18 August, 2005
Christian Zionism - Interview with Michael Prior CM
The late Father Michael Prior had some very interesting comments to make in this interview. It is a few years old, but very relevant and important reading.
Christians and Zionism
An interview with Michael Prior
by Marianne Arbogast
On the platform, an Israeli student is telling thousands of supporters how the horrors of the year have only reinforced his people’s determination. "Despite the terror attacks, they’ll never drive us away out of our God-given land," he says. This is greeted with whoops and hollers and waving of Israeli flags and the blowing of the shofar, the Jewish ceremonial ram’s horn. Then comes the mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, who is received even more rapturously. ... The placards round the hall insist that every inch of the Holy Land should belong to Israel and that there should never be a Palestinian state. These assertions are backed up by biblical quotations. It could be a rally in Jerusalem for those Israelis who think Ariel Sharon is a dangerous softie. But something very strange is going on here. There are thousands of people cheering for Israel in the huge Washington Convention Centre. But not one of them appears to be Jewish, at least not in the conventional sense. For this is the annual gathering of a very non-Jewish organization indeed: the Christian Coalition of America. – Matthew Engel, The Guardian, 10/28/02
The influence of Christian Zionists on American foreign policy is cause for concern among many who see their worldview – with its unqualified support of Israeli land rights – as potentially contributing to the outbreak of the world-engulfing apocalyptic battle they predict. Michael Prior, a Roman Catholic priest and biblical scholar at St. Mary’s College, University of Surrey, England, describes and critiques the development of political Zionism and the "dispensationalist" Christian theology which has embraced it. Prior, who is the author of The Bible and Colonialism: A Moral Critique (Sheffield, 1997) and Zionism and the State of Israel: A Moral Inquiry (Routledge, 1999) and editor of Holy Land Studies: A Multidisciplinary Journal (Continuum, 2002), visited the U.S. in November 2002 on a speaking tour sponsored by Friends of Sabeel and other Palestinian advocacy organizations.
The Witness: How did you become involved with the issue of Zionism and justice for Palestinians?
Michael Prior: Probably the first time I became conscious of the situation in any kind of gripping way was during the 1967 war when I was a theology student. I remember gobbling my supper each evening in the seminary to watch the replay of what had happened that day or the night before. And at that time I was delighted by the victory of Israel – a little country which I understood to be under siege from a whole bunch of predatory and rapacious Arab neighboring states.
Then in 1972 as part of my post-graduate biblical studies I visited the land, and even though the concentration was entirely on examining artifacts from the past, I did absorb that I was witnessing some kind of apartheid system. And in 1981, I went with a group of students from my university in England to the University of Bir Zeit, which is about 18 miles north of Jerusalem, and the university was occupied by the Israeli military the day before we arrived. We couldn’t gain legal access to the campus, although we did get in surreptitiously. The university put a bus at our disposal, so we drove up and down the West Bank and into Israel proper. And being in the company of Bir Zeit students I began to appreciate much more readily the nature of the Israeli occupation and how it was impinging upon the indigenous Arab population.
In 1983 and 1984, I was living in Jerusalem for a year. It was very tense all the time, and I was shocked one morning in the spring of 1984 when I turned on the radio to hear that Jewish settlers had climbed over the wall of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock compound, and they had guns and bomb equipment and hand grenades, and they were attempting to blow up the site of the third-holiest shrine in Islam. That was happening just down the road from me. And then, while they were in court, some of them were reading from the Psalms. So I was beginning to say to myself, good heavens, the oppression that I had begun to perceive in 1972 and that I was getting a better knowledge of from the inside – is it possible that this is being driven by religious zealotry of some kind?
I began the task of reading the biblical narrative from the point of view of the land–to do so adequately would have taken me altogether away from the subject of my study (the "Pastoral Epistles")–but in the early 1990s, again in Jerusalem, I returned to that subject much more systematically. I started typing out those texts in the biblical narrative that were about land in any sense – the promise of it, how it was related to the covenant, etc. What really shocked me was that the people entering the land – which was already inhabited by Canaanites, Hivites, Hittites and so on – were to exterminate the indigenous population. That came through in a number of texts, especially in the Book of Deuteronomy. It was bad enough to find that the business of genocide or ethnic cleansing was legitimate, but I was actually reading that it was a requirement of fidelity to the commands of God. And for some crazy reason I hadn’t noticed that in my previous reading of the biblical narrative – perhaps I became more sensitive by the recognition that, in fact, some of these texts formed part of the background for the maltreatment of the indigenous population.
