Israel’s new Soviet Union (Iran) and Why Christian America Doesn’t Get It.

Recent events in Israel and Gaza are certainly troubling, not only as to the violence and loss of life involved in the interdiction of aid ships by Israel bound for Gaza, but also for the fragile coalition of mostly western allies (that includes Turkey—the homeland of those killed) whose aim it is to corral Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  As with all things in the Middle East, there are multiple consequences that originate from singular events.  Too many people of too many races, ethnicities, and religions on too little land assure it.  It is also troubling that Israel’s closest ally—the United States—continues to tolerate Israeli behaviors that compromise U.S. interests in the region. Under the watchful eye of the Israel-can-do-no-wrong American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), every U.S. president starting with Harry Truman has pledged his unwavering support for virtually anything Israel desired. However, there is more than political power at work here, there is also a fundamental lack of comprehension among predominantly Christian American policymakers about Israeli-Jewish identity, which routinely produces poor interpretations and decisions that form U.S. foreign policy.  AIPAC’s power combined with passive ignorance—however innocent—is a dangerous combination.

Understanding Israeli Jews is really not that complicated, but it requires setting aside Christian history and, in particular, the New Testament, while considering specific historical events and Hebrew Scriptures.  It is also worth realizing that while the Middle East is obviously rich in Christian history, few Christians live there today.  Lebanon has the largest Christian population of around 30%; the rest of the Middle East, including Israel, is less than 5%.  In towns of founding Christian history, like Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, Christians account for less than 3% of the population.  The Middle East is a Judeo-Islamic region, not a Christian one.  In short, the New Testament doesn’t get much playing time there.  Think Kings, not Disciples.  The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the Holy Qur’an establish history, morality, and law—and they are founded on a contested inheritance since they both claim the heritage of Abraham.  Among other things, these historical texts condone a different morality than the Western Christian world professes today.  Violence, retribution, slavery, torture, and polygamy are not necessarily immoral.  So, Christian Americans who want to understand why things are the way they are must start by erasing their own Christian indoctrinations.  They do not apply.

Historical events and Hebrew Scriptures have produced five fundamental ‘truths’ held by Jews that the Western polity must come to understand.  First, all the land from the Dead Sea and the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea was bequeathed to the Jewish people included in the territory of Greater, or “Eretz” Israel.  They are God’s chosen people in the Promised Land.[1] This includes the long-contested West Bank and Gaza.  Second, “Never Again!” is a mantra that every Jew everywhere in the world understands and will never forget.  It is a sorrowful maxim to never allow another Holocaust.  Third, God is power, not love, as is the Christian interpretation from the New Testament.  Fourth, peace is security from the enemy, not some ethereal contemplation of a just, harmonious, or serene coexistence with non-Jews.[2]  Furthermore, security is defined by who has the most weapons and controls the most borders.  It is not the absence of threat, it is the constant vigilance required to control existential ever-present threats. Finally, ‘trust’ is inconceivable between Jews and non-Jews, especially Muslims.

Given these truths, after the Holocaust Jews established their homeland in the Promised Land and adopted an “Iron Wall” strategy to produce their peace (security).[3]  They have never, nor will they likely ever, consider that a just and lasting peace—of the Western Christian variety—can be made with their Muslim neighbors.  Their source of peace/security is an exclusive relationship with a powerful state—a patron—not neighborly relations.  In the beginning, this relationship was with the British, now it is with the U.S.  The “Iron Wall” strategy requires that conflict be sustained to maintain a fully pressurized system to attract resources from the patron; ‘peace’ is little more than a rhetorical exercise.  In other words, peace and prosperity (in the traditional sense) could be profoundly destabilizing for Israel.  During the Cold War, the Soviet Union played well the role of existential threat and kept the U.S. closely tied to Israel.  Oil reserves in the Middle East also bind the U.S. to Israel (although this often cost the U.S. when Arab states and OPEC used oil prices and embargos to punish the U.S. for its allegiance to Israel).  Today, Iran is cast by Israel in the role of the former Soviet Union, which is why provocative interdiction of ships bound for Gaza by Israel, which has strained relations with Turkey, may not be unintentional.  Threats—perceived or real—must be maintained.  They are critical to Israel’s “Iron Wall” strategy.

It is unclear if the current frosty relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu portends a fundamental change in U.S.-Israel relations.  I would never bet against AIPAC and its capacity to control U.S. policymaking in the Middle East.  However, there are signs of divergence between a hardening, militaristic, right wing led by Netanyahu in Israel and a more liberal American Jewish community.[4]  For the time being, I expect the U.S. will continue to endure condemnation in the Arab world for its support of Israel—including terrorism aimed at U.S. targets—at least until new sources of energy are produced, and new boogey-man states like Iran no longer grab headlines.  These factors may change, but the ‘truths’ that undergird the “Iron Wall” strategy of Israel, formed in a Judeo-Islamic non-Christian context, will never change.  Christian Americans take note.[5]

[1] For an excellent summary of this “Promised Land” theology, see Irvine H. Anderson, Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005), p. 10-15.
[2] After reading hundreds of pages of declassified documents from the Carter Administration, my own revelatory interpretation regarding these different definitions of ‘peace’ were formed.  Carter nearly always characterized peace as a “just and lasting peace” where enemies were transformed into friends.  Prime Minister Menachem Begin, on the other hand, seldom mentioned ‘peace’ without framing it in terms of security.  I found no evidence either of them ever acknowledged the difference.
[3] The “Iron Wall” strategy is comprehensively studied by Avi Shlaim in The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001).
[4] See Peter Beinhart, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” The New York Review of Books, June 10, 2010, p. 16-20.
[5] Among members of ‘Christian America,’ I exclude Christian Zionists who have formed their own theological alliance with Israel.  See Victoria Clark’s Allies for Armageddon: The Rise of Christian Zionism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).