In 2003, Pilgrim Press, a publishing house owned by the United Church of Christ, published Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told about Israel and the Palestinians, by Rev. Dr. Gary Burge, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a New Testament scholar at Wheaton College and Graduate School in Wheaton, Illinois. While this book is marred by numerous factual errors and sourcing problems, there are several other remarkable aspects of this book.
In his book, Rev. Dr. Burge exhibits profound ambivalence over Jewish sovereignty. On one hand, Rev. Dr. Burge offers explicit affirmations of Israel’s right to exist and to the right of Jewish self-expression. On the other hand, he invokes passages in the New Testament to portray Israel’s existence as a violation of Christian theology.
Additionally, Rev. Dr. Burge makes Jewish sovereignty in modern Israel contingent on faithful adherence to Judaism, and so denies Jews living in Israel the right to embrace secular nationalism. In short, Jews living in Israel must be a people of God whether they want to be or not. No other people in the world have their right to statehood contingent on such a requirement.
Accompanying the insistence that Jews living in Israel must adhere to unique religious and ethical commands is an assertion of Christian sovereignty and right of judgment over the Jewish people. In particular, Rev. Dr. Burge asserts that Christians must inspect Israel’s “national life” against a Biblical standard of conduct. Rev. Dr. Burge, however, does not hold the national character of Israel’s adversaries to the same standard. In Rev. Dr. Burge’s analysis, the failings of the modern state of Israel raise theological concerns; the failings of its adversaries do not.
Rev. Dr. Burge’s inability to deal with Israeli polices in a rational and methodical manner and his ambivalence over Jewish sovereignty are manifestations of the Christian tendency to view flesh-and-blood Jews and their institutions in irrational and mythological terms. This tendency is detailed in Reluctant Witness: Jews in the Christian Imagination by Stephen Haynes (Westminster John Knox Press, 1995).
Persons raised in the Christian tradition have great difficulty viewing Jews as human beings like themselves. … [W]hen Christians are confronted by the word-sign “Jew,” they are more likely to conjure theological types and anti-types, not to mention cultural and literally stereotypes, than to think of real individuals with the same hopes, failures and foibles as non Jews. Some have misunderstood this mythologizing tendency and claimed that for Christians the only good Jew is a dead Jew, or a [converted] Christian. But the Christian attitude toward the Jew has never consisted in a simple desire to bring an end to the Jewish people through persecution or conversion. Rather, the crux of the Christian outlook is that every Jew, whether they are cast in an angelic or demonic role, is part of a chosen race that in some mysterious way represents God. (Haynes 5-6)
Jews are an important but ambivalent sign in witness-people thinking, Haynes reports. Sometimes Christians scapegoat Jews and embrace superstitious beliefs about them, but the witness-people myth also “places a positive value on Jewish survival.” Because of its emphasis on Jewish survival, witness-people thinking is a relatively benign way of thinking about the Jews when compared to “some of the anti-Jewish ideologies to which it has given rise.” Nevertheless, it is still a threat to Jewish safety and has “contributed to Jewish suffering for nearly two millennia.” (Haynes, pages 12-15).
Haynes writes on page 182 that “the witness-people myth in all its modern and pre-modern versions spells danger for the Jewish people.” He continues:
… Jewish security is threatened whenever real Jews are associated with the “Jew” of the Christian imagination. Thus even apparently positive or philosemitic aspects of Christian thought cannot operate in the interest of Jews as long as they are rooted in mythology. If Jews are assumed to be witnesses and signs – regardless of what they are thought to be witnessing to – they are likely also to be objects of unnatural expectations, religious projections, and irrational fantasies.
Haynes is not the only scholar to remark on this issue. In After Auschwitz: History, Theology, And Contemporary Judaism (2nd ed., Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992) Richard L. Rubenstein writes.
… it may be impossible for Christians to regard Jews in other than mythological, magical, and theological categories. Because of their kinship with Jesus and their inability to accept him as the Christ, Jews alone of all the world’s peoples are regarded by Christianity as playing a very special role in the divine drama of sin and forgiveness, guilt and salvation, perdition and redemption. The Christian Church must insist on the separate and distinct character of the Jewish people because of its claim to be the new Israel superseding the old Israel, which has proven incapable, either through spiritual blindness or malice, of recognizing Jesus Christ as Lord. It is Christ who is regarded as the perfect fullillment (telos) of the covenant made by God with Abraham and Moses, a covenant that the Israelites were incapable of understanding in its plenitude. Christianity must regard Jews as special and, at least in matters pertaining to God’s salvation, apart from humanity in general. As such they are destined to be the objects of both […] abnormal demands and obsessive hatreds … (After Auschwitz, pages 11-12).
