Israel: Occupier or Occupied? The Psycho-Political Projection of Christian and post-Christian Supersessionism

Kalman J Kaplan & Paul Cantz. Israel Affairs, Volume 20, Issue 1. 2014.

No more pervasive yet unfounded a charge is levied against the state of Israel in modern times than that of ‘occupier’. In various degrees, critics of Israel, often claiming to be its friends, employ political rhetoric to maintain that Israel ‘occupies’ the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and even parts of Jerusalem. Enemies of Israel go so far as to view the entire Zionist enterprise, and the state of Israel itself, as ‘occupied Palestine’, calling for its complete and unconditional ‘dismantling’. For all the complexity of the story of Israel’s rebirth and its relations with its Arab neighbours, such charges go way beyond the pale of any historical, legal, political, or moral justification. From where then do they derive? This article claims that these charges reflect nothing less than a psychological inversion—a projection engendered in part by ‘replacement theology’ wherein the history of the Jewish people itself is ‘occupied’ through supersessionist interpretations of Church (and Mosque). These views in turn permeate the general culture.

Rather than address this usurpation of biblical Jewish history and Jewish particularism, the supersessionist projects psychically unpalatable guilt onto Israel itself, accusing it of being an ‘occupier’ and ‘displacer’ when in reality it is the ‘occupied’ and the ‘displaced’. This ‘Original Inversion’ initiated a prototypical model for ideological anti-Semitism. Indeed, a direct line can be traced from the supersessionist strategies employed by the early Christian Church to the modern view of Israel as an aggressor and occupier. American scholar Ruth Wisse has cited Israel’s military victories in 1967 and 1973 as the modern catalyst for this inverted sense of persecution, writing that the military defeats that the Arabs sustained had the paradoxical effect of allowing them to ‘accuse Israel of aggression for the crime of having successfully defended its territory on the fertile ground of anti-Jewish prejudice’, which functioned ‘to flesh out once again the myth of a Palestinian Arab liberation movement that was struggling against an outpost of Western Imperialism’.

The role of Soviet propaganda in this inversion and its effect on the hard leftists of the West cannot be overestimated either. This ideological slight-of-hand amounts to what Wisse calls the ‘Big Lie’: ‘Untrue by definition’, Wisse argues, ‘[the Big Lie] compensates through the vigor of prosecution for the irrationality of its claims’. It behooves us to deconstruct and denude this mechanism of naked ideological inversion that has been a perennial favourite of anti-Semites, in modern as much as in ancient times.

Different forms of theological supersessionism culminate in different political assaults against Israel. The greater the guilt (sometimes unconscious) experienced by supersessionist Christians, the greater their rejection of the legitimacy of Israel and the complementary projective processes that contribute to the charge of occupation.

Two degrees of this charge can be distinguished. The “hard” (maximalist) charge of “Israel as occupier” is that Israel by its very nature is “Occupied Palestine.” The very existence of Israel as a Jewish state is the “original sin.” No distinction is made from this point of view between Israel “within the green line” (the 1948 armistice lines) and “settlements” outside the green-line as Israel, in esse, is an illegitimate occupier of Palestinian lands, representing nothing but an example of an imported brand of Western imperialism on Arab soil. Arab rejectionism views Israel’s very existence as a catastrophe (Al Nakba), with the political posturing over dimensions serving as a thin pretext for complete displacement.

The soft (minimalist) occupation charge: The soft version of “Israel as occupier” seems on the surface more reasonable, but as we will show, equally pernicious if not even more dangerous. The charge is that Israel occupied and continues to occupy Palestinian and other Arab lands captured during the Six-Day war in 1967. These lands include the area of the original Palestinian Mandate between the 1948 boundaries of Israel and Jordan specifically open to Jewish settlement (denoted variously as “the territories”, “The West Bank”, and Judea and Samaria) as well the Golan Heights and Gaza, before Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. According to this version, the block to any peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors is continued Israeli occupation of The West Bank, including parts of Jerusalem, and Golan, exacerbated by continuing Israeli “settlements,” many of which are thriving towns and small cities. According to this version, it is not Israel within the green-line (the 1948 armistice lines) that is “occupied Palestine”—only that territory that Israel captured in the 1967 war. However, there is considerable slippage in how the term “occupied Palestine” is employed.

We argue in this paper that ‘hard’ supersessionism predisposes one to the maximalist view of it as occupier while so-called ‘soft’ supersessionism predisposes one to a minimalist view of Israel as occupier. A non-supersessionist view facilitates a clearer less biased political view of the modern state of Israel, viewing Israel as a fully legitimate Jewish state in a complicated boundary dispute with her neighbors. This article does not seek to resolve the above contradictory claims but to examine how underlying Christian theology predisposes some people to rather mindlessly accept these charges in whatever form they take. To do this, we now turn to an examination of Christian supersessionism, or replacement theology, both hard and soft.

The Theological Assertion that the Jewish People Have Been Replaced as God’s Elect

While not all Christians subscribe to this view, for nearly 2000 years replacement theology (sometimes also referred to as ‘continuation’ or ‘fulfilment’ theology) has acted as the doctrinal impetus for Church-derived anti-Semitism. This doctrine posits that the Church has become the ‘New Israel’, the new ‘Chosen People’, and consequently rightful heirs to the Abrahamic covenant. In some versions, Jews have forfeited this birthright for their error in rejecting Jesus as the Christ, and are consequently condemned to wander the earth as an accursed people, never to be allowed to return to Zion, specifically Jerusalem, because of this spiritual blindness. Theologian and rabbinic scholar David Novak divides Christian supersessionist claims into hard and soft varieties.

