Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Was Israel a Mistake? - Review of Sizer's first book

I just found a review of one of Sizer's other books, in Christianity Today, by Paul Merkley: Was Israel a Mistake? It's also a doozie.

In Christian Zionism: Road-Map to Armageddon?, Stephen Sizer advances the fantasy, previously elaborated by a host of anti-Zionist polemicists, that the long and honorable history of defense by Christians of Israel's right to be Israel is merely an epiphenomenon of the history of a singular, off-center school of theology called premillennial dispensationalism. According to this thesis, all Christian Zionists are mindless acolytes of a Sanhedrin of pamphleteers which carries on the teachings of John Nelson Darby.

By my casual reckoning, about 80 percent of the book is devoted to a sedulous taxonomy of End Times speculation. The project began as a doctoral thesis for which Sizer bravely sifted through the mountain of English-language prophetic theology from the 17th to the end of the 20th century and disposed its components into categories: amillennialist, postmillennialist, and premillennialist—the latter further divided into covenantal and dispensationalist, and, in the latter section of the book, apocalyptic-dispensationalist and political dispensationalist. Do not despair: there are charts.

Early in the book, Sizer outlines a sequence of political figures who carried the message of premillennial dispensationalism forward into a plan of action for establishing a Jewish state. The list breaks off with Balfour, and thus Sizer spares himself having to explain the connection between dispensationalism and Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and their successors in the front ranks of political actors after 1918.

Among major misrepresentations of historical fact too numerous to list, let alone to deconstruct, I take the case of Arthur James Balfour, he of the Balfour Declaration, who stands in this book for the entire class of Christian Zionists. We learn that he was a man who was "brought up in an evangelical home and was sympathetic to Zionism because of the influence of dispensational teaching," hence naïve, uncultivated, weak-minded, his thinking processes dulled, like those of the rest of us Christian friends of Israel today, by low-brow pamphleteering and thus easily led by the Zionists. Balfour, dim bulb that he was, "regarded history as an instrument for carrying out a Divine Purpose." (Since when did this become a heresy?)

In truth, Lord Arthur James Balfour was a member of the most prominent political family of his day, noted for its achievements in science and the arts; he had a place at the very heart of British intellectual and artistic circles, was educated up to his ears, and was a widely published critical-academic philosopher, which earns him a long entry today in the Encylopedia of Philosophy. The quotient of dispensationalism in Balfour's intellectual makeup was zero.

In fact, of all the major Christian Zionists whom Sizer describes as standing at the end of the line whose head and fount is the dispensationalist Prophet, John Darby, only one, William Blackstone, was in fact a dispensationalist, or, for that matter, speculated at all about covenants and dispensations. (And how on earth did the notoriously agnostic Lord Palmerston get into this sequence of the mindless dupes of premillennial dispensationalism?)

Sizer's cartoon-Balfour stands for all the Christian Zionists jerked around by scheming Jews. Think of contemporary Christian Zionists, puppets of the Likud, cheering from the sidelines, never questioning, never doubting, as bulldozers destroy the vineyards and homes of Palestinians (as illustrated on the cover of the book), as illegal settlements are expanded towards the never-admitted but palpable goal of extending Israel's boundaries to include Damascus, Beirut, Amman, and Baghdad—perhaps, who knows, to China. Like the cartoon-Balfour, Christian visitors to Israel are swiftly taken captive by State-appointed tour-guides who drag everybody off to Yad Vashem (which exists "to represent Israel as a victim") and then to the Wailing Wall and Masada in order "to perpetuate a favorable image of Israel, stifle criticism and reinforce their claim to the land." Related to this red herring is the one about being in love with cosmic-death scenarios inspired by provocative passages in Daniel and Revelation. The debt which Sizer owes to the Chomsky-Finkelstein-Ateek school of the History of Israel is readily apparent.

Some of my best friends are premillennial dispensationalists, but we get along anyway. For a Christian Zionist of my ilk, a full and sufficient biblical mandate is in Genesis 12, with special reference to verse 3: "I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you, and in you all the nations of the world shall be blessed"—a text which Sizer turns inside out on page 147.