Whose Land? Whose Promise? is replete with abnormal and unreasonable expectations of Israel. For example, Whose Land? Whose Promise? offers a deeply discriminatory application of scripture and theology to the modern state of Israel. In his distorted application of the Old Testament to modern Israel, Rev. Dr. Burge suggests Israeli Jews must treat those opposed to Israel’s existence as a Jewish State with the same kindness offered to trustworthy sojourners living in ancient Israel. Moreover, in Rev. Dr. Burge’s reading of scripture, sojourners in modern Israel (whom he takes to be “Palestinians living in Israel”), have only rights and no obligations to the state in which they live.
These demands are rooted in a mythological fantasy about the Jewish people. When these
expectations are not met and the fantasy is broken, disappointment yields to contempt.
The fantasy embraced and broadcast by Rev. Dr. Burge in Whose Land? Whose Promise? is that of a religiously pious people led by those who value abstract principles of ethical conduct over the safety of the citizens they govern. Rev. Dr. Burge denies modern Israel the rights accorded to sovereign nations under international law and Christian ethical rules – to hold issues of human rights and liberties versus security and self-defense in tension and struggle to find an appropriate balance between the two.
To disguise the fact that he is insisting that Israel and its Jewish citizens play the role of the suffering servant, Rev. Dr. Burge minimizes the threats Israel faces and exagerates the willingness of Israel’s adversaries to make peace. In other words, Rev. Dr. Burge protects his religious fantasies about the Jewish people and their state by distorting reality. When Israel responds to reality as it is, and not as Rev. Dr. Burge distorts it, he portrays it as a rogue state betraying the higher principles of Judaism.
The irony about Whose Land? Whose Promise? – a book packaged as a warning to Christian Zionists (or more specifically, pre-millennial dispensationalists) – is that it affirms the notion that the Jewish people constitute a unique theological category and require special treatment and judgment – a primary tenet of Christian Zionism. But instead of emphasizing God’s promise to the Jewish people, Rev. Dr. Burge emphasizes the special obligations they must adhere to in order to enjoy sovereignty in their historical homeland. In other words, while Rev. Dr. Burge questions whether there is a prophetic or theological continuity between ancient Israel and the modern-state of Israel, he writes about the modern state of Israel as if the rules that came with Jewish sovereignty in the Old Testament still apply to the modern state. The result is a targeted, exclusive and de-contextualized judgment of modern Israel against a Biblical code of conduct not applied to its adversaries.
This is a clear demonstration that, as Haynes writes, witness-people thinking about the Jewish people “gives rises to a diversity of thought-forms.” It is also a clear demonstration that this mythology is “insidiously dangerous (Haynes, page 13).”
Affirmation and Denunciation
Both preservationist and Judeo-phobic impulses of the witness-people myth are evident in Whose Land? Whose Promise?, but the center of gravity of his narrative regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict clearly leans toward the Judeo-phobic. The preservationist impulse is evident in Rev. Dr. Burge affirmations in Israel’s right to exist and the Jewish right of self-determination. The Judeo-phobic impulse is evident in Rev. Dr. Burge’s the requirements he places on (and his theological denunciation of) Jewish sovereignty.
Dr. Burge prefaces his book with an explicit affirmation of Israel’s right to exist and offers a vocal rejection of anti-Semitism.
We need to make an unequivocal statement affirming Israel’s right to exist as a nation in the region. Israeli anxiety about the rejection, about the denial of its own legitimacy, is profound and grounded in the reality of both Christian and Arab rejection of the right to Jewish self-expression in a sovereign Israel. This must be followed by an equally strong rejection of Palestinian violence that targets civilians. (Whose Land? Whose Promise? Page xvii)
Burge states on the following page that some readers might conclude that “the opponent here is Judaism, not the domestic policies of the State of Israel” and that “some who are genuinely anti-Semitic may exploit this theological political presentation for their own purposes. I loathe such efforts.” (Emphasis his).
After offering these assurances, however, he then admits that “some of the Scriptures used in this book contributed over time to the adversus Judaeos tradition” which contributed to “the destruction of European Jewry.”
This tradition will make many of the words in this book particularly difficult for my friends in the Jewish community. I would ask them to remember that my ethical and political critique is merely an echo of what countless courageous Jewish voices are already saying. I will argue that even if Christian theologians reject the position that modern Israel inherits the land promised to Abraham (thanks to a new covenant that abrogates the old), this should not diminish the church’s respect for Judaism nor the rights of the Jewish people to live in the land of Israel. (Whose Land? Whose Promise?, page xviii)
Rev. Dr. Burge’s assertion that he is merely echoing what principled Jews are saying is a persistent theme in his book. He uses this polemic to defend himself against charges of anti-Semitism and to affirm the truthfulness of his narrative. (For example, on page 269 Burge asks rhetorically “Was Isaiah Anti-Semitic?”) It should be noted, however, that Burge is not merely offering an “ethical and political critique” of Israel. He is offering a religious and theological critique of Israel – from his perspective as a Christian, not a Jew – that ends in a refusal to tolerate the state’s secular nationalism. This refusal appears on page 258, where Rev. Dr. Burge writes:
Evangelicals opposed to the secular nationalism of Israel are not discriminating against the Jews as a people. On the contrary, evangelical critics are expressing dissatisfaction with the behavior of a nation that ought to know better-a nation whose possession of the Scriptures ought to give it more light.
