Monday 16 December 2013

Understanding the new Christian anti-Zionism: Part 2

In the previous post I wrote about an example of the growing hostility towards Israel among Christian groups. In this post, I want to suggest a number of factors that might explain this phenomenon. But what about my title: is it really fair to talk about a new Christian anti-Zionism? We’ve become used to talking about (and laughing at) Christian Zionists: those rather odd, mostly American fundamentalists who support Israel uncritically because they believe the return of the Jews to their homeland is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and a sign of the coming End Times. But Christian anti-Zionism – does such a thing really exist?

Let’s be clear. What I’m talking about here is not the occasional criticism of particular Israeli government policies. Rather, as I noted in the last post, I’m concerned with some Christian groups’ persistent and obsessive focus on the Israel/Palestine issue, to the exclusion of more serious human rights abuses and instances of human suffering elsewhere in the world. And, in focusing on that issue, the wilful tendency to take the side of Israel’s enemies and to characterise Israel in a way that comes close to undermining its legitimacy.

So what explains the growing strength of this attitude among Christians? Here, in no particular order, are some of the factors I think are at play:

Missionary guilt

Much of the recent hostility to Israel comes from liberal Christians who have imported from their counterparts on the secular Left a view of the world that is largely motivated by post-colonial guilt. The anti-imperialist Left is driven by a powerful desire to disavow the West’s colonial past, and in the process they tend to blame the developed world for the problems of its former colonies. Just as Victorian imperialists saw the world through a simple binary framework –  West good, the rest bad – so their anti-imperialist successors simply reverse the poles and adopt a worldview in which Britain, Europe and the US are the source of all that is wrong with the world, and the once oppressed ‘Others’ – whether African, Asian or Arab – are innocent and passive victims. But liberal Christians overlay this secular Left perspective with what we might call post-missionary guilt, which drives a constant quest to compensate for their predecessors’ imposition (as they see it) of western values on the rest of the world. At the same time, some progressive Christians share with some secular liberals a certain weariness and disillusionment with modern, consumerist western society and a tendency to idealise, exoticise and romanticise the non-western world (the much-missed Madeleine Bunting of the Guardian was the mouthpiece par excellence of this tendency).

Liberal Christians, like their secular counterparts, make the mistake of imposing this simplistic, bipolar framework on the Middle East conflict, and reducing a complex historical dispute with multiple causes to a black-and-white case of a white-ish, western-looking nation oppressing a non-white, non-western ‘indigenous’ group. Anything that doesn’t fit into this model – such as the long history of Jewish residence in Palestine, or Arab anti-Semitism – is simply excluded from the narrative.

Heroes and villains

Layered on top of this is a specifically Christian tendency to moralise political issues. What I mean is that some religious people, when intervening in political debates, tend to look for parties who can act as simple carriers of good and evil, praise and blame. In a moralised universe, any situation that is unjust must have a party that is responsible for the injustice and can be prophetically preached against, and a victim who can act as the object of Christian pity and charity. This kind of moralising discourse is not much use in political situations where there are multiple shades of grey and where there isn’t a single, straightforward root cause. Thus there is no room in this approach for the kind of complex chain of causation one finds in the Middle East – no room for an acceptance that the Palestinians might have brought some of their sufferings on themselves, by their refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist, by deliberately failing to resettle refugees in order to shame Israel, or by carrying out attacks that precipitated the building of a security fence. 

As in secular anti-imperialist thinking, there is a reluctance in Christian anti-Zionist discourse to attribute agency to the victim group – in this case, the Palestinians. If Palestinians act in a particular way – whether throwing stones at Israeli soldiers or blowing up Israeli bus passengers – it must be because they are ‘reacting’ to something that Israel has previously done. As Pascal Bruckner has written, this refusal to allow non-western peoples their own autonomous motivation is a kind of narcissism (everything is about ‘us’ – the ‘west’ ). And as I’ve noted before, it’s ironically a kind of post-colonial racism, a refusal to allow the ‘other’ to be anything but a pure victim.

I had a friend at university who was one of the nicest people you could hope to meet. He was a Christian of a very undogmatic kind, from a public school background, and known for his acts of selfless generosity. But he shocked me when he argued that the problem with socialism was that it would do away with the need for charity. So working-class people needed to remain poor, just so that people like him could be charitable towards them! Something similar seems to be going on with Christian attitudes to Israel/Palestine: it’s as though the Palestinians are the latest group that are required to play the role of pure victims in a certain kind of Christian narrative. Dare I say that this sometimes seems to be more about Christians (and others) needing to feel sympathetic and righteously indignant than about the real needs of the objects of their pity?

Sacred and secular

As well as simplifying the Israel/Palestine issue by moralising it, some Christian groups also misrepresent it by ‘sacralising’ it – by turning it into a religious argument. Christian commentators on the conflict are often quick to move it on to religious territory, where they clearly feel more at home. Their first rhetorical move is to assume that the justification for Israel’s existence is purely religious, and that this is how Israelis justify both the foundation of their state and their government’s current policies, including occupation of the disputed territories, a.k.a. the West Bank. Having made that assumption, they can draw on their biblical knowledge and theological resources to take that argument apart, and fulminate about misinterpretation and misuse of holy Scripture. At the same time, they can paint Israelis as intolerant religious fundamentalists drawing on an outdated understanding of the Bible (unlike open-minded progressive Christians, of course).