It does not seem of any interest to Sizer to note that we stand today on historical ground very different from that of the age of the dispensationalist prophetic conferences. What we have to speculate about today is whether the being of Israel should be undone by human force. Christian Zionists are realists. They no longer attend conferences in which anyone proposes a theory about Israel's coming into existence. Their speculations about what is right and wrong, what should be done and not done, start from the premise that Israel is. Anti-Zionists, meanwhile, live in the same counterfactual world as do the Muslims who speculate about the legitimacy of Zion.

It is a common feature of anti-Christian Zionist literature that little interest is shown in the actual historical circumstances that brought the modern State of Israel into existence. In Sizer's book there is absolutely none, unless we count this oddity on page 148: "in 1948 the U.S. government was just as opposed to the founding of the State of Israel [as was] Britain." Is this revisionism, or what? It is Franklin Roosevelt attacking the Japanese fleet at Pearl Harbor. Did none of that long list of people who are thanked on the Acknowledgements page twig to this incriminating bit of confusion? Does InterVarsityPress not have fact-checkers? This is embarrassing. It is, however, all we have to indicate that Sizer knows that once there was no State of Israel but now there is—somehow.

With this book, says Colin Chapman in his back-cover appreciation, "Sizer has thrown down the gauntlet in a way that demands a response from those who support the state of Israel for theological reasons." Well, anytime, anywhere.

16 comments:

  1. I would even say that the Jewish religion itself has prepared the way to a future Armageddon: Christianity, and Islam, are Jewish religion sects. While the former doesn't quite have the potential to bring civilization to an end anymore (although its adopters have committed plenty of atrocities), the latter has that potential more than enough.

    Without the Jewish religion, so many religious wars and atrocities, holocausts, wouldn't have happened, and the ones that will happen wouldn't have.

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  2. Clearly, Sizer did not read Michael Oren's research on restorationism, which has roots in early US history. He stated, in an interview related to his truly stellar book, Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776-Present as follows:

    The roots of American support for Israel go back hundreds of years—indeed to the day that the first buckled shoe alighted on a rock along the Massachusetts shore. The owner of that shoe, William Bradford, proclaimed “Come let us declare in Zion the word of God.” Bradford was a leader of the Puritans, a dissenting Protestant movement that suffered greatly at the hands of the Church of England, and which sought strength in the books of the Old Testament. There the Puritans found a God who spoke directly to His people, in their language, and who promised them to rescue them from exile and restore them to their Holy Land.

    The Puritans appropriated this narrative—they became the New Israel and the New World became the new Zion. Consequently, the Puritans and their descendents developed a strong sense of kinship with the Old Israel—the Jews—and an attachment to the Old Promised Land, then known as Palestine, part of the Ottoman Empire. Many of them concluded that, in order to be good Christians and Americans, they were obliged to assist God in fulfilling his Biblical promises to restore the Jews to their ancestral homeland. So was born the notion of restorations, which became an immensely popular movement in eighteenth and nineteenth-century America. John Adams declared that his fondest wish was that "100,000 Jewish soldiers…would march into Palestine and reclaim it as a Judean kingdom," and Abraham Lincoln acknowledged that the dream of restoring the Jews was dear to a great many Americans and pledged to help realize that dream after the Civil War.

    Perhaps the greatest expression of restorationism occurred in 1891, when real estate mogul William Blackstone submitted a petition to President Benjamin Harrison urging the United States to spearhead an international effort to take Palestine from the Turks and return it to the Jews. The Blackstone Memorial, as it was called, was signed by 400 prominent Americans, including John D. Rockefeller, J. Pierpont Morgan, and William McKinley. Restorationism proved instrumental in moving Woodrow Wilson to endorse the Balfour Declaration, recognizing the Jewish people’s right to a national home in Palestine, and in convincing Harry Truman, a strict Baptist who had nearly memorized the Bible, to be the first world leader to recognize Israel in 1948.

    Of course, the fact that Israel is a democracy struggling for survival in a profoundly undemocratic environment plays a role in America’s support of the Jewish state. So, too, does the extensive cooperation between the United States and Israel on military development, intelligence sharing, and training. But the core of the U.S.-Israel alliance lies in the faith of the American people, which remains—in contrast to Europe—intense.

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  3. Oh, John, so everything is still the fault of the Jews, even if Christians and Muslims do the evil deeds? Wow, what a twisted form of antisemitism!

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  4. N. Friedman, thank you for the quote from Oren - I'll have to read the book.

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  5. Rebecca,

    It is a truly brilliant book, both for its scholarship and analysis but also for its insight into how a person with both American and Israeli roots sees the Middle East and its relationships to the world.

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  6. Woops, I misstated things. I meant to say that it is a truly brilliant book, both for its scholarship and analysis but also for its insight into how a person with both American and Israeli roots sees America and its relationships in the Middle East.

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  7. Oh, Rebecca, that just typically Jewish isn't it? When someone criticizes something Jewish just accuse him of anti-semitism! I guess that shuts up everybody, right? Well, you gotta learn to handle criticism better. If you don't agree with someone's opinion, refrain from ad-hominem attacks.

    Like it or not, Christianity and Islam would never have existed witout the mother of all Abrahamic faiths, Judaism. Christianity and Islam didn't invent religious persecution, genocide and ethnic cleansing, they learned it from Judaism. Just read the Old Testament. No other religion had claimed such an extreme exclusivity in having God's favor, and as far as I know, no other religion before has required the killing of innocent people - including defenseless women and children - just because they didn't subscribe to their religious ideas, or because they didn't belong to the same ethnic group, or because they didn't belong to "God's people". All these things were learned by Christianity and Islam from Judaism. This malignant exclusivism has been inherited from Judaism. 

    So yeah, I blame ancient Judaism, together with the actual perpetrators (Jewish or not), for all evil commited in the name of Abrahamic faiths. 

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  8. Okay, John, any more comments like this and I'm deleting them. When someone talks about somebody being "typically Jewish" and blames Jews and Judaism for all genocides since the writing of the Hebrew Bible - that's anti-semitism. If you can't refrain from blaming an entire group of people for a whole variety of things that they didn't do, you're out.

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  9. John,

    Not to indulge what, so far as I can see, is your ignorance and/or hatred, I think you should understand how foolish you sound. Which is to say, your error is not a question of interpretation of Judaism. It is that you confuse Judaism with something else.

    More specifically, you confuse Judaism with the Hebrew Scriptures. Yes, there is a lot of violence in the Hebrew Scriptures, just as there is a lot of violence in the world, especially but not only the ancient world. The question to be understood - which seems to escape you entirely - is how Judaism interprets that violence. That cannot be determined from the Hebrew Scriptures because it is the text being interpreted, not the interpretation. And, on top of that, the Hebrew Scriptures are not the only source of material that forms Judaism. In particular, Judaism has an oral, not merely a written, tradition.

    Here is a hint, though. The interpretation given to it by Jews has evolved a lot since ancient times. One is better to start, if you really care what Judaism is about, with writers such as Maimonides. You will discover that Judaism is very much different than what you believe. And, I note: the content of Judaism, even Orthodox Judaism, has changed a lot since Maimonides' time.

    Otherwise, your comment is tendentious nonsense.

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  10. Thank you, N., for the learned putdown, which I didn't have the energy for earlier today.

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  14. Okay, John, that's it. Your two comments are out. Sorry, N. Friedman, I'm going to delete your comment since it's a reply to John's two.

    This is my blog, and I don't allow the propagation of antisemitism on it.

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  16. Rebecca,

    I was trying to be helpful but I certainly do not mind being bleeped out.

    For what it is worth, my gut reaction is that it is better to leave hateful things up. John's expression was so crude that it is not a good advertisement for today's hate mongers.

    The Antisemitism of today focuses on Israel's original sin or on the Holocaust supposedly being used as an excuse for the creation of Israel or on the supposed appropriation of the world's supposed limited attention span for concern about suffering, with Jews supposedly hogging up the works with our concern for our suffering.

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