This passage makes explicit Rev. Dr. Burge’s desire to place the Jewish people into a unique theological category – an embodiment of Biblical faith – and his inability to deal with the Jewish people as flesh-and-blood human beings – a hallmark of Haynes’s witness-people myth. (If Rev. Dr. Burge’s refusal to accept Israel’s “secular nationalism” isn’t a rejection of “the right to Jewish self-expression in a sovereign Israel,” the phrase “self-expression” has no meaning.)
Rev. Dr. Burge also portrays Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel as a violation of Christian theology. Invoking passages from the New Testament Book of Hebrews, which speaks of God’s promises to Abraham as becoming “obsolete” and “vanishing away,” Rev. Dr. Burge then writes that Christians inherit the promises to Abraham (including the land) by virtue of their faith in Christ.
[T]he New Testament goes a long way toward spiritualizing the nature of these promises. That is, the Israelite endeavor to acquire land and forge a nation takes on a different shape in the new covenant of Christ. God’s people no longer are called to build an empire based on the books of Genesis or Joshua. The Israeli attempt to take land and forge a nation is religiously misdirected. God& #146;s people are called to infiltrate the empires of the world, bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all, regardless of history, race, or religious persuasion. (Whose Land? Whose Promise? page 189)
Rev. Dr. Burge thus suggests that Jewish sovereignty in Israel is no longer legitimate following the Revelation of Jesus Christ and that the Jewish people have somehow violated a boundary set for them by the New Testament. There are at least two difficulties with this passage.
First, as Rev. Dr. Burge himself acknowledges elsewhere in his own book, Zionism as a movement was founded by non-religious, secular Jews. Rev. Dr. Burge himself knows full well that the Israeli push for statehood was not religiously motivated, but was made by secular Zionists. (This issue will be discussed in detail below.) Yet in his application of Christian theology to Israel’s creation, he portrays it as “religiously misdirected” — even as he complains that Israel’s creation was founded by secular Jews.
The second difficulty is Rev. Dr. Burge’s portrayal of the of the modern state of Israel, post-Christianity, as illegitimate or “religiously misdirected,” echoes objections put forth by Muslim leaders and theologians in the Middle East, for whom the notion of Jewish freedom and sovereignty on land previously governed by Muslim rulers, no matter how small, is unthinkable. For example, Mustafa Abu Sway, an associate professor at Al Quds University in Jerusalem, said the following to Yossi Klein Halevi in 1991:
“Theologically there is no possibility of accepting a Jewish state. But Jews should trust Islam. They will be treated justly in an Islamic state, because they’ll be under the protection of Allah.” (“Holy War, Holy Peace,” The Jerusalem Report, Feb. 28, 1991)
Professor Abu Sway offered a blunter assessment of Israel’s existence at an interfaith conference held in Jerusalem in 2003 and covered by Gerald McDermott for Books & Culture, published by Christianity Today, Inc.
Mustafa Abu Sway remarked, to audible gasps from Jews in the audience, that he wished the state of Israel “would disappear.” (Books & Culture, March-April 2003)
Both Rev. Dr. Burge and Professor Abu Sway’s objections are triumphalist or supersessionist notions; the former applied by a Christian, the latter by Muslim. Such notions, regardless of their source, should not be affirmed in a book offered by a publishing house that describes itself as an “ecumenical endeavor” of the United Church of Christ.
In his exposition of John 15:16, Rev. Dr. Burge’s theological objection to Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel is made explicit:
God’s vineyard, the land of Israel, now only has one vine, Jesus. The people of Israel cannot claim to be planted as vines in the land; they cannot be rooted in the vineyard unless first they are grafted into Jesus. Branches that attempt living in the land, the vineyard, which refused to be attached to Jesus will be cast out and burned. (Whose Land? Whose Promise? page 176)
Rev. Dr. Burge is describing how John has “translated the promise of land and place into the reality of Jesus” but in the context of Christian-Jewish history and the “theo-political” realities of the Middle East, the use of the phrase “cast out and burned” is particularly troublesome and irresponsible. To be sure, Rev. Dr. Burge warns against the use of passages like this in an anti-Semitic manner in his preface, but he himself elides the differences between ancient and modern Israel when using scripture. For example, on page 270 Rev. Dr. Burge writes:
I wish to join hands with Isaiah and, in the spirit of his commitment and concern, to remind Israel of its higher calling. A prophetic voice needs to be heard today in the Middle East, not an apocalyptic voice that announces the fulfillment of prophecies and end times. Israel has strayed, and like an ox that has forgotten its master and its home, Israel has forgotten the voice of God. (Is. 1:3). I am convinced that if Isaiah were in Jerusalem today, his words would be unrelenting and his willingness to unearth Israel’s sins would put his own well-being in jeopardy.
