Palestinians, Christian Zionists and the Good News Gospel

Palestinians, Christian Zionists and the Good News Gospel
[1] What is striking in the large body of writing and activity related to the development of Christian Zionism, particularly in its more extreme manifestation rooted in American pop culture dispensationalism, is how little is said about those who were most affected by the establishment of the Jewish state and its subsequent expansion. Many of those whose families had been resident in the land for many years — in some cases many hundreds of years — before the advent of Zionism and its colonizing venture were forced to leave their homes and give up their property during the wars that Christian Zionists celebrate as the miraculous outworking of God’s purposes which brought the modern state of Israel into existence. Although precise numbers are difficult to ascertain as this, like everything else connected to this conflict is used on both sides for polemical purposes, most reliable sources would agree that between 600,000-750,000 non-Jewish residents were forced into refugee status in the 1948 War. [1] In addition, 413 of the villages they had called home were razed to the ground by the Israeli army to make sure the former residents could never return, and homes owned by Palestinian Arabs in urban neighborhoods were confiscated and turned over to Jewish families. This tragedy was compounded when several hundred thousand more Palestinians became refugees after the 1967 War. Efforts to blunt the ethical dilemma this represents with reminders of the equally tragic expulsion of Jewish residents of Middle Eastern states during the same period of time as an unjustifiable act of reprisal does not erase the fact that we are looking at a great human tragedy.

[2] Given this upheaval and the tragedy it represents, one would expect followers of Christ of whatever theological persuasion to address the Palestinian plight at some length. Yet relatively little is said about the human cost of this nation-building exercise in dispensationalist Christian Zionist literature. When Palestinians are mentioned at all it is primarily to dismiss their claims to the land. By Christian Zionist reckoning God’s decision to return the land to the Jewish people trumps any Palestinian desire to live in the land of their birth, making moot any protests to the contrary.

[3] In a Bible study guide to the book of Daniel, prepared for the Radio Bible Class World-wide Gospel Broadcast audience in 1947, the RBC founder, Dr. M.R. DeHaan, goes so far as to suggest that Palestinian Arabs, many of whose families had been resident in the land for centuries, had no right to be there at all:

. . . the Balfour declaration gave Britain the mandate over the entire land of Palestine, the Holy Land. Here we believe was the golden opportunity. She had it in her power and her right to clear the land of its unlawful possessors [my emphasis] and make it exclusively the homeland for God’s scattered people.[2]

[4] Not all Christian Zionists would go this far (particularly those who are uncomfortable with dispensationalist theology). But most in one way or another disregard Palestinian land claims as they shift blame for whatever conflict has ensued to stubborn and unwarranted Arab refusal to relinquish their claims to the land.

[5] The most common Christian Zionist perspective on this reflects a statement made in 1946 by the prominent mainline Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niehbuhr, to the Anglo American Committee of Inquiry which was debating the issue of whether or not America should support the establishment of a Jewish state. Niehbuhr himself was not a Christian Zionist. His was a compassionate response to the horrors of the holocaust which had just become widely known. But his words would lend weight to the less compassionate response of Christian Zionists to Palestinian land claims:

The fact that the Arabs have a vast hinterland in the Middle East, and the fact that the Jews have nowhere else to go (due largely to the fact that western countries including the United States restricted Jewish immigration during and after WW II – author’s note) establishes the relative justice of their claims and of their cause . . . Arab sovereignty over a portion of the debated territory must undoubtedly be sacrificed for the sake of establishing a world Jewish homeland.[3]

[6] What Niehbuhr suggests here is that the onus for solving the land conflict lies with the Palestinian Arabs. They have a “vast hinterland in the Middle East” where they can easily resettle, it being a small matter for them to leave the land of their birth. Christian Zionists are quick to point out in this regard that there was no unique Palestinian identity or nation before Israel came into existence. The slogan much quoted in Zionism’s pioneering days — “A land without a people for a people without a land”[4] — underscores the fact that this has also been a longstanding Israeli contention.

