Bibi amongst the Christians

At the end of January, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu travelled to Washington for a tough meeting with President Clinton. At the top of the agenda for discussion were the redeployment of Israeli troops in the Territories and the percentage of West Bank territory to be evacuated. Netanyahu came to the talks with Clinton from a position of weakness; he had just suffered the resignation of his Foreign Minister, David Levy over the lack of a clear policy on negotiations with the Palestinians. And even before leaving Israel, Netanyahu was engaged in the almost traditional fratricidal embrace of the far Right in his cabinet, which has afflicted Likud Prime Ministers in the past with disastrous consequences. All this simply enhanced the White House’s growing displeasure with Likud policies and the likelihood of a frosty, meaningless meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister embroidered by subtle diplomatic snubbing.

Immediately on arrival from Israel, Netanyahu responded to his perceived status by going directly from Andrews Air Force Base to an adoring, cheering conference of Christian evangelical supporters of Israel, which included the Reverend Jerry Falwell, the initiator of the Moral Majority movement. The Jewish press dealt with this strange event by embedding it in a few lines in their general coverage of the visit. The ultra-orthodox press usually hypersensitive to antagonists, both within and without, was distinctly somnambulant in its reportage. The Brooklyn-based Jewish Press spoke of ‘a wildly enthusiastic crowd of Christian fundamentalists” while Stamford Hill’s Jewish Tribune quoted Falwell’s gushing description of Netanyahu as ‘an Israeli Ronald Reagan’.2

Despite such fulsome praise, Falwell and other evangelicals actively work towards and indeed fervently pray for the mass conversion of the Jews to Christianity — a fact that is well known to all those involved in Jewish life in the United States. One person who was present but rarely mentioned in the reports of Netanyahu’s address was Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition and owner of the Family Channel, the seventh largest cable network in the United States. Netanyahu gladly accepted an invitation from Robertson to be interviewed on his Christian Broadcasting Network. Robertson, a vice-presidential hopeful in 1988, has long been a zealous supporter of the Jewish State and even more so when a right wing government is in power. Despite all this, as a pillar of the religious right and a multi-millionaire, he has actively supported ministries which seek to convert Jews. The Founders Inn in Virginia, owned by Robertson, hosts meetings and conferences of Messianic Jews. His ‘700 Club’ on CBN has often portrayed them in a favourable light. Robertson’s attitude towards Jews ‘is- also coloured by his stance as a political conservative in that he dislikes liberals of any stripe with a vengeance — and as many American Jews are politically liberal, this poses a problem. Indeed, regardless of their socio-economic status, a minimum of 70% of American Jews have constantly supported the Democratic Party presidential candidate in fair political weather and foul. Only American Blacks have exceeded this figure. Jew-fish chequebooks are the source of 50% of the Democratic Party’s finances. As the late Senator for Connecticut told his Italian-American audience, ‘Nowhere, except in the Democratic Party, could a boy named Abe Ribicoff be nominated for governor of this state’. And it can be argued that this allegiance to political liberalism emanates from both Jewish teachings and the Jewish historical experience.

Robertson significantly differentiates between liberal Jews — as opposed to Jewish liberals — and those neo-conservative Jewish intellectuals and the ultra-orthodox that are in political convergence with him.

In a recent book, he comments that

a sad irony of the last 40 years, though, is the fact that the liberal Jewish population in America has been intent on diminishing Christian influence in the public life of America. They believe that Christianity is a threat to Judaism, and many recite the terrors of the Holocaust as evidence of the Christian ‘blood libel’ against the Jews… The liberal Jews have actually forsaken Biblical faith in God, and made a religion of political liberalism’.3

In 1991, Robertson published The New World Order. This sets forth a conspiratorial vision of a cabal of anti-Christian forces, which, according to Robertson, has manipulated both national governments and global finance to ensure their international hegemony. This, in turn, would lead to a world government by the United Nations and ultimately the confrontation between the forces of light and darkness on the field of Armageddon. Robertson’s set-piece villains are an admixture of Freemasons, illuminati and.. ..’European Bankers’.4

Such mumblings sound all too familiar to Jewish ears. One satirical writer characterised Robertson in the Wall Street Journal as ‘a paranoid pinhead with a deep distrust of democracy’.5 Yet The New World Order, in spite of the paranoia and the Jewish jokes that accompanied it, sold many hundreds of thousands of copies and made the New York Times best seller lists.

In 1995, the New York Review of Books published a couple of well-argued articles, which effectively dissected Robertson’s attempt at a coherent ideology Michael Lind showed that Robertson’s approach paralleled traditional anti-Jewish tracts in the past. In The New World Order, in particular, Lind showed that Robertson referred to and was heavily influenced by the work of Nesta Webster whose writings in the 1920s depicted Jews as Bolshevik agitators. She allocated to the Jews the responsibility for many of the world’s problems from the French revolution onwards.

Nesta Webster was, in fact, the grand old lady of far right conspiracy theory whose quasi-academic writings influenced a generation of British fascists. Her antipathy to Freemasons, for example, was founded on the notion that they had based their philosophy on kabbala. While Oswald Mosley’s fascism fed on social and economic deprivation, Nesta Webster quietly laid the ideological basis for a patriotic nationalism. This allowed post-war fascists to emerge untainted and plausible from the legacy of mass murder. Her best known work Secret Societies and Subversive Movements had gone into eight editions by 1964. Unlike her histrionic fellow travellers, she calmly and rationally expressed her anti-Semitism and indeed praised Hitler for his policies until disillusionment set in with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Nazi-Soviet alliance which facilitated the invasion of Poland and the commencement of World War II. For Nesta Webster, embracing the Soviets was supping with the devil.

Both Michael Lind and Jacob Heilbrunn’s6 detailed articles in the New York Review of Books laid bare the anti-Jewish colouring of Robertson’s worldview. His inevitable response was that his mobilisation of the evangelicals in support of Israel over decades clearly nailed this wicked lie.

For Jews, there is a certain logic that support for Israel must automatically mean sympathy for Jews. For Protestant evangelicals like Robertson, this connection is not self-evident. The Jewish tradition of argumentation and new thinking has roots in both religious and secular tradition. Cosmopolitan Jews are history’s dissidents — they ask questions, they challenge accepted truths, they desire change, they suspect populist politicians, they believe in tikkun ha’olatn — and in the Christian fundamentalist mindset, they are today the liberal Jews who operate out of the American Civil Liberties Union. They certainly do not measure up to the imagery of quiescent holy Jews.

The establishment of the State of Israel, ironically by God-abolishing, socialist pioneers rather than by the anti-Zionist haredim, is seen by Robertson and other evangelicals as an eschatological event of cosmic proportions. It is a step on the path that leads ultimately to the Second Corning of Jesus the Messiah, the resurrection of the dead and the revelation of the truth of Christianity to the Jews and their subsequent conversion. And it is liberally minded Jews and their questioning actions that wilfully obstruct the unveiling and implementation of this grand design.

Netanyahu cannot have been unaware of the agenda of these Christian supporters of Israel who embraced him and enthusiastically responded to his hard-line stand. He also knew that mainstream American Jewry and many Jewish organisations attempt to keep the Christian fundamentalists at arm’s length. The Director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abe Foxman, accused Netanyahu of ‘crude pandering” to the likes of the Reverend Jerry Falwell and stated that American Jews are at odds with Christian fundamentalists on most items on the social agenda. At the same time, leaders such as Foxman could not ignore the fact that the evangelicals’ political clout is invaluable in supporting Israel even though their theological stance is unnerving.

As Robert Boston, a writer on the American religious right has indicated, this is an uncomfortable case of double standards:

Had the bizarre ravings found in The New World Order been uttered by another, they would have been speedily and reportedly denounced. When a well-known anti-Semite such as Louis Farrakhan makes similar statements, he is roundly condemned by liberals, moderates, and conservatives alike – and rightly so. But because Robertson controls a large bloc of right-wing votes, conservatives refuse to join the chorus of denunciation, and he gets an exception from the normal rules of human decency. Even some Jews, it seems, who ought to be sensitive to the dangers of antisemitism, are willing to put politics above principle, when it comes to Robertson.

Flirting with Falwell and Robertson also has implications for peace in the Middle East since there is an identity of outlook with the far Right in Israel. For example, during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Pat Robertson showed his television audience how this was a fulfilment of biblical prophecy. Like several prominent Israeli rabbis, Robertson produced maps showing that Southern Lebanon was the domain of the Tribe of Asher.’ The future status of Jerusalem similarly brought together the religious right from both Jews and Christians. The evangelicals saw the building of the Third Temple on har habayit, the Temple Mount, by the Jews as yet another plank in the programme to bring about the Second Coming. Many Christian groups have therefore raised funds for the project — a scheme that has also been the focus and preoccupation of many on the religious right in Israel. It is well known, however, that the Dome of the Rock occupies the site of the proposed Temple and since the Six-Day War in 1967, successive Israeli governments have banned Jewish religious services on the Temple Mount because of the sensitive political-situation. Indeed, at the beginning of the 1980s, two West Bank settlers, Yehuda Etzion and Menachem Livni attempted to eliminate this abomination’ by planning to destroy the Muslim holy site with sizeable quantities of stolen ex-plosives.10 Fortunately both men sought rabbinical authorisation for their task but found it difficult to secure. Thus the plan was aborted. Even so, given Muslim reactions both in the Arab world and beyond to lesser perceived slights on Islam, such a demolition of the Dome of the Rock would have had the most catastrophic consequences for the State of Israel. Even Begin and Shamir were aware of this religious powder keg.

So why then did Netanyahu dance with the evangelicals prior to his meeting with President Clinton? Clearly it was designed to send a warning shot across Clinton’s bows that further criticism of Netanyahu’s policies and any American pressure on his government would help to fortify ties with the President’s opponents on the political and religious right. During the talks Clinton significantly rebuked Netanyahu for courting Falwell who has spent years vilifying the President Netanyahu may have been positioning himself to capitalise on the prospect of a republican victory if Al Gore should falter at the next US election in the year 2000, but coming on the eve of the Monica Lewinsky revelations and the ongoing legal and financial Christian fundamentalist support for the assault on Clinton’s character, the President may not have appreciated Netanyahu’s political sophistication on this occasion.

It also symbolised a weakening of support for Netanyahu’s policies from mainstream American Jewish organisations. It can be argued that Netanyahu came to rely on a Christian rally chanting ‘Not an inch more’ rather than on the more moderate Jews who placed peace with the Palestinians before a greater Israel. After all, Clinton has been the most pro-Israel of Presidents and has worked in harmony with the American Jewish leadership.

Was this act then at best a shrewd political move on Netanyahu’s part and at worst a transient measure of his deteriorating relationship with the White House? Perhaps, but there are historical antecedents, which suggest that this approach have deeper roots. The Jewish State’s national interests sometimes takes precedence over the Diaspora’s political and moral concerns, no matter how connected such concerns are with perceived Jewish teachings. For example, successive Israel governments refused to assist Soviet refuseniks that were involved in human rights activities as well as fighting for their right to depart to Israel. When Anatoly Shcharansky, now Natan Sharansky, the Minister for Industry and Trade, was first arrested in 1977 for working with Sakharov and the Helsinki Committee, there was no action because he was not recognised as a prisoner of Zion.” This occurred despite the fact that Andrei Sakharov had struggled for the right of many individual Jews to leave the USSR, against anti-Semitism and for the release of many imprisoned refuseniks in strict-regime labour camps. The desire not to jeopardise state interests by antagonising another state, regardless of whether it is a friend or an adversary, at the expense of Jewish moral concerns has been an ethical dilemma with which the State of Israel has had to grapple for most of its existence.

In addition, there is also an ideological component, which the Likud and its predecessors in Herut and the Revisionist-Zionist movement have propagated. From their point of view, there has been a dear emphasis on nationalism and particularism rather than upon universalism and an understanding of the ‘other’. The charismatic founder of the Revisionist movement, Vladimir Jabotinsky spoke about the need for ‘ideological sha’atnez’ there should be no mixing of competing ideologies such as socialism with Zionism in case the single-minded desire to achieve a Jewish State should be diluted by ‘foreign ideology’. Thus although Begin condemned apartheid, there were strong links between Herut and South Africa and an understanding for successive governments in Pretoria during the darkest days of oppression. Similarly there was understanding for the colons that proclaimed Algerie Francaise’ and fought the Algerian FLN. Issues such as colonialism, national liberation of oppressed peoples and human rights were deemed to be relatively unimportant. Whereas Labour struggled with its conscience in such matters given Israel’s diplomatic isolation, Jabotinsky’s disciples had no such qualms in making pacts with unsavoury regimes and organisations which were often seen as kindred nationalist movements.

In part this can be traced back to the 1930s and the pre-war struggles of Betar and the Irgun. Both movements had become radicalised due to their frustration at lack of progress in securing a Jewish State. They were highly influenced by the authoritarian étatist regimes as Pilsudski’s Poland, Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain. Compared to Rosh Betar Vladimir Jabotinsky, Begin and the Betari stood far to the right of their mentor. Jabotinsky through                 his own personal magnetism attempted to control his young radical acolytes and to steer them away from an ill-conceived militancy When the Second World War broke out, he immediately declared his strong support for the British war effort and advised his followers to enlist. Begin who had just escaped from Warsaw was not so sure. He did not see the war as a Jewish war and cautiously engaged in discussion to investigate whether British weakness at that time could be exploited. Another follower of Jabotinsky, Avraham Stern, had become severely disillusioned with his mentor — he referred to him as ‘Hindenberg’, yesterday’s man.

Stern broke with Jabotinsky to form the Irgun b’Yisrael — otherwise known as the Stern Gang by the British. Stern fervently believed that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. In his desire to establish a Jewish State, he advocated contact with the Italians and later with the Germans. Stern’s proposal for a volkischnationalen Hebraertum allied to the Reich and his request for 40,000 Jews from occupied Europe was rejected by the German Legation in Beirut. His quotation from one of the Fuhrer’s recent speeches and advocacy of a New Order did not impress.” Begin, on the other hand, did not formally abandon Jabotinsky even though he disagreed with him on the crucial issue of military Zionism and an end to the niceties of diplomacy. Begin was both more cautious and shrewd, although similar ideological streams influenced him, he believed that the enemy of my enemy was not automatically my friend’. Unlike Jabotinsky he abhorred the British, but he hated the Germans even more. He resurrected Jabotinsky as an icon and proclaimed the Revolt in 1944 as head of the Irgun. Jabotinsky who favoured diplomacy was declared to be the Father of the Revolt whilst Stern who was the real initiator was never mentioned.

Netanyahu comes from the ‘fighting family’ tradition of the Irgun. His father was a devoted disciple of Jabotinsky. Thus this embrace of unsavoury ‘friends’ has a certain historical and ideological pedigree, of which Stern’s attempted pact with the Nazis, was the most extreme example. It is the latest episode in a myopic thinking where working with enemies and ideological opponents of the Jewish people are considered to further the cause of Israel — at least in the short term. It can be argued that all politicians play this political game, but eventually a line is drawn. Netanyahu comes from a political lineage, which does not always define the point of no return, or whether a line exists at all.

At the Third World Conference of Betar in 1938, Jabotinsky suggested to his young audience that Jews had to appeal to the conscience of the world. His acolytes remained silent; there was no response. Instead, they supported Menachem Begin and his military Zionism.13 The Shoah hardened this attitude and won more adherents. Unfortunately as history has shown, a willingness to work with the persecutors of the Jewish people can in bizarre circumstances also mean co-operating with the exterminators as well. While the evangelicals are neither persecutors nor exterminators, are they really ‘friends’? What have they in common with the broad ethical direction of the Jewish people? While the actions of many devout Christians and religious Jews have tried to bring both Israelis and Palestinians together, how have the evangelicals helped both peoples to compromise their political demands and advanced the process of reconciliation? The answer to these basic questions is decidedly in the negative.

Perhaps it is too much to ask in the globalised cool 1990s that ethics should triumph over opportunism, but when opportunism poses as pragmatism in the national cause, an embarrassed silence is the politically incorrect response from the Diaspora. As Nye Bevan remarked shortly before his death ‘The Prime Minister has an absolute genius for putting flamboyant labels on empty luggage.’ In this the fiftieth year of Israel’s re-establishment, responsible Jewish leaders should publicly question both the political judgement of Mr. Netanyahu and the ideological basis of his policies.

  1. Jewish Press 23 January 1998
  2. Jewish Tribune 23 January 1998
  3. Pat Robertson, The New Millenium (Dallas 1990) p290
  4. Michael Lind, New York Review of Books 2 February 1995
  5. Joe Queenan, Wall Street Journal 31 December 1995
  6. Jacob Heilbrunn, New York Review of Books 20 April 1995
  7. Jerusalem Post 23 January 1998
  8. Robert Boston, The Most Dangerous Man in America? Pat Robertson and the Rise of the Christian Coalition (New York 1996) p138
  9. Jerusalem Post 25 January 1998
  10. Ehud Sprinzak, The Ascendance of Israel’s Radical Right (Oxford 1991) pp252-259
  11. Colin Shindler, Exit Visa: Detente, Human Rights and Jewish Emigration Movement in the USSR (London 1978) pp 185-188.
  12. Joseph Heller, The Stern Gang: Ideology, Politics and Terror 1940-1949 (London 1995) p185
  13. Colin Shindler Israel, Likud and the Zionist Dream: Power, Politics and Ideology from Begin to Netanyahu (London 1995) p21

 Judaism Today Spring 1998

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.