by Dexter Van Zile (October 2011)
For the past year, audiences of Christians in the United States and Great Britain have been treated to an anti-Israel extravaganza, With God on Our Side. Produced by Rooftop Productions in 2010, this 82-minute movie purports to be a documentary about Christian Zionism and its impact on the prospects for peace between Israel and its adversaries in the Middle East.
The movie fails as an honest documentary about the Arab-Israel conflict but as piece of propaganda, it succeeds spectacularly. Not only does it portray Israel as born in original sin and singularly responsible for the Arab-Israeli conflict, it provides a model by which young Evangelical Christians in the United States can break ranks with their faith community which is largely pro-Israel and ignore Islamist hostility toward Israel in good conscience.
The centerpiece of the movie is its narrator, Christopher Harrell. Harrell, a twenty-something graphic designer (and recent film school graduate), plays the role of an ersatz Dante as he is led by various Virgil-like commentators through the hellish aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In his journey, Harrell is purged of his juvenile and unreflective support for the Jewish people and the modern state of Israel – which he got from his family. In Harrell’s first few scenes, he is shown undergoing a dark night of the soul, struggling with his conscience and incomplete understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict with a stained glass window in the background or while sitting in a pew.
Then he goes on a journey where he meets a number of so-called experts to learn about the history of the conflict. Harrell also travels to the West Bank to see for himself the crimes the Israelis have perpetrated against the Palestinian people – most notably the security barrier.
At a certain point, he has an epiphany in which he understands that Christians should not fan the flames of the Arab-Israeli conflict – the way Christian Zionists do – but should act as peacemakers.
At the end of the movie, Harrell is portrayed as having arrived at a mature understanding of his Christian faith and how Christians should respond to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The second-to-last scene of the movie shows the hip, slick, and cool Harrell walking alongside the concrete security barrier confident in his newfound understanding of the conflict he is called to help end. One half expects Harrell to quote 1 Corinthians 13:11 to the audience: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up my childish ways.” The childish ways of course, are guilt over the Holocaust, unreflective support for the Jewish people and indifference to Palestinian suffering. The irony is that the movie encourages its viewers to embrace the mirror image of this outlook – guilt over Palestinian suffering (as if it represents a great insuperable wound on humanity and challenge to the Christian faith in a manner akin to the Holocaust), unreflective support for the Palestinian cause and indifference to the safety and well-being of Jews.
The film’s commentators explicitly say that Christians should be peacemakers, but it offers another implicit message that good, well-meaning and knowledgeable Christians should always side with the oh-so-innocent Palestinians and avert one’s eyes from the unpleasant aspects of Arab and Muslim ideology and behavior. As far as one’s obligations to the Jews, Christians do need to ask forgiveness for Christian antisemitism and that nasty bit of history – the Holocaust – before telling them that if they can’t embrace Christianity, they at least need to better job of living up to the ethical demands of their faith (such as it is).
This is a pretty malevolent message to offer, but there’s an even more sinister message lurking underneath this one – the notion that good Christians can ignore Muslim and Arab hostility toward Jews and Israel because of the crimes Israel has committed against the Palestinian people. In short, Jews are alone in their fight against Muslim extremists because, well, they deserve to be given what they’ve done to their Palestinian neighbors, whose misdeeds go unacknowledged in this movie.
This may seem like a harsh assessment, but it stands up. The only people in this movie who speak directly about hostility toward Jews and Israel in the Middle East are Christian Zionists such as John Hagee from Christians United for Israel and Malcom Hedding from the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, who are portrayed as fear- and war-mongering nut jobs whose testimony about such things cannot be trusted. No one else speaks a word about Islamist hostility toward Israel and Jews in the Middle East, as if it’s not worthy of discussion by responsible Christians.
Harrell makes his entrance by describing how as a pastor’s kid he was encouraged to support Israel and to love the Jewish people. His family was surrounded by people who “romanticized“ and “idealized” Jewish culture. “There was even one year,” Harrell reports, “when we celebrated Passover. I’m not sure why we did that. We’re not Jewish. We’re just this normal American Midwestern family.”
Harrell gets his answers in a following scene where his parents respond to this line of questioning with answers that can be boiled down to a simple, “Well, that was what we all did back then.” These responses don’t provide any sense of the intellectual or theological underpinning for Christian support for Israel, but portray it as a thoughtless act of mimicry.
Harrell is subsequently shown struggling with his conscience with a stained glass window in the background to indicate that his personal struggle has relevance for the wider church. Harrell says “Of course we should be thankful to the Jewish people because they gave us our scripture and our savior, and our faith, and I think that’s why it’s so painful to see the current conflict and the terror. It seems that there’s so many people against Israel, it seems like that as Christians, we should stand by Israel.”
