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Why Christians Are Criticizing Cruz—and Israel

Justice for Palestine divides Republicans but unites Pope Francis, Mideast bishops, and mainline Protestants.
Senate Vote
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 27: Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, left, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, speak to the media after the Senate voted to pass the continuing resolution. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (Newscom TagID: rollcallpix079693.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]

What is there to add to the extremely rich vein of commentary elicited by Ted Cruz’s  shameless Israel lobby pandering at a Washington forum intended to call attention to the plight of Mideast Christians in the age of ISIS? The pieces by Ross Douthat, Michael Brendan Dougherty, and the several posts by Rod Dreher say a great deal of what needs to be said, making many points I would likely never have thought of.

One takeaway from the controversy, which continues to reverberate around the conservative blogosphere, is how many socially conservative/Christian/Republican-leaning thinkers have sensed, perhaps for the first time in their relatively young careers, how morally flawed is the entire Christian Zionist/McCainist/Commentary/Washington Free Beacon/Likudnik group, whose views have long driven “mainstream” conservative foreign-policy opinion in Congress and the GOP presidential primaries. I think this may grow into an important schism on the right, one that weakens neoconservatism, to the Republican Party’s long-term benefit. I don’t want to ascribe views to people who don’t necessarily have them, but when I see young conservatives reacting viscerally against the tweets from the Breitbart site and other movement conservatives, tweets putting scare quotes around the word “Christian” in order to denigrate the Mideast patriarchs and bishops and other figures who attended the gathering, attacking them because they failed some sort of “stand with Israel” litmus test, it feels like a kind of Kronstadt moment. This sentiment also comes when I see the disgust felt when Weekly Standard editor Lee Smith implies that Mideast Christians are simply a kind of ISIS lite. I witnessed personally a comparable repulsion a year or so ago, when an old friend, long a prudently neocon-friendly author and Wall Street Journal writer, reacted to the smearing of Chuck Hagel by the same group. It’s as if the Israel lobby has grown so accustomed to the deference accorded it by everyone else in the American political system, it has lost any sense of its own limits.

Still there are other points to be made. Several of Cruz’s critics responded as if the Mideast Christians who came to the gathering deserved a sort of indulgent understanding for their lack of enthusiasm for Cruz’s admonition that Israel is their greatest friend. It was sometimes noted as historical fact that most Palestinian Christians live under Israeli occupation, and that others were ethnically cleansed by Israel in 1948; that the Lebanese Christians had once been Israel’s allies, which had not worked out well for them: in other words, all these groups had understandable excuses for their chilliness towards Israel. These Christians are, according to this discourse, genuinely vulnerable—they can be forgiven for not loving Israel. But this argument—and there are elements of it in most of the conservative pieces which chastized Cruz—scants the fact that Israel’s continuing occupation of Palestine is also opposed, often quite publicly and with increasing energy, by ever growing numbers of non-Mideast Christians.

I wonder if Cruz would similarly walk out and denounce Pope Francis as an anti-Semite, considering the new Pope visited the Holy Land and expressed his wishes for dignity and freedom for both Israelis and Palestinians and said a prayer outside the Israeli wall that severs Bethlehem from neighboring Jerusalem and has largely rendered the town of Jesus’s birth a walled off ghetto. (The Israeli right went into conniptions about the Pope’s visit, with the incomparable Caroline Glick accusing the Pope of licensing “Holocaust denial” by his prayer at the Bethlehem separation wall.) If there is an argument that the Pope, with his stand in support of peace and dignity for both peoples in the Holy Land, is some kind of outlier among Catholics, I have not yet heard it.

Then there are the Presbyterians, who last summer voted to divest from several American companies profiting from the Israeli occupation, and the United Methodists, who nearly did so two summers before and are edging towards a successful divestment vote in good time. These are mainstream and mainline American Protestants, not the historic peace churches. Lutheran World Service runs a hospital in Jerusalem, designed to serve Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank, that is engaged in a constant tension with the Israeli authorities who want to isolate it from the population it is meant to serve. One could go on: consideration of the European or South American churches would hardly alter this analysis.

Simply put, the Mideast Christians who gathered in D.C. to express their fears and ask for support when threatened by an inflamed Muslim fundamentalism are—in their nuanced attitudes toward Israel—far more representative of Christian opinion as a whole than is the belligerent Christian Zionism expressed by Ted Cruz.

Finally, I see that one avenue of response to Rod Dreher in Commentary is to tar him with association with the views of other TAC writers, including yours truly, who are accused of “clear anti-Israel bias.” I probably should resist taking this as an invitation to respond, but I won’t, and my guess is that Rod, who is surely less cool towards present day Israel than I am, might welcome some clarification from his colleagues.