The Hard (Maximalist) Supersessionist Claim

The primary assertion of ‘hard supersessionism’ is that the Old Covenant of God with the people of Israel is dead—null and voided by the coming of Christ Jesus. The Jews by their sins, most prominently of rejecting Jesus as the Messiah, have forfeited any covenantal status and are fated to eternal exile due to their reprobation. Soulen has identified three streams of supersessionism:

  • Punitive supersessionism, represented by figures such as Hippolytus, Lactantius, Origen, and Luther, is the view that Jews who reject Jesus as the Jewish Messiah are consequently condemned by God, forfeiting the promises otherwise due to them under the covenants. Both Origen and Hippolytus expected the Jewish people to be restored as a whole alongside the Gentiles in the last days, Martin Luther was not so charitable despite earlier in the reformation displaying great sympathy for the way Jews had been dispossessed by the Roman Church, writing that, ‘The Jews are blood-relations of our Lord; if it were proper to boast of flesh and blood, the Jews belong more to Christ than we’.Luther fully expected Jews to convert en masse to his Hebraicized brand of Christianity; however, when this failed to occur, he became a scorned, unabashed anti-Semite. He rejected the Jews as having a continuing positive relationship with God—articulating his supersessionist beliefs in his essay ‘On the Jews and their Lies’:

For such ruthless wrath of God is sufficient evidence that they [the Jewish people] assuredly have erred and gone astray. Even a child can comprehend this. For one dare not regard God as so cruel that he would punish his own people so long, so terrible, so unmercifully … Therefore this work of wrath is proof that the Jews, surely rejected by God, are no longer his people, and neither is he any longer their God.

  • Economic supersessionismis the view that the practical purpose of the nation of Israel in God’s plans is replaced by the role of the church. The term ‘economic’ here does not refer to financial economy but to God’s metaphysical bookkeeping. It is represented by Christian thinkers such as Justin Martyr and Augustine. Again, Augustine explicitly expected a restoration of the Jewish people alongside the Gentiles in the last days.
  • Structural supersessionismargues for the marginalization of the Hebrew Bible as normative for Christian thought. In other words, the Hebrew Scriptures are seen as largely indecisive for shaping Christian convictions about how God functions as a consummator and as redeemer for humankind.

All these positions hold Paul’s views as expressed in the Christian New Testament that the Torah has been abrogated and/or fulfilled by the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. Further, Paul’s letter to the Galatians portrays Jewish particularism as something which is regressive and is overcome by the sacrificial death of Jesus. ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you all one in Christ Jesus.’

In his letter to the Romans, Paul presents a very confused and convoluted discussion trying to separate the ethnic nationhood of Israel and its spiritual election earlier in Romans. For example, Paul argues that God’s promises to Israel have not failed, though on the surface it might appear so. He maintains that these promises did not guarantee salvation to every Israelite by birth, or by the flesh. Rather, they were given to the children of promise. He then makes the following distinction: ‘For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel’. Paul is not totally denying the election of Israel as a nation (the Jewish descendants) but declares that within Israel there is a separation of unbelieving Israel and the believing core of Israel (the true remnant of Israel). Paul is, in other words, trying to have his cake and eat it too: to give his Christological movement gravitas by arguing it is based in Torah and Pharisaic Judaism, but simultaneously arguing that his Christology replaces or fulfils it.

Paul’s continuing argument has disastrous implications for attitudes to the Jewish nation. Physical lineage to Abraham is no guarantee of a place in God’s family. Of Abraham’s two sons, Isaac was the child of promise, whereas Ishmael was the child of the flesh. Paul extends this distinction through the next generation of descendants. Isaac and Rebecca had twins named Jacob and Esau, and before they were born or could have done anything good or bad, God in His sovereignty chose Jacob as the child of promise. God’s election was according to His sovereignty based on grace. ‘It was said unto her, “The elder shall serve the younger”’. As it is written, ‘Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated’. He concludes that the nature of God’s divine election is with Israel of the promise (the Pauline Church) and not Israel of the flesh (the ethnic Jewish people).

Unfortunately, this convoluted reasoning was instrumental in shaping the exclusionary and belittling supersessionist theology which represented for centuries the mainstream interpretation of the New Testament in all three main historical traditions within Christianity: Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Protestant, with these traditions having and continuing to have direct implications for an implicit or explicit bias against Jewish particularism and Israel as a Jewish state.

Rebuttal of the ‘Hard’ Supersessionist Claim

Historical examination of the period of the emergence of the early Jewish Nazarenes around Yeshua (Jesus) shows the dubiousness, if not absolute falseness of the claim of the Pauline Church that Jesus or the Nazarene Church around him and following his death ever abandoned Judaism. All the original followers of Jesus, and Jesus himself, were national and patriotic Jews who fought against the oppressive Roman occupation. The Sadducees were more likely to be quislings of the Roman occupation, while the Pharisees were largely Torah-following and nationalistic Judeans.

Almost all of the pronouncements of Jesus were consonant with beliefs and practices of Pharisaic Judaism. Jesus was born, lived and died as a devout Jew. His claim to be the Messiah, and thus King of Israel was not heretical in Pharisaic terms; there were in fact multiple others who claimed to be the Messiah as well (e.g. Bar Kokhba, Judas of Galilee, Theudas or ‘the Egyptian’), messiahship solely implying the role of a liberator from Roman rule. What was heretical to Pharisees and to the Jerusalem Nazarene Church was the later assertion of the Pauline and Roman church as to the divinity of Christ Jesus—a concept foreign to the Pharisees and regressively reminiscent of pagan theologies that the Jews had historically spurned. In other words, Jesus’ messianic claim and that of the Nazarenes was no real religious threat to the Pharisees but was seen as a political threat to both Rome and its Sadducee allies as well as to Rome’s occupation of Judea. Thus we find prominently figured atop standard Crucifixes the Latin acronym INRI (Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum), denoting ‘Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews’.