[7] The following statement by Dr. James Hutchens, president of Christians for Israel, one of several hundred Christian Zionist organizations propagating their perspectives on the web, is typical of this point of view. What is notable here is not only his denial of any valid Palestinian identity, but the contempt he shows for Palestinians and Arabs in general, which is a disturbing trait of the more extremist Christian Zionist literature. Note too his apparent ignorance of a small yet significant Christian presence within the Palestinian community:

First let us clarify who the “Palestinians” really are. The notion of a distinct “Palestinian people” with a language, culture and religion of its own, is a creation of Yasser Arafat and nurtured by the surrounding Arab nations after their ignominious defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. The so called “Palestinian” people are, in reality, Arabs whose mother tongue is Arabic, whose religion is Islam, and whose culture is shared by most of the 22 surrounding Arab countries. There simply is no distinct Palestinian entity.[5]

[8] There is a small kernel of truth here. The land that became Israel/Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire prior to World War I. After the war the victorious European states dismantled the empire, carving out of it the nation states of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan/ Palestine.

[9] Literally speaking, then, it is true to say that there was no Palestinian state before the British mandate in the same sense that there was a German, or French or American state. What isn’t true is the assertion that Palestinian identity is an artificially created phenomenon forged in a devious way to make a political point. People who live, as the Palestinians have, in one location for centuries or even decades develop an identity which is integrally attached to the land. Ask any Iowa farmer whose family has tilled the same ground for three or four generations how important that land is to his or her sense of identity and you will soon see the fallacy of the Christian Zionist argument. Whether or not there was a nation called Palestine is less important than the fact that this was the place they had called “home” for hundreds, in some cases thousands, of years.

[10] There have always been those within the Jewish community who have challenged this cavalier dismissal of Palestinian claims to the land. It remains an open topic of debate within Israeli society today. One of the founders of the World Jewish Congress and long time president of the World Zionist Organization, Dr. Nahum Goldman, puts the dissenting opinion this way:

One of the great oversights of Zionism is that when the Jewish homeland in Palestine was founded, sufficient attention was not paid to relations with the Arabs. Of course, there were always a few Zionist speakers and thinkers who stressed them . . . Unfortunately these convictions remained in the realm of theory and were not carried over, in any great extent, into actual Zionist practice. Even Theodore Herzl’s brilliantly simple formulation of the Jewish question as basically a transportation problem of “moving people without a home into a land without a people” is tinged with disquieting blindness to the Arab claim to Palestine. Palestine was not a land without a people even in Herzl’s time; it was inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Arabs who, in the course of events, would sooner or later have achieved independent statehood, either alone or as a unit with a larger Arab context.”[6]

[11] Jews themselves have recognized the moral dilemma created by two peoples laying claim to one land. Unfortunately this dilemma is rarely acknowledged by Christian Zionists, who continue to use Herzl’s “simple formulation” or its derivations to deny the legitimacy of Palestinian identity and claims.

A “Maximalist” Perspective
[12] What makes this even more problematic and hurtful from a Palestinian perspective, particularly to Christian Palestinians who expect a more sympathetic response from fellow Christians, is that Christian Zionists for the most part project a “maximalist” stance on the issue of land ownership. Maximalists insist that the boundaries of the Jewish state should conform to a biblical map which includes not only the present state of Israel, but the whole of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip as well, territories they call “Judea and Samaria.” As the late Moral Majority co- founder and director of the Christian Zionist Religious Roundtable, the Rev. Ed McAteer, said on a 2002 60 Minutes segment: “Every grain of sand, between the Dead Sea, the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea belongs to the Jews”[7]

[13] In this, Christian Zionists have adopted what is considered even by many Israelis to be the most extreme and problematical position vis-à-vis the occupation – that of the militant settler movement.[8] The militant settler movement draws its membership largely from fundamentalist Orthodox Jews who link the coming of the Messiah (not Jesus, but a messiah yet to be revealed) to the establishment and expansion of the Jewish state. They, like Christian Zionists, believe that God gave all of the land to the Jews as an eternal possession, which means that they have the right to settle anywhere they choose, no matter what the UN or the United States or even their own government says. If it means forcibly removing Palestinians from lands they and their families have cultivated for generations, so be it. It’s all theirs. To say otherwise is to argue with God.

