One of the most generally accepted political “truths” here in the UK, is that there is a big difference between how we and people in the USA look at the Israel-Palestine issue. Whilst there are individual politicians here obviously do have pro-Israel views, and specific groups (Labour Friends of Israel being one) which lobby for pro-Israeli political positions, the broad mass of the UK population are taken to be broadly sympathetic to the Palestinians’ plight, whilst it is also taken as a given that US opinion tilts much further towards Israel. For instance, even during the 2008 Gaza attacks, polls such as this one from Rasmussen showed a plurality of Americans – or better – favouring Israel and blaming the Palestinians for the situation in which they found themselves. By contrast, most Britons were outraged by “Operation Cast Lead”, and viewed Israel as the aggressor. Media coverage of any conflict in Israel-Palestine also differs wildly between many outlets in the UK and others in the USA, as readers here will be aware.
There are many reasons for the disparity in views, not all of which have anything at all to do with the two protagonists in the conflict. Whilst it is true that US foreign policy is often craven towards Israel, and that US presidential candidates (including Barack Obama) appear to view the trip to AIPAC’s annual convention as though it were vital to their election prospects, the fact is that the “Israel Lobby” has very little to do with the views of Jewish people in the USA. US Jews not only represent a tiny fraction of the voting population, they have voted solidly Democratic throughout living electoral memory and, such that they have uniform views, are one of the most liberal communities in the United States. They are no more represented by AIPAC than are most people in the UK represented by UKIP.
However, there is another political force which aims to influence US policy towards Israel, which most certainly does represent a serious mass of people. That force is “Christian Zionism”, the product of US Evangelical churches and their rather eccentric (often unpleasant) theological roots. Christians United For Israel brings together a rogue’s gallery of the US religious right. This includes such luminaries as John Hagee, whose 2009 Presidential endorsement was rejected by Arizona Republican senator John McCain when it emerged that Hagee had said that Hitler was sent by God to help push history along towards the establishment of the state of Israel. Small wonder those Jews keep stubbornly voting Democrat. Another is Stephen Strang, owner of Charisma magazine. Still another is that ex-Reagan staffer and veteran of the religious right, Gary Bauer, the director of American Values, an organisation whose web page carries an exhortation to its readers to “defeat Islamofascism”. Articles throughout the site ring with paranoia about Islam and Muslims, along with the same old racially-tinted asides about how President Obama “says he’s a Christian”, but that there have been rumours to the contrary.
Suffice it to say that these people are not motivated to support Israel out of ecumenical or humanitarian concern for the welfare of the Jewish people living there. They support the mass migration of Jews to Israel (and indeed spend massive quantities of money on media supporting the idea) because they believe that the Jews have to return to Israel in order for the apocalypse to be fulfilled. There are various spins on this tale of the end of the world amongst US evangelical right-wingers, but essentially they believe that once this is done either they will be raptured to heaven whilst the Jews and the rest of us face the seven year rule of the Anti-Christ, or else they believe that non-Messianic Jews will be sent down along with the rest of us sinners (whose numbers include mainline Christians and non-wacko Evangelicals, incidentally), whilst they live with Jesus in the new Israel once he returns.
In short, these people are really, really nuts. What may surprise you though, is just how popular they are in certain Israeli government circles. Rachel Tabachnik of Talk2Action.org has an excellent article in the latest edition of the Public Eye magazine, entitled “The New Christian Zionism and the Jews: a love-hate relationship”. In the course of the incisive analysis of the US Christian Zionist movement – not least its similarities to the 19th and 20th century British-Israelite infestation of much US Protestant theology – she mentions CUFI on several occasions. Such is the organisation’s real-world sway now that the Israeli ambassador to the USA attended CUFI’s annual conference last July whilst rejecting an invitation to the annual conference of moderate Jewish lobbying group J Street in October. At the same CUFI event were Jewish Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman and Israeli ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman. Hagee in particular appears able to get audiences with very broad spectrums of the US and Israeli political classes, thus enabling him to reach beyond areas of the USA with large Evangelical populations.
All of this seems bizarre and possibly frightening to a public in the UK who are unused to such literal translation of religious belief into political reality, let alone on such a grand scale. We also tend to sneer, believing that somehow this shows up large numbers of Americans for the straw-chewing hilbillies that we always suspected they were (underneath all the being-a-superpower, the political behemoth stuff, etc). However perhaps we should not feel so secure in our contempt.
In the first instance, to view the phenomenon of Christian Zionism as being a creature of the US Bible Belt, is to lose one’s sense of history. In actual fact, Christian Zionism has its roots in the UK, with the Puritans who originally fled to the USA. It was their literalism and their eccentric interpretation of scripture (as against what they saw as the impurity of the Church of England), which gave rise to the fervour from which Christian Zionism and its specific manifestations such as Plymouth Bretheren founder John Nelson Darby’s Dispensationalism, could arise. To give an idea of the ideological coherence of a movement which can often appear bewilderingly diverse, contemporary and recent figures whose ideas could broadly be called Dispensationalist include Hagee, the late Jerry Falwell, and “Left Behind” author Tim LaHaye. Yes, it was a UK-rooted movement which gave them their ideological roots.