A very telling passage at the beginning of Chapter 15 of the New Testament Book of Acts speaks to the difference in the Pauline view and that of the Jewish Nazarenes regarding what obligations are incumbent on non-Jewish members of the Jerusalem Church. Gentiles traditionally worshipped among the Pharisees, given the choice of full conversion to Judaism on which 613 commandments would be incumbent or remaining as God-fearers, for whom only the seven Noahide commandments would apply. Paul is summoned by the Jerusalem Church, which is part of the Nazarene movement, to answer charges that he has proselytized for the abolition of the distinction between Jew and Greek (really Gentile) and the abrogation of Torah and Jewish particularism.

In contradistinction to Paul’s theological claim that Jewish particularism and nationality is now null and void, Jesus’ brother James, as leader of the Jerusalem Church after Jesus’ death, argues that non-Jewish participants in the Nazarene movement are to be treated in the same way as non-Jewish members of the Pharisees generally. They are welcome to become full converts to Judaism or to follow the Noahide laws, even though they believe in the Messiahship of Jesus. In other words, James basically seems to assert that Gentile Nazarenes are bound by the same commandments given to all God-fearing Gentiles among the Pharisees. In neither case are Torah, Jewish particularism and election, Jewish peoplehood, Jewish nationalism, and Jewish attachment to Judea to be regarded as obsolete or abrogated.

Any assertion to the contrary represents a theological innovation emanating from Pauline thinking rather than from Jesus himself or any leading figure in the early Jerusalem Church. It should also be pointed out that Jesus is portrayed in various books of the New Testament as specifically not altering or replacing Mosaic law. Below are two prominent examples that somehow slipped through the Pauline censors of the Christian Scriptures:

Do not think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I came not to destroy but to fulfil.

But it is easier that heaven and earth pass away than for one cross-of-a-‘t’ to fall from the law.

Further, Paul clearly states in his letter to the Romans that Israel is not rejected and Gentiles are to be regarded as wild olive branches grafted onto the tree of Jesse:

Rejoice, ye Gentiles with His people. And again, Esaias saith: ‘There shall be a root of Jesse; and He that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust’.

The Soft Supersessionist Claim

A soft supersessionist claim is represented by Messianic Jews/Jewish Christians who adhere to certain Jewish practices while acknowledging Jesus (whom they refer to by his Aramaic name Yeshua) as the Messiah foretold in the Hebrew scriptures. Traditional Jewish practices observed by Messianic Jews/Jewish Christians are the Friday evening, lighting Shabbat candles, Kiddush, and wearing kippot during their service. The service includes the recitation of traditional Jewish prayers in Hebrew, although the words are amended to include Jesus. Early Jewish Christians, in contradistinction to the Pauline church, mainly directed their missions towards fellow Jews, and insisted that Gentile converts to their movement continue to follow the Noahide laws demanded of any God-fearer who joined the Pharisees.

According to the constitution of the Messianic Jewish (Hebrew Christian) Alliance:

they look to the One God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) as their sole divine authority and acknowledge the Tanach (Old Testament) and Brit Hadasha (New Testament) as the Word of God. They reject the authority of Rabbinical literature. They accept Messiah Yeshua as their personal saviour. They believe in the atonement which he wrought once and for all by His death and His resurrection, and acknowledge Yeshua as the promised Messiah. They have to make public confession of their faith.

People of Jewish parentage who share their beliefs are entitled to membership; non-Jewish believers, however, are only entitled to associate membership.

These soft supersessionists can be divided into two broad groups: Hebrew Christians, who identify themselves as religiously Christian but ethnically Jewish, and Messianic Jews, who affirm themselves to be solely Jewish, albeit representing a special type of Judaism. Hebrew Christians are quite happy to be integrated into local Christian churches, but Messianic Jews seek an ‘indigenous’ expression of theology, worship, and lifestyle within the whole church. What classifies these groups as supersessionist, albeit of the soft variety, is their claim that Jews who accept Yeshua/Jesus are in fact returning to what they describe as ‘true Judaism’.

Rebuttal of the ‘Soft’ Supersessionist Claim

While messianism in itself was not inconsistent with Pharisaic Judaism, certain historical requirements of Messiahship were left unmet, such as the liberation from the Romans and an end to their occupation of Judea. Although the exact shape of the post-messianic world remained an open theological question in Pharisaic circles, the basic claimant to Messiahship was, according to the prophecies of Isaiah, expected to usher in an unprecedented period of universal peace and liberation where the ‘lion would sleep with the lamb’ and ‘swords would be beaten into plowshares’—in which aspirations Jesus decidedly fell short. Further, the Pauline idea that the Messiah would be the son of God, if not God himself, and that as God he would die for the sins of the world went far beyond anything prophesied in Isaiah. This conception emerged from regressive pagan leanings and certain strains of Gnosticism rather than as anything emerging from the Jewish tradition. Also, the predictions of these messianists regarding the imminent return of their fallen Messiah were not met. Finally the messianic revisionist interpretation of the Christian New Testament as the word of God contains the Pauline attacks on the ongoing validity of Judaism as a living religion and the Jewish people as a nation.