[14] “The Jews are authorized by the living God and creator of the universe as a legitimate, eternal people with unalienable rights to the entire Land of Israel,” says Ian Lustick, characterizing their views. “The Palestinians have absolutely no legitimate claim to nationhood or to any part of the country.”[9]

[15] That this is also the viewpoint of dispensationally driven Christian Zionists is apparent in a statement issued as the official proclamation of the “Fourth International Christian Congress on Biblical Zionism,” held in Jerusalem in February, 2001, which brought together a wide representation of Christian Zionist spokespersons. Here are some excerpts:

Biblical Zionism is the firm belief that God chose the Jewish people and bequeathed to them as an everlasting possession the Land of Canaan. Christians must take courageous action to support the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel in all its parts . . . [my emphasis]

The Bible puts its full weight behind the Return of the Jewish exiles to Eretz Israel. Therefore Christians have no biblical grounds upon which to base support for Palestinian nationalism.[10]

[16] At least one Christian Zionist organization unabashedly supports the settler movement. Christian Friends of Israeli Communities recruits American churches to “adopt” a settlement as a way of expressing support for settler Jews whom they describe as brave pioneers claiming land that is theirs by divine decree:

Judea and Samaria is the Biblical name for the center of the Holy Land also called the Mountains of Israel. The media refers to this area as the “West Bank.” The residents of these areas, otherwise known as settlers, are fulfilling prophesy and pointing the way for the rest of the Jewish people back to their roots. . . The Biblical region of Judea and Samaria was given to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their descendents, forever, 4000 years ago.[11] [my emphasis]

[17] This hard-core position has put Christian Zionists on a collision course not only with “liberals,” but also more recently with fellow political conservatives in Israel and America. The “Roadmap to Peace,” proposed by the so-called Quartet of nations with strong endorsement by the Bush administration, is opposed by Christian Zionists. So are any of the tentative moves which the Israeli government makes from time to time towards territorial compromise including relinquishing control of the Gaza Strip which was strongly opposed by Christian Zionists.

[18] In an astonishing meeting held in Jerusalem several years back, one-time Republican presidential hopeful and Christian TV talk show host, Pat Robertson, showed how extreme Christian Zionists can be in asserting their convictions on this issue. Robertson used the occasion to urge a Jewish audience to put pressure on their government not make any territorial compromises with the Palestinians, as to do so would be to set themselves in opposition to God’s will for their country:

Ladies and gentlemen, make no mistake – the entire world is being convulsed by a religious struggle. The fight is not about money or territory; it is not about poverty versus wealth; it is not about ancient customs versus modernity. No – the struggle is whether Hubal, the Moon God of Mecca, known as Allah, is supreme, or whether the Judeo-Christian Jehovah God of the Bible is Supreme.

If God’s chosen people turn over to Allah control of their most sacred sites – if they surrender to Muslim vandals the tombs of Rachel, of Joseph, of the Patriarchs, of the ancient prophets – if they believe their claim to the Holy Land only comes from Lord Balfour of England and the ever fickle United Nations rather than the promises of Almighty God – then in that event Islam will have won the battle. Throughout the Muslim world the message will go forth: “Allah is greater than Jehovah. The promises of Jehovah to the Jews are meaningless. We can now, in the name of Allah, move to crush the Jews and drive them out of the land that belongs to Allah.”

A Theological Critique
[19] This ethical blind spot underscores just one of many dilemmas posed by a dispensationalist perspective on biblical truth when it gets translated into political action. The theology itself needs to be challenged, as Jerusalem-based Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan underscores in declaring Christian Zionism to be a “Christian heresy”.[12]

[20] What is particularly questionable is what dispensationalist Christian Zionists claim about God’s purposes vis-a-vis the modern state of Israel. What these Christian Zionists say is that Herzl’s vision for a Jewish state in Palestine — though tragically realized through a succession of wars which led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Arab Christians and Muslims — this state, created in this way, with these consequences, was and is at the center of God’s redemptive purposes. One needs to ask in this respect whether or not Jesus, whom we testify to be the full revelation of God’s salvific purposes, confirms this; or for that matter Paul or the other New Testament writers whose inspired teachings we believe to be an extension of the revelation of God’s purpose in Christ. This is the primary question we must ask when we examine the theological basis for dispensational Christian Zionism. Scripture itself demands that we do so:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the world. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful Word. (Hebrews 1:1-3)

Two Redemptive Streams
[21] Dispensationalist Christian Zionists posit two redemptive streams in God’s economy of salvation: 1) that which God purposes in, through and for the Jewish people, which finds its fullest expression in their restoration to the land which God gave them as an “eternal inheritance;” and 2) that which God purposes in and through His Son, Jesus Christ. The second stream has always been the predominant theme of Christian teaching and preaching, the central motif of a unique Christian witness. Yet in Christian Zionist literature and teaching, what predominates is the first stream:
Yes, in bringing physical Israel back home, God has been raising up an announcement, a banner to the nations — one they are unable to ignore no matter how unpopular it is — confronting the world with the reality of God’s eternal existence; His undiminished sovereignty; and His unlimited might and power.[13]

[22] If, as dispensationalist Christian Zionists claim, this is not only “a,” but “the” predominant teaching of scripture — that God has two purposes which he works out in two different ways — then we would expect to find this as a dominant theme in Jesus’ teaching. But we don’t. What we find instead is a message which contradicts this — a message of reconciliation.