The underlying issue that Harrell struggles with is theodicy, or the question of how one reconciles suffering with the existence of a kind and loving God who cares for humanity. For Harrell, the question that evolves during the course of the film is how God could endorse the creation of the modern state of Israel the way Christian Zionists say He does despite the impact it has on the Palestinian people.
Saleem Munayer, a Palestinian Christian featured in the movie raises the issue poignantly when he complains of Christian Zionists wanting to have nothing to do with him because as a Palestinian, he does not fit into their end time theology, which requires the in-gathering of Jews to make way for Christ’s return.
“So an average Palestinian Christian says, ‘Wow, I’m an obstacle for the salvation of the world? I’m an obstacle for the Second Coming of Jesus? What’s going on? God doesn’t love us?” Munayer reports, concluding “The way we hear it here is to accept this theology is to commit suicide as a people group.”[i]
As the movie proceeds, Harrell responds to the challenge posed by Palestinian suffering by slowly abandoning his dew-eyed, naïve and juvenile support for Israel in favor of a more putatively “balanced” understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This process takes place as he embarks on a cinematic journey that brings him into contact with commentators – both Christian and Jewish – who offer a different narrative about the Arab-Israeli conflict than the one offered by Christian Zionists.
In one scene, Harrell is seen walking alongside Ben White, a British journalist. Judging from appearances White is just a few years older than Harrell and appears to be the perfect role model for the man struggling to come to terms with the Arab-Israeli conflict. When he’s interviewed on screen, White seems like the perfect gentleman. Finally, Harrell has found the mentor he needs who can lead him away from the bad influence offered by those aging Christian Zionists who spout bible verses and talk in such apocalyptic terms about Israel and its adversaries. Those guys are just so uncool, and White, he’s so dreamy!
There’s just one problem. Ben White has a troubling animus when it comes to Israel that makes him a completely unreliable source of information and commentary about the Arab-Israeli conflict. For example, in a 2002 article published in CounterPunch,[ii] White asserted that comparisons between Israel and the Nazi regime are “unwise and unsound” but are not necessarily antisemitic. He also stated that while he does not consider himself antisemitic, he can understand why some people are. “There are in fact a number of reasons,” why someone would be antisemitic, he writes:
One is the state of Israel, its ideology of racial supremacy and its subsequent crimes committed against the Palestinians. It is because Zionists have always sought to equate their colonial project with Judaism that some misguidedly respond to what they see on their televisions with attacks on Jews or Jewish property.
This is the true face of the fellow our innocent protagonist has fallen in with – a polemicist who blames the modern state of Israel for the antisemitism that predated its founding in 1948. The establishment of this state answered a very important question: Where are the Jews to live? After enduring centuries of subjugation in both Europe and the Middle East, Jews finally got a state of their own. They achieved this state only after they were murdered en masse by the Nazi regime in the 1940s, which sadly was able to transmit its hate to the Arab Middle East before it was defeated by the Allies in 1945.[iii] For White to reduce Israel to a colonialist enterprise motivated by racial supremacy and to portray its alleged “crimes” against the Palestinians as an explanation for why antisemites hate Jews is, to say the least, an un-Christian response to Jewish suffering and history. To be sure, White offers no hint of this madness in his on-camera appearances in With God on Our Side, but it is part of his oeuvre so to speak, and it raises serious questions as to why Speakman would include him in the movie.
To people familiar with his work, White’s appearance in the movie is a sure clue that Speakman is not interested in creating a responsible documentary, but is intent on creating a nasty bit of anti-Israel propaganda in which harsh anti-Zionists can portray themselves as peacemakers to an unsuspecting audience. These commentators include the aforementioned Ben White, Gary Burge, author the factually-challenged and hostile text Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians are Not being Told about Israel and the Palestinians (Pilgrim Press, 2003); Stephen Sizer, who has railed against Israel and the United States on Iranian state television, and Norm Finkelstein, a Jewish hater of Israel and his fellow Jews who has referred to Abe Foxman, the leader of the Anti-Defamation League as “the Grand Wizard,” a title usually applied to the leader of the Klu Klux Klan. He has even referred to Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel as a “clown.”
These are some of the people Speakman has unleashed on the evangelical community.
Another obvious clue that demonstrates With God on Our Side is a piece of dishonest propaganda is its use of a quote attributed to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. In a particularly jaundiced and one-sided summary of Israeli history that makes no direct mention of the Holocaust or Muslim hostility toward Jews or Israel, Harrell reports that in a 1937 letter to his son, Ben-Gurion wrote “The Arabs will have to go, but one needs and opportune moment for making it happen, such as war.”
It’s a compelling quote but it’s a fabrication that was debunked several years before the movie’s 2010 release. In 2006 Benny Morris described the quote as “an invention, pure and simple.”[iv] The fact that the quote is a fabrication did not stop prevent Speakman from splashing it across the screen along side a profile shot of Ben-Gurion himself. Speakman’s use of this fabricated quote fits in nicely with the jaundiced and one-sided historical summary of the Arab-Israeli conflict he offers in With God on Our Side. The fact that it is uttered by Harrell, who lamented his lack of knowledge about the Arab-Israeli conflict before summarizing its history, reveals just how much of a corrupting influence the movie will have on viewers who trust the narrative it offers.
Speakman provides confirmation that he is not an honest documentarian when he highlights the impact of Israeli security measures on Palestinians without providing his audience the information it need to understand why Israeli imposed these security measures in the first place. For example, Speakman uses a young Palestinian man – Ayman – to tell viewers that the Palestinians are not the terrorists the world believes them to be. “We are trying to convey to the world that we are a people who really want peace,” Ayman says.
Such an idealized generalization about the Palestinians is a strange turnabout in a movie whose narrator who questioned the idealized and romantic view of the Jewish people he received as a child. This does not describe the violence that Israelis endured during the Second Intifada motivated by genocidal and hateful ideologies espoused by groups such as Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. These organizations routinely deny Israel’s right to exist and have perpetrated hundreds of attacks against Israeli citizens over the past several decades. To be sure, these groups may not represent all of Palestinian society, but the fact remains, anti-Jewish incitement has been a persistent aspect of Palestinian mass media for decades. If Speakman were an honest documentarian, he might have asked Ayman to address this reality, but if he did, it didn’t make it in the final cut.
At one point during the film, Harrell speaks with Saleem Munayer, a Palestinian Christian who leads a reconciliation group, Musalah, who falsely suggests Palestine was effectively free of Jews since the sacking of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. He does this with the following narrative:
The whole idea was like this: Two thousand years ago the Jewish people left this land and they’re not here and they’re coming back. Well, coming back to what? Two thousand years is a long time in reality there are people living [here].
The irony is almost laughable. In an a reasonable attempt to discount the false notion that Palestine was a “land without a people” prior to the arrival of European Jews in the late 1800s, Munayer posits a falsehood of his own – that no Jews lived in Palestine prior to the founding of modern Zionism. Jews have had an uninterrupted presence in the land of Israel for the past 4,000 years.
After Munayer is allowed to erase thousands of years of Jewish history, Norman Finkelstein (the man who called Abe Foxman “the Grand Wizard”) appears on screen to distort the historical record about the negotiations that took place between Israel and the Palestinian Authority at Camp David in 2000. When recounting a debate with Israeli foreign minister Schlomo Ben Ami, Finkelstein quotes Ami as saying “If I were a Palestinian I would not have accepted what was offered at Camp David.” It sounds like a pretty damning quote until one realizes that Ehud Barak’s offer at Camp David during the summer of 2000 was an opening gambit and that Arafat refused to make a counter offer in response and refused to accept the Clinton Parameters offered at Taba a few months later. These actions led Ben Ami – the man Finkelstein was quoting – to conclude that Arafat had no interest in negotiating in good faith during the peace process. On this score Ben Ami is quite clear. In a 2005 interview with Ari Shavit, Ami stated:
Never, in the negotiations between us and the Palestinians, was there a Palestinian counterproposal. There never was and there never will be. So the Israeli negotiator always finds himself in a dilemma: either I get up and walk out because they aren’t ready to put forward proposals of their own, or I make another concession. In the end, even the most moderate negotiator reaches a point where he understands that there is no end to it.
No honest documentarian would omit this reality, but Speakman does.
Some of the most troubling testimony comes from Deana, a young Palestinian mother living in the West Bank who complains about the impact of the security barrier on her life and the life of her friends. She tells the audience:
Every day we pass by the wall and it’s in front of us. It represents a hundred slaps. Whether there is an Israeli standing before it or not it is confirmation that we have no say, we own nothing, we own no land we have no authority and we have no self-respect. Even the Israeli soldiers are not there, the wall is. I see it every day when I come and go to the office. The soldiers no longer need to just stand there and watch us to receive their salaries. They know what they are doing. They are clever. Job well done.
Later, Deana complains of being delayed at a checkpoint into Jerusalem before giving birth to a child, describing how the male soldiers sent for a female soldier to determine that she was in fact pregnant before letting her through. She also complains that her permit to enter into Jerusalem was only good for the day before she was supposed to give birth to her child. One woman died in childbirth at a checkpoint. Clearly, the barrier has had a negative impact on her life. The impact is summarized as follows:
Most of my work used to be in Jerusalem. All the seminars I gave were in Jerusalem.[v] Not one day passed without me traveling to Jerusalem. I never expected in my lifetime that I would not be able to go have a medical exam when I was in an emergency situation, or before I gave birth. But you don’t have a choice anymore. You have to accept anyone who that works here [in the West Bank]. Suddenly you found this country of yours was gone, you have nothing. What? There is no mind that can comprehend what is happening here.
