Israel always matters. Biblical scholars have devoted endless pages to ancient Israel as a religious idea, and pundits have penned endless newspaper columns about modern Israel as a geopolitical entity. The deeper implications, however, have received less attention than they deserve in recent years, overshadowed by the exigencies of Middle Eastern politics. Indeed, real questions remain: What does the sheer existence of the modern state of Israel mean for theology—particularly for Christian theology? And what does that theology mean for the continuing existence of Israel?
“Hardly anybody will dispute that the foundation of this state had something to do with the biblical prophecy,” Christoph Cardinal Schönborn said in 1996, “even if that something is hard to define.” At present, the major Christian denominations are kindly disposed toward Judaism, and many Christians—especially American evangelicals—strongly support the State of Israel. And yet not all Christians agree with the mainstream Jewish view that modern Jewish life requires the existence of a Jewish state. Indeed, it seems counterintuitive to expect Christians to support an explicitly Jewish state in an age in which Christians have mostly abandoned the idea of explicitly Christian states.
There may be good theological reasons for this general Christian retreat from the notion of religious governments and national churches. The Christian concept of the People of God is supranational by nature, for Christians are called out of their respective nations to become a new people. The Jews, however, understand themselves to be a unique nation formed by God for his service, and they can be the People of God only as a nation.
Jewish leaders tend to view Christian relations with the State of Israel through the prism of Jewish security after the Holocaust. That is understandable, but it does not address the issue of what Israel represents for Christian life. A sad measure of Jewish insularity is the fact that evangelical Christians seeking to help the State of Israel have encountered suspicion and hostility from many Jewish organizations. Nor is the Holocaust exclusively a Jewish concern. The Second World War taught parallel, if opposite, lessons to Jews and Catholics. Many Jews—observant Jews, most of all—opposed Zionism before the rise of the Nazis, but later they learned that the continuation of Jewish life requires full national existence. Catholics, who had tolerated a degree of ethnocentrism within the Church, learned from Hitler that national idolatry was Christendom's deadliest foe.
Perhaps, these two lessons in fact are the same: Ethnocentric perversion of the concept of divine election destroyed both the Jewish communities of Europe and the influence of the Church. Think of it this way: Ultimately, Jews and Christians must remain a mystery to each other. Christians cannot help but recognize that Providence has sustained the Jews through their long exile, yet they cannot explain why Jews do not recognize Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of their prophecy. Jews cannot help but recognize that Christians are inspired by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, yet they cannot explain Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus, except to dismiss it as a “world-historical fiction” (in Franz Rosenzweig's words).
Nonetheless, their respective concepts of what it means to be the People of God are mutually supportive. For Christians, the Jewish nation stands as a living reproach to Gentile nations:They reject Christian universality by desiring election in their own flesh. For the Jews, Christianity signifies that only as individuals can Gentiles enter the people of God, and that no other ethnicity may covet their election in the flesh. Jews cannot affirm salvation through Christ, and Christians cannot affirm salvation without Christ. But the mystery of enduring Jewish election negates the ethnocentrism that poses an existential threat to both Judaism and Christianity. Jews have little to fear from Christian universality; the mortal danger to their existence stems rather from the jealousy of Gentile nations who covet election.
This reading of Israel differs from the secular Zionism of Theodor Herzl, who believed that the need for a Jewish state arose from the hostility of Christian nations to Jewish communities. Just the opposite is true today: Israel's prospects for survival against neighbors committed to her destruction depends in part on the Christian sympathy for the Jewish people, whether they live in Israel or in the Diaspora. The most Christian among the industrial nations, the United States, evinces the greatest sympathy for Israel as well as the greatest security for its own Jewish population.
Moreover, this reading differs just as strongly from Franz Rosenzweig's vision of an encysted, quietist Jewish community existing as an inspiration to the Gentile world. As it happens, the Catholic Church has sometimes drawn close to Rosenzweig's view. No Catholic leader today doubts that the continued existence of the Jewishpeople and the observance of the Jewish religion is a blessing for Christians. But the foundation of the State of Israel—a state with a specifically Jewish and to some extent theocratic character—presents a problem of a different order.