The Link between Theology and Politics

On the face of it, one might think that in modern times, at least in the West, theology is theology and politics is politics. It does not seem reasonable or plausible that a theological view can determine a political stance or that a real historical people can be reviled, ignored, and delegitimized by a biased theological assertion. Yet in the case of the Jewish people this is exactly what has transpired.

The anti-Israel Theology

The unique validity of the Jewish people has been delegitimized as having no historical linkage or continuity with biblical Israel. In other words, by theological fiat, the asserters and beneficiaries of replacement theology have dismissed post-biblical Jewish history in the Diaspora and the Zionist return to Israel as having any link with biblical Israel. This of course represents nothing short of usurpation of Jewish history.

A vivid example of this can be found in a September 2008 address titled ‘Israel in the Bible and the State of Israel’ presented by Reverend Dr Henri Veldhuis at an International Theological Conference sponsored by the World Council of Churches. In this presentation, Veldhuis argued that ‘Israel’ has two meanings. It is on the one hand the name of an ethnic unity—since the Babylonian exile, the people of the Jews. On the other hand, it is a religious community, a people united by faith.

From the beginning, Veldhuis repeats Paul’s muddled thinking described above in arguing that it is clear that Israel is not a people chosen on the basis of special ethnic qualities, such as being an especially strong race, or having an outstanding character. No, says Veldhuis, the special quality of Israel as a religious community is rooted in God’s election of Israel and observed in Israel’s faithfulness to the God of Israel. Ethnic Israel, which is not special in itself, can always turn again to God’s eternal promise and become again a special people united in faith which finds its centre in the love of Jesus Christ, through which it finally crosses every ethnic and racial border. So the core meaning of ‘Israel’, as a religious name, is precisely this: that by the power of Jesus Christ, by the power of spirit and truth, it overcomes all ethnic boundaries, even the boundary of ‘Israel’ as an ethnic entity.

While paying lip-service to the history of anti-Semitism in the Church and the inability of Christian Western Europe to prevent Hitler’s persecution of the Jews as an ethnic community, Veldhuis in one fell swoop invalidates the legitimacy of the national peoplehood of the Jewish people as descendants of biblical Israel. That is, unless they see the light and convert to Christianity, which by its very nature negates the particularistic Jewish people of today and modern Israel as having any unique connection to biblical Israel. Veldhuis goes on to attack the ‘unrelinquishable solidarity’ with the Jewish people and with the state of Israel confessed by his own Protestant Church of the Netherlands:

Captivated by this view, my church still isn’t free to see all the injustice that resulted from the founding of the state of Israel and its politics until the present day. It is of course fully understandable that after the holocaust the Jewish people fought desperately for a state in which they could be safe. But the state they live in is a state of Israel that is not a full democracy, without a democratic constitution. It has an ethnic foundation, in which the principle of being a Jewish state precedes the democratic principle of the equality of all citizens.

The God of Israel made a new start with some family, with some ethnic group, because God had to start somewhere. God began his project of ‘Israel’ with Jacob the liar and remains faithful in reaching out to unfaithful people (as we all are). Israel as a religious community is not founded on ethnic qualities, as Paul realizes when he tries to understand the mystery of ‘Why not Esau?’

As a church of Christians from Jewish or Gentile backgrounds, we participate in an ‘Israel’ without ethnic boundaries. And as church we are united with religious Jews on the basis of common scriptures, not on an ethnic basis.

The state of Israel has to remain a place where every Jew can live in peace and freedom. But that is not enough. Israel has been establishing itself since 1948, not just as a secular state—which is how it should be approached by the churches—but also as an ethnic state, practicing apartheid and occupation, a state in which Arabs are treated as second-class citizens, a state from which so many Palestinians have had to flee.

In the encounter and confrontation with such a state we should strongly remember the core meaning of ‘Israel’ in the Bible: Israel as a universal community of people who share the dream of God’s kingdom in which all ethnic distinctions between Jew, Greek and Arab are overcome by the justice and love of Jesus Christ.

Such a statement literally takes one’s breath away in the modern era. Veldhuis is mouthing a hard supersessionist position with direct ramifications for his political view of Israel. He is clearly expressing, though he would most probably deny it, a hard charge of Israel as occupier. He is de-legitimizing the modern Jewish state of Israel as being the rightful heir of biblical Israel because its unique covenant with God has been replaced by the New Covenant with Jesus Christ which overcomes any expression of ethnic distinctiveness of Jewish identity and nationhood.

However, Veldhuis’ rejection of ethnic Israel and the modern state of Israel as descendants of biblical Israel pales in comparison to the vilification of Israel put out by the Sabeel Centre, a Christian ‘liberation theology’ organization based in Jerusalem. It was founded by Palestinian Anglican priest Reverend Naim Ateek, the former Canon of St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem. Sabeel issued a document in 2004 entitled Principles for Just Peace in Palestine-Israel, outlining its support for a two-state solution as an interim goal, envisioning that it may eventually lead to a one-state solution. Nevertheless some sermons and documents emerging from Sabeel belie this professed peaceful goal. In his 2001 Easter Message, Ateek employs New Testament imagery to portray the powerless Palestinian humiliated at a checkpoint as Jesus walking the Via Dolorosa. The Jewishnesss of Jesus is hidden and the Israeli Jews are portrayed as crucifying Jesus, now a Palestinian Arab, once again. ‘In this season of Lent, it seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around Him …The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily.’ Similarly, in a February 2001 sermon, Ateek likened the occupation to the ‘stone placed on the entrance of Jesus’ tomb. … This boulder has shut in the Palestinians within and built structures of domination to keep them in. We have a name for this boulder. It is called the occupation’.