With her testimony, Deana exhibits a profound contradiction that she makes no effort to resolve. On one hand, she hates Israel, but on the other hand, she expresses an unrealistic sense of entitlement over access to hospitals in its territory. The security barrier and the checkpoints that limit her access to these hospitals were not built in a vacuum but in response to the Second Intifada that cost more than 1,200 Israelis their lives. Prominent Palestinian leaders have vowed to bring Israel’s existence to an end and have followed up on these vows with periodic attacks on Israeli civilians. And Deana still expects to have easy and regular access to Israeli health care.
The presence of Gary Burge and Stephen Sizer With God our Side is also very troubling. Gary Burge is the author of Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told about Israel and the Palestinians published by Pilgrim Press in 2003. This text is a stunning collection of misstatements of fact. For example, in Whose Land? Whose Promise? Burge falsely asserts that Arab-Israelis are denied access to political parties, military service and union membership in Israel. And like the movie in which he appears, Burge himself has himself has put words into David Ben-Gurion’s mouth that he did not speak to demonstrate that the Israeli leader was intent on perpetrating an ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Burge writes: “In a letter to his son in 1937 he [Ben-Gurion] wrote, “We will expel the Arabs and take their place.” It’s a compelling quote, but it’s fake, just like the one described above.
Burge's application of scripture to the Arab-Israeli conflict is also deeply troubling. For example, his exposition of John 15:6[vi] states that “The people of Israel cannot claim to be planted as vines in the land; they cannot be rooted in the vineyard unless first they are grafted into Jesus. Branches that attempt living in the land, the vineyard, which refuse to be attached to Jesus will be cast out and burned.”[vii] Polemics such as this are simply inexcusable and would in most instances, disqualify one as a legitimate commentator on the Arab-Israeli conflict, but not in Speakman’s movie.[viii]
Stephen Sizer’s presence in the film is also a shock given that he has appeared on state-supported television in, of all places, Iran, to recount the evils of Christian Zionism. In one instance, Sizer, an Anglican priest, appeared in Press TV's studio in Tehran. Rev. Sizer also appeared on the Press TV show “Hart of the Matter” hosted by British journalist Alan Hart who lionized Yassir Arafat in his 1985 book Arafat: Terrorist or Peacemaker, which was reissued in the U.S. in 1989 under the title Arafat: A Political Biography. Hart has also authored a three volume text titled Zionism: The Real Enemy of the Jews.
On Hart's show (a 13-segment series which aired between October 2008 and January 2009), Sizer asserted that Israeli Jews are being set up for another exile because of their inability to make peace with the Palestinians.
And in May 2008, Sizer participated in an anti-Zionist conference that took place in Jakarta, Indonesia. The Indonesian Society for Palestinian Freedom (also called the Voice of Palestine), the organization that sponsored the conference, calls for a one-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict – in other words the destruction of Israel.
This event proved to be a showcase for anti-Zionist Hezbollah members and terrorist supporters. According to a Voice of Palestine video posted on Youtube, the Neda Institute, an Iranian group that helped organize the Holocaust denial conference sponsored by the Iranian government in December 2006, sponsored the event. The list of speakers for the conference indicates that members of Hezbollah spoke at the conference, as did a representative of from the Neda Institute.
Other speakers at the conference included Dr. Zahra Mustafawi, a daughter of Ayatollah Khomeini who sent an open letter of support to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah during the fighting between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006. In her opening remarks to the conference at which Rev. Sizer spoke, Mustafawi made the following statement, which is emblematic of the hostility toward Israel expressed by Islamic extremists throughout the Middle East:
These days the Zionists in an illegal state called Israel, are celebrating the 60th year of their aggression against the nation of Palestine as well as the crime of occupying their land, killing them and obliging them to leave their land. They are celebrating the cruel attacks they had against Palestinians and many old people, children, women and innocents were killed and a lot of orphans are left, so, this is their nature to celebrate the crime and at the same time expecting Germany to be ashamed of so called Holocaust.
Palestine is the holy land of all the religions and due to the aggression of the Zionists its oppressed people have either been martyred or rendered homeless and displaced from their home and hearth or are enduring suffering and hardship due to the pressures exerted by the usurping Zionists. There is not a single day when we don't hear the news about the genocide of the innocent Palestinian people, civilians, children and women in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Later in her statement, Mustafawi makes her intentions for the conference perfectly clear – the creation of an umbrella organization for anti-Israel and anti-Zionist groups that will work together to “increase the vulnerability of Israel.”[ix]
If Sizer truly is committed to peacemaking as he says he is in With God on Our Side, what exactly was he doing at a conference such as this? And what was Speakman thinking when he allowed Sizer to appear in his film given his willingness to appear at a conference organized by Holocaust deniers?