Officially, the Catholic Church instructs, “The existence of the State of Israel and its political options should be envisaged not in a perspective which is in itself religious, but in their reference to the common principles of international law,” in the formula given in “Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church” (1985). Yet the next sentence of the 1985 document quotes John Paul II: “The permanence of Israel (while so many ancient peoples have disappeared without trace) is a historic fact and a sign to be interpreted within God's design. . . . It remains a chosen people, ‘the pure olive on which were grafted the branches of the wild olive which are the gentiles.'”
The problem from the vantage point of the Church can be put this way: Jewish life is not necessarily identical with the existence of the State of Israel. Catholics do not have to live under a Catholic state in order to sustain their life as a People of God. At the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church renounced the exercise of secular power. Why should Jewish religious life require the existence of a Jewish state when Christian life does not? Many practical concerns, including the safety of Middle Eastern Christians, the interest of the Church in the holy places of Jerusalem, and the issue of war and peace in the region, have colored the Catholic attitude toward the State of Israel, but the theological concern ultimately overrides the temporal issues.
The State of Israel was founded with at least some theocratic elements—at exactly a point in history when the Catholic Church was renouncing theocracy and withdrawing from secular governance. Catholics, along with many Protestant and Orthodox Christians, view with disquiet the revival of a religiously defined political state just when religiously defined states were disappearing as a factor in Christian life. Although the theocratic elements in Israeli law are ad hoc rather than systemic, they are nonetheless integral to Israel's character (the Right of Return for Jews, for example).
So why should Christians renounce a Christian theocracy while embracing a Jewish theocracy? The answer flows from the distinction between the People of God of the flesh and the People of God in the Spirit. The Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod has observed that, uniquely among the peoples of the world, the Jews are the People of God as a nationality, whereas Christians must be dual citizens of the People of God and their nationality of birth. For that reason alone, a Jewish state must have at least some theocratic elements, although in other respects it is subject to the same international law that applies to all states. Wyschogrod explains:
As understood by Christianity, a model of dual loyalty develops. The individual belongs both to a nation and to a religion. He is a Frenchman and a Christian or a German and a Christian. As Frenchman or German, he is a member of a national community with territorial and linguistic boundaries. But he is also a member of the supra-national church which has no national boundaries. . . . The church is a spiritual fellowship into which men bring their national identities because they possess these identities but not because such identities play a role in the church. The church thus understands itself as having universalized the national election of Israel by opening it to all men who, in entering the church, enter a spiritualized, universalized new Israel.
In one sense, Israel is beyond the “laws” of history. It is not subject to the rise and fall of all other peoples and empires, a fact which causes angry philosophers of history whose schemes Israel undermines to refer to it as a fossil not subject to historic destruction.
But at the same time, Israel does not abandon the domain of history. It refuses to exchange its historical and national messianism for a doctrine of individual salvation. Israel refuses to invent the idea of a church which forces men to live in two jurisdictions and to assume two identities: a member of a nation and a member of a church. When such a bifurcated existence is decreed for human life, European wars in which Christian fights Christian, not as Christian but as German, Frenchman or Pole, become possible. That such a church-sanctioned conflict was the rule rather than the exception in the history of Europe was not simply the result of a failure of Christianity. Once religion and nationality are separated, the historical order in which national destinies are realized is almost inevitably de-Christianized.
Through Jesus Christ, as Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger once wrote, “the pagan nations accede to the election of Israel and share in its grace.” But the election of Israel and the election of the Gentiles who answer the call to the Church of Jesus Christ take radically different forms: Jews are called as a nation, while Gentiles are called away from their nations, as individuals. By affirming that the Jews are still called as a nation, the Church affirms that no other nation is elected in the flesh
This is a distinction of inestimable importance, for the residual paganism of Christianized nations has invariably expressed itself in the idolatrous desire to be a chosen people—to be a nation like Israel. That is the secret of so-called Christian anti-Semitism: It is not Christian at all but rather expresses pagan resentment against Israel and jealousy of its unique form of election.