Sabeel is an official partner of the American Presbyterian Church, and has sent representatives to several denominational gatherings in the United States. Sabeel has advocated for divestment resolutions, which it sees as a non-violent approach to resisting the ‘occupation’. It has met with some success. The Presbyterian Church has passed divestment resolutions based on information provided by Sabeel. All of the major mainline denominations, including the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Episcopal Church, have discussed divestment and the possibility of using the money in their pension funds and endowments to exert pressure for ‘peace’ in the Middle East. In February 2006, the World Council of Churches (WCC) commended the actions of the Presbyterian Church and urged other member churches worldwide to consider economic measures to end Israel’s ‘occupation’.

Dexter Van Zile, a member of the United Church of Christ and critic of the anti-Israel divestment campaigns, has publicly stated in a CAMERA publication that he condemns Ateek’s implication that ‘Israel is a baby- and Christ-killing nation that stands in the way of humanity’s salvation. Given the role this imagery has played in promoting violence against Jews, and its use in reference to the Jewish state is inexcusable’.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), in a backgrounder article on Sabeel, accused the organization of ‘generating hostility towards Israel’ citing ‘its use of theologically charged accusations’ as belying ‘its professed passion for reconciliation’. The ADL further submitted that ‘Sabeel rejects Zionism on theological grounds. It has promoted the idea that Zionism is based on a false reading of the Bible and that it stands for injustice and in opposition to God’.

Ateek’s motivations are easier to understand than those of Western Christians such as Veldhuis. He is an Arab and is manipulating biblical imagery to further his political agenda. Deeper thinking is required to understand the psychodynamics of someone like Veldhuis who is not personally involved in the conflict. Is Veldhuis’ attack on the very legitimacy of modern Israel as a Jewish state a reflection of what he really believes, given his hard Pauline supersessionist view and rejection of any legitimate ethnic Jewish identity? Or, alternatively, does it represent psychological projection on his part of an underlying guilt that he may feel, perhaps unconsciously, to having occupied Jewish history? He may thus be a willing accomplice to political anti-Semites such as Ateek by psycho-dynamically relieving his own guilt through usurping Jewish history through his Pauline theology.

So we must conclude that one can attempt to invalidate the history of a people through theological fiat (nothing less than identity theft), a fiat which becomes accepted as fact justifying one’s own occupation and usurpation by projecting it on the occupied and usurped. Specifically, all of these versions psychologically occupy Jewish history and the history of biblical Israel and have the potential to lead to the projection of Israel as the occupier. Since Pauline Christology depicts the Church as the inheritors of God’s covenant with Israel, Jewish particularism is seen as an anachronism. Thus Jews are seen as occupiers in the land of Israel having no right to assert their distinctive ethnic identity as a people. Such Christians are open to the worst type of Arab attempts to delegitimize Israel as occupier because it relieves them of their own guilt of having occupied the history of Israel by theological fiat, asserting that the Church has become the ‘New Israel’, replacing the Jewish people. Again, nothing less than identity theft.

Consider the historic teachings of the Catholic Church in this regard. Beginning in early Patristic times, Saint Justin Martyr cited the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE and the Jewish Diaspora as proof of Christian dispensationalism. Saint Augustine writes: ‘Instead of the grace of the law which has passed away, we have received the grace of the gospel which is abiding, and instead of the shadows and types of the old dispensation, the truth has come by Jesus Christ’. In roughly 203 CE the law banning Jews from entering Jerusalem was renewed, circumcision was banned and Jerusalem was re-dubbed Aelia Capitolina in dedication to the Roman god Jupiter Capitolinius, to whom a temple was strategically erected on the razed site of the former Jewish temple. This ban continued to be enforced until the fourth century.

Shifting to the modern era, shortly after the 1897 Basle Congress, the semi-official Vatican periodical Civiltà Cattolica published a piece titled ‘The Dispersion of Israel over the Modern World’ that affirmed the theologically sanctioned exile of Jews from Zion:

1827 years have passed since the prediction of Jesus of Nazareth was fulfilled … that [after the destruction of Jerusalem] the Jews would be led away to be slaves among all the nations and that they would remain in the dispersion until the end of the world.

A few years later in 1904 these sentiments were reinforced by Pope Pius X, who, according to the private diary of Theodore Herzl—founder of modern political Zionism—refused to sanction a Jewish return to Israel because

We cannot prevent Jews from going to Jerusalem, but we can never sanction it. Jews have not recognized Our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people. They had ample time to acknowledge Christ’s divinity without pressure, but they didn’t. Should the Jews manage to set foot on the once promised old-new land, the missionaries of the Church would stand prepared to baptize them. Jerusalem cannot be placed in Jewish hands.

And a few years later in 1943 Pope Pius XII affirmed, if not strengthened, his predecessor’s position:

By the death of our Redeemer, the New Testament took the place of the Old Law which had been abolished … on the gibbet of His death Jesus made void the Law with its decrees fastened the handwriting of the Old Testament to the Cross, establishing the New Testament in His blood shed for the whole human race. ‘To such an extent, then’, says St. Leo the Great, speaking of the Cross of our Lord, ‘was there effected a transfer from the Law to the Gospel, from the Synagogue to the Church, from the many sacrifices to one Victim, that, as Our Lord expired, that mystical veil which shut off the innermost part of the temple and its sacred secret was rent violently from top to bottom’.

To be sure, the Catholic Church did soften its stance during Vatican II initiated by Pope John XXIII in 1954 and completed by Pope Paul VI in 1965. In Nostra Aetate the Vatican changed the basic teachings regarding the Jews:

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.