For the reason mentioned above, it may be that I have slightly mislead the reader by entitling this article “Christian Zionism comes to Britain” rather than “Christian Zionism returns home”, however I think it is the case that we are witnessing a re-importation of the contemporary US version of Christian Zionism to the UK, rather than an indigenous revival. This is not something which anyone who moves within any of the sorts of political or social circles familiar to much of the left-of-centre would have noticed. Christian Zionists are not much in evidence either at cheerful organic cafes in Hackney or Islington, at working men’s clubs and local pubs in my adopted home of Birmingham, or among the hustle and bustle of Manchester or Sheffield. They are there, though, and they are growing in number.
Next time you are passing a Christian bookshop, walk in and take a look at the magazine rack. Two magazines that you are virtually guaranteed to find, are Israel Today and Prophetic Witness. Both, as you would expect, show an obviously pro-Israel bias: the former is owned by billionaire Republican and neoconservative Sheldon Adelson who claims to have opposed a two-state solution for Israel-Palestine because it would be a “betrayal of principle”, and who it is claimed heavily supported Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party against previous prime minister (and two state supporter) Ehud Olmert’s Kadima administration. The latter is the organ of the Prophetic Witness Movement International, a dispensationalist movement begun in 1917 with branches in the UK, and whose website’s “what we believe” section says this:
“We believe that the signs of the time point exclusively toward the close of ‘the times of the Gentiles’, that the return of the Lord is imminent, that the completed Church will be translated to meet the Lord in the air to be ‘forever with the Lord’, that Israel will be restored to her own land in unbelief and will be afterwards converted as she repents, recognises Christ as Messiah, that the Lord Jesus Christ will reign for a thousand years upon the earth during which time there will be a further outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all flesh, that the message of the imminent return of Christ is the greatest motivation to prayer, holiness of life and evangelism.”
The bold type is my emphasis.
These are just two of the most obvious manifestations of Christian Zionism in the UK. There are more, just as it’s the case that political religion in general is becoming more assertive in this country. The problem, of course, is that at the moment (as in the US) the main means via which this growth is facilitated is through the burgeoning networks of Evangelical churches. The only mainstream political party to have made a new attempt to engage with the Evangelical communities in recent years has been the Conservatives, and that was largely by way of ham-fisted attempts to play “bloc politics”, looking for cheap inner-city BME votes with which to offset Labour/Lib Dem dominance amongst Asian Muslims. Needless to say, the Caribbean and African Pentecostals who formed most of the target demographic still don’t vote Tory. As for the unions or the left, forget it: the Labour Party gave up its historical roots in the non-conformist churches many years ago, and the unions steer clear of matters religious as a general rule. But of course, most people in contemporary Britain are not in contemporary political discourse, and the vast majority of workers are not in a union. This is happening under our radar.
Christian Friends of Israel is one such group. It has existed in the UK since 1985 and was founded by one Derek White (who still features on the CfI front page video), along with others. The organisation is very overtly friendly, saying it is seeking to build friendships and understanding between the UK and Israel, as well as seeking atonement for the anti-semitic histories of many churches. Of course, that isn’t the whole story.
CfI’s links page carries two links to contemporary Israeli print news media: the first is to the mainstream daily Ha’aretz, which it describes as having a “left of centre viewpoint, and wide coverage”. The other is to Sheldon Adelson’s Likudnik vehicle Israel Today, which the CfI site describes as “Latest news from israel, which aims to provide a truthful and balanced perspective on Israel”. I daresay Adelson is delighted with the accolade – Ha’aretz’ editorial and journalistic staff may not be quite so overwhelmed.
Another link from the site, incidentally, goes to the Zionist Federation.
Further, when you really dig around the site, you’ll see the following under CfI’s Foundation Principles document:
“3: We believe that the restoration of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is in accordance with the promises contained in the Old and New Testaments, and that God’s time to ‘Favour Zion’ has begun.”
For all of White and his colleagues’ smiling and paternal demeanours, their politics and their theology has the same root as Hagee’s or Bauer’s. If they believe in all this, then they most certainly believe in furthering it in the real world, hence their formation of an organisation to actively further their goals.
Another obviously Christian Zionist organisation in the UK is Derek Prince Ministries whose late founder was known for (apart from being a Christian Zionist) suffering outright denunciation at the hands of that old hippy Pat Robertson after Prince signed up as a leader of the Shepherding Movement, a tremendously authoritarian and abusive movement within the Charismatic churches. Derek himself eventually repented from all this – but stuck with the Zionism – and retired to Israel where he continued to try to further the apocalypse.
All of these organisations are small at present: they have little traction on mainstream politics, and few politicians would individually pay them any heed. But look at the sheer numbers now teeming through the doors of Evangelical churches in this country, as against mainstream Anglican, non-conformist and Catholic churches. Just as mainstream evangelical Premier Christian Radio is now accessible to hundreds of thousands of households via digital TV, so you can fully expect Christian Zionist organisations to follow suit. After all, if Kenyan fruitbat Gilbert Deya (he of the multiple indictments for trafficking, after producing “miracle babies” that shared no DNA with their mothers) can have his own TV channel, then so can anyone. You can watch Gilbert on Sky, by way of an aside. Most amusing after an evening in the pub.
Don’t look over the Atlantic and mock too hard. The growing encroachment of religious lobbying upon the legislative political sphere is not likely to decrease over the next 10 years. Furthermore, as Evangelical churches boom, so you can expect their voices (and in many cases their US-backed cheque books) to dominate even the more traditional religious conservatives out of the discourse. Israel-Palestine policy is not the only issue where this is likely to happen, but it is certainly one such. It is time for progressives, religious and non-religious alike, to take note.