Vila Sherkessi, the headquarters of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. Photo: Deror avi Wikimedia Commons
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper made an official visit to Israel this past January, media and other observers noted that his entourage included a strong representation of rabbis and conservative evangelical Christians whose churches espouse strongly pro-Israel views. In recent years, questions have surfaced around Harper and some of his party's unswerving support for Israel—in the face of Canada's official commitment to Palestinian rights and a peaceful solution to the seemingly dead-ended hostilities in the Holy Land.
"There's been a concern about Canadian foreign policy, which seems entirely pro-Israel and not listening to the Palestinians, and also that, to some degree, the prime minister and members of his cabinet and party have backgrounds that may be influenced by Christian Zionism," says the Rev. William Roberts, incumbent priest at St. John the Divine Anglican Church in Squamish, B.C.
Reflecting this concern, some Anglicans and other Christians are seeking to deepen their understanding of this movement and its implications for the Middle East. Roberts, for example, is helping to organize a three-day ecumenical conference on Christian Zionism at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) in Abbotsford, B.C., Oct. 23–26. And in Montreal, the Rev. Dr. Patricia Kirkpatrick, a professor of religious studies at McGill University, has been heading a year-long study group on the subject at St. James the Apostle Anglican Church.
For a brief overview of Christian Zionism and its roots, read on.
Briefly stated, CZ is a scripture-premised movement within conservative evangelical Protestantism that views the current State of Israel as the fulfilment of biblical prophecy—prophesies originating in God's promise to Abraham and his seed in the book of Genesis and carrying through to Revelations. Israel, therefore, merits strong—often uncritical—moral, political and financial backing, and CZ groups often co-operate with Jewish Zionist organizations and the Israeli government. "Sadly, the human-rights implications for the Palestinians of seeing the Jews' return to Israel as fulfilment of prophecy are well known," says Dr. Ron Dart, a UFV political science professor and co-organizer of the October conference.
As Jewish political and religious Zionism gained momentum throughout 19th-century Europe, its Christian counterpart flourished in Britain, thanks to restorationists such as John Nelson Darby and Lord Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury.
In 1917, Arthur Balfour, foreign secretary to Prime Minister Lloyd George, helped craft an influential document that addressed the needs of both Palestinian Jews and Gentiles. The Balfour Declaration said: "His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people...it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."
In the 20th century, the centre of Christian Zionism shifted from the U.K. to the U.S. Spearheaded by fundamentalist pastors such as Texas's John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel, cufi.org CZ is estimated to have at least 50 million supporters in the U.S., predominantly among white evangelicals. "There are no clear numbers on the movement in Canada," says Dart, but it definitely has a presence, which he examines in his forthcoming book Christian Zionism/Canadian Foreign Policy: A Tangled History (Synaxis Press, Summer 2014).
Many—including the U.K.'s Rev. Dr. Stephen Sizer—view the movement as a destructive, even heretical, lobby that justifies racist apartheid policies and works against a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In 2006, the ecumenical Jerusalem Declaration, signed by the local Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Syrian Orthodox and Evangelical Lutheran Christian leaders, rejected CZ as a "false teaching that corrupts the biblical message of love, justice and reconciliation" and taints the gospel with "the ideology of empire, colonialism and militarism." Furthermore, its extreme form wrongly emphasizes end-of-times apocalyptic events rather than the living out Christ's love and justice in the present.
Christian Zionists were quick to refute these allegations in a declaration of their own.
Dr. Derek Penslar, a University of Toronto professor of Jewish history, also acknowledges the uneasy side of the partnership. "Although Jewish political leaders have cultivated close ties with Christian Zionists, many Jews have felt uncomfortable about the relationship," he says. "They fear that Christian Zionists see Israel as only a stepping-stone to the mass conversion of the Jews to Christianity and the second coming." And ideologically, there's often a disconnect: whereas most North American Jews are left-leaning social liberals, many evangelicals are social conservatives.
According to Penslar, Jews are divided on how to deal with Christian Zionists. "Those who are strongly committed to Israel and who believe that the Palestinians are not sincere about making peace are more likely to seek out and maintain an alliance with Christian Zionists than Jews whose relationship with Israel is weaker or who think Israel could be doing more to make peace," he says. "But even dovish Jews can be disturbed by what seems to them to be one-sided condemnation of Israel by some Christian groups such as the [Quaker] Friends."
As support from some churches and intellectual elites shifts away from Israel to the Palestinian side, however, "Jews have begun to appreciate the consistency of those who continue to support Israel because the Bible says they should," says Merkley. "In recent years, the Israeli government and Jewish Zionist groups have reached out to Christian Zionists because of their constancy, for which they pay a high price."
For Penslar, further discussion is warranted. "Jews and Christians should continue to talk about what Israel means to them and seek areas of commonality, while acknowledging what might be at times unbridgeable differences."
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