This change absolved ancient Jews not at the scene of the death of Jesus, and all Jews today. Nevertheless, the Jewish claim to Israel and to Jerusalem in particular was not addressed in this manner, and only under Pope John Paul II did the Vatican develop formal diplomatic relations with the state of Israel in 1994. Yet, while the church has made meaningful overtures towards interfaith reconciliation, a more benign, economic form of hard supersessionism endures. For instance, the post-Nostra Aetate document ‘Dominus Iesus’ (Latin for ‘Lord Jesus’) crafted in 2000 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the recent Pope Benedict XVI) has affirmed the Church’s position that an eternal, irrevocable covenant persists between the Jewish people and God while concurrently upholding that ‘There is only one salvific economy’ in the Lord Jesus Christ (no. 12).

It is impossible to ignore the influence that views such as this have had on the continuing American (and world) refusal to move its embassies to West Jerusalem, the Jewish state’s capital since 1949 and the seat of the Israeli Knesset. While many nations have not recognized the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem after the 1967 war, the issue above deals with West Jerusalem. The United Nations, for example, has recommended that Jerusalem (West Jerusalem as well as East Jerusalem) be placed under a special international regime, a corpus separatum, pending the resolution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The European Union has endorsed the corpus separatum plan for the entire city of Jerusalem (both East and West) as recommended in the 1947 United Nations resolution. Russia too supports the idea of an international regime for the city. It is impossible to ignore the lack of complaint during the Jordanian occupation of East Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967.

Let us now turn to the United States which has also viewed it as desirable to establish an international regime for the entire city of Jerusalem. Washington maintains a consulate in Jerusalem, which deals primarily with the Palestinian Authority and reports directly to Washington, while relations with Israel are handled through the embassy in Tel Aviv. This represents the only case in the world where an American consulate does not report to the US embassy in that country but rather directly to Washington.

Many of these policies may well have been influenced by views expressed in both Catholic and liberal Protestant circles. Rosemary Reuther, the Roman Catholic theologian, has been very active in Christian–Jewish relations, yet proclaimed in the National Catholic Reporter that Zionism was a ‘form of nationalism that most Americans regard as unacceptable and, ironically, a Fascist state if settlements continue to be established in the West Bank or annexation takes place’. She concluded that if Israel was to remain a democratic state it must cease to be a Zionist state.

One of the most redoubtable opponents of Zionism was William Ernest Hocking, Alford Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. A prominent Christian layman and missionary statesman, Hocking became increasingly disturbed with Jewish aspirations as Nazi persecution of the Jews highlighted the need for at least one place where Jews would be welcome at a time when the world closed its doors everywhere to Jewish refugees. Articles and public addresses, including views presented in radio debates, so hardened Hocking’s opposition that by the late 1940s he was one of the foremost anti-Zionists in the American academic world.

Many of these policies may well have been influenced by views expressed in some liberal Christian circles. For instance, by contrasting the views of the liberal Baptist pastor and preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick with Reinhold Niebuhr’s more inclusive theological stance towards Judaism, the intersection between supersessionist theology and anti-Zionism ideology appears in full relief. Fosdick was a vocal supersessionist who routinely made invidious if not unabashedly antagonistic comparisons between the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, framing the Hebrew God as a tribal, war-mongering, and downright primitive deity versus Jesus and the enterprise of Christianity which replaced the Jewish ‘Mountain-God’ and its proxy Moses with the most advanced Hebrew prophet, Jesus. Although Fosdick publicly railed against anti-Semitism in America and World War II Europe, he openly opposed Jewish nationalism and ergo their right to national self-determination, instead advocating for cultural and educational Jewish revival leading to a bi-national Jewish–Arab state.

No anti-Israel liberal Christian statement compares with the vicious attack on Israel by the notorious anti-Zionist Dr. Henry P. Van Dusen, a past president of the Union Theological Seminary, who, in a letter dated 7 July 1967 to the New York Times, condemned the Israeli victory over the combined forces of (most of) the Arab world as ‘the most violent, ruthless (and successful) aggression since Hitler’s blitzkrieg across Western Europe’.

Van Dusen argued that ‘every square mile of Arab homeland appropriated by Israel, every additional Arab subjugated or driven into exile, will merely exacerbate the smouldering resolve for revenge’. The Christian Century called for joint administration by Israeli and Jordanian forces, while the National Council of Churches favoured an ‘international presence’ to guarantee the holy sites and security.

Despite continuous Congressional resolutions since 1995 urging the sitting president to move the US embassy to West Jerusalem, no American president (Clinton, the younger Bush, or Obama) has followed this directive, all claiming a need to delay implementation on national security grounds. Finally, neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama have allowed American citizens born in Jerusalem to list Israel as their country of birth on their passports, though Congress passed legislation in 2002 specifically to allow this.

Pro-Israel Theology

The above supersessionist theology does not represent a view to which all contemporary Christians subscribe. In fact, there have been a number of prominent Christians who have been ardent Zionists (e.g. Pierre Van Passen, Malcolm Hay, A. Roy Eckhart, and H. Franklin Littell), including numerous American presidents (John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, among many others).

The American Catholic Church has produced several great defenders of Israel as well, including Father Edward Flannery, Sister Rose Thering, and Father John T. Pawlikowski. Father Pawlikowski, professor of social ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, singled out the above-noted Ruether in his September 1986 address to the delegates of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) in Baltimore as one of his colleagues who, while sensitive to the pain suffered by Jews for centuries from anti-Semitism, apparently ‘considers Zionism roughly equivalent to Fascism’. ‘This reaction by a scholar who has spoken out so strongly against anti-Semitism in all its other forms’, Father Pawlikowski noted, ‘shows how urgent is the need for a serious, sustained and comprehensive conversation between Zionists and Christians.’

