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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2005
Number 63
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Christians and Israel

Christian Attitudes towards the State of Israel by Paul Charles Merkley. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.
A Review Essay by Steven Windmueller

This comprehensive and insightful text is a compendium to Paul Merkley’s other significant research, including two earlier publications, The Politics of Christian Zionism 1891-1948 (1998) and Christian Understanding of the Beginnings, the Process and the Outcome of World History: Via Univeralis (Toronto Studies in Theology, Vol. 83). The work of Merkley, a professor emeritus of history at Carleton University, may reflect his commitment to historical inquiry and clearly his capacity to unravel theological texts along with his personal engagement with Christianity.

When the United Nations debated the future of the Mandate of Palestine in 1947, world opinion was powerfully affected by news of the Holocaust and the plight of Jewish refugees. This momentary humanitarian advantage aided Christian Zionists in mobilizing public opinion on behalf of Israel. Almost as soon as it became clear that the Jews had won their war for independence, however, anti-Zionist elements within Christianity reasserted themselves. At the World Council of Churches — established only a few weeks after the State of Israel was formed — a pro-Arab bloc of Western missionaries echoed the anti-Zionism that has always characterized Eastern churches and the Roman Catholic Church, which had never been friendly to Zionism, championed the cause of “internationalization” of the city of Jerusalem in order to diminish Jewish presence in the heart of the Holy Land.

In this work, Merkley draws on the published literature of the World Council of Churches, the Middle East Council of Churches, the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian organizations that have an interest in the question of Israel’s past, present and future, as well as on interviews with numerous key figures within the government of Israel, spokespersons for the Palestine Authority and leaders of all the major pro- and anti-Zionist Christian organizations in order to demonstrate that Christian attitudes toward Israel remain remarkably polarized.

Merkley explores his topic by dividing his task into three primary areas. Initially, he sets out to frame this discussion by exploring the historical elements that frame Christian theology toward Jews and Judaism. In the second and central part of his research, he introduces his readership to the various Christian voices one finds both in the Middle East and elsewhere. In a series of separate chapters, we are introduced to the diversity of Christian institutional elements and their particular historic, theological and political connection to the Jewish state and to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

To most evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, loyalty to Israel is a kind of second patriotism, nurtured by the conviction that Israel’s restoration is a part of God’s plan for history. However mainstream Protestantism champions “Palestinian nationalism” and, drawing on the rhetoric of the Middle East Council of Churches, groups associated with this perspective do not hesitate to portray Israel as an oppressor.

Among Merkley’s core principles is his belief that Christian attitudes toward Israel reflect fundamental theological attitudes that must be examined against the backdrop of Christian history toward Judaism and Islam. But absent from this text is the essential background that a reader would require to more fully appreciate these attitudes and organizational programs. In particular, the author’s focus on Christian Zionism (Chapter 7) provided on the one hand a thorough treatment of the various institutional “voices” representing this movement but failed on the other to incorporate the key historical and theological streams of thinking that shaped this ideology. In this case, a review of nineteenth century “Christian Zionist” thought would have been especially beneficial.

Five elements define the excellence of this research and of Merkley’s writings. The quality of the research pertaining to the multiple streams of Christian thought and institutional politics represents an essential strength of this volume. A second factor is associated with the author’s capacity to effectively and persuasively articulate the Zionist/Government of Israel “case.”  Correspondingly, the third component involves Merkley’s analytical skills in providing context and continuity to the historical developments both surrounding the emergence of the State of Israel and the countervailing reactions offered by the diverse voices found within the Christian world. One is struck by the thoughtful attention to detailed scholarship and supporting evidence introduced by the author in developing his arguments. Finally, the reader must be impressed with Merkley’s assertive and forthright personal engagement with the complex issues as represented by his understanding of the respective policy positions and personal passions held by the numerous players in this scenario. In the end, it becomes evident that as a Christian and as a responsible historian, Merkley portrays a special compassion and commitment to the case for Israel and in turn, challenges the Christian world to once again weigh in on a core theological question, “how the destiny of the Jews is related to the destiny of the Church.”  For the author, this remains an open-ended concern, when we writes: “It is simply too soon to know whether the work done by forces dedicated to Jewish-Christian reconciliation — a work that involves the repudiation of ‘replacement theology’ — will stand against the flanking effort of the neo-Marcionists (a philosophy that rejects all of Jewish law and tradition), whose heart is in the different work of accommodating the secular liberals, the Churches of the East and the Muslims.”

I was so intrigued and impressed with this volume that I felt compelled to examine others who have had occasion to review this text as well. Similar to my own reflections, Yaakov Ariel, a member of the Department of Religious Studies at UNC, offered the following assessment:

“This book is a remarkable achievement. I am most impressed with the scope of Merkley’s research. He is a diligent and thorough scholar who seems to have gathered all conceivable information on the topic and is very fluent with the literature on the different aspects of the subject … the first comprehensive work on the subject.”

Steven Windmueller directs and teaches in Hebrew Union College’s School of Jewish Communal Service. Dr. Windmueller’s most recent work on Latino-Jewish relations appears as a chapter in California Jews published this year by Brandeis University Press.

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