A MERE NINE years after the founding of the State of Israel, Reinhold Niebuhr took to the pages of The New Republic to defend the Jewish state against Arab threats of annihilation and called upon the United States to do the same. What would later become legendary US support for Israel was not inevitable back then. Locked in a global chess match with an expanding Soviet empire, the American government was more worried about angering potential third-world allies than salvaging Britain’s experiment in Palestine. Israel was young, its future was unknown, and President Eisenhower would rather woo its oil-rich neighbors than make a bet on the Jews.
In a February 1957 article entitled “Our Stake in the State of Israel,” Niebuhr laid out his case for Israel’s moral and strategic significance and for shielding Israel from Arab nations who were “sworn to throttle Israel in its cradle.” He criticized the strategic confusion of Beltway professionals who made policy based on fear of driving Arabs into the Soviet camp. Arabs would hate Israel no matter what, Niebuhr argued, and they would join or not join the Soviet Bloc regardless of America’s stance on the issue. “[I]t has been proven,” he wrote, “that we cannot wean the Arabs from their passions by equivocation in regard to Israel.”
Though a Christian, Niebuhr made no use of theology in his argument. He relied instead on moral realism informed by personal sympathy for the Jewish plight. “[N]o nation has ever come into being through a confluence of so many political and cultural and religious factors as this new state,” he wrote. Yet he also understood the deep paradox that surrounded Israel’s existence. “There is a real pathos,” he wrote, “in the fact that the Jews should have exchanged the insecurity of Europe for the collective insecurity of the Middle East.”
As a careful student of history, Niebuhr must have known that this was just one irony among many.
EVERYTHING ABOUT ISRAEL was, and is, draped in layers of irony and paradox. Israel is a Jewish state. It is also a secular democracy. Israel is the resurrected form of an ancient polity that disappeared two millennia ago; it is also a modern, economically-vibrant society that embraces progress in astonishing ways.
The Jewish people themselves are rather ironic. Both a nation that grows reproductively and a religious community that grows confessionally, the Jews defy any easy explanation. But whatever that essence is, the rise of Jewish nationalism, or Zionism, in the late 19th century was both the reaffirmation and repudiation of that essence – an attempt to cancel out Jewishness and restore it at the same time.
Though secular at its outset, Zionism sprang from an old religious longing to return to Jerusalem. When orthodox Jews began to embrace the movement later on, they had to wrestle with a difficult theological question: Did proactive return to Zion undermine a belief in the Messiah’s power to turn back the exile? They found reasons to say no, but they recognized an inherent paradox between Zionism and Judaism that needed to be resolved.
The irony runs even deeper. One of the core assumptions of the Zionist movement was that Jews would never be accepted as Semites in Europe and must therefore return home to their natural state. Only by abandoning their adopted European identities and embracing their Semitic roots could they revive the Hebrew soul. Yet when the Jews arrived in Ottoman Palestine they were immediately greeted as aliens who didn’t belong – Semites to the Europeans, and Europeans to the indigenous Semites.
The Jews stayed anyway, working to build friendly relations with the Arabs, and for a while they succeeded. But when their numbers grew and the Great Powers endorsed their project, those relations quickly fell apart. Under the British Mandate, the Jews made incremental gains amid mounting opposition from their neighbors. By May 1948, when five Arab armies aligned along their new borders, it looked as if the Jews had traded one ghetto for another. Their attempt to disentangle themselves from the nations and take refuge in their own land had, ironically, led to greater entanglement and opposition.
Israel survived the 1948 war. But over the next six decades, in a remarkable twist of fate, Israeli Jews found themselves forced to rule over a non-Jewish minority inside their own borders. It did not take long for the Jews, long known as a people of law, to face accusations of gross unlawfulness toward the “stranger” among them.
With the establishment of Israel and the fulfillment of Zionism, the Jews moved from the margins of world affairs to the center. Inside Israel, too, the inversion of geography was noteworthy. While Jews had historically congregated in the central highlands, leaving the coasts and valleys to the Gentiles, Israeli Jews were forced to cede those highlands to the non-Jewish Arabs and retreat to the coasts and valleys. The Temple Mount, once a Jewish refuge from Roman government, now became an Arab refuge from Jewish government.