In the essay ‘Israel, Jerusalem, and the Middle East’ Father Flannery wrote:

The Middle East (Arab–Israeli) conflict has proven a grave distraction for the Jewish–Christian dialogue and for Jewish–Christian understanding generally. Numerous Christians, unaware of any bias on their part, see the establishment of the state of Israel very simply as a serious injustice inflicted upon the Palestinian Arab population by the Israelis. Through this myopic prism they fail to perceive much significance, historical or theological, in the new state, and direct their attention exclusively to problems of Arab refugees, a Palestinian state, and other socio-political aspects of the problem. The peril in which Israel continuously exists and the problem of its security and survival become in this way secondary considerations, if they are considered at all. The simplicity and one-sidedness of this approach, for one thing, stems in most cases from inadequate information and uncritical acceptance of Arab or anti-Zionist propaganda. The United Nations can serve as a large-scale sample of this way of approaching the Middle East problem. It is imperative, in any case, for the health and survival of the Jewish–Christian embrace that the misinformation and mythologizing that have engulfed the conflict be dispelled.

Recognizing that one must not be insensitive to the Palestinian Arabs, Father Flannery identified the root problem in the Arab–Israeli conflict as ‘the refusal of many of Israel’s enemies to accept or respect Israel’s right to live in peace and security’. Answering the question whether anti-Zionism in its various degrees and forms could be considered anti-Semitic he answered: ‘Not necessarily, but almost always’.

American Protestantism too has produced great defenders of Zionism and the political state of Israel. The early development of dispensationalism is generally attributed to John Nelson Darby (1800–1882) of the Plymouth Brotherhood Denomination and later founder of the Exclusive Brethren. Although Darby’s ideas ensued in Britain, they became more popular in the United States. A distinctive feature of the dispensationalist view is to see the Church as an arrangement wherein God gathers in the Gentile nations.

Though dispensationalism holds that Jews will ultimately accept Jesus as the Messiah, it will be as a people distinct from the Christian Church. Some dispensationalists believe that the Church will actually have ceased to exist by this time, having been removed by a miracle called the Rapture, wherein 144,000 ethnic Jews from the tribes of Israel will be followers of the Messiah during a great tribulation. In the meantime, dispensationalists typically hold fast to the Old Testament promise: ‘I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you, I will curse’.

Many dispensationalists apply this verse as having abiding reference to the Jewish people and the modern state of Israel. Unique to the dispensationalist view is that the fulfilment of God’s covenant with Israel is postponed until the end of history. In this view, individual Jews are anticipated to accept Jesus as Messiah, not by becoming or merging with Gentile Christians, but directly on the basis of God’s original promises to ethnic Israel, which in no sense are seen as either terminated or replaced.

No more profound spiritual development in this regard rivals that of the great American Evangelical Churchman Reinhold Niebuhr, whose spiritual evolution culminated in a balanced, if not enlightened, theological position concerning Christian–Jewish relations. At the beginning of his career Niebuhr ignored Jews completely in his evangelism as if they were beyond the pale, but later he began realizing that this attitude was, in a fashion, anti-Semitic since it deprived Jews of the healing power of the Gospel; to refrain from evangelizing Jews would be the height of anti-Semitism. Eventually Niebuhr realized that this position was theologically immature and came to the conclusion that Jews existed in an unbroken covenant with God and should not be targeted for Christian conversion. This generalized to great support for political Zionism and the reborn Jewish state of Israel.

In response to the above-noted anti-Israel views expressed in Christianity and Crisis, the periodical he helped found, Niebuhr, one of its cofounders, ardently defended Israel in his famous article ‘David and Goliath’:

No simile better fits the war between Israel and the Arabs in lands of biblical than the legend of David and Goliath. David, of course, is little Israel, numbering less than 2.5 million souls… Goliath, of course, is the Arab world under Egyptian President Abdel Nasser’s leadership, numbering a population of 20 to 40 million. This Goliath never accepted Israel’s existence as a nation or granted it the right of survival.

In approval of Jerusalem’s administrative reunification, Neibhur, along with 15 other leading Protestant theologians, professors, and seminary professors, published a statement in the New York Times in 1967 asserting that, ‘Judaism presupposes inextricable ties with the land of Israel and the city of David, without which Judaism cannot be truly herself’. After his death, the magazine he founded was often unjustly critical of Israel, so much so that his widow, Ursula Niebuhr requested that Christianity and Crisis to withdraw her husband’s name from the journal as a ‘Founding Editor’. Nevertheless, disciples of the great theologian, such as Franklin Hamlin Littell and A. Roy Eckhart (with his wife, Alice), have carried the message to the liberal Christian community. Littell was active first in the American Christian Palestine Committee (ACPC) as a young graduate student fresh from Yale with his bright new PhD. He then became extremely important in successor organizations to the ACPC, including the Christians Concerned for Israel (CCI) and the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel (NCLCI). The latter included both fundamentalist-evangelical and Pentecostal Christians as well as members of the liberal Christian tradition. On the fortieth anniversary of the liberation of Europe and the rescue of the survivors of the concentration camps, the NCLCI, in a press conference at the Church Center for the United Nations, urged the UN to reconsider ‘the falsehood promulgated in its 1975 resolution declaring Zionism to be a form of racism’ and called on the Christian community to appreciate the centrality and importance of the state of Israel for the Jewish people. The statement, ‘Forty Years Later: Christians Speak Out on Israel and Zionism’, was delivered at the UN in May 1985, and later appeared in newspapers. ‘We see it as urgent that Christians speak out against the vicious anti-Semitism that hides under the cloak of anti-Zionism’, the ad continued. Similar newspaper advertisements were paid for by Christians for Israel as well as those who opposed Israeli actions.