None of these problems are revealed to the viewers of With God in Our Side. In the movie, Burge and Sizer look and sound like responsible and knowledgeable theologians whose beef with Christian Zionism is rooted not in politics, but theology.
Their gravamen is that God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3[x] does not apply to the modern state of Israel and that this promise needs to be re-interpreted in light of the New Testament. Burge reports that the New Testament “raises the question that not all those who claim to be descendants of Abraham might be descendents of Abraham because the lineage is not determined by genetics or by bloodline necessarily, but it is a spiritual disposition.”
Sizer asserts that the belief that Jews are the chosen people is used to accord Israelis a free pass for their treatment of people in Southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.[xi]
All this talk about how the Jews fit into Christian theology and whether they are still the chosen people underscores just how much of a trauma the Jewish refusal to accept Jesus as the messiah is for the Christian mind. And given the persistent failure of Burge and Sizer (and many other Christians) to acknowledge Muslim hostility toward Jews, it becomes reasonable to ask if anger over the Jewish refusal to accept Jesus as the Son of God translates into indifference toward the genocidal hostility toward Jews in the Middle East. What Burge, Sizer and a number of other commentators do is deny modern day Jews the right to claim God’s blessing to the descendents of Abraham while at the same time ignoring the curses directed at them by their adversaries.
Like a lot of “peacemaking” commentary about the Arab-Israeli conflict, With God on Our Side assails the belief that modern-day Jews are entitled to God’s blessing, but says nothing at all about the curses directed at the Jewish people in the Koran and the Hadiths as well, which raises a question: Who exactly is getting a free pass here, Israel, or its adversaries who are motivated by an Islamist understanding of Muslim scripture that calls for the subjugation and ultimate elimination of the Jewish people?
If Christians should, as Ron Dart says, repent for their animus toward Jews and the abysmal treatment Jews have suffered at the hands of Christians, can they ignore, with good conscience, Muslim animus toward Jews and the abysmal mistreatment of Jews in Muslim-majority countries?
Apparently so, because that’s exactly what With God on our Side has done, raising the troubling prospect that despite Christian expressions of remorse over hostility toward Jews, there is something about Muslim anti-Semitism that dovetails quite nicely with Christian hostility toward Jews. This would help explain why so many Christians find Muslim antisemitism so unremarkable. Muslim extremists froth at the mouth about the Jews the same way Hitler and his cronies did and the best Christian peacemakers can do is shrug.
Another complaint leveled at Christian Zionism is that it proposes a two-covenant theology that undermines the primacy of Jesus Christ “as the event by which all history is judged therefore what it says that there is a second alternative track that doesn’t require Christ.”
By condemning Christian Zionists for adhering to a two-covenant theology, With God on our Side is asking that Christians choose between their love of Jesus Christ and their love for the modern state of Israel. It’s a powerful challenge that Christians must answer by affirming their love for Christ over anything else. This question of ultimate loyalty can be leveled at any Christian who expresses concern for the safety of the Jewish people in light of the threats they face – especially if they believe that God’s promises to the ancient Israelites are still in force and accrue to modern-day Jews.
The question of ultimately loyalty does not present itself with nearly the same force toward advocates of Palestinians or other groups within the Christian Church, because these groups have not been historically related to the denial of Jesus Christ as the resurrected Son of God and the Messiah. Advocating for the Jewish people and their institutions invites the accusation of Judaizing that advocacy that advocacy for other people or groups simply do not invite. The fact that Christian teachings have been used to demonize the Jewish people is apparently of less concern than the possibility that one of their fellow Christians is somehow Judaizing the Christian faith. We are known by our stumbling blocks.
Once again, this Christian obsession with the Jews and their place in the household of God distracts us from a more important question about the nature of the God we worship.
If God loves all people and does not privilege any group of people over another would He ignore the murderous hostility directed at Jews in the Middle East by Muslim extremists in groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah? Would God find Palestinian terrorism against Israel as unremarkable as it is in With God on Our Side? Is God so offended by the Jewish refusal to follow Jesus Christ that He is willing to use Islamist violence as a scourge against their state to bring them to heel?
If that’s not the case, then why are so many Christians unwilling to condemn Muslim antisemitism for what it is – a sin against God? Indifference to this hostility, which is the hallmark of Christian peacemaking in reference to the Arab-Israeli conflict, is simply incompatible with the love of Christ.
In addition, such indifference would seem to be anathema to the universalism that Sizer and Burge propound. They deny God’s particularistic love for modern Jews, posit a universalism in its stead and then deny modern Jews the fruits of this universalism by ignoring the particularistic and targeted hostility directed at them by Islamist theology.
There are a number of other contradictions in With God on Our Side that undermine its credibility as an honest documentary. First off, in its anxious treatment of Christian Zionism, WGOS emphasizes the power of religious belief to promote conflict. Of course, religious belief does promote conflict, particularly in the Middle East where Christians in Iraq and Egypt and Jews in Israel endure acts of violence at the hands of Muslim terrorists who purport to be working on behalf of an all-compassionate and merciful god. But instead of acknowledging this reality, With God on Our Side focuses attention on Christian Zionism.
Another contradiction evident in the movie is the manner in which it heaps moral and ethical claims on modern Israel because of the connections of the Jewish people to the Hebrew Scriptures, the Jewish religion and Jewish history. The movie does not, however, provide any guidance as to what people can reasonably expect from the Palestinians.
Canadian scholar Ron Dart begins this process early in the film when he reports that Judaism is not merely about the promise of land, but the ethical obligations that come with it. In particular, Dart reports, Judaism obligates its followers to respect the rights of foreigners and outsiders. Later in the movie, Dart states “it’s important to understand the Jewish (sic) have gone through thousands of years of suffering. That has to be understood.” He continues:
But from that two paths can be taken. The path of deeper compassion, of mercy and justice and peace or the tradition of Berlin walls that exclude people who are not like us.
The implication is that Israeli Jews have disregarded their religion and their history of suffering by oppressing the Palestinian people and as a result, have invited their own punishment. Dart does not say this punishment is the result of God’s wrath, but does suggest that whatever violence they’ve endured at the hands of the Palestinians (which is given short shrift in the movie), is the logical consequence of Israeli policies. This message comes across when Dart says “If you put your heel on someone’s head, there’s going to be a reaction. Eventually it will come. The tinder is there for a fire.” Just look at the discrepancy. He tells Israeli Jews that despite the suffering they have endured, they need to take the “path of deeper compassion, of mercy and justice,” but then excuses Palestinian violence by saying it’s the reasonable response to the suffering they’ve endured. So which is it? Are God’s ethical demands targeted solely at the Jews, or are they universal?
Dart will not want to admit it, but this narrative gives Palestinian and Arab terrorists sanction to commit further acts of violence against Israel. It also ignores a number of other realities, including the fact that Israel has been attacked from nearly every bit of territory from which it has withdrawn from since the Oslo Accords and that Lebanese and Palestinian terrorists have received substantial support from Iran, whose leaders can not assert in any way shape or form that they have been oppressed by Israel. The fact is that there is theological and ideological component to Arab and Muslim antisemitism and the terrorism it inspires that cannot be blamed on Israeli policies and yet, neither Dart nor any of the other commentators in this film can be bothered to address this reality.
The film offers a number of other messages that need to be unpacked.
First, With God on Our Side portrays Christian Zionism as a monolithic movement whose adherents all base their support for the Jewish state on the proposition that the modern state of Israel was necessary for Christ’s return. While this is an important strain of belief within Christian Zionism, it is not the only one, nor is it adhered to by all Christian Zionists. In short, not every Christian Zionist presumes to peer into the mind of God for information on how the world is going to end. Some merely take Scripture at face value, reject supersessionism (the notion that Christianity has replaced the Jews) and proclaim that God’s promises to the Jews are, like His promise to Christians, trustworthy and reliable. In 2006, Bridges for Peace, Christian Friends of Israel and the International Christian Embassy issued a statement that downplayed the importance of end-time prophecy while emphasizing the “faithful covenant promises of God given to Abraham some four thousand years ago.”[xii]
Second, the movie portrays Christian Zionism as a spoiler to the peace process through its support for American politicians who unreflectively support Israel and its support of right wing Israeli politics. The accusation that Christian Zionists can (or have) derailed the peace process (such as it is), has been leveled at Israel in one form or another in a number of theological and religious texts such as Sizer’s Zion’s Christian Soliders?, Barbara Rossing’s The Rapture Exposed and Donald Wagner’s Anxious for Armageddon. These texts are written out of a desire to assail Christian Zionism as a theology, but do not do a particularly good job of analyzing or measuring the impact of Christian Zionism as a political movement. Israeli researcher Michal Ben-Josef Hirsch, is apparently working on an academic analysis of Christian Zionism as a “spoiler” to the peace process from the perspective of international relations. This line of study is inspired by Stephen John Stedman’s article “Spoiler Problems in Peace Processes” published in the academic journal International Security in 1997. In this article, Stedman reports that the greatest risk to peace processes comes from “spoilers—leaders and parties who believe that peace emerging from negotiations threatens their power, worldview, and interests, and use violence to undermine attempts to achieve it.”
Clearly, Christian Zionism as a movement does not meet this criteria of violent action, but if one wants to change Stedman’s schema to include non-violent political activism to portray the Christian Zionism as a spoiler, one has to contend with the outcome of the 2008 presidential election and President Barack Obama’s policies regarding Israel which both indicate that Christian Zionists do not have anywhere near the power in American society attributed to them by their critics.
Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, neither of whom have much use for Israel or its supporters, don’t portray Christian Zionism with the same breathless anxiety that With God on Our Side would have its viewers embrace. In their book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 2007 warn that “the influence of the Christian Zionists should not be overstated.” They continue:
Their strong commitment to a “greater Israel” and resulting opposition to a two-state solution did not prevent the Clinton Administration from pursuing the latter at Camp David in 2000, did not halt the 1998 Wye Agreement mandating an Israeli redeployment from parts of the West Ban, and perhaps most revealingly, did not stop George W. Bush, who has close ties to the Christian right, from declaring his own support for a Palestinian state in 2001.[xiii]
And while Stephen Sizer attributes greater influence to Christian Zionists than American Jews in promoting support for Israel in the U.S., Walt and Mearscheimer report otherwise, stating that “Christian Zionists are best seen as a significant adjunct to the Jewish elements of the [Israel] Lobby, but not its most important part.”[xiv](139)
Clearly, the Christian Zionists do not have the influence With God on Our Side portrays them as having. Speakman, Burge, Sizer et al, may disagree with Christian Zionist theology and politics, but the movement is simply not the all powerful and malign influence on American politics and foreign policy that With God on Our Side portrays it as being.
Secondly, the Israeli government does not take directions from Christian Zionists in the U.S. Israeli leaders, have over the objections of Christian Zionists, engaged in ongoing negotiations with the Palestinians under a land-for-peace rubric that clearly violates John Hagee’s dictum offered in With God on Our Side, to not divide the land. Hagee has warned against negotiations and withdrawals from territory and said they will not lead to peace, but Israel has withdrawn anyway. Secondly, the voting public in Israel does not take its cues from the Christian Zionist movement. Israelis have not soured on the peace process because of anything said to them by John Hagee or Malcolm Hedding, but because of the violence of the Second Intifada and the wars with Hamas and Hezbollah in the years since. Clearly, the custodians of the peace process between Israel and its adversaries have bigger problems to worry about than Christian Zionists.
Lastly, American support for Israel in the U.S. cannot be attributed entirely to the Christian Zionist movement, but is in fact part of America’s civil religion. As documented by Robert Bellah in his landmark essay, American civil religion is a conglomeration of beliefs regarding the American people and the role they are called to play in human history. These beliefs include a sense that the American people are “an almost chosen people,” who live under the providential care and judgment of God and consequently have a positive role to play in the course of human history. These beliefs, which are obviously rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures, portray America as the “New Israel.” While this civil religion is periodically assailed, with some justification, as a form of idolatry used to justify bad acts such as the extirpation of the Native Americans under the rubric of manifest destiny, these beliefs have, in other instances played an important role in sustaining the American people as they withstood the onslaught of Nazism in the 1940s and Communism in the aftermath of World War II.[xv]
The impact of this civil religion on American history cannot be underestimated. During times of crisis, presidents have invoked aspects of this religion to invigorate and direct the American people. For example, Abraham Lincoln relied on the notion of God sitting in judgment of the American people to give meaning to the battles of the Civil War that cost thousands of people their lives. Declaring that slavery was a great national sin, Lincoln characterized these battles as part of the price that the American people had to pay for tolerating slavery in their country.
Given the role Hebrew scriptures have played in establishing, sustaining and correcting the actions of this civil religion, it should come as no surprise that the United States has a special relationship with both the Jewish people and their homeland. The American people derive no small measure of their self-understanding from the Hebrew scriptures, and as a result have a special relationship with the Jewish state whose historical roots also go back into these scriptures. This relationship is further underscored by the role the U.S. played in defeating the Nazis and assisting in the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948. Given this history, America has a huge stake in the continued safety and well being of the Jewish state and its destruction would pose a serious threat to the credibility of American civil religion.
And ultimately that is the point of With God on Our Side – to assail and undermine those aspects of American civil religion that contribute to America’s willingness to support Israel. In the narrative offered by this movie, the American people have no obligation or stake in making sure the Holocaust, which began in earnest in 1942 and came to an end in 1945 does not restart again in the 21st Century. To the producers of With God on Our Side, the only people who have any real stake in preventing a restart of the Holocaust are Jews themselves and that whatever moral claims they can make on the rest of humanity are weakened or attenuated by Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.
If the American people were to embrace this understanding and stand idly as Islamists assail, and God forbid, destroy the Jewish state, it would have a hugely demoralizing impact on America’s civil religion, just as the Holocaust undermined the credibility of Christianity in Europe.
What would replace it is anyone’s guess.
Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).
This essay is based in part on a talk the author gave at the June 14, 2011 meeting of the Liaison Committee in Jerusalem, an informal Jewish-Christian initiative founded in 1986 foster mutual respect and understanding between local Jews and Christians. The author would like to thank Petra Heldt from the Ecumenical Research Fraternity in Israel and Alan Schneider, director of the B’Nai Brith World Center in Jerusalem, for the invitation to address this group. An earlier version of this essay can be found here and here.
[i] Clearly, Palestinian Christians are not the only people group who are faced with such a scenario. As a matter of fact, Israeli Jews are the also the target of similar end time beliefs held by Muslim extremists in the Middle East who, unlike Christian Zionists, have killed people in the service of their beliefs. The impact of these beliefs on Jews would, in most instances raise questions of about the goodness of God, as would the historical oppression of Jews in Christian Europe and the present-day oppression of Christians in the Muslim Middle East.
Speakman leaps over these obstacles with ease and as a result, With God on Our Side manipulates the issue of theodicy to assail the Jewish state with great effect. The movie communicates to its audience that the Holocaust is not the challenge to the Christian faith we think it is and that really, Palestinian suffering is actually a bigger deal. If this gambit succeeds, it will be in part because the film’s audience is ignorant of the role Christian theology played in laying the groundwork for the Holocaust.
There will be another contributing factor if this gambit succeeds, however: A refusal to address the role Muslim theology in the oppression of non-Muslims throughout history. During the second half of the 20th century, the great challenge of theodicy was how Christians could affirm the salvific power and legitimacy of their faith after baptized Christians in Europe were responsible for the murder of European Jewry. One would think that in the 21st century, the great challenge of theodicy would not be posed by Palestinian Christians and their allies who blame Israel for their suffering, but by Christians living under Muslim rule throughout the world that have been murdered and oppressed by Muslim extremists throughout the world “in the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.” The one question they could posit is how God, if He is indeed sovereign, compassionate and merciful, allow such outrages to proceed?
But these questions are beside the point for With God on Our Side, because the movie, like a lot of other Christian materials related to the Arab-Israeli conflict, is concerned with suffering that can be blamed on the Jewish state, and by extension, the Christian Zionists who support that state. For some reason, suffering that is laid at the feet of the Jewish people and their state is some how qualitatively worse than suffering caused by other nations and political movements, even when the suffering caused by these other movements is, on an quantitative level, several degrees of magnitude greater raising the possibility that the real challenge of theodicy is not Palestinian suffering, but Jewish power and statehood. Given the supersessionist impulse so evident in both Christianity and Islam, one question common to both faiths is: “A Jewish state? How could God let such a thing happen?”
[ii] Ben White, “Is it Possible to Understand the Rise in Anti-Semitism,” CounterPunch, 18 June 2002, accessed 8 September 2011, http://www.counterpunch.org/2002/06/18/is-it-possible-to-understand-the-rise-in-anti-semitism/.
[iii] See Jeffrey Herf, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, Yale University Press, 2009.
[iv] For more background see Dexter Van Zile (DVZ), Rooftop Productions Uses Fabricated Ben Gurion Quote in Movie,” Snapshots, June 08, 2011, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, http://blog.camera.org, accessed 9 September 2011.
[v] The film provides no information as to what type of seminars Deena ran in Jerusalem.
[vi] “Whoever does not abide with me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
[vii] Burge, 2003, 176.
[viii] Dexter Van Zile, “Mainline Churches Embrace Gary Burge’s Harmful Mythology,” Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, Sept. 11, 2007, accessed Sept. 22, 2011, http://www.camera.org/index.asp?x_context=6&x_article=1371.
[ix] See Dexter Van Zile, “Stephen Sizer Complains to Police about Blogger,” Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, February 10, 2010, accessed September 22, 2011
[x] (“I will bless those that bless you, and him who curses you I will curse: and by you all the families of the earth will bless themselves.”)
[xi] The notion that Israel has been given a “free pass” is laughable. Israel has been the target of a long-standing campaign to demonize the Jewish state. The fruits of this campaign, which has its roots in the Middle East, can be seen at the United Nations Human Rights Council, the World Council of Churches, and the gatherings of mainline Protestant churches. By way of comparison, these very same bodies have largely ignored the ongoing mistreatment of Christians by Islamists in Muslim-majority countries throughout the Middle East. The historical narrative offered in With God on Our Side seems designed to encourage young evangelical Christians in the U.S. to participate in this campaign of demonization.
[xii] The Jerusalem Declaration on Christian Zionism: A joint response by the ICEJ, Bridges for Peace and Christian Friends of Israel,” August 29, 2006, accessed September 27, 2011, http://int.icej.org/media/jerusalem-declaration-christian-zionism
[xiii] John J. Mearscheimer, Stephen M. Walt, 2007, 138-139.
[xiv] Ibid, 139.
[xv] One excellent study on American civil religion is George McKenna’s The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism, Yale University Press, 2007.
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