In this passage, Rev. Dr. Burge elides the difference between ancient and modern Israel, which in turn justifies a targeted, one-sided and de-contextualized judgment of Israel’s misdeeds. Rev. Dr. Burge’s desire to hold Israel to a “higher calling” is not a triggered by the Christian Zionist support for Israel, but by Israel’s historical connections to the prophets in the Old Testament. Rev. Dr. Burge’s insistence on judging Israel in a discriminatory manner becomes further evident on pages 132 and 133 where he states explicitly that Israel must be held to a higher standard of conduct than its adversaries. Burge starts by describing a Syrian massacre in 1982.
When the Syrian city of Hama (population 180,000) defied the rule of the late President Hafez Assad, he solved the problem cleanly. At 1:00 a.m. on Tuesday, February 2, 1982, he surrounded the town with tanks and artillery and leveled the place. Assad heard little dissent. Israel has not participated in this sort of wholesale massacre. (Whose Land? Whose Promise? page 132).
Yet when we look at the traditions that have shaped this country, when we look at the caliber of its leadership, we expect more. Israel is not to be compared with the tribal regimes that run Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Israel seeks to be compared with the Western democracies that have shaped its political worldview. Moreover, Israel invites comparison with the biblical model of nationhood because it claims that this heritage has empowered it to inherit the land. (Whose Land? Whose Promise? page 132).
For when, as is in fact the case, Israel’s surrounding enemies today do not chose to live by a like higher morality but intend instead to wipe her off the face of the earth, the demand that Israel observe a higher morality comes down to complicity in her future destruction. Thus is a lower morality given sustenance, all in the name of a higher morality – and even worse, in the name of the Christian church.
Sadly, Rev. Dr. Burge portrays Israeli misdeeds as violations of a sacred religious obligation. When its adversaries do something wrong, the misdeeds, when they are mentioned, are treated as regrettable acts, but are not subject to theological condemnation.
Judging Israel’s Faithfulness
The tilt towards a Judeo-phobic expression of the witness-people myth in Whose Land? Whose Promise? becomes increasingly manifest as Rev. Dr. Burge addresses other issues related to Jewish sovereignty in modern Israel.
Rev. Dr. Burge states that his primary audience is “Christians who believe that the Bible bears a direct relevance to the future of the Middle East, who see in Israel a rich fulfillment of biblical prophecies – and who have never heard another side of the story. In particular, Christian Zionists, whose blend of politics and religious fervor has been particularly ill-informed in recent years (page xviii).”
But, again, it is not Christian Zionist support for Israel that triggers his analysis. Rather the starting point for Rev. Dr. Burge’s analysis is that Biblical claims to the land of Israel trigger a set of Biblical obligations and standard of conduct. The fact that Rev. Dr. Burge does not apply these standards to Israel’s adversaries underscores the unique theological status Rev. Burge attributes to the Jewish people. On page 13, he writes:
If Israel makes a biblical claim to the Holy Land, then Israel must adhere to biblical standards of national righteousness. Land promises are a by-product of a covenant with God. Therefore, all aspects of biblical nationhood must be at work. In chapters 4-8 we examine what the Old Testament says about the land promises and how God’s people should live on the land. (Emphasis his.)
Rev. Dr. Burge’s thesis becomes particular strained when he states the position that Jewish Biblical claims to the land of Israel actually trigger a Christian obligation to judge Israel’s behavior in light of Biblical commandments regarding “nationhood” (or more appropriately, “statehood”). Rev. Dr. Burge then states:
Christians should look more closely at their commitments. The New Testament must be read alongside the Old Testament when we interpret the land promises of the Bible. Further, Israel/Palestine has a body of Christian believers who today look to us for support. As fellow Christians we must ask if we have a spiritual obligation here as well. Chapters 9-13 give insights from the Christian community that lives in Israel/Palestine today. Arab and Jewish Christians together struggle to live in this land. (Whose Land? Whose Promise? page 13)
Rev. Dr. Burge makes a similar point on pages 163-164.
As Christians we need to take a closer look at the character of Israel. If Israel’s appeal to nationhood, to possessing the land, is buttressed by an appeal to biblical promise, then its record of national life must be open to inspection. If the link to the biblical promise is the basis of Israeli nationhood, then modern Israel must be judged by the standards that the prophets applied to biblical Israel.
