When US Vice President Mike Pence tweeted his International Holocaust Remembrance Day message, what seemed to have been most common among those responding – generally Jews or liberals or both – was that they didn’t understand.
Some didn’t understand what Pence just said (“Did he just say that the Jews from the Holocaust were resurrected?”) and some didn’t understand the commotion (“In Israel the Hebrew term for resurrection is quite commonly used to describe the establishment of the state”).
None of those responding to the tweet commented on the fact that Pence had spoken about the resurrection of the Jews in his speech at the Knesset a few days earlier, to enthusiastic applause from Israeli parliamentarians. In fact, the line about the resurrection, which was quoted verbatim from that speech in Pence’s tweet, seems not to have been heard in Israel at all last week, with commentators Right and Left speaking of Pence as “a friend of Israel” offering unconditional love. Pence must have been surprised, after the Knesset speech was so well received, that his tweet generated controversy among Jews, even in Israel, and that it seemed people in the US wanted to understand what he meant.
The desire to understand is important. We tend to dismiss Donald Trump’s tweets as rash and unintelligent, and there may be a tendency to treat Pence’s the same way. But this particular tweet and the speech from which it was taken betrays a theology that Pence either represents, subscribes to, or both, and this theology is playing a crucial role in US foreign policy. Further, the theology does not stop with foreign policy. I will go so far as to argue that the theology behind Pence’s tweet supports the sentiments in Trump’s response to the rally in Charlottesville, Virginia – that there were “good people” on both sides – even when one side was neo-Nazi, chanting antisemitic chants.
To understand Pence’s tweet, we should turn to his Knesset speech from which he quoted, and to other sentences in his shower of love that seem not to have been heard by those listening. Among these sentences was that the day of Israel’s founding in May 1948 was “the day when the Jewish people answered that ancient question: ‘Can a country be born in a day, can a nation be born in a moment?’”
There was something surreal about applause sounded for the “Jewish nation” being born in a moment in 1948. There were certainly members of the Knesset present who would claim that the Palestinian people were born in 1948, but the Jewish? Yet Knesset members applauded Pence’s narrative. The “ancient question” appeared just after Pence recalled the Holocaust, and the Jewish people “walking beneath the shadow of death to resurrect themselves three years later.” Not only was the Jewish people born in a moment in 1948 – to Pence, it was reborn in a new form, a nation-state form.
IN A SPEECH in front of Christians United for Israel in July 2017, Pence spoke of the State of Israel as proof that God keeps His promises to His people. Israel was not reborn or resurrected through its own agency. God resurrected Israel, in keeping His promise to His people, and His hand is beneath her history. The State of Israel is, for Pence, God’s “New Israel.”
It is worth looking further into this theology, and its connection to the story about the establishment of the State of Israel told by John Hagee, pastor and founder of CUFI, the largest pro-Israel group in the US, reportedly having over three million members. Hagee’s rendition of the founding of Israel and its connection to the Holocaust, recorded in a sermon from around 2005, is so problematic that it caused Sen. John McCain to distance himself from Hagee in the 2008 presidential race.
In this sermon, Hagee presented Theodor Herzl, the secular visionary and founder of political Zionism, of whom few in his congregation of Israel-supporters had heard, as first bringing the Jews the message that Israel is their land and that God wants them there. When very few Jews accepted the divine call and moved to Israel, Herzl sunk in depression. The Jews who didn’t heed Herzl’s message suffered the horrors of the Holocaust. God allowed the Holocaust to happen, and even sent Hitler as “hunter,” prophesied by Jeremiah, as his highest goal was get the Jews to come back to the Land of Israel.
While McCain distanced himself from Hagee for this positioning of Hitler in the divine plan, Trump did not. To the contrary: In a speech at CUFI, Pence said that he and Trump recognize that they owe their election victory to this support base, acknowledging a debt to Hagee and his organization. When Pence speaks in the Knesset and when US policy toward Israel is crafted, it is with this support base in mind. This support base considers America to have a role in God’s plan for the Jews. If this was initially to assist God by recognizing Israel’s new form after the Holocaust, God’s plan continues, for some to apocalyptic events.
“He will bless those who bless her [Israel] and curse those who curse her,” is God’s foreign policy according to Hagee, and it is a guiding principle for Pence, according to his CUFI address. True, American leaders have long seen themselves as carrying out God’s plan with respect to Israel, from Harry Truman’s identification of himself as Cyrus the Great – the non-Jewish leader who rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem – to George W. Bush’s concern with the fate of Israel on his “watch.”
Yet the idea of God resurrecting the Jews and bringing about the rebirth of the people after the Holocaust as part of His divine plan has never before guided US foreign policy so openly, nor has the Christian Zionist narrative been applauded in the Knesset.
NOR, INDEED, have Israeli leaders hastened to label American leaders “Cyrus,” as Israeli rabbis and ministers in the Knesset did when Trump acknowledged Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
A foreign policy based on the Hagee-Pence story of the resurrection of Israel could have various implications for Israel, some of which we are already witnessing. But there is an unfortunate consequence of the story about the resurrection of Israel for America and its Jews, too. This can be felt in the inadequate response of the Trump administration to antisemitism from the American Right.
If the resurrection of the Jews effectively founded a new Israel – a national Israel – to replace the old Israel, then the existence of American Jews who do not identify as Zionists or as part of the State of Israel is an anomaly, even a mistake. If God created a new people in 1948, then the old Israel should have been superseded by the new, and those who claim to be “old Israel” or non-Zionist Jews are in the wrong.
The theology behind Christian Zionism, drawn out in this way, comes frightfully close to the theology behind Christian antisemitism or anti-Judaism from its earliest renditions. Further, if the State of Israel is the new form God intended for the Jews since 1948, then antisemitism that is not anti-Israel is hard to condemn. How should one condemn hatred of a people who should no longer exist in that form – people that should, rather, become the true Israel and cease to suffer hatred?
While it may be painful, then, to follow the tweets and hear the speeches of the Trump administration, and while some of the words may sound familiar and unproblematic, misguided or meaningless, it is surely worth recovering the theology that lies beneath. This is worthwhile in Israel, so that the state may choose its friends wisely and perhaps insist on its own stories rather than applauding the stories of others. Perhaps, indeed, returning to its own story or set of stories – stories of a people born long before 1948, with diverse experiences of culture, statelessness, and modes of belonging – could provide Israel with a much-needed moral compass at this time in its history.
It is worthwhile paying attention to what is happening in America, as the theology behind the current administration’s Israel policy has implications for the place of Jews – and with them other minorities – at home. It is important to recall that when this theology is given priority in the White House, it is pandering to a particular part of the administration’s support base, rather than representing the American people as a whole. If heard and understood, this can be challenged.The author is a Lady Davis Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem.