Religious persuasion?

Issue: 117

John Rose

Nur Masalha, The Bible and Zionism: Invented Traditions, Archaeology and Postcolonialism in IsraelPalestine (Zed, 2007), £19.99

As I wrote this review in mid-November 2007, the Bush administration was claiming to be rebooting the Middle East “peace” process with its conference in the US city of Annapolis. Even the Saudi and the Egyptian governments were highly sceptical, let alone the Palestinians. The Israeli side was not even prepared to commit in advance to freeze its construction of West Bank settlements, let alone make any promises to dismantle them.

Nur Masalha provides an ideological explanation for this depressingly familiar saga. It is a variation of the “Israel lobby” argument. An ideological fanaticism binds the US to Israel. At its root lies US acceptance of the Zionist state’s claim to Palestinian land based on the Bible’s mandate. God promised this land to the Jews. Good Christians should support them.

Nur Masalha is one of all too few Palestinian scholars contesting Zionism within academia. His earlier pioneering books on the Palestinian refugee crisis anticipated the work of the much better known Israeli “new” historians by several years. While I disagree with Nur (and he has been a great fan of my own book, which he references here), his argument should be read and taken deadly seriously.

As well as providing detailed documentation of the Israelis’ manipulation of Bible stories, Nur makes a fascinating comparison between US backing for Israel today and British Christian backing for the Zionist project over a hundred years ago. Both represent a complete reworking of traditional Christian anti-semitism. Having often made life hell for the original “people of the book” for nearly two millennia, in the modern age of empire and imperialism, many Christians came to recognise that the Jews have, after all, a mandate from heaven.

In the 19th century an impressive array of British aristocrats, led by the seventh earl of Shaftesbury, rallied to the cause of the “Restoration of God’s Ancient People”. The immense impact of Christian Zionism on Victorian Britain was reflected in books such as Byron’s Hebrew Melodies, Disraeli’s novel Tancred and George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda.

It was that peculiar mix of obsession with biblical prophecy and imperial interest that helped land the Jews in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration secured this process both for the Jews and the British Empire as the Lloyd George government embarked on its land grab in the Middle East as the finale to the First World War.

“Baffy” Blanche Dugdale, Balfour’s niece, wrote that her uncle’s fascination with the Jews originated “in the Old Testament training of his mother, and his Scottish upbringing”. Much the same was said of Lloyd George, his pious Welsh non-conformism replacing Balfour’s no doubt equally pious Scottish Calvinism. But Herbert Asquith, British premier immediately prior to LG, would have none of it: “LG didn’t give a damn for the Jews, their past or the future.” But he did give a damn about securing Palestine for the British Empire. And herein lies my quarrel with Nur. He doesn’t fully see that this crass Christianity is an ideological outrider subordinate to the more sordid concerns of empire, rather than its ideological soulmate.

Comparing British Empire attitudes to Zionism with US attitudes today, he writes, “In both, as the international power brokers of their day, religion and politics became inextricably entwined.” There was a “convergence of British strategic colonial interests and Christian Zionism… Likewise current American foreign policy in the Middle East largely coincides with that of the powerful Christian Zionist lobby.”

By giving the impression of equal partnership, Nur artificially elevates the religious influence. Not that we should ignore it. On the contrary it is pernicious and, to put it bluntly, dangerously bonkers. The Christian peddlers of “Armageddon theology” have indeed been at the door of the White House. There was a special excitement in the build up to the year 2000. According to one writer you could feel the “PMT”—premillennial tension. Hal Lindsey, prophesising the destruction of the Muslim “Dome of the Rock” in Jerusalem and its replacement by the “Third Temple” as a precondition for the return of Jesus Christ, counts his book sales in tens of millions.

Nur highlights the, by now infamous, “Israel lobby” thesis of two American scholars, Meirsheimer and Walt. Now this argument has been maliciously attacked for alleged covert anti-Semitism: Israel lobby equals Jewish lobby equals “Jewish conspiracy”. But, as Nur points out, building upon the two authors’ own arguments, the “Israel lobby” has far more Christian than Jewish supporters.

In 2000 George Bush received 50 million votes, 30 million from evangelical Christians. Of these about 15 million were “dispensationalists”, who believe that Israel’s rebirth and, crucially, its expansionist agenda are part of God’s will. Evangelical neocons such as John Bolton embedded themselves at pivotal points in the US power structure. Yet, following the Iraq debacle, Bolton is largely a discredited figure and the neocons are in disarray. The Christian right is unable to agree on a candidate to replace Bush in the next presidential election and there are repeated reports of deep demoralisation among its ranks.

But at the same time the Democrats are posturing, just as aggressively as the Republicans ever did, over the perceived “threat” posed by Iran. Surely this is about something far more mundane than the following of providential will. It is about the threat posed to perceived US economic and political influence, pure and simple.

Nur’s book takes a number of detours. There is a chapter on the rise of Hamas and impressive tributes to Edward Said and the Christian liberation theologist Michael Prior who, before he died recently, co-edited with Nur the academic journal Holy Land Studies. But the chapter that interested me most in this book is the all too brief one, “Reinventing Maimonides”.

Maimonides is the greatest Jewish theologian of the medieval period and the recognised link in Judaism between biblical history and modernity. But he is also Musa Ibn Maymun, a highly respected Arab physician and philosopher from one of the high points of Islamic civilisation, 1,000 years ago. Because of the character of Nur’s book, he is mainly preoccupied with the way the Zionists have tried to recruit Maimonides to their cause, stripping him of his Arab Islamic identity. This leaves the reader unintentionally tantalised about the real historical Maimonides. Nur, this has to be your next book and the best one yet…