Generally my own view of Israel and Palestine is summed up (more pithily than I would be capable of) by Bradley Burston in a recent Haaretz piece:

 If somebody tells me that Israel alone should keep the West Bank and East Jerusalem forever because God said so—or even “Just because it’s ours”—my feeling is: This is this person’s honest belief. I don’t share it, by any means. But I respect it as true faith, without an effort to whitewash, misdirect, or misrepresent.

I feel the same way about the opposite side. When someone, usually someone Jewish, says that in their view, there should be no State of Israel because it’s an illegitimate, militarized ethnocracy, I appreciate their candor in spelling out what they want to see, and I respect as an expression of true conviction their telling me what they want to see politically or otherwise euthanized. Even if it’s me.

In that spirit, I make no special claims for my desire to see—and my perhaps messianic belief in the possibility of—partition of the Holy Land into two independent states: Israel and Palestine.

Burston uses these words as a prelude to exposing the dishonesty in a recent piece by Elliot Abrams that attempts to whitewash Israeli settlement building. But his overall perspective is one I share: that is, I believe in the two-state solution as the most likely way to deliver peace and dignity to Israelis and Palestinians. I am not sure how I would have felt in 1947 and 1948, but I suppose there is good chance I would have believed as Truman did, that establishing a Jewish state in Palestine would be the source of unending religiously-based strife. He hoped for some kind of non-faith-based federation that might accommodate Jewish refugees and the Palestinian Arabs then living there. I might also have agreed with George Marshall and other members of the American diplomatic establishment who opposed American support for the creation of Israel for strategic reasons. Truman eventually threw up his hands and let domestic politics trump his ethical and strategic concerns, which he in any event had no plausible way to forge into policy.

The American diplomats who feared the consequences flowing from the establishment of Israel have been proved partly right, partly wrong. At this point, that’s water under the bridge: the question is how to seek the greatest measure of peace and justice now and in the future.

In the past 20 years, I have had to recognize that the possibility of a two-state solution has receded dramatically—from, I would estimate, probably more than 60 percent to less than 20 percent. For this I hold successive Israeli governments far more responsible than the Palestinians. The latter have revised the PLO charter to recognize Israel, and most of their leaders have told their people and behaved as if they they wanted to build a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. The major Arab countries formally put forth a peace initiative in 2002, reaffirmed five years later, offering Israel full diplomatic recognition in return for giving up the occupied territories. For their efforts, and for America’s long-term diplomatic campaign to cajole the Palestinians into accepting a small state on the 22 percent remainder of historic Palestine, Israel has responded by building settlements and more settlements on the remaining land, slicing it up in non-contiguous cantons, divided by military checkpoints, armed settlements, and Israeli-only roads. In the process Israelis have elected a right-wing government formally pledged to deny Palestinans a state on the West Bank. In other words occupation now, occupation tomorrow, occupation forever—that is Israel’s current policy. At the same time, Israel has ignored, refused even to acknowledge, the Arab peace initiative, refused even to discuss it. Have these developments over the past 20 years influenced my opinion of Israel? Of course they have. Have they changed my sense of the two-state solution? Well, it certainly seems unlikely, but I’m not sure of a better answer.

There’s another, more self-interested, part of my overall view. As someone concerned with foreign policy, I cannot help but note that Israel’s self-proclaimed friends in America, and often Israeli officials themselves, play a very large role in lobbying for American to fight wars in the Middle East. They did so in Iraq—after 9/11, Israeli officials flooded the American media talking about the necessity of destroying the government of Iraq, complementing the efforts of their friends at Commentary and The Weekly Standard. They got their wish, as they often do—and the destruction of Iraq played no small role stirring up the potentially genocidal crisis Mideast Christians face today. And now the Israelis are doing it again, trying to foment an American war with Iran. I understand that Israel feels it to be in its own national interest to have a regional monopoly on nuclear weapons. But I don’t think it’s an American national interest to fight continuous wars to maintain Israel’s monopoly. So this too makes me less warm towards Israel than I was 20 or 30 years ago.

Of course there are many kinds of Israelis. I’ve taken two trips to Israel and have met quite a few—liberal Zionists is probably the most accurate term—who are actively striving towards a just peace with the Palestinians and believe in an Israel in which the country is fully integrated, peacefully, into its region. They are, regrettably, a minority in Israel now, and perhaps they never had much influence. But for me they represent an extremely attractive side of Zionism—sophisticated, broad-minded, non-bigoted people, often possessed of extraordinary courage, energy, and talents. When I think of being supportive of Israel, they are people I would happily support, and I do and will continue to do.

Others are free to their opinions whether this view constitutes “bias” against Israel or makes me an “anti-Zionist.” It is certainly based on on far more reading, knowledge, and personal experience with the Mideast than went into the presumably “unbiased” view I held 20 or more years ago, when I was a neoconservative in good standing and a fairly regular contributor to Commentary.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.