Christian Attitudes Towards the State of Israel
By Paul Charles Merkley
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 266 pages, $44.95

Paul Charles Merkley is a professor emeritus of history at Carleton University in Canada, and the author of T he Politics of Christian Zionism, 1891-1948 (1998). Though not a sequel, Christian Attitudes Towards the State of Israel picks up where the former study left off, with the birth of a Jewish state in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people, the Land of Israel. The author is an unabashed Christian Zionist, an evangelical who sees the ingathering of the Jewish people, and their miraculous ability to create a state after the massive trauma of the Holocaust, as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Merkley is also a very sophisticated professional historian, a man whose dry wit often comes through in these pages, usually at the expense of liberal Protestantism, and occasionally of his own community. Whether or not one agrees with all his arguments, one cannot but appreciate his fluent prose and the amount of information he so enjoyably conveys.

Despite its broad title, the book focuses on the development of the views of various Protestant denominations regarding the State of Israel. Only one section of twenty-five pages in length is devoted to Roman Catholic attitudes. For the most part, the author simply lumps Catholic and Orthodox Christian attitudes together with mainline Protestant attitudes. He also presumes, in the case of Catholics, that little distinction need be made between the statements and policies of the Holy See before and since the founding of Israel and the attitudes of American Catholics toward Israel over the same period. There is, of course, some justification for this, but also much that is left out by framing things in such a way.

The book is most helpful, I believe, in debunking a wide range of stereotypes about evangelical Christians. It also provides an often incisive critique of the presumptions of liberal Protestantism. As a Catholic who has spent a great deal of time over the past twenty years in dialogue with the latter, I can say that my many good friends in that tradition will doubt­ lessly appreciate the challenge of Merkley’s critique of what he views as their foibles, and will be able to respond to it quite ably on their own terms. As a noncombatant in what is an internal Protestant debate, I can say that I learned a lot from this book about the issues surrounding the State of Israel, theological as well as political, as they appeared among Protestants. In the remarks that follow, I will focus on what the author has to say about Catholic attitudes toward these issues.

Merkley’s own viewpoint is that of “Restorationism,” by which he means the restoring of a Jewish state to the Land of Israel. Christian Zionists (and he claims there are “tens of millions” of them) see Israel as the result of God’s action in history, foretold in the Bible millennia ago. Judging from numerous passages in his book, Merkley would be surprised to find out that many millions of Catholics share his view, though with somewhat less certainty and specificity.

Here as elsewhere, much de­ pends on one’s attitude toward the Bible. Many evangelicals see in it “predictive prophecy,” capable not only of illuminating the past but also of foretelling the future. Many Mainline Protestants and Catholics, by contrast, view prophecy as a source for understanding God’s Word as it is meant to guide our inner lives and moral relations with others, not as a source for predicting contemporary political events. While agreeing that the ingathering of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel can plausibly be interpreted as a direct fulfillment of specific biblical prophecies, Catholics tend to take a more cautious approach to the biblical text. This may reflect the Catholic Church’s long historical memory of such times as the turning of the First Millennium, when apocalyptic visions based on biblical prophecies caused a great deal of social disorder only to be eventually proven wrong.

Merkley’s brief treatment of Catholic attitudes about Israel is fair-minded, though incomplete. He notes Pope Pius XII’s positive relations with Jewish leaders, both as Secretary of State and later as Pope. Pius, Merkley writes, showed a consistently “friendly attitude towards Zionists and Jewish Agency figures.” Yet Merkley also describes the Vatican’s attitude toward Israel as “hostile.” This is an interpretation that is, at best, partially accurate. As Merkley himself points out, while the Holy See maintained public neutrality with regard to the UN’s partition plan of 1947, it also strongly supported the plan’s call for the “internationalization” of the city of Jerusalem (and not just its Holy Places). This was of course at a time when the largest single bloc of nations in the UN represented Catholic countries, especially in Latin America. This group of nations, many of which could have been influenced by the Vatican to vote against partition had it wished to exert its influence, voted overwhelmingly for it, along with its plan to make Jerusalem a corpus separatum under international law, a plan that was foiled by Jordan’s takeover of the city in 1948. Had these votes gone the other way, the UN resolution would most likely have failed.

Merkley misinterprets, too, the reaction of the Holy See to Israel’s taking of Jerusalem in 1967. The language of the Vatican changed, subtly but surely significantly, from supporting an “international status” for the city to endorsing an “international statute” guaranteeing the religious rights of all three Abrahamic faiths. It is this idea of an “international guarantee,” by way of an “international statute,” which leaves the disposition of the city’s sovereignty to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, a policy which was affirmed in the February 2000 “Basic Agreement between the Holy See and the Palestine Liberation Organization.”

Merkley could have considerably filled out his picture of the attitude toward Israel of the American Catholic hierarchy had he undertaken a closer study of its statements on Israel and the Middle East over the years. For example, anyone who has followed the statements of the Catholic bishops, the National Council of Churches, and the mainline Protestant denominations over the years will note a very clear difference among them in style and substance. Whereas Merkley portrays them as equally “hostile” to Israel, the bishops have consistently striven for a balance in perspective, as one can see from the statements of appreciation from both Jewish and Muslim groups over the years. The reason for this is not political. It arises from the sense that there is justice on both sides of virtually all of the issues that make up the complex Israeli/Palestinian equation.

Merkley quite rightly points out that “surveys of attitudes conducted by Jewish organizations document the fact that fundamentalism does not promote anti-Semitic attitudes”contradicting the myth that still grips the Jewish community in general.” But then he engages in some myth-making of his own: “If it is true that most evangelicals generally don’t know many Jews, they are certainly better informed about Judaism than are mainstream Protestants and certainly better informed than Roman Catholics.” Now I would readily admit that evangelicals tend to know the Bible better than Catholics. But that is quite a different thing than demonstrating the truth of such a gross generalization about sixty-five million American Catholics. For all of the usefulness of Merkley’s book, it would have done far more to further interreligious dialogue had the author refrained from inter-Christian simplifications.

Eugene J. Fisher is Associate Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Articles by Eugene J. Fisher

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