewal of the Jewish people. Jesus saw himself as a new Jacob (Israel) with The Twelve, his 12 “sons”. Jesus began as a disciple of John the Baptist—himself a very apocalyptic character. Jesus spoke of the Kingdom (or Reign) of God on earth and that this reign will be instituted by The One Like The Son of Man—an image from the apocalyptic Book of Daniel. It’s a bit ambiguous as to whether Jesus identified himself as the Son of Man or rather as the Messenger of the Son of Man. Either way, the Human One, the Son of the Ancient of Days (God the Father in Christian language), has come to restore the people of Israel, establish justice and peace, heal strife. This "One Like The Son of Man" is The Christ or Anointed One. Jesus also very directly criticized the ruling priestly elite in Jerusalem as sell outs to the Romans for which he was executed.
As Jesus’ disciples began to claim to have experiences of Jesus’ resurrected and ascended presence they began to proclaim Jesus the Christ (The Messiah, Anointed One). The text later to be known as The New Testament is a re-writing of the Law and the Prophets with Jesus inserted in the place of The Redeemer of Israel, Adonai Elohim—a point strangely even a Gnostic Jew like Harold Bloom realized but which seems to confuse both religions’ theologians.
Contrary to ludicrous claims that this theological turn was a pagan insertion made by Paul or that Jesus was a Roman psychological operation, this theological form of Judaism has roots much farther back than Jesus, perhaps since at least The First Temple period (if not even earlier). What came to be known as Christianity, in other words, is a completely Jewish movement and theology. (For more on this notion see the seminal work of Margaret Barker.)
In apocalyptic messianic Judaism there is an Ancient One, the most High God (El Elyon) who is the progenitor of a series of divine beings known collectively as The Elohim, note the plural there (gods). Each nation or people group on earth had a god, i.e. one of the Elohim assigned to them. For the people of Israel it was Adonai Elohim (or Yahweh Elohim). This god is alternatively known as The Redeemer of Israel, the god of Israel, or The Lord of Hosts (hosts being angels). This Redeemer or Lord of the Hosts was seen embodied in very specific ways: The High Priest, The King, The Prophet, even the people as a whole.
“The Lord (god of Israel) said to my lord (the king/messiah) sit on my throne…”
Please note in this theology Jerusalem, and especially Mt. Zion, was described as The Mother of the Messiah, associated very directly with Lady Wisdom (in Kabbalah what is called The Shekinah). The Temple itself was seen as the footstool of the Lord—the house for the Lord’s feet. That is the Temple became the abode of the transcendent Lord made immanent in creation.
Christianity took this apocalyptic Jewish framework and eventually would move it outside the lands of The Galilee, even Israel as a whole, traveling further into the wider Roman world. After the destruction of the Temple—and especially after the complete destruction of Israel proper in the Second Jewish Revolt—Jerusalem became for Christianity the spiritual Jerusalem described in the final vision of the Book of Revelation. Jesus’ mother Mary also took on much of the symbolism associated with Mt. Zion as mother of the messiah. In other words, Christianity took on the entirety of that strain of apocalyptic Jewish messianism but argued that it had already been fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Christians didn’t need the specific literal land of Mt. Zion to house the Lord as the Lord was housed first in the body of Jesus of Nazareth and then through the Holy Spirit in the bodies (aka the temples) of all believers, whom Paul called the body (the temple) of Christ.
Judaism, in contrast, from the first few centuries of the common era became dominated by the Rabbinic movement which defined itself—in part—in reaction to Christianity and to apocalyptic messianism more generally. Moreover, as the Roman Empire became officially Christianized, Judaism lost out as an evangelizing religion which it had been prior to Christian dominance in the Mediterranean. Consequently Judaism became a minority religion under other imperial lands, mostly Christian and later Islamic, becoming more self-contained and thereby non-evangelizing.
The Rabbis carried Judaism for nearly two thousand years through exile, persecution, and ghettoization. Almost two thousand years later Zionism arose as the newest evolution and change within the Jewish religion. Zionism as a spiritual and religious movement within Judaism can be traced to a figure like Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (late 19th, early 20th century). The most dominant strain of Zionism, however, particularly the strain that was most successful in bringing about the creation of the state of Israel (think Theodore Herzel) was a more secular, socialist-inspired Zionism. Which makes sense given that Marx himself was a secular Jew whose vision of a communist state and a predestined end to history was a secularized version of Jewish apocalyptic thought—in particular The Jubilee.
What Zionists added to Marx’s secularized Jewish utopia, or rather brought back, was the apocalyptic element of the land of Israel itself, which Christianity of course had spiritualized out of literal value.
Zionism, as a left-leaning secularist quasi-religious movement, has largely fallen away as an orientating philosophy and worldview for worldwide Jewry. Just as, within Islam, secular Arab nationalism has failed as a guiding worldview, leading to the rise of Islamism.
Revived religious Zionism is now the lifeblood and heartbeat of Zionism. Secular Zionism needed only a state of Israel and was not bound to any doctrinaire identity about it’s actual parameters. Though if you read the stories of Israeli soldiers heading into Jerusalem during the Six Days War many of them, officially secular and atheist, described mystical experiences upon laying eyes on Jerusalem—who again is the Mother of and The Feminine Embodiment of the Messianic Reality.