“It is said in St. Matthew that the Kingdom ‘shall be given to a people bringing forth the fruits thereof,'” as Henri de Lubac explained, not “to the gentiles” but “to a new people” of God:
To St. Paul the Church is the People of the New Covenant. Israel according to the Spirit takes the place of Israel according to the flesh; but it is not a collection of many individuals, it is still a nation albeit recruited now from the ends of the earth, “the tribe of Christians,” says Eusebius, for instance, “the race of those who honor God.”
Just as the Jews put their trust for so long not in an individual reward beyond the grave but in their common destiny as a race and in the glory of their earthly Jerusalem, so for the Christian all his hopes must be bent on the coming of the Kingdom and the glory of the one Jerusalem; and as YHWH bestowed adoption on no individual as such, but only insofar as he bestowed universal adoption on the people of the Jews, so the Christian obtains adoption only in proportion as he is a member of that social structure brought to life by the Spirit of Christ.
To say that Christians must renew their conversion daily is to say that the People of God must fight daily for the affiliation of its Gentile members, who remain dual citizens of God's people as well as of their own ethnicity. This has been the doctrine of the Church from its earliest years, as De Lubac documents, but it is not necessarily the way by which the peoples of Europe came to Christianity. From the Gothic invasion of Italy in A.D. 401 to the defeat of the Magyars at Lech in 955 and the conversion of St. Vladimir in 1015, the barbarians often entered Christian life not as individuals joining the new People of God but as tribes brought into Christendom through conquest or alliance. Christian universalism triumphed over the ethnocentric impulses of the converted tribes through a supranational political model, from Constantine to Charlemagne and finally until the time of Charles V (when Christian polity broke up in the Reformation and Wars of Religion).
Because Christians are a new people called out of the nations, Christian theocracy must be supranational in character. The various political states of Europe were fostered by the Church, which furnished them with language and culture; but those states were subordinated, in some sense, to a Latin-speaking supranational Church that was senior partner to a universal empire.
No Christian thinker from Augustine through Thomas Aquinas doubted this. Never has the Church taught that the destiny of each ethnic group must be realized independently. On the contrary, Christianity can only flourish within a political model that transcends nationality such that the Christian's citizenship in the People of God takes precedence over citizenship in a Gentile nation. As a citizen of a universal empire, the individual Christian was subject to a supranational political authority that stood above the Gentile nation and suppressed its ethnocentrism.
Apart from this European model of universal empire, only one other political form has appeared that fosters Christian universality. That is the nonethnic state embodied in the United States of America. Americans, too, belong to no single ethnicity. If a special grace accords to America, then it is by design rather than accident that America is both the most Christian of all industrial countries and home to the largest Jewish population outside the State of Israel.
Despite the thousand-year reign of Christian universal empire, the ethnocentric impulses of the converted tribes never disappeared. Indeed, Christianity gave them a new and in some ways more pernicious morphology. As Franz Rosenzweig observed, once the Gentile nations embraced Christianity, they abandoned their ancient fatalism regarding the inevitable extinction of their tribe. It is the God of Israel who first offers eternal life to humankind, and Christianity extended Israel's promise to all. But the nations that adhered to Christendom as tribes rather than as individuals never forswore their love for their own ethnicity. On the contrary, they longed for eternal life in their own Gentile skin rather than in the Kingdom of God promised by Jesus Christ. After Christianity taught them the election of Israel, the Gentiles coveted election for themselves and desired their own people to be the chosen people. That set ethnocentric nationalism in conflict both with the Jews—the descendents of Abraham in the flesh—and with the Church, which holds itself to be the new People of God.
As Rosenzweig put it, “Precisely through Christianity the idea of Election has gone out amongst the individual nations, and along with it a concomitant claim upon eternity. It is not that the case that such a claim upon eternity conditioned the entire life of these peoples; one hardly can speak of this. The idea of Election, upon which such a claim [upon eternity] uniquely can be based, becomes conscious for the peoples only in certain exalted moments, and in any case is more of a festive costume than their workaday dress. . . . Still, there sleeps upon the foundation of one's love for one's own people the presentiment that someday in the distant future it no longer will be, and this gives this love a sweetly painful gravity.”
