“Zionism Unsettled” – A Smart and Gutsy New Church Study Guide

ZU-cover_DVDSo great to receive my copy of “Zionism: Unsettled” – an exciting new church study guide published by the Israel/Palestine Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA). As someone who has been collaborating with Protestant church denominations on the issue of Israel/Palestine for a number of years now, I can say without hesitation that this is a much-needed resource: smart and gutsy and immensely important.

“Zionism Unsettled” is based on the upcoming anthology, “Zionism and the Quest for Justice in the Holy Land,” to be published this summer by Wipf and Stock. While the anthology will be fairly academic in tone, “Zionism Unsettled” has digested its contents into a book and DVD for use by laypeople in congregational study settings. I’m thrilled that the IPMN has made this resource available to reach a much wider audience. (It was my honor to contribute an essay to that book, which has been adapted for a chapter in this study guide.)

ZU unsparingly examines Jewish and Christian forms of Zionism – with special attention to the way they have historically provided theological and ideological “cover” for the the dispossession of the Palestinian people. It’s a critical emphasis; indeed while there are no lack of political analyses on this subject, far less attention has been paid to the ways in which religious ideology has shaped the political context in Israel/Palestine.

This guide fills that void powerfully with careful, impressively researched chapters on the history of political Zionism as well as examinations of evangelical and mainline Protestant Zionism. My own chapter, “A Jewish Theology of Liberation” proposes a Jewish alternative to land-based nationalism – namely, a Judaism based in values of universal values of justice and dignity for all who live in the land.

As a Jew, I’m especially appreciative that while ZU is strongly critical of Zionism, it doesn’t flinch from extensive Christian self-criticism. The guide is particularly candid in its examination of the oppressive legacy of the post-Constantinan Church, replacement theology – and Christian anti-Semitism in general. In fact, throughout the guide there is a strong and palpable critique of exceptionalism of all stripes. In the end, the most basic criticism of “Zionism Unsettled” is leveled against triumphalist claims of every empire that has conquered and colonized this land throughout the centuries:

Exceptionalism is not unique to Zionism; rather it is present whenever exceptionalist religious ideology is fused with political power. Christian exceptionalist beliefs and actions contributed to the Nazi Holocaust, the genocide of Native Americans, and countless other instances of tragic brutality. Exceptionalist doctrines and behaviors within Islam have contributed to grievous human rights abuses such as the massacres during the closing days of the Ottoman Empire which crescendoed with the Armenian genocide in 1915.

I will say I do not personally agree with everything in this guide. In particular I’m at all comfortable with the theological analysis of Dr. Gary Burge, who rightly criticizes Christian replacement theology (the belief that the Jewish covenant with God has been “replaced” by the new covenant in Christ), yet seems to reaffirm it when he suggests a concept of a “’suspended blessing’ that will be restored at the end of history when ‘all Israel will be saved’”(p. 47).  It’s not at all clear to me how this conception differs fundamentally from the Christian “one covenant” theology he purports to disavow.

I was also disappointed by the chapter entitled “A Palestinian Muslim Experience with Zionism,” which does not at all apply kind of critical pedagogy to Islam that characterizes the chapters on Christianity and Judaism. While this chapter rightly spotlights “the inclusive theology of the Qur’an,” it fails to explore the exceptionalist manifestations of Islam in the same unsparing manner that pervades the rests of the book. As a result, this chapter feels to me somewhat tacked-on and represents a bit of a missed opportunity.

Despite my issues with “Zionism Unsettled,” however, I nonetheless find it to be a courageous work that has the potential to be a genuine game changer in interfaith conversations over Israel/Palestine. While I have no doubt it will be enormously controversial in many liberal religious circles, I believe it is an essential resource that boldly reframes the terms of interfaith encounter in ways that are long overdue.

I deeply admire its bravery and look forward to the conversations it will most certainly inspire.