And then, over the years I was becoming much more sensitive to what happened in 1948. I don’t think that I had known in any significant way that people had been kicked out of their homes in 1948 and 1949. I certainly didn’t know that 418 villages were destroyed to make sure that those who were kicked out would not be able to resume occupancy in their home villages.
The Witness: Where did the ideology of Zionism come from?
Michael Prior: Political Zionism is a 19th-century European export, carrying all of the arrogance that one associates with the European nation-states in their colonial zeal. The founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, a non-religious Jew, and his supporters – the vast majority of whom were not only utterly secular but anti-religious – saw it as being necessary to escape the manacled life that was imposed upon Jews in Europe in the ghettoes. At the time, the whole enterprise of political Zionism was regarded by the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, whom Herzl visited around 1896 or 1897, as an egregious blunder. Several of the chief rabbis in Europe were of the same mind – that this enterprise was contrary to Judaism and contrary to the sacred scriptures. Today, you would not get a chief rabbi anywhere who would hold that position. There are other Jews, mostly secular, who take a much more moral stance, in my opinion, but the majority of the leadership of the Orthodox communities throughout the world support Zionism now in an overtly enthusiastic way. So Zionism has gone from being a secular, anti-religious enterprise despised by the religious establishment to becoming virtually an integral part of the self-definition of Jews.
I have recently been examining the place of the state of Israel in the Jewish-Christian dialogue. One of the principles of Jewish-Christian dialogue – or indeed, dialogue between any two faiths — is that each faith acknowledges and respects the self-definition of the other. The Jewish partners in the dialogue are invariably religious Jews, and the dialogue has been tainted by the philosophy of political Zionism. You find the most extraordinary claims being made for Jewish rights in the land, and you find regularly a fundamental distortion of historical reality concerning the circumstances under which the state of Israel was brought into being – particularly the propaganda view that it was never the intention of the Zionists to expel the indigenous Arab population, and that this only happened in the context of the trying circumstances of war.
Not only is it absolutely established that hundreds of thousands were expelled at gunpoint with threats after massacres, but all kinds of horror tactics were used to expel the people from their villages and homes. It’s now emerged in the last 10 years from the study of the Zionist and Israeli archives that there is a clear line of development of the notion of what they called "population transfer." From the beginning, the prevailing and majority view was that, in order to establish a state, Israel must get rid of the non-Jews from the area.
The Witness: How did that process of transformation of a political philosophy into a religious idea come about?
Michael Prior: In the beginning of the 20th century there was a small group of religious Jews who identified themselves very quickly with the Zionist secular project. But probably most significantly was the coming to Palestine of a rabbi called Avraham Yitzhak Kook, who became chief rabbi in Palestine from 1921 until he died in 1935. He reinterpreted Jewish history and Jewish eschatology. He was moving away from the strictly Orthodox position that the restoration of the Jews to the land is the work of the Messiah, so any "scaling the wall" before the Messiah comes is blasphemous. He was saying that what these Zionists are doing, even though they don’t know it, is actually in conformity with God’s will. He established a center for the training of rabbis and, under the direction of his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, virtually all the major religious ideologues in the West Bank or in the settlements have come through that particular rabbinical school. And of course they were using the biblical narrative, "Wherever you put your foot is land that belongs to us," and also claiming that the biblical narrative determined the dimensions of the land.
The Witness: How did a version of Christianity that holds Zionist ideas come to develop?
