On this, the 40th anniversary of the start of the Six Days War, when Israel survived the attempts by her Arab neighbours to commit genocide
here it seems a good moment to broach the delicate topic of when, and how, Christians should criticise the state of Israel. I first wrote this piece a couple of years ago, in response to two particularly aggressive anti-Israel pieces in Evangelicals Now. The article was published in the British Messianic Jewish Alliance's Chai magazine and in Christian Witness to Israel's Herald magazine. Though it is now slightly dated, I believe that it has lost none of its relevance.
“The government of Israel is placed on a pedestal, and to criticize it is to be immediately dubbed anti-Semitic.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 2002)
Israel is rarely, if ever, out of the news, and the ongoing Israel-Arab conflict is a subject which is guaranteed to provoke a variety of strong opinions. This is the case in both the secular and the Christian press. Increasingly, it seems, some Christian leaders are taking an anti-Israel stance. This raises important questions concerning criticism of the state of Israel, and whether or when such criticism will be anti-Semitic. As Messianic Jews, longing supremely to see our people turn to Yeshua as Messiah, how may we contribute to this debate?
It must be stated at the outset that legitimate criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic. Like every country in the world, Israel makes mistakes in both her domestic and foreign policy - and should be justly called to account when she does so. As Messianic Jews, committed above all to Yeshua and to his standards, we must have the courage and moral consistency to criticise Israel where it is appropriate to do so, whether in respect of her treatment of Messianic Jews, or of her Arab minority, or of the Palestinian Authority. However, this very much begs the question of when criticism of Israel will or will not be legitimate, and it is this which I would like to address.
I would suggest that much criticism of Israel is illegitimate, for the following reasons. Some critics apply a harsher standard to Israel than they do to other countries. Some single Israel alone out for criticism. Some base their criticisms on inaccurate information. Still others make perhaps the most serious error of all, namely failing to account for the context in which Israel operates: her birth, after centuries of persecution culminating in the Holocaust, as a much-needed safe haven for the Jewish people; and, subsequently, her fight for survival in the face of an ongoing determination by Palestinian terrorists, many of her Arab neighbours, and, on occasions, the wider world, to wipe her out altogether. Even in the short period since the withdrawal from Gaza, Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Hizbollah have all launched terrorist attacks on Israel; Hamas and Islamic Jihad both retain an ideological commitment to the complete destruction of Israel; Syria will not even recognise Israel’s existence; and the Iranian president has called for her to be wiped off the map. A failure to take into account the unique pressures under which Israel operates – in other words, a failure to look at all the facts and at both sides of the story - is unlikely to generate “legitimate” criticism of Israel.
Applying these criteria to just two of the criticisms of Israel recently voiced or alluded to some Christian writers, are they “legitimate”?
Some accuse Israel of being a racist, apartheid state. Israel has publicly acknowledged some shortcomings in her treatment of her Arab minority; yet nevertheless Israel’s Palestinian citizens have full rights of citizenship, including the right to vote, and the right to attend university. Some serve in the Israeli army – for example, Druze Arabs form the units which defend the Golan Heights against Syria. As at May 2005 there were 11 Israeli Arab MPs in the Knesset (including two in Ariel Sharon’s then Likud party) ; an Arab judge serving in the Israeli Supreme Court; and Arabs serving in Israel’s diplomatic service: here
The contrast with, say, the position of the black community under South Africa’s former apartheid regime could scarcely be stronger. In contrast to Israel, Saudi Arabia (for example), does not allow a single Jewish person to live within her borders. Why, then, is Israel alone singled out for criticism, and why is she apparently judged by a harsher standard than other countries?
Meanwhile, some Christians support imposing economic sanctions against Israel until she ends her occupation of the West Bank – implying that the Israeli occupation is the cause of all the problems. Again, is such criticism “legitimate”? Are such Christians aware that Jews were targeted by Arab attacks as early as the 1920s, long before the creation of Israel or the occupation of Gaza or the West Bank; or that Israel did in fact end her occupation of the West Bank in 1995, returning only to some areas in response to terrorism? Are they aware of the extent of ongoing attacks against Israel even since the pull-out from Gaza? I would suggest that those who support economic sanctions against Israel should, at the very least, be unequivocal in their condemnation of Palestinian terrorism, and should also express grave concerns at allegations that much financial aid provided to the Palestinian Authority by the EU (and others) is used to fund terrorism. (For further details see the FPC Report on EU Funding of Palestinian Terror here.
Some of Israel’s critics point to the fact that many Jewish people are also strongly critical of Israel. Yet this is, surely, inconclusive. A small minority of Jewish people flirt with Holocaust Denial; a majority of Jewish people deny that Jesus is the Messiah: but this does not prove that either of those two positions is correct! The fact that Israel has her Jewish critics testifies, primarily, to the traditionally wide range of opinion, and freedom of information and debate, which exist within the Jewish world. In any case, while it may indeed be “ironic” that Israel has her Jewish critics, is it not equally ironic that there are Arabs (including some Palestinians) who support her – here ? One such is Walid Shoebat, a former PLO member who participated in terrorist attacks against Israel, now a Christian, who wishes to travel to Britain to boost Israel’s PR: here
It goes without saying that “legitimate” criticism of Israel will need to be well-informed: the chapter on “Zion” in Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews is warmly recommended for its even-handedness and thorough approach; likewise Sir Martin Gilbert's very accessible Routledge Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.
Finally, all Christians (both Jewish and non-Jewish) need to be aware of the long and inglorious record of the church’s persecutions of the Jewish people – something which remains a “stumbling-block for Jews” and from which our evangelical forebears have not been immune – as detailed in Graham Keith’s excellent, if harrowing, “Hated without a Cause? – A Survey of Antisemitism” (Paternoster, 1991). Once again, legitimate criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic. Many unbelieving Jews speak of an anti-Israel bias in the Christian press. Would it not be tragic, if today’s Christians - whatever their motives - criticised Israel in an unfair, inaccurate, unbalanced, and thus illegitimate manner: and were thus to place yet another stumbling-block between the Jewish people, and their true Messiah?