In current times there has been much cooperation between evangelical Christians  and Jews regarding return of Jews to Israel, following the prophecies of Isaiah regarding the ingathering of the exiles. ‘Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you. I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south. Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth.’

A leading figure in this regard has been Orthodox Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), which has donated approximately $70 million over the past 28 years for the return and settlement of Jews in Israel and the improvement of the economic conditions of those Jews in Israel who need help. ‘See, I will beckon to the Gentiles … they will bring your sons in their arms and carry your daughters on their shoulders.’ Many leading figures of the evangelical world have participated in this undertaking, including Pat Boone, Gary Bauer, Pat Robertson, Jonathan Falwell, Ralph Reed, and Bill Bennett. It is significant that both of the above Christian movements have been animated by passages from the Hebrew bible rather than the Christian New Testament which has been influenced by Pauline replacement theology.

This is also the case for the dual covenant view of John Hagee, founder of the group Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which is in the forefront of the Christian Zionist movement. To the chagrin of some supersessionist Christians, Hagee has shirked overtly ‘replacement’ preaching from the New Testament, instead relying on passages from the Old Testament (Hebrew bible) such as ‘O, Zion!… For thus says the Lord of hosts … he who touches you [Israel/The Jewish people] touches the apple of His eye’, and ‘He who blesses the Jewish people will be blessed and those who curse them will be cursed’. Hagee has been famously quoted in a Houston newspaper as saying:

I’m not trying to convert the Jewish people to the Christian faith… In fact, trying to convert Jews is a ‘waste of time’. The Jewish person who has his roots in Judaism is not going to convert to Christianity. There is no form of Christian evangelism that has failed so miserably as evangelizing the Jewish people. They (already) have a faith structure. Everyone else, whether Buddhist or Baha’i, needs to believe in Jesus, he says. But not Jews. Jews already have a covenant with God that has never been replaced by Christianity.

This dual covenant stance represents perhaps the best chance for meaningful inter-religious dialogue, understanding, and acceptance between Jews and Christians. We find, for instance, the celebrated Jewish theologian and philosopher Franz Rosenzweig advocating a ‘two covenant theology’ in his acclaimed magnum opus Star of Redemption and then, later, after flirting with the idea of converting to Christianity, sharing his decision to remain a Jew in a written correspondence with his friend Rudolph Ehrenberg saying that,

Christianity acknowledges the God of the Jews, not as God but as ‘the Father of Jesus Christ’. Christianity itself cleaves to the ‘Lord’ because it knows that the Father can be reached only through him…. We are all wholly agreed as to what Christ and his church mean to the world: no one can reach the Father save through him. No one can reach the Father! But the situation is quite different for one who does not have to reach the Father because he is already with him. And this is true of the people of Israel.


The preceding discussion clearly indicates that there is an intimate link between theology and politics, at least with regard to Christian attitudes to Jews and Israel. Whether this is because of distorted perception or psychological projection, the sense that Christianity has replaced (occupied) Jewish history (in reality, nothing less than identity theft) leads intimately to the perception and charge of Israel as ‘occupier’. This accusation, as we have endeavoured to demonstrate, promotes a political agenda that dovetails with a Pauline-sponsored replacement theology that has postured the Christian church as expropriator of the concept of Jewish particularism, whether of a harder or softer supersessionist stripe.

Ultimately, though, it may be safest to surmise that the psychological origin of hard and soft supersessionist attitudes is over-determined and that they simultaneously satisfy competing psychic functions. True, wrong-headed theology has the unfortunate potential to lead to bad practice, and replacement theology has historically promoted murderous anti-Semitism and, in more modern times, militant anti-Zionism. A dual covenant view, however, is not supersessionist and thus does not involve distorted perceptions or projection of a sense of having occupied Jewish history. Here Jewish ethnic particularism is not seen as a theological scandal and the re-emergence of the Jewish national state of Israel is seen as central to God’s plan for Jew and Gentile alike.

Let it be re-emphasized: secularized versions of religious dogmas against particularistic Jewish people and state may permeate the general culture, creating a latent unconscious bias and mindset even when the manifest religious dogmas fade. In Maccoby’s words: ‘The post-Christian movements of Nazism and Communism inherited the belief in the evil of the Jews, together with the millenarian conviction that the Jews were no longer necessary for salvation and could therefore be obliterated’.

Secular salvationist ideologies, with their inbuilt prejudices, may be even harder to recognize and combat as they are often carried by intellectuals of the enlightenment who feel themselves liberated from the narrowness of traditional Christian dogmas and archetypes in this regard. However, closer examination of many of their political attitudes towards the modern state of Israel indicates they are not! The inverted political views of many so-called post-Christian thinkers are saturated by an entrenched paradigm of replacement theology which views Jews, Judaism, the Jewish people, and the modern state of Israel, as historically regressive phenomena despite all evidence to the contrary, standing in the way of the ‘progressive utopianisms’ of the time, be they Nazism, Fascism, Communism, Third-World-ism, or even the extremes of both unmitigated socialism and capitalism. The Jewish people, by their very existence, and emphasis on both particularism and universalism, have been a block to all of them, pushing for a humane and non-abstract way of looking at life.