Michael Prior: There were several strands within some of the wings of the Reformed churches that saw the restoration of Jews to the land as being a preliminary to the Second Coming of Christ. Much of it is due to the theological speculation of a man called John Nelson Darby, who was a minister in the Church of Ireland, but he left the church and joined forces with other people in establishing the Plymouth Brethren. He said that all of human history is divisible into seven dispensations, from the period of creation to the final period, which will be the reign of the Messiah. And the final stage requires the return of the Jews to the land. Darby fell out of favor with some of his co-Plymouth Brethren and came over to the States and began to have a strong influence on a number of critical evangelical preachers here – Dwight L. Moody, William E. Blackstone, C.I. Schofield and several other people. And that strand of dispensationalism and Armageddon theology has run down all the years. It’s represented nowadays by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and other people in that Christian Right evangelical constituency.
That wing of the evangelical world viewed the establishment of the state of Israel as the first clear sign of the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and the final countdown to Armageddon. Later, Israel’s "miraculous" victory over Arab armies in 1967 confirmed the prophetic scenario. The October War of 1973 gave further fuel to Armageddon theology. Jerry Falwell’s "Friendship Tour to Israel" in 1983 included meetings with Israeli government and military officials, a tour of Israeli battlefields and defence installations. His "Prophecy Trips" to Jerusalem heralded the immigration of Jews into Israel as the sign of the imminent Second Coming of Christ. Jesus would rapture true Christians into the air, while the rest of humankind would be slaughtered below. Then 144,000 Jews would bow down before Jesus and be saved. This could even happen while the evangelical pilgrims were in Jerusalem, giving them a ringside seat at the Battle of Armageddon. Biblical prophecy was striving toward its fulfillment in the Middle East today. Thus, Saddam Hussein was reconstructing Babylon, and the city would ignite the events of the end times.
The Witness: Is contemporary Christian Zionism primarily an American phenomenon?
Michael Prior: Well, it’s particularly prominent here. Christian Zionists number perhaps some 25 million worldwide, but their influence is greatest in the U.S., where they number some 20 million. I understand that includes several members of the cabinet of George W. Bush.
The state of Israel is prepared to work with these people – even though it’s part of their theology that Judaism will disappear, that only those Jews who recognize Jesus as the Messiah will be saved. When he came to power in 1977, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, realizing that the mainstream U.S. churches were growing more sympathetic to the Palestinians, directed Israeli lobbyists in the U.S. to work on the evangelical constituency. His Likud Party began to use religious language, and determined efforts were made to forge bonds between evangelical Christians and pro-Israel lobbies. Begin’s example has been followed by every Prime Minister since.
The Witness: How much influence do you think this has had on U.S. policy?
Michael Prior: The evangelical Christian constituency was a major factor in the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976. However, his call for a Palestinian homeland in 1977 precipitated his downfall, and the evangelical right’s switch to Ronald Reagan in 1980 was a major factor in Carter’s defeat. The combined efforts of the Israeli lobbies and the Christian Right have continued since, and reached their climax in the present incumbent in the White House. While acknowledging the underlying oil interests, one cannot ignore the extent to which the Christian Right influences the administration’s worldview regarding the "war on terrorism" and appetite for "regime change" in Iraq.
The Witness: How do you see the involvement or complicity of the mainstream churches?
Michael Prior: I think "complicity" would be too strong a word, because by and large the mainstream Christian churches have never been sympathetic to the Zionist project. But whatever desire the Christian churches might have had to criticize the project of Zionism and its determination to expel the indigenous population, they weren’t going to voice that criticism, for fear of appearing to be supporters of the Nazi determination to rid Europe of its Jews. And it’s only as years have gone on, I think, that the extent of the disaster done to the Palestinian people has become more apparent, and Christians have begun to have a bit more sympathy for the Palestinian plight.
The Churches in the Holy Land manifest virtual unanimity with respect to the situation in Palestine. The first intifada which erupted in 1987 stimulated a new sense of unity, marked by ongoing ecumenical cooperation, and issuing in a number of significant joint statements, not least in criticism of the excesses of the Israeli occupation. And such views are mirrored in the mainstream churches outside.
But most of the mainstream Christian churches have settled – I think in a rather unprincipled way – for an accommodation between the oppressor – in this case the Zionists – and the oppressed. They talk about "balance." But there has been no systematic or moral critique of the ideology of Zionism, which I think is what the situation demands. Christian morality has some very clearly expressed fundamental positions – like, for example, if you do damage to somebody else, you must apologize for the damage you have done, you must make good the damage you have done insofar as that is possible, you must compensate the person who is disadvantaged insofar as that is possible, and you must commit yourself to working toward non-exploitation in the future. But, in the case of Zionism and the state of Israel, those principles are left aside. Instead we have church leaders advocating accommodations between the victim and the oppressor without demands for any of those kinds of things – like, for example, in practical terms, the return of refugees, which is a right under international law.
And if that is the situation in the churches, I am afraid that the situation in the educational academies is even worse. There is presently a serious programmatic attempt to mute any criticism of the state of Israel or of the Zionist project. The World Zionist Organization, at its Congress this summer, called on it members to challenge anti-semitism, anti-Zionism and Holocaust denial. Anti-Zionism, in that view, is put into the same category as the other two – whereas, in fact, Zionism is a 19th-century political project that has wreaked enormous havoc on the indigenous population of Palestine. Not only do I think it is legitimate to protest against this project, but I think it is a moral imperative to do so – as I would think it a moral imperative to protest against the policy of apartheid. And incidentally, I consider Zionism to be an evil of far greater profundity than apartheid.
The Witness: Why do you say that?
Michael Prior: Well, first of all, even though the apartheid regime did all kinds of injustices to the indigenous population of South Africa, it didn’t expel 80 percent of them. The Zionist project is much more severe – the Zionists wanted, simply, ethnic cleansing. I’m sure there are many people in Israel today who regard the Zionist project as having made their first major blunder in not getting rid of all of the Arabs in 1948. They got rid of 750,000, leaving behind approximately 150,000. That 150,000 has grown to a million. And there are very strong voices in Israel now that say the only way forward is to expel all the Arabs.
And, of course, we’re now in a situation where we could have a very, very serious war. We’ve had a whole pile of wars in the region, many of them related to the existence of the state of Israel, its policies of expansion and its militarism. I think it’s very easy to demonstrate that a lot of the militancy and the expenditure of the resources of the surrounding countries on arms has got to do with the fact that Israel is so well-armed. So it has brought a great sense of belligerence to the whole culture and it has seriously undermined the credibility of the United States’ foreign policy. Something like one-third of all American foreign aid goes to the state of Israel.
The Witness: Insofar as Christian religious ideas or interpretations of the Bible are used to justify this, how do you think we can confront them?
Michael Prior: This is a profoundly difficult task, since we are not dealing merely with the interpretation of texts, but, rather, with a whole worldview, and also, of course, with a personal philosophy and value system. There are obviously technical questions to pose about the nature of the biblical narrative. Crudely, not everything in the Bible in the "past tense" is necessarily history, and not everything in the "future tense" is necessarily calling out for fulfilment in political terms in each generation. But I consider the moral question to be even more fundamental. To begin with, I would wish to inquire into what picture of God is behind their particular interpretation of things – a God who rejoices in the slaughter of people in the Armageddon disaster? The God they portray looks to me to be a militaristic and xenophobic genocidist who would not be even sufficiently moral to conform to the Fourth Geneva Convention. How, I constantly ask myself, are such people so unconcerned about others being kicked out of their homes, children being shot, people struggling for survival against very oppressive forces of occupation? Instead of trying to give food to the hungry and sight to the blind, as Jesus exhorted, these people support institutions that make seeing people blind, put free people in prison, and make the poor poorer. But it is extremely difficult to make progress in the face of worldviews which are held tenaciously, and considered to be in conformity with the will of God as revealed in the Scriptures. I go back to the fundamental question: Is God moral? Is God just? Is God a God of love, compassion, tenderness and justice? Or, rather, is God the great ethnic cleanser? Those are fundamental questions that I would like the evangelical Zionist constituency to consider.
I think that this particular question about the Holy Land – the cohabitation of people of three faiths and two nationalisms in the land – is presenting a massive challenge to the integrity of religion. If Christians don’t contribute to getting that right, I think they do a serious disservice to the whole religious project.
Marianne Arbogast is associate editor of The Witness.