Rather than wondering if Israel is fulfilling prophecy, I am willing to grant their premise for the moment and ask a more fundamental question. Assuming for now that such continuity exists between the Old Testament and the twenty-first century, how does Israel’s national life compare with the life of God’s people outlined in the Bible? If Israel qualifies prophetically, does Israel also qualify ethically and morally to be God’s people in the land? (Italics in original)
And when assessing Israel’s national life, Rev. Dr. Burge uses two criteria – its treatment of the sojourner (Palestinians) and its commitment to Judaism. Predictably, Rev. Dr. Burge finds Israel’s commitment to Judaism insufficient. Under a heading titled “Religious Compromise” Rev. Dr. Burge writes:
Israel functions like a secular state where biblical allusions are used to define and clarify national history. Ultraconservative Jews do live there, but they by no means make up the majority. Many are critical of the lack of faith in their own country. Some harshly critical rabbis even call for the dismantling of the Israeli state (as a quick search on the web under “Jews Against Zionism” reveals). In Israel, Jewishness has to do with culture, not necessarily with personal and spiritual devotion. As one Israeli leader told me in 1992, fewer than 30 percent of Israelis are actually practicing their religion. Thus the state recognizes citi zenship applications of Jews even if they claim to be atheists. Atheism does not invalidate one’s Judaism.
This observation is legitimate because, as we have seen, possession of the land is tied to obedience to the covenant. God’s people cannot make a religious claim to the land exhibiting religious devotion to the covenant. I am not talking here about the reconstruction of the Temple and the revival of its sacrificial ceremonies. I am describing a quality of spirituality, a deep interpretation of life and God’s relation to national history. A secular outlook has taken over Israel, and many of us would be hard pressed to distinguish this from another secular state. (Whose Land? Whose Promise? pp. 162-163.)
Interestingly enough, while Rev. Dr. Burge chides Israel for engaging in “religious compromise,” he engages in this same type of compromise himself. For example, Rev. Dr. Burge does not expect the Temple to be rebuilt or to see a reintroduction of sacrificial ceremonies, nor does he call for the death penalty to be imposed on those who violate the Sabbath (Ex. 31:14), who engage in marital infidelity (Deut. 22:23) and for homosexuality (Lev. 20:13). Rev. Dr. Burge himself says that if Israel is going to make a Biblical claim to the land, it must abide by the rules that come with God’s promise of land, but he is very selective about which rules he will apply to the modern state of Israel. This selectivity is emblematic of Rev. Dr. Burge’s assertion of Christian sovereignty over Jewish self-expression. Jews living in Israel are not free to struggle with the tension between faith and modern life – a struggle he dismisses as “religious compromise” but Rev. Dr. Burge finds it perfectly within his rights to ignore large portions of scripture that are inconvenient to his polemic. Rev. Dr. Burge implicitly denies adherents of Judaism the right to interpret their own scriptures in light of their history, just as Christians have.
Ultimately, Rev. Dr. Burge is offended by Israel’s secular identity. In Who Are God’s People in the Middle East? What Christians Are Not Being Told about Israel and the Palestinians (published in 1993 by Zondervan), Burge writes:
I had always entertained the notion that Israel was a very religious place, a place of prayer, of worship, of devotion. On the morning of May 14, 1948, the authors of Israel’s Declaration of Independence found themselves debating whether or not to include any reference to God. Ben Gurion decided on “. . . trust in the Rock of Israel” in order to keep from offending anyone. I found this to be remarkable. If indeed this was a nation claiming some continuity with its biblical heritage, surely a reference to God would be acceptable.
On one hand Rev. Dr. Burge invokes Israel’s Biblical claims to the land as a trigger to judge Israel and on the other hand he acknowledges Israel’s secular founding and then uses that very secular foundation and lack of religious practice to try to demonstrate that Israel is violating its purported religious obligations. Thus, Rev. Dr. Burge undercuts his own assertion that Israel is making Biblical, or more to the point, theological claims to the land of Israel.
It is perfectly reasonable for secular, socialist and even atheist Jews looking for a homeland to regard the Bible as an historic document recording Jewish presence in the land of Israel. Even religious Jews could make this assertion, if Rev. Dr. Burge was willing to let them interpret how to apply the principles of their own religious tradition to modern circumstances – as he himself does when he writes that he does not expect the Temple to be rebuilt or sacrificial ritual to be reintroduced.
If Rev. Dr. Burge is sincere in his affirmation of Jewish national self-expression in modern Israel, he should be able to tolerate all of these (and other) possibilities. Sadly, Rev. Dr. Burge is instead gripped by a deep and abiding tendency to push Jewish history into a unique theological category and by an apparent belief that he, a Christian, is more qualified than Jews themselves are to interpret their own history and identity. In this case, Rev. Dr. Burge is not alone, because as Haynes reports, “most Christians through the ages have believed that they understood the Jews’ history and destiny with greater probity than Jews themselves (page 6).” This notion lies at the heart of supersessionist theology.