The Witness of Christ
[23] Jesus ministered in a time much like our own time, when that which divides people is more pronounced than that which brings them together. There were at that time divisions within the Jewish community between Pharisees and Sadducees, between Zealots and those who lived a monastic existence in the desert. There were even stronger divisions between Jews and everyone else. They had nothing to do with Samaritans. Gentiles were “unclean.” And most among them hated the Romans.

[24] What Jesus did, in this divisive context, was bring people together. He deliberately chose as his disciples those within the Jewish community who would otherwise have had nothing to do with each other. He embraced “untouchables” and in other ways challenged the exclusivism which raised religious and social barriers between Jew and Gentile, Jew and Samaritan, Jew and Roman. Nowhere do we hear him speaking about one purpose of God for Jews and another for what would become a largely Gentile church. He included all in one ministry of grace and reconciliation.

[25] The apostle Paul, speaking as a former Jewish rabbinical student who had himself once exhibited a fierce exclusivism but had now found peace with God and his neighbors through Christ, wrote this about this central purpose of Christ:
He is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups [Jews and Gentiles] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us … through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Eph. 2: 14)

So then you [Gentiles] are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord… (Eph. 3:19-21)
[26] Jesus defined his ministry and purpose in terms of reconciliation. In him we learn that God’s highest purpose is to bring together what we in our sinful divisiveness make separate. In light of this it is inconceivable that a religiously exclusive nation-state, which has come to be characterized by the building of a literal “dividing wall of hostility,” can be held up as the centerpiece of God’s redemptive purposes.

[27] The fact that Israel is a viable nation-state, which like any other nation-state can be the source of either bane or blessing to its citizens, its neighbors and the world, is not in question here. What is in question is the place given to Israel by those who wish to put it at the center of God’s redemptive purposes. For this there is no biblical justification within the Christian tradition, certainly not in light of the revelation we have received in and through our Lord Jesus Christ. In Christ, reconciliation — bringing enemies together as friends — is seen to be God’s overriding concern:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross . . . (Colossians 1:19-20 [my emphasis])

What About the Promises?
[28] What, then, does this mean in terms of the Old Testament prophecies of restoration which Christian Zionists often quote to make their case? Taken at face value, there is little doubt that these prophecies speak of a physical restoration of God’s people to the land God gave them as a gift. It is hard to read a passage like Jeremiah 16:14-15, where God says “I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their ancestors,” and not at least consider the possibility that Christian Zionists are correct to interpret it as they have. And this is just one of many passages which affirm this promise. How do we interpret these passages?

[29] Again we turn to Jesus as the lens through whom we read all the promises of scripture. What we note is his silence: As a Jew growing up in Palestine under a foreign occupation, Jesus would have been well aware of the powerfully formative nature of these verses for Jewish identity. It would have been a part of his own identity. The descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were and are, as Paul points out in Romans 9-11, a people of promise, held close to God’s heart as those through whom He chose to make known His will to the world. “To them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Romans 9:4). Certainly one of the promises to which Paul refers is the promise of restoration.

[30] Jesus knew all this. Yet, as we noted earlier, at no time in his ministry did he hark back to these promises as having any bearing on the purposes of God being realized in his ministry and life. As Messiah, we would expect that he would have. But he didn’t. What he spoke about instead was the Kingdom of God, which was both present in him as the embodiment of its demands: “The kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20); and something to which he urged his disciples to dedicate their lives, praying and working towards the extension of God’s gracious rule throughout the world: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9 [my emphasis]).

[31] A literal fulfillment of the restoration promises did not figure into Jesus’ ministry because he recognized that their fulfillment required larger borders. The whole earth becomes the arena for God’s grace through the expansive ministry of Christ. What was once confined to one particular people in one particular place is now available to all. God’s Kingdom comes wherever God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

[32] It should be clear from this that we are talking about something that can only ever be realized in a partial, fleeting way. No community of faith, in any country, can ever be said to perfectly realize the vision of shalom, which is a core element of the prophetic vision of restoration. This is a second reason why we must reject the notion that the current state of Israel is the fulfillment of restoration promises: The modern state of Israel, like any other nation, relies on coercion and compromise to achieve its ends. Whatever good it may accomplish in terms of its national achievements can never be as good as what the biblical promise envisions — neither this nation-state nor any other.

