For those who think Christians are either far right, pro-Israel/anti-Arab Evangelicals or far left, pro-Arab/anti-Israel “mainline” Protestants and Catholics, Shalom Goldman’s Zeal for Zion – Christians, Jews and the Idea of the Promised Land should come as good news. The radical Right is a small minority among American Evangelicals, he writes, and the Christian world at large, for all the streams of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism it’s produced, has also nurtured broad, deep strains of Zionism that predate Theodor Herzl’s ideological epiphany in the mid-1890s. Since then, the term Christian Zionist “has been used to describe Catholics and Protestants, liberals and conservatives, reformers and traditionalists,” writes Goldman, a New York-born professor of Hebrew and Middle Eastern studies at Atlanta’s Emory University.
The history of Christianity’s encounter with Zionism is older and far more nuanced and pluralistic than commonly understood, and this encounter has, by and large, been a sympathetic one, Goldman says during an interview in Jerusalem. Today, despite the political convictions and associations that often turn Christians vehemently pro or con on Israel’s relations with Arabs, there is basic support on the part of most Christians, especially Americans, for the Zionist enterprise, he says.
“America’s engagement with Israel is undergirded by its biblical understanding, and the Book of Genesis is more important to American Christians than the Book of Revelation [in which the Jews’ return to the Promised Land precedes the apocalypse and final redemption through Christ],” he says. “For Christians in America, Israel is proof that God works in history. Even among American Evangelicals, support for Israel is not primarily about Armageddon and ‘end times.’ It’s about making sense of a world that seems out of control. With the earthquakes, starvation, catastrophes, [Christians ask] where is God? Well, they see that God has taken His people and brought them back to the land He promised them. That means that God is still here.”
Covering the 1880s to the present, Zeal for Zion personalizes this Christian-Jewish encounter over Zion by telling of the deep heart-felt and ideological connection between, for instance, “Hatikva” composer Naphtali Herz Imber and the British diplomat/adventurer Laurence Oliphant, and between Herzl and Anglican cleric Rev. William Hechler. The book also tells of the tortured duality of early 20th-century Catholicism’s attitude toward Jews and Zionism, and how the Holocaust changed it.
Goldman also recounts the attachment to Israel felt by the great modern authors Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Graves and Vladimir Nabokov, reminding readers that there was a time when gentile intellectuals and cultural heroes saw this country as a symbol of justice.
There are all sorts of fascinating historical details here. Christian Zionist Lord Arthur Balfour, whose 1917 declaration is considered by Israel as the world’s first official recognition of the Jews’ right to a state, “was not an admirer of Jews in general or of the British Jewish community in particular. As one of his biographers noted, ‘In common with many Zionists of his time, both Jew and gentile, he accepted many of the allegations made against Jews by anti-Semites.’”
The book also notes that among Herzl’s Christian guests at the First Zionist Congress in Basel was Jean Henri Dunant, founder of the International Red Cross, whose long-time refusal on technical grounds to recognize Israel’s Magen David Adom was seen here as a sign of anti-Semitism. And Goldman notes that one of the most influential Christian Zionists of the mid-19th century, whose book Mohammed the Imposter was the first important American work on Islam, was a New York University professor named George Bush.
BUT IT is the book’s concluding chapter, “Jewish Settlers and Christian Zionists (1967-2007),” that is, of course, most relevant today. Goldman traces the alliance between American Evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell and John Hagee with the settler movement and the Likud leadership. “Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Likud politicians continued to cultivate the support of the American Christian Right. The most effective and forceful of these political figures is Binyamin Netanyahu.”
As if to illustrate the chapter, on the eve of Vice President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Israel, Hagee’s Christians United for Israel organization held a giant “Night to Honor Israel” in Jerusalem. Among those present were veteran settler leaders Ron Nachman, mayor of Ariel, and Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. The guest of honor was Netanyahu.
“Christian Zionism preceded modern Jewish Zionism, and I think enabled it,” the prime minister told the crowd. “But [Jewish Zionism] received a tremendous impetus several decades ago when leading American clergymen, among them, most notedly, Pastor John Hagee... began to say to their congregations and to anyone who would listen, ‘It’s time to take a stand with Israel!’ Today, Christians by the... tens of millions have heard the call and they stand with Israel.”
According to the stereotype, all American Evangelical Christians think like Hagee’s followers: that the Jews must return to Israel and that Israel must hold onto all of the Promised Land because this is God’s plan for Jesus’s return, a return that will occur, as Revelation says, with apocalyptic death and destruction. This stereotype leads many liberal Jews to conclude that the Evangelicals’ embrace of Israel is cynical in the extreme, because ultimately the Jews they claim to love have to either accept Jesus or die horribly.
Followers of this strain of Christianity, writes Goldman, are called “dispensationalists.” “[T]hese biblical literalists asserted that history was divided into eras or ‘dispensations,’ the last of which would soon begin. ‘Israel’ of the Bible was understood by dispensationalists as the actual Jewish people of present times, and the return of ‘Israel’ to their land was a prerequisite of Redemption.”
But he stresses that of the estimated 80 million American Evangelical Christians, only nine million to 10 million carry this belief that Jesus’s return depends on Israel retaining all of its biblical land.
“This is the kind of thing you hear from Hagee, who comes from a classical Pentecostal background and is very heavily influenced by dispensationalism,” Goldman said in the interview. “When he told the  AIPAC convention that ‘50 million Christians are marching behind you,’ that really was not accurate. He actually represents a small sector of Christian fundamentalists. My claim is that for the great majority of American Christians who support Israel, it’s more about the idea of God acting in history, of God fulfilling His promise, than about what’s supposed to happen in end times.”
I asked him what he thought it would do to American Evangelicals such as those at a “Night to Honor Israel” if Israel traded Judea and Samaria for peace. “If there was a deal,” he replied, “my reading of right-wing Christian engagement with Israel is that they would make their peace with it. Some of them are so strident as to think of peace as the enemy, but I think that if Israel were to make such a deal, they would see it as part of God’s plan.”
Goldman, 62, came to Israel in 1968 and stayed for five years, spending
much of his time on kibbutzim. “I was one of the post-Six Day War
generation of Jews who came to Israel, but I never really intended to
stay. It was more like my great adventure.”
With the publication of Zeal for Zion
he has been speaking to American Jewish groups about Christian
attitudes toward Israel, especially among the high-profile
“A lot of the questions I get asked come down to: ‘Is this good for the
Jews or bad for the Jews?’ I say I’m not going to answer that question
for you. I’m a professor, I’m trying to look at the situation in all
its complexity. As Jews, this is our responsibility, to try to figure
out the people and events going on around us, not to rush to judgment