Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Israel: to criticise or not to criticise?

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?


Rory Shiner said...

Good stuff James. I will be posting a link to your blog on mine in the next few days. Blessings.

James said...

thanks Rory

Matt said...


I found it intriguing that described yourself as non-dispensationalist, and pro-Israel. I appreciated your approach in the article excerpt, and while I think there is a case to be made for a more critical (Darrell Bock-ish) dispensational perspective, I think in the current discussion, particularly outside of the US, it is imperative to be able to make one's case without resorting to prophetic interpretations which seem to have little historical support theologically.

I appreciated the very concise treatment given by Rev. Dr. David W. Torrance in his review of Colin Chapman's fairly slanted Whose Promised Land?, and I would particularly be interested in hearing your approach and response to Chapman and others who have written more recently against Israel from the Evangelical community.

Cheers & appreciation,


James said...

thanks Matt

I deliberately left theology out of that article; I think it's most helpful to discuss the political and theological issues separately. For the record, though, I do believe that the state of Israel is in some ways a general fulfilment of OT covenants and prophecies, but I am hesitant to be dogmatic about saying "THIS event fulfills THAT particular verse." Unless I have misunderstood dispensationalism, I don't think that makes me a dispensationalist; I think a similar approach was taken, historically, by reformed evangelicals such as Spurgeon and M'Cheyne; Erroll Hulse would be a modern example.

Thanks for the link to the Torrance article, which I liked. Israeli evangelical Baruch Maoz wrote a BRILLIANTLY devastating response to Chapman in 1985, describing "Whose Promised Land?" as "one of the most sedate, most reasoned and most coherent cases for the PLO that has yet been made". I don't have a link to it but if you email me at j.b.mendelsohn@hud.ac.uk I'll gladly send you a copy.

Really good to hear from you! May the Lord bless you in your labours for him.

Anonymous said...


I think it's fair to argue that people need to be careful about letting anti-Semetism creep into their world views.

But let me disagree, humbly and sincerely, with some of your points:

I do think it's ok to judge Israel by higher standards - if only because it has reached higher standards. I would also hold the UK to higher standards than I would Zimbabwe. In some ways I think it's a compliment to hold a country to higher standards - it means wie think better of them.

You're right that Israel can be singled out for criticism. I criticise Israel for some of its appalling actions. I do the same of the US re Guantánamo Bay, of Russia re its killing of journalists and of Italy re some of the appalling racism towards Albanians. No one can criticise all things that are wrong in the world. It's just impossible. To pick three or four pet causes is not wrong, it's just rational, don't you think? I agree that we should criticise those Palestinian, Iranian, etc. groups when they do bad things too. At the same time, as with Israel, we shouldn't demonise them.

You're right that where inaccurate information is used, it needs to be rebutted. But I think you need to be careful, given that there is room for disagreement on some things. Having the label of anti-semitism hanging around waiting to be used doesn't help in this regard. For example, you talk about the context of Israel being a plucky underdog in a hostile environment. Some serious historians (I'm thinking Avi Shlaim, for example) disagree. It has to be ok to disagree about things like that, without anti-semitism being invoked.

Another problem with having the anti-semtism tag hanging about is that it encourages one of the other things you criticise - the invoking of Jewish people who criticise Israel. I think that's done in large part to try to avoid accusations of anti-Semitism.

I realise that many Christians, such as Luther, have been anti-semitic. We musn't fall into that trap. But when Israel behaves in an unjust and oppressive way, as with all such beahviour, we must condemn it, surely we can't let what our forefathers did stop us from doing what is right?

Christians must be concerned to preach the gospel to Israelis and Palestinians. All are children of God, who God longs to save.