Rev. Dr. Burge’s contradictions along these lines are evident on page 133 where he writes:
The earliest Zionists (from Weizmann to Ben-Gurion to Meir) all interpreted their work as restoring a biblical tradition even though they had secularized that tradition completely. For this reason, then Israelis insist on calling the West Bank “Judea and Samaria.” These biblical names are used to make theological and historical claim to the land. Each year, the Jewish Passover service reminds worshippers to dream about “next year in Jerusalem.” This liturgy has kept biblical Jerusalem in the hearts and minds of Jewish families for centuries. Likewise, to see Jews praying at the “Western Wall” (formerly the “Wailing Wall”) is deeply moving. This mammoth section of limestone is a sought-after place of prayer because of its historic connection with the past: the remaining section of the last Jewish Temple. Even army officers take their oath of office lined up on the tarmac in front of it.
In this paragraph, Rev. Dr. Burge ignores the significant distinction between theological and historical claims to territory. Perhaps Rev. Dr. Burge understands that historical claims to the land would not trigger the Old Testament standard of conduct he seems intent on thrusting on the modern state of Israel.
Then, in a footnote included at the end of the first quoted sentence, Rev. Dr. Burge writes:
But we must be clear that in no way were the earliest Zionists “religious.” The biblical traditions were mere metaphors. The “New Israeli” or “New Jew,” as they called these early pioneers, was a secular, cultural Jew. On the final evening editing the constitution of the country, its writers debated if they should include the name of “God” in its language.”
One of the things that most folks don’t recognize is that the promise of land is given geographical boundaries and actually, they exceed the present boundaries of the State of Israel. So if you take some of these promises literally … much of Lebanon and Syria for instance, would fall to Israel and you would have a large country moving down even toward Egypt so that doesn’t seem all that practical to any Israel and so they are not pursuing those promised boundaries to begin with.
Israel may call the West Bank “Judea and Samaria,” but Ehud Barak was willing to give most of the territory to the Palestinian Authority during the Camp David/Taba negotiations in 2000 and 2001 – two years before the publication of Whose Land? Whose Promise? (Predictably, Rev. Burge mischaracterizes Barak’s offer at Camp David during the summer of 2000, offering as fact Palestinian propaganda broadcast during the Second Intifada to justify suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. More below.)
Instead, what Rev. Dr. Burge has done is insist that flesh-and-blood Jews who live in modern Israel fit into a unique theological category that he has established for them. Jewish sovereignty becomes contingent upon adherence to religious fidelity, a requirement that is imposed on no other people in the world aside from the Jews. It is one thing for Jews, exercising their right of self-expression, to place themselves in this category. It is another matter altogether for non-Jews to impose this requirement on Jews living in Israel and then use that requirement as a weapon against Israel’s legitimacy. In 1984 A. Roy Eckhart warned against Christian efforts to “religionize” the Jewish people:
Such a Christian effort is implicitly presumptuous, a form of lingering imperialism. It is essentially a pre-Shoah undertaking, and it ought to be abandoned. … The only legitimate theology of the people Israel is a Jewish one. If Jews wish to opt for a religious identity, fine-and the same goes for their dereligionization. One way or the other, the determination is exclusively theirs, not that of Christians.
The danger of Christian efforts to spiritualize the Jewish people becomes increasingly obvious in Rev. Dr. Burge’s discussion of the sojourner in Israel.
Israel and the Sojourner
Rev. Dr. Burge is not only offended by modern Israel’s secular faithlessness. He is also bothered by its treatment of Palestinians living in Israel and in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which brings us to Rev. Dr. Burge’s tendency to judge Israel against Biblical rules regarding the alien and sojourner without taking into account their behavior toward Israelis, and their attitude toward Israel’s existence. When it comes time for the author to pass judgment Israel’s conduct, the safety of Israeli citizens is not taken into consideration. And Rev. Dr. Burge claims a Biblical mandate to ignore this issue:
The Bible is not ambiguous when it describes how God’s people must live when they reside in his land. They must pursue justice and integrity at all costs. (Whose Land? Whose Promise? page 92 – emphasis added.)
Does Rev. Dr. Burge include physical annihiliation as one of those “costs”? Under both international law and majority Christian moral teaching, all nations have the right to self-defense. Yet Rev. Dr. Burge seems intent on asking Israel to sacrifice this right in order to reside in the land. In any event, it is one thing for Jewish prophets and activists to affirm Israel’s obligation to pursue justice and integrity at all costs, but one might go so far as query how dare does a Christian do so?