The only problem with this line of argument is that, at least in my experience, Israelis and supporters of Israel very rarely draw on religious arguments to justify their state’s existence or actions. Perhaps a few ultra-Orthodox fundamentalists might do so, but the most common arguments for Israel are determinedly secular – based on the longstanding presence of Jews in the land, the need for a refuge from persecution, whether in Europe or Arab countries, and the right to a homeland of their own. Having recourse to religious discourse in this way seems like a neat way of sidestepping those compelling secular arguments, and moving the argument on to territory where you think you can put one over on the other side.

Not ‘getting’ it

This brings us on to another factor that I often think is influential in shaping current Christian attitudes to Israel. To put it simply, I think a lot of Christians just don’t ‘get’ Israel, and if they do, they don’t really like what they see. What I mean is that modern, pluralist and fairly secular Israel doesn’t fit some Christians’ image of what the Holy Land should be like. Hence the desperate need to squeeze Israel into a pre-determined religious framework that doesn’t quite fit. Israel was fine, on this view, when it was full of noble pioneers sharing their worldly goods in kibbutzes, but it’s not so easy to identify with its people now that, in many ways, they’re just like us. We’re back to that need for the ‘Other’ to fit the stereotypical image that we’ve created for them. By becoming modern and westernised, the Jews have foregone the right to play the part of the idealised Other, so Christians (like secular Leftists) need to look for another group that can be romanticised: step forward 'the Palestinians'.

And we shouldn’t forget that many Christians just don’t ‘get’ Jews, generally. A lot of Christians don’t know any Jewish people and find it hard to understand Jewishness: is it a religion, a race, what is it? I write as someone who grew up in a suburban Methodist setting and didn’t meet a single Jewish person until I went away to university: I remember having many of the same questions, and experiencing the same puzzlement, about what it meant to be Jewish. In the gap created by this ignorance, there’s inevitably a tendency for lazy stereotypes to form.

And that brings us on finally to…

The ‘a’ word

No, I don’t think that the current spate of Christian hostility to Israel is necessarily anti-Semitic. However, I do think that as Christian hostility to the Jewish state increases, it’s something we can’t avoid talking about. The legacy of Christian anti-Semitism is so deep, of such long duration, and so recently disavowed, that I think Christians should be extremely careful that ancient, barely-submerged attitudes don’t get inadvertently drawn on when criticising what is, after all, the world's only Jewish state. We're back to my starting-point: if we're not going to use the 'a' word, how else are we to describe this singular focus on Israel's supposed sins and this one-sided refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Israeli perspective? I'll leave the last word to the late Norm Geras, writing in a 2009 blogpost about attitudes to Israel's actions in Gaza:

In the outpouring of hatred towards Israel today, it scarcely matters what part of it is impelled by a pre-existing hostility towards Jews as such and what part by a groundless feeling that the Jewish state is especially vicious among the nations of the world and to be obsessed about accordingly. Both are forms of anti-Semitism. The old poison is once again among us.
(You can find Part One of this post here)


Eve Garrard said...

That's a very interesting and illuminating post, Martin, which all sounds extremely plausible to me. (And it's great to see you blogging regularly again.) It's interesting to see how so many of the factors which you mention aren't peculiar to Christian or even religious thinkers - it looks as if there's a groundswell of anti-Zionism which washes over Christian and non-Christian groups alike. Do you think there's anything interestingly general to be said about why those Christians who aren't anti-Zionists don't succumb to the considerations which you mention?

Martin said...

Thank you, Eve. I'm glad you like it, since you were one of the people who urged me to write about this, way back when...I agree that Christian critics of Israel draw on general anti-Zionist tropes - but they do add a few inflections of their own, drawn from their own historical resources - and sometimes from that peculiarly religious legacy of anti-semitism. As for why Christian supporters of Israel don't fall for this rhetoric - I'll have to think about that one. I suspect there are as many reasons as there are individuals - some being perhaps indebted to a Christianity informed by Enlightenment rationalism - but I'm not really sure.

Unknown said...

Maybe this might help you out

Martin said...

I really don't want to get into this here, Richard, as I suspect your mind won't be changed by anything I say. I'll just comment that the post you link to gives a nasty and completely unfair impression of the lovely pro-Israel demonstrators against the distasteful Sussex BDS campaigners. Last I saw, they were trying to win over the intractable Brighton BDS-ers with cake and kindness. More power to their elbow!

Unknown said...

Sorry that was wrong link, I do do technology very well. What I meant was maybe this would help.

But since we have wondered in to sodastream territory maybe this might help too.

Martin said...

As I say, Richard, we're not going to shift our respective positions through an exchange of comments on a blog. I come from a Methodist background and responded to the recent survey about the church's BDS proposal with appropriate anger and disappointment that they were even considering it. And I'm a big fan of the original Harry's Place...But thank you for visiting my blog. I hope you'll drop in again. Martin.

Unknown said...

It isn't about changing respective positions it is about being effective.Positions don't change in any real sense. Like people that think like you will come to your blog and tell you how wonderful you are. Others will slag you off. The world stays the same. It is all about the hope for gain and the fear of loss equation I am effective, ask Jonathan Hoffman and the Board ( re Stephen Sizer )

I entirely agree with what I assume to be your view that the the cleave between the pro occupation and dispossession Christian camp, and the anti occupation Christian camp is of some importance in regard to whether the brutal illegal occupation ends quickly or less quickly.

You are firmly on one side I am firmly on the other. We shall see.