12 thoughts on ““Zionism Unsettled” – A Smart and Gutsy New Church Study Guide

  1. Vicky

    Interesting. Even though I am a Christian myself, Christian Zionism as a theological outlook (as opposed to a manifestation of post-Holocaust guilt) has always felt alien to me. Not being from the evangelical Protestant circles where it’s common, I haven’t had much personal contact with it. But when I think about it, this Bible passage comes to mind: “Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Hebrews 13:13-14.)

    As I read that passage, the exhortation to “go to him outside the camp” fits with Jesus’ own teaching that we should look for him in prisoners, sick people, the desperately poor – people who are excluded and marginalised from society for whatever reason. (“Whatever you do to the least of these my brothers, you do also to me.”) “For here we have no abiding city” is a reminder that there is no point in staying within the camp’s boundaries anyway. What is the point of shoring up nationalist commitment when it won’t last? Christian Zionism imbues a modern-day nationalist ideal with false spiritual significance at the expense of people who are condemned to remain outside the camp. One day all countries and states will be gone, but those people will remain, and as Christians how are we to stand before God and say, “Their homes were torn down in winter, but we glossed over it, because we were more interested in the biblical symbolism of the state that did this to them” Or “Yes, the gospel says to visit the prisoners, but there were children in prison and we didn’t even throw one glance their way because it was a lot more interesting to think about the state of Israel’s significance to the End Times”? It’s idolatry. I am glad that this book is doing something to challenge it.

    1. Laurie

      Thank you for your explanation of what our actions as Christians need to be in this saddest of conflicts. I’m planning on printing it out and keeping it with the book as a reminder of the journey we should be on.

  2. H. Rako

    Please note: in the book it correctly accepts “some form of Replacement Theology” on p. 47. I say “correctly” from the Christian viewpoint, because if there is absolutely no replacement then in fact we must be stuck with Christian Zionism. Instead, Christianity does not teach that people must keep doing the ancient rituals or that the religious community with the main “correct” ideas is now the Church.

    I am not saying you hardly need to agree with this, just explaining the view that Christianity has at least some things that replace things that were done long ago. Thanks.

  3. H. Rako

    P.S I meant to say “Christianity does not teach that people must keep doing the ancient rituals or that the religious community with the main “correct” ideas is not the Church.”

  4. H. Rako

    You write: ((I found it in the chapter entitled “A Palestinian Muslim Experience with Zionism,” which unfortunately does not apply the kind of critical pedagogy to Islam that characterizes the chapters on Christianity and Judaism.))

    The book does not criticize Islam, traditional Judaism (outside nationalism), or Protestantism much at all. The strong, main criticism is for Zionism and traditional Christian theology, which it either misportrays or greatly overemphasizes as intolerant.

  5. jcee

    Couldn’t agree more with your analysis. I first learned about the study guide on an Electronic Intifada post. It is time for more rigorous focus to be placed on Zionism – both from an ideological and theological standpoint – and the study guide has been enormously helpful in that respect. A few years back a Ben Ehrenreich article had the title “Zionism is the Problem” – no truer perception.


  7. Hiram Katz

    I am appalled by the outpouring of hate toward the Jewish people and Israel…I would suggest that the followers of this blog take a long hard look at the map of the Middle East..then throw in the Stan’s…try to find Israel..it is a speck,a tiny tiny piece of the area…and yet the worlds manic liberals….some…thank g.d,not many..Jews themselves would given their druthers..eliminate this tiny bastion of Jews from the face of the earth…funny thing all this they are doing,just hardens the Palestinians back..makes them think they are winning, therefore they ask for the impossible…pushing any hope of progress farther and farther….how ironic

    1. ruth1940

      If I understand your position correctly, Hiram, you think it’s fine to take property from others as long as it’s what you consider a small amount. What tradition do you hail from?

  8. Pingback: ZIONISTS UNSETTLED BY UNSETTLED ZIONISM | Uprootedpalestinians's Blog

  9. Pingback: Zionism Unsettled | Gralefrit Theology

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