Rosenzweig understated the significance of his insight, for the Gentile nations too often turned what he called the “festive costume” of ethnocentric election into a military uniform. With the hindsight of the twentieth century's terrible events, we should look less benignly on the Gentile nations' longing for divine election.
There is a fine but definite line, to be sure, between the Gentiles' identification with Israel and their idolatrous desire for election in place of Israel. It is one thing for the Puritans to speak metaphorically of a new chosen people in a new promised land, and quite another for Joseph Smith to rewrite Scripture in order to place Jesus Christ on American soil. African Americans saw themselves as suffering Israel in Egypt, and their emancipation as a new exodus; that is not the same as James Cone's eccentric 1969 claim that Jesus was black and that blacks are the chosen people.
In his 1996 address, Cardinal Schönborn mentions that a notion of France as the “new Israel” began to appear as early as the thirteenth century. By the seventeenth century, this impulse had grown into a nationalistic school of religious mysticism led by the great French statesman Cardinal Richelieu and his Grey Eminence, the Capuchin priest Joseph du Tremblay. To further French ambitions, Richelieu prolonged the Thirty Years' War until both the Protestant and Catholic contenders were exhausted and perhaps two-fifths of the German-speaking population was dead. In the impassioned belief that France was the surrogate for Christendom, Richelieu created the nationalist model, and the Peace of Westphalia imposed it on Europe—which suggests that it was not the Reformation but rather the Francophile mysticism of Richelieu and Joseph du Tremblay that delivered the death blow to Christian universal empire.
Most of the great European nations at some time styled themselves the chosen people. Russia declared itself a Third Rome from the reign of Ivan the Great (1440-1505), and Dostoyevsky still wrote of Russia as a unique “God-bearing” people during the nineteenth century. England's schism from Catholicism under the Tudors portrayed the British as the chosen people and their monarch as a new King David. Germany was a latecomer to self-election, but in the twentieth century the Germans embraced ethnic idolatry in its most toxic form.
There have been a few modern places—Poland, Ireland, Quebec—where a nationalist impulse reinforced a Catholic identity. But, for the most part, nationalism has been the antagonist of Christendom from its first expression in the early-modern period. After nationalism brought down the supranational principal of governance, the Catholic Church had to abandon secular power or, at least, accept its expulsion from power by nationalists. Because the Christian People of God is of no ethnicity, Gentile nationalism necessarily undermines citizenship in the People of God.
Jewish nationalism, however, does not, for the Jewish religion is grounded in nationhood. Jews are not only permitted but divinely commanded to be nationalistic, in a certain way. That does not imply that any particular political arrangement—the exact borders of the State of Israel or a given form of government—is ordained by divine command. But it is hard to argue that the Jewish nation does not require its own state in order to be a nation, given the long and terrible history of persecution of the Jews, as well as endemic anti-Semitism in the Muslim world.
In their rebellion against Christianity, the nations of Europe have exhausted and demoralized themselves. After the catastrophes of the past century, they are neither Christian nor nationalist. But Christianity is still expanding. In fact, it is growing faster than at any time in its history—mostly through converts in the Global South, where, for instance, four hundred million Africans have become Christians.
Unfortunately, most of them still strongly identify with their tribes. In Rwanda, the Catholic Church could do nothing to mitigate the genocide of the Tutsis; in some cases, clergy participated. Nationalism destroyed Christian life in Europe, and tribalism may well reverse the enormous gains of evangelization in Africa. All the more reason, then, that theologians should draw a sharp distinction between ethnic identity and membership in the People of God; the living Jewish commonwealth in the modern State of Israel establishes this distinction as an existential matter rather than as a mere point of doctrine.
In Jewish accounts, the Vatican's often unsympathetic view of Zionism appears as a manifestation of anti-Semitism. Most often cited is Pius X's 1904 declaration to Theodor Herzl that “the Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people,” according to Herzl's notes of the meeting. It is easy to find instances of ecclesiastical anti-Semitism in the early twentieth century, in the form of arguments to the effect that the Jews must remain despised wanderers on the earth as punishment for their sins.