Challenged from within and without, the State of Israel somehow survived; and not only survived, but flourished. Yet even then Israel’s success was used as proof of its own guilt, since Israel’s prosperity only came at the expense of the land’s rightful inhabitants. In the future, it is likely that Israel’s growing wealth will be cited as clear evidence of growing moral turpitude.
Even in the realm of political alliances, Israel finds itself mired in irony. The strongest supporters of the Jewish state are evangelical Christians, members of a religion that made persecution of the Jews a virtual doctrine of the faith for centuries. And evangelicals to boot! Zealous in evangelism, suspicious of religious dialogue, and loathe to grant Judaism redemptive standing alongside Christianity, evangelicals seem the least likely to adopt a positive attitude toward the Jews. And yet the evangelical branch of Christendom is by far the most devoted to Israel’s well-being.
The greatest irony of course is that a Jewish polity exists at all. One hundred years ago, the idea seemed too absurd to even merit attention. And yet there it stands, a living contradiction that defies all expectations.
THAT THE JEWISH people survive at all is a curious historical anomaly. It helps explain the celebrated Jewish sense of humor, the Israeli spirit of nonchalance, and ubiquitous Hebrew phrases like mah la-asot? (“What can you do?”) and yihyeh be-seder (“It’ll be okay”). Historical experience has taught the Jews that the joys of today are almost always overturned by the surprises of tomorrow.
But history also teaches that the Jews will somehow survive it all. The old joke that every Jewish holiday can be summed up as “They attacked us, we fought back, we won – let’s eat” is only funny because it’s partially true. It has been said that the church is an anvil that has worn out many hammers, but the Jewish people has been no less resilient.
And why should it be otherwise? Both the Jewish people and the Christian church find their origin in the pages of the same text that first warned man of history’s endless ironies. The arcane debate about what Jews and Christians share needn’t go any further than an inquiry into the unique Book that we both carry, a Book that describes an ironic universe where our greatest mortal achievements are tainted by imperfection and dwarfed by the holiness of a transcendent God. Jews and Christians share a profound sense of irony, but they also share the belief that irony can be overcome through the power of that same God.
American Christians should view Israel in the same light that Niebuhr did: as a moral and strategic outpost vital to the long-term interests of the United States. At a time when the expanding footprint of Islamic terrorism tempts us to draw back our support for Israel, it is imperative that we do the opposite.
Niebuhr described Israel as “the only sure strategic anchor of the democratic world,” and warned against “abandoning strategic fortresses in the interest of ‘peace in our time’ only to be forced to fight in the end without those fortresses.” He was right. May we never succumb to the confusion that elevates political appeasement over moral clarity. May we resist the temptation to equivocate, obfuscate, and vacillate in the face of opposition. “Equivocal words by us are highly improper,” Niebuhr warned. “Life and death depend upon a clear policy.”
Israel is not perfect; no state is. We, citizens of another imperfect state, should work together with Israeli Jews and Arabs to pursue the kind of justice that benefits everyone. We may have a long way to go, but we should recognize that Israel is a catalyst for good in a region woefully bereft of goodness.
On this 68th anniversary of Israel’s founding may we dedicate ourselves as the “great hegemonous power of the free world” to acknowledge that goodness and condemn those who call for Israel’s destruction, having confidence that the ironies of history will once again be overcome. The God of history has decreed it.
Robert Nicholson is co-editor of Providence and president of The Philos Project, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote positive Christian engagement in the Middle East. He holds a BA in Hebrew Studies from Binghamton University, and a JD and MA (Middle Eastern History) from Syracuse University. A formerly enlisted Marine and a 2012- 2013 Tikvah Fellow, Robert splits his time between New York City and Syracuse.
Photo Credit: Kids with Israeli flags in Jerusalem. By Kristoffer Trolle via Flickr.
[This article was edited on April 19, 2019.]