Right Reverend Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, made this point in a sermon submitted to a conference in Jerusalem in 2005 hosted by Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. (Note: Rt. Rev. Williams did not attend the event, but had his paper read by his Secretary for Ecumenism, Rev. Jonathan Gough).
Scripture presents us with many texts about how God chastises his people through the intervention of other nations. Yet it is always clear in the prophets that others should beware of assuming a right to chastise on God’s behalf. Attacks on the existence of the Jewish people as such are likely to arise from aggression and hatred. God can use this evil, but does not create it. Thus, in the scriptural context, any attempt in the non-Jewish world to set oneself up as the judge and punisher of God’s people is, like any act of self-righteous aggression, to be condemned.
Even as Rt. Rev. Williams expresses the sentiment that God can use evil “attacks on the Jewish people” to work his will (clearly a problematic assertion for Christians to be making after the Holocaust and a clear example of witness-people mythologizing), he at least acknowledges that non-Jews need to be careful in setting themselves up as judges and punishers of “God’s people.” But this warning would be wasted on Rev. Dr. Burge who in addition to setting himself up as a Judge of Israel and an arbiter of Jewish history, exhibits a merciless refusal to ask the obvious question about whether or not modern Israelis enjoy the tenancy in the land of Israel in such a manner that would allow them to live the life God would have for his people.
Let us assume for the moment that Rev. Dr. Burge’s charge to Christians to judge Israel against the Biblical standards he has imposed on them is legitimate and not a discriminatory denunciation of the rights of the Jewish people to self-determination. Are Rev. Dr. Burge’s Christian judges then obligated to assess whether or not the current tenancy of Jews in the land of Israel is such that they can be fairly expected to live up to the requirements of living in the land promised to them?
The issue is safety, Jewish safety, an issue that Rev. Dr. Burge deals with in a profoundly and recklessly ambivalent manner. Again, in his preface, he asserts that Palestinian violence needs to be condemned, but then downplays the threats to Jewish safety in the remainder of his text. (For example, there is no description whatsoever of Hamas, the group recently elected into power in the Palestinian Territories that is openly dedicated to Israel’s destruction that has perpetrated nu merous suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. The only reference to this organization in Whose Land? Whose Promise? is on page 55 where Rev. Dr. Burge describes how an Israel F-16 killed 15 civilians who were sleeping in the same building as “the military leader of the militant group Hamas.” The organization is not in the book’s index.)
Rt. Rev. Williams, however, deals with the issue of Jewish safety in a more forthright manner, acknowledging that “in order to be hospitable, one has to have a home.” In the paper cited previously, he states that “anything that makes the land a cause of radical instability undermines the basic point” of Israel being a model of “God’s wisdom and justice as the pattern for human society.”
That is, if the land has to be defended by ceaseless struggle which distorts the very fabric of the common life, it ceases to be a “sacramental mark of God’s calling.”
Later, Rt. Rev. Williams writes:
Without stable and agreed borders, neither internal stability nor the universal service of external witness to justice can be sustained. The land becomes a prison, not a gift. The state of Israel has had to sustain its existence against enemies who would not grant its right to exist. But the problem increasingly lies less with aggressive neighbors than with a failure to tackle the underlying issues about regional stability. This is why so many Israeli commentators will say that life in Israel today threatens to become just such a prison, as the spiral of overwhelming violent reaction to the indiscriminate violence of suicide bombings and the consequent desperate anxiety over security creates more and more barriers and walls.
Rt. Rev. Williams does seem to understand that modern Israel faces serious threats over which they have little control, and that these threats may indeed have an impact on how Israel behaves. Compare Rt. Rev. Williams’ statement with what Rev. Dr. Burge said about Israel on Hank Hanegraaf’s show in May:
It is walled in, it is protected by God and all God asks of the vineyard is to produce some good fruit that comes from the vineyard and when there is no good fruit, then the vineyard is torn down.
It is a miracle of faith that some Israelis do feel protected by God despite the violence targeted at them. But for Rev. Dr. Burge, a Christian, to suggest that modern Israel, a state that has been under siege ever since its creation, is a well-protected but unproductive vineyard inviting destruction because of its unfaithfulness an abominable expression of the witness-people myth. Given his previously described disappointment over Israel’s secular identity, it appears that at the very least, Rev. Dr. Burge is willing to consider the prospect that the death of Israeli civilians at the hand of suicide bombers is the will of God.
Again, Rev. Dr. Burge does offer a pro-forma condemnation of Palestinian violence in his preface, but when it comes time for Burge to invoke and interpret the Old Testament in assessing Israel’s obligation to the sojourner – whom he takes to be Palestinians – it would seem sojourners have few, if any, obligations to the nation in which they reside. When discussing the religious, social and legal privileges of non-Israelites in the land of ancient Israel, Burge invokes numerous passages from the Pentateuch and Joshua to show that they had substantial claims on Israelite society. Left unmentioned and unacknowledged, however, is any obligation the sojourner has toward Israel.
