The Limits of Friendship

May 1, 2007
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David Elcott

Let us focus on one question of extraordinary significance for Israel and American Jews committed to Israel: what does it mean to support the State of Israel today? Our reflex is to embrace anyone or any group that says it loves Israel and wants it to flourish. Many mainline Christians claim to stand for Israel even as they support divestment against companies doing business in Israel or condemn Israel as an apartheid state. When they speak that way, it is hard to see them as allies. Christian Zionists, Evangelicals who know God’s will from their biblical insights and offer a literal reading of Scriptures, concern me as well. In fact, their support may endanger Israel’s future even more than our fickle mainline Protestant friends.

The International Christian Embassy is the umbrella for Christian Zionists whose support we often seek. The core of their commitment is absolute: “Zionism seeks to declare the truth of God’s word that bequeaths to the people of Israel the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession.” For Jews who feel the need for self-justification, Christian affirmation of the eternal Jewish right to the land of Israel rings sweet.

But that support comes with strings. Not the eschatological vision of Armageddon, where Jews will be engulfed in a worldwide conflagration heralding Jesus’ return. I can handle such millennial messianic aspirations and am happy to engage in theological dialogue. Rather, my concern focuses on what these Christians mean when they support Israel.

We have learned something painful these last years. The goodwill of the U.S. does not protect Israelis from missiles launched against the north, and Congressional votes cannot stop rockets from hitting the Negev. In spite of overwhelming power, Israelis and American Jews feel vulnerable and want an end to violence. In spite of the frightening scenarios of Hamas and Hezbollah and Iranian hatred, the last five governments of Israel have called for a Palestinian state living next to a secure, demographically viable Israel. Christian Zionists unequivocally condemn that solution.

In 2005, Israel courageously moved again to promote peace. Ariel Sharon, the elected Prime Minister of Israel, called for disengagement from Gaza as a means to better defend Israel. But many Christian Zionist opposed the government of Israel. They provided material resources for settlers to resist evacuation and politically advocated in the U.S. against the Israeli decision.

Israelis support a two-state solution by a two-to-one margin. The last Hebrew University Truman Center study showed that 58 percent of Israelis would negotiate with Hamas right now. A clear majority of American Jews polled in the latest American Jewish Committee survey also seek a Palestinian state as part of a negotiated settlement. Meanwhile, Evangelical Christians are antagonistic to any territorial division of the Holy Land, even if such an agreement could bring peace.

We know that demands of all-out war, calls for retribution, and supporting the most extreme military actions proclaiming God on our side are not necessarily acts of patriotism. As Jews, we support an Israel that seeks peace, reaches out in compromise, and cherishes the sacredness of human life over the sacredness of land. And as a religious minority, we rightfully protest those who, in claiming a monopoly on knowing God’s will, tell us how to act or what policies Israel should promote — whether mainline Christian Protestants or Christian Zionists.

We should embrace in friendship and in dialogue all our Christian brothers and sisters, seek common cause where we can while engaging in respectful dialogue when we disagree. I continue to reach out to the International Christian Embassy and to mainline Protestants to support a secure Israel and to help end the violence that has caused such suffering to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Certainly, we should seek religious allies to join in our advocacy efforts and there should be no “Israel” or theological litmus test for those willing to endorse our political positions. But it is time to unequivocally reframe the Middle East debate and make clear that the greatest defenders of the state of Israel, those who love her most, are those of us who advocate for an end to the conflict and peace for all those who reside in the land that we all call holy.

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David Elcott is Executive Director of Israel Policy Forum, an advocacy think tank committed to a negotiated two-state solution. He is the author of A Sacred Journey and former U.S. Interreligious Affairs Director for the American Jewish Committee.

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