Listen To Article
I opened my news feed this morning to horrific headlines, the latest in a string of horrific headlines: “Gaza’s Doctors Struggle to Save Hospital Blast Survivors as Middle East Rage Grows.” (AP News, 10/18/23)
As I said a prayer for the victims’ families and the many innocent people who are suffering much from this latest episode in an endemic conflict, I was also aware that the “rage” was due at least partly to our president’s response to the hospital blast, which was to accept the Israeli narrative with little hesitation or critical reflection. It wasn’t their fault (it never is). And once again the Arabs were confirmed in their assertion that Israel is America’s 51st state.
Many explanations have been given to explain this nearly unconditional American support for Israel, all touching on various aspects of a complex relationship. But one that is rarely explored, yet in my estimation more to the point than others, is the convergence of America and Israel’s founding myths.
The American version is well known. It’s called manifest destiny: a brave pioneering people, escaping from religious and political oppression in Europe meet great obstacles in realizing their dream of a free land for free people in an untamed wilderness. Among these obstacles are indigenous peoples who adopt terrorist tactics to thwart the settlers divinely driven destiny. By God’s grace they defeat the terrorists allowing for the cultivation and taming of a largely undeveloped land.
That’s a narrative myth that has more or less shaped at least older Americans’ perception of American history (mine included until I majored in history as an undergraduate). And even though it has long ago been discredited by revisionist scholarship, its psychological potency lingers in the American self-consciousness.
Compare this to the foundational Israeli creation myth: European settlers responding to religious and political oppression in their homelands pursue their dream of creating a democratic free state in what they perceive to be largely under-developed land in the Ottoman Empire. One of the impediments to realizing this dream is the resistance of indigenous peoples who respond to their well-meaning colonizing efforts with savage violence. By God’s grace they defeat the terrorists and establish their state. This allows them to make the land flourish in a way it hadn’t under the poor stewardship of its previous inhabitants. Could there be any doubt that God had created this state, as well?
The divine element in both creation myths is one that resonates especially with American evangelicals who have grown up in churches steeped in dispensationalist eschatology. Dispensationalists believe that the restoration of diaspora Jews to the pre-exilic land of Israel is a necessary prelude to the second coming of Christ. The fact that it happened with the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948 clinches their support for all that Israel is and does.
But dispensationalists aren’t the only ones. In his masterful treatment of the religious basis for American support for Israel, Irvine H. Anderson convincingly concludes
So many people in Britain and the United States have been influenced by childhood stories from the Bible about Abraham, Joshua, and the Promised Land and by what has come to be known as “End Times” or “Armageddon” theology that much of the electorate in both countries has been predisposed (emphasis mine) to support the return of the Jews to Palestine.Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy: The Promised Land, America, and Israel, 1917-2002, p. 1.
I would suggest this same influence also impacts those not raised in the church, even without knowing the full extent to which this is true. The fact is the Israeli story is like our story, both in its foundational creation myth and its development into what we like calling the “only true democracy” in the Middle East. The Palestinian story, in contrast, is largely unknown to us, nor are we all that interested in hearing it because they aren’t like us. Simply put, we like the Israelis because they are like us.
Is it time, perhaps, for Christians to revisit this myth? Is it time for a more critical look at what Israel has done and is doing? We’ve done that with our own story, turning a more critical eye to manifest destiny given the devastating consequences for those who have been victimized by it. It may be time for us to do the same with Israel’s story. And now may be the best time to start.