[33] Jesus asks us to pray that God’s Kingdom will come here and now. But he also understood what the writer of Hebrews affirms — that the fulfillment of the biblical promises of restoration can only be fully realized in the “new heaven and new earth” which will come at the end of time.

All of these [Abraham and those of his descendents who remained faithful to God’s calling] died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11: 13-16,

Concluding Observations
[34] Dispensationalist Christian Zionism is marked by confident assertions that leave little room for debate. You are either with them or against God. “The Bible says” or “God says” often mark statements that are speculative in nature, based on an interpretative apocalyptic scheme that, even when John Darby conceived it in the 19th century, was challenged as a questionable deviation from traditional Christian teaching. This has led many sincere Christians, who are eager to do what God says, to follow the lead of Christian Zionists in giving uncritical support to the state of Israel, though they may not understand or accept the theology which undergirds Christian Zionist teaching.

[35] This is not to say that Christians should not support the state of Israel. Indeed we should. Israel is a legitimate nation-state, whose citizens have the right to live in peace with their neighbors within recognized and agreed-upon boundaries. In no way should what is written here be taken as an attempt to de-legitimize the Israeli state. Rather, it is to question the reason why Christian Zionists say we should give the Israeli government unqualified support even in its most expansionist mode at the expense of Palestinian Christians and Muslims. Christian Zionists insist that unqualified support for the modern state of Israel is a sacred duty enjoined by divine decree. This, we believe, is based on a misreading of the biblical texts mediated through the Jesus event.

[36] We also challenge Christian Zionist teaching because of what it means in terms of denying justice to the Palestinian people. Thoughtful Israelis and Palestinians are working hard to find some way out of the conflict, searching for a compromise peace plan that will allow both sides to live with dignity and peace in their own land. Christian Zionists in their zeal to promote an “all or nothing” vision of the “Promised Land” have done their best to block these negotiations.

[37] This, in the end, is where Christian Zionist teaching deviates most noticeably from the core message of the Gospel. Jesus, picking up seminal themes from the Hebrew scriptures, preached and lived a message of reconciliation: reconciliation between God and his rebellious human family and reconciliation between the diverse members within that family. In situations of great conflict, such as we are witnessing in Israel/Palestine, we, as God’s people, must put ourselves in a position to do our best to encourage reconciliation. We must pray, teach and work for a peace that reflects God’s overriding concern for justice. This is the most important prophetic word for Israel and the Palestinians, just as it is for anyone in any land: God desires justice. To do the work of God in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories today is to stand with those who are seeking justice and working for reconciliation. The Bible in its entirety leaves no room for doubt on this matter: “For thus says the Lord: maintain justice and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed” (Isaiah 56: 1).

End Notes

[1] see

[2] Stephen Sizer, August 31, 1998, Christian Zionism: Its History, Theology, and Politics, Chapter 4: John Nelson Darby. Available at (12/13/03) , p. 1.

[3] Ibid.

Often attributed to either Theodor Herzl, the organizing genius behind the Zionist movement, or the English writer and humorist, Israel Zangwill, the phrase is actually a variation on a similar slogan coined by the 19th century Christian Zionist and philanthropist, Lord Shaftesbury. (

Dr. James M. Hutchens, What About the Palestinians? Available at (12/21/2003).

Nahum Goldmann quoted in Wolterstorff, Until Justice & Peace Embrace, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), 117.

Bob Simon, June 8, 2003, Zion’s Christian Soldiers. Available at (12/13/2003).

[8] Radical Messianic Zionism.
Available at (12/21/03).

Ian Lustick, May 1998. For the Land and the Lord: Jewish Fundamentalish in Israel. Available at (12/13/03).

February 22, 2001. Proclamation of the Fourth International Christian Congress on Biblical Zionism. Available at (12/13/03).

Christian Friends of Iraeli Communities. What Are Israeli Communities? Available at (12/21/03).

“Younan: Christian Zionism is Heresy” in The Lutheran , March, 2003.

[13]Alan Lazerte, Christian Zionism. Available at (12/21/03).