For example, Burge reports that non-Israelites were entitled to the Sabbath rest, (Exod. 23:12), participation in all the major festivals in Jerusalem (Num. 9:14), protection from permanent slavery (Lev. 25:47-50), fair wages (Deut. 24:14) and equal treatment under the law (Lev. 24:22; Num. 9:14; 15:16, 29).
The resulting conclusion is inescapable. Israel was commanded to create a remarkable society, and one test of its goodness was the way the foreigner, the alien, or the non-Israelite was treated. This land (which belongs to God) would produce a people who were a genuine blessing to their neighbors, who incorporated them into their lives and who invited them into their leadership. (Whose Land? Whose Promise? Page 90).
To show how ethnically integrated ancient Israel was, Rev. Dr. Burge describes how non-Jews served under kings Saul and David’s military leadership.
For instance, in Samuel 4:2-3 we read that two of Saul’s military captains were “Be-or’othites.” This group was a “foreign” or “alien” tribe, a non-Israelite living within Saul’s kingdom.
This integration can be seen in King David’s case by looking at the different men who populated the ranks of his military officers. Second Samuel 23 (also 1 Chron. 11:10-47) lists the core of David’s military organization; three leading “champions” and thirty secondary commanders. In this list, numerous non-Israelites are included from territories conquered by David. … Remarkably, David’s army was thus led by a diversity of men, many of whom were not native Israelites. Using today’s geographical terms, he enlisted men from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey, and they were some of his trusted leaders. David’s generals were fully international. (Whose Land? Whose Promise? pp. 87-88)
Rev. Dr. Burge also describes how foreigners were helped in the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem in Chronicles 22:2 and rejoiced at its completion (page 88).
If Rev. Dr. Burge were to apply scriptures to modern Israel in an honest and consistent manner, he would consider what obligation Palestinian sojourners living in Israel have to the state in which they live. Sojourners in ancient Israel had clear and specific obligations to the rules – which Burge conveniently ignores. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible published by Abingdon Press in 1962 states unequivocally that by placing himself “under the projection of a particular clan or chieftan, or a person, the sojourner assumes responsibilities.” In particular, Sojourners, were required “to show the same fidelity to Yahweh as an Israelite.”
What would this mean in the modern context? At the very least, a sojourner’s “fidelity to Yahweh” would probably require an acknowledgement of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State, a notion which many Israeli-Arabs publicly reject. It might also require service in Israel’s military to defend it against its enemies – just as sojourners fought in the armies of David and Saul. But instead of exploring these issues honestly and factually, Burge writes falsely on page 139 that military service is “off limits” to Israeli Arabs. On the following page, he writes “… Palestinians are restricted from joining [the IDF] (for obvious reasons), and thus a whole network of financial benefits are denied to them.”
As reported previous in a previous analysis of Whose Land? Whose Promise?, Rev. Dr. Burge is quite simply incorrect on this and other points. Apart from the Druze, who are drafted, most of Israel’s Arab citizens (apart from the Druze) are not required to join the IDF, but they may volunteer if they so choose. Non-Druze Arab-Israelis have in fact volunteered and serve with distinction in Israel’s army.
It should also be noted that when Israel’s Arab citizens do serve in the military, they are often targets of abuse and contempt from their fellow Arabs, both in Israel and throughout the Middle East.
For example, on Feb. 22, 1994, the Jerusalem Post reported that Hamas issued a warning to Israeli Arabs to stay out of the IDF units serving in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. (Obviously, there would be no need for such a warning if, as Rev. Dr. Burge asserts, military service was “off limits” to Israeli-Arabs.)
Moreover, in November 1995, Al A-Naim, a 19-year-old Beduin who lived southeast of Nazareth was refused a Muslim funeral after he was killed in an IDF training accident. The Jerusalem Post reported on Nov. 26, 1995:
Religious officials in Yafia and Nazareth refused to bury him “because he was a Zionist.” As a result, A-Naim was given a military burial without any religious officiation. His family filed a complaint with police against religious officials.
The family said the religious authorities in Kafr Yafia refused to hold the funeral after it became known that the coffin would arrive draped in an Israeli flag. They then decided to try to bury him in Nazareth, but said the religious officials would only agree if A-Naim’s body was moved to a non-military coffin without a flag.
In the end, A-Naim was buried at the Nazareth Moslem cemetery according to the Imam’s specifications, but in a military ceremony.
… because of hostility toward them by Muslim neighbors following the death of Taher, a Bedouin, during his IDF service. A committee was formed to find an alternