Christian Attitudes towards the State of Israel, by Paul Charles Merkley

By Nefsky, Marilyn | Shofar, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Christian Attitudes towards the State of Israel, by Paul Charles Merkley


Nefsky, Marilyn, Shofar


Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001. 257 pp. $29.95

For decades North American Jews have known intuitively that the Christian Churches have been pro-Palestinian. They have only to read the daily newspaper or listen to the news to discern Christian attitudes towards Israel. Paul Charles Merkley, history professor emeritus of Carlton University, set out to examine these attitudes in terms of their causes and implications. Merkley makes it clear that Jews should not paint Christian attitudes toward Israel with a wide brush.

His analysis begins with the basic premise that early in the post-World War II period Western nations recognized that the establishment of a Jewish state was more appealing than the alternative: the absorption of several hundred thousand homeless Jews into their own lands (pp. 4, 139-40, 162). Later, that Israel demonstrated sufficient strength and determination to survive amidst overwhelmingly hostile forces seemed to be a major motivating factor in the attitudinal change in mainstream Christianity (pp. 38, 162-63). Another motivating factor had to do with the Christian missionary effort. Whereas Christian missionaries failed to convert Jews in the Holy Land, their far greater success in proselytizing among the Arabs led mainstream Churches to make their first commitment to "friends and clients in the Arab world," in some instances refusing even to acknowledge the existence of the State of Israel (p. 55, 196). A third motivating factor is the anti-establishment perspective of the Eastern Churches. Israel is seen as a symbol of Western capitalist imperialism. For the Middle Eastern Churches the delegitimation of Israel is a delegitimation of the capitalistic imperialism of the West itself (p. 121).

The motive for the Middle Eastern Churches' anti-Zionism, Merkley suggests, is two-fold: a Judaeophobia that goes back to the pre-Islamic period, when both Jews and Oriental Christians lived in submission under Byzantium Christians; and the theology fundamental to both Orthodox and Oriental Churches of supersessionism, in which the Church is heir to all promises God made to Abraham. These, along with the argument that Palestinians are the aboriginal inhabitants, "make for an airtight case against the legitimacy of the State of Israel" (p. 120). As a result, when North American bishops, moderators, and Christian leaders rerum from in-depth tours led by the MECC, they report on the "wickedness" of the Zionists and their "sinful oppression" of Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land (p. 121). Why, asks Merkley, does the question of legitimacy occur "only in respect to Israel, never with respect to the scores of other nations that have come into the world since 1948" (p. 217)? Why does the UN Human Rights Commission, in almost every session, denounce violations of human rights in Israel, never ongoing human rights violations in countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan?

In his informative chapter on the Palestinians, Merkley examines the name and the early history of the land now called Israel. The 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica defines Palestine as a term "conventionally used as a name for the territory which, in the Old Testament, is claimed as the inheritance of the pre-exilic Jews..." It was understood in the deliberations leading up to the Balfour Declaration that a Jewish homeland would be "in some part of what has always been defined as that part of the world where Jews once had their inheritance" (italics in the original, p. 94). "Palestinians," until the 1960s, generally meant the Jewish residents of Palestine; none of the other communities in the area were called or called themselves Palestinians. They were Arabs. In the 1940s and 1950s the various opposing lobbies spoke to the "Arab rights in Palestine" (p. 95).

Selecting the name Palestine to replace "Judaea and Samaria" was an ancient Roman attempt to insult the Jews by memorializing the long-vanished Philistines. …

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