In contrast religious messianic Zionism is much more bound to very specific and very literal land boundaries. As a consequence religious Zionism has taken the state of Israel with it, pulling it in the direction of running an imperial colonialist venture in the West Bank and Gaza. A reality that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said was an increasingly apartheid state.
The state of Israel, in that light, is not that much different than the wider movement towards ethno-nationalist and authoritarian capitalist states worldwide (e.g. Russia, China, Hungary, UK, Austria, the US under Trump). Not appreciably better (contra the US and Israeli right) but not really all that much worse either (contra anti-Semitic leftists).
Into this brew we need to mix in the right-wing US evangelical Christians aligned with the Likud party specifically and religious Zionism more generally. An obvious point Rabbi Salkin misses as to why there’s an alliance there deeper than political convenience is that both movements are fundamentalist in nature.
Fundamentalism is a thoroughly modernist religious phenomenon. While fundamentalisms of various stripes—Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, etc—see themselves as the true adherents of the ancient tradition, the reality is that they are modernizers and innovators. Fundamentalism is a conservative modernist counter-reaction against liberal modernism and later postmodern movements in religions, e.g. GLBT friendly Christianity or Judaism. Rabbi Selkin represents this liberalizing tendency. Fundamentalists advocate for literalism. In this case both the evangelical Christians and the messianic Zionists are millenarian and apocalyptic literalists.
And then we have a specific group of fundamentalist Christians who are deeply tied to the expansion of the state of Israel’s borders at the expense of the Palestinians. These are folks are typically known as Christian Zionists. They are the ones running biblical themed leadership camps for Jewish youth subsidized by the Israeli government.
But calling these folks Christian Zionists is all wrong. They aren’t Zionists with a Christian flavour. Zionism isn’t their defining identity, the Christian one is. So really they’re Zionist Christians. They’re Christians who believe Zionism is the way to bring about the Christianized Jewish apocalypse.*
When John Hagee’s church plays a hoe-down version of Havanagila at a church-sponsored fundraiser for Israel he’s not a Christian Zionist. He’s a Zionist Christian. Hagee and others like him, have spent an incredible amount of time and energy assisting in repatriating Jews to the state of Israel, particularly to the West Bank. They do so because in their understanding of the apocalypse all the Jews must return to Israel in order for the apocalypse to occur—at which point they believe those Jews will need to convert to Christianity or be smote by the 2nd Coming of Christ. That’s a little awkward but not awkward enough apparently for their influence and money and so on to be received by hardline expansionist Zionists (especially fundamentalist religious Zionists) who similarly want to extend the borders of Israel to the Palestinian territories, though for different apocalyptic reasons.
Also, as uncomfortable as it might be for more liberal mainline adherents of Christianity, on this point Hagee’s theology can legitimately argue that it directly links back to Jesus. Jesus’ ministry was after all based in the notion of God’s act of restoring (and thereby returning) The Exiles to the Holy Land. Though with the key proviso that Jesus wasn't advocating the use of the then global imperial Roman military occupation to make that happen.
So we have Zionist Christians like Hagee but then arguably the real Christian Zionists are the Jewish students of these evangelicals at the biblical leadership camp (paid for by the Israeli government).
This idea of Christian Zionists (that is Christianized Jews) is not as strange as it at first sounds.
If we take The Lubavichter Rebbe movement it has deep roots in Hasidism of course but it also has strongly Christian mystical elements—a charge its adherents would deny but without much grounding I believe. When you mix the Lubavichter movement with the settlers/occupiers of the West Bank messianic Judaism, that is something more like Christian Zionism. Namely (religious) Zionists with a strongly Christian flavoring. Which again on the surface seems like a totally self-contradictory thing (and it kinda is honestly) but we live in a time of many self-contradictory realities nevertheless continuing to exist.
So there’s a much deeper symmetry between these two movements than a Rabbi Selkin is willing to face. His analysis of their connection of political convenience is far too superficial. His analysis misses the way in which these groups are mutually influencing each other. The religious messianic Zionists with their literalistic desire to take over all the land of “Greater Israel” are bringing evangelical fundamentalist Christians back to the notion that all the Jews need to return to the Holy Land in order for the apocalypse to occur—a notion that was not particularly strong among mainline Christian theology nor even most apocalyptic millenarian movements over the last two thousand years of Christianity. Similarly, as we see in this story and in other similar type scenarios (like the “Christian” devotional messianism of the Lubavichter movement) religious Zionists are finding not just material support for their project from Christians but increasingly theological insight.
Again when we recall that both movements are rooted in the same more ancient Jewish apocalypticism we can see them, in a strange way, seeking to reconcile the two branches of that originally united apocalyptic tree (menorah) though harnessed to a deeply problematic political agenda.
* This is weirdly the same mistake made relative to the so-called Jewish Christians of the early Christian era, i.e. Christian communities like the one that crafted the Epistle to James and the Didache. Scholars of religion still typically refer to these communities and individuals as Jewish Christians but this is backwards. They weren’t Christians with some Jewish elements. They were Christian Jews. They were Jews who believed Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah (Christ).
** The theological is here very political (and vice versa). When President Trump recently accused American Jews who vote for Democrats as being traitors to their religion, ethnicity, and to Israel he was actually playing upon very Zionist Christian tropes. And prejudicial tropes at that. Namely that American Jews are ultimately really Israelis and therefore are "other" to America, which in Trump's worldview is a white Christian nation.