Until the Holy See exchanged ambassadors with the State of Israel in 1993, Jewish leaders viewed the diplomatic position of the Catholic Church through the lens of the prior ecclesiastical anti-Semitism. In fact, the Vatican throughout has reacted to, rather than guided, events in the Middle East. It delayed recognizing Israel mainly out of concern for the safety of Christians in Arab countries, and it changed its position only once the Oslo Process got underway, in order to secure a place at the table.
The historical record does not reveal a consistent theological stance toward the projected or actual Jewish state on the part of the Church. Many things influenced the Church's view of the State of Israel, among which theology appears to have been the least important. Though in 1917 Benedict XV seemed sympathetic, he later turned sharply against Zionism. According to Sergio Minerbi's account in The Vatican and Zionism, practical rather than religious concerns reversed the pope's original sympathy.
One of these concerns was the disposition of the holy places. Christians had ruled Jerusalem for the three centuries between the conversion of Constantine and the Muslim conquest in 638, and for another century after the First Crusade took the city in 1099. The Zionists saw the Christian holy places as buildings rather than as territory. Under other circumstances, this matter might have been negotiated, but the 1919 British Mandate in Palestine put the Vatican on the defensive. The Church feared that the British authorities would favor Protestant organizations in Palestine over the established Catholic community. Moreover, the Vatican's pastoral relation to Christian Arabs appeared at risk.
After 1948, the safety of Christian Arab minorities in the Middle East dominated the concern of the Holy See. The danger was not imagined: In 1965, during the Second Vatican Council, threats of reprisals against Middle Eastern Christians greeted the first drafts of Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document that expressed the Church's modern view of the Jews. With the delicate position of Arab Christians in mind, Augustin Cardinal Bea, charged with drafting the document, was at pains to separate Jewish religion from the State of Israel. As he told the council:
Since we are here treating a purely religious question, there is obviously no danger that the Council will get entangled in those difficult questions regarding the relations between the Arab nations and the State of Israel, or regarding so-called Zionism. . . . As regards the Jewish people, it must again and again be made clear that the question is in no sense political, but is purely religious. We are not talking about Zionism, or the political State of Israel, but about the followers of the Mosaic religion, wherever in the world they may dwell.
The issues that preoccupied Vatican diplomacy before 1993 have become moot. The Christian communities of the Middle East have almost disappeared in the face of growing hostility from the Muslim majority. Although the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem continues to voice Arab hostility toward the State of Israel, the winnowing of its flock has reduced its importance. A small but active presence of Hebrew-speaking Catholics in the State of Israel is growing in relative importance. The Vatican is building a Catholic community in Israel both to accommodate the growing number of Christian citizens of Israel as well as to strengthen the Christian presence in the Holy Land. Under the 1993 and subsequent agreements with the Vatican, Israel has given Catholic institutions in Israel full legal status. The Israeli conquest of East Jerusalem in 1967, meanwhile, has made Israeli protection of the territory surrounding the holy places of Jerusalem the only practical solution. Officially, the Catholic Church might prefer Jerusalem to be an international city, but in practice Israel offers the best guarantee of Christian interests.
The State of Israel no longer has to go to modern Rome to repair what ancient Rome destroyed, as Benedict XV suggested in 1917. Nonetheless, the living Rome and the restored Jerusalem remain what Franz Rosenzweig called “laborers at the same task.” The survival of fifteen million Jews in a dangerous world depends in good measure on the sympathy of two billion Christians.
In turn, the People of God of the flesh stand surety for the People of God in the spirit, not only as witnesses to scriptural promise but as the living root of the Church. As Christians see it, God taught the idea of a People of God through the Jews, and the Jews' continuing existence is both a perpetual reminder of that lesson and a guarantee that God keeps his promises. Precisely because Christian conversion entails adoption into the People of God, the theological case for a Christian Zionism seems profound and strong. It would enrich the life of the Church to acknowledge that the “something of providence” of which Cardinal Schönborn spoke is the national life of God's People in the State of Israel.
David Goldman is a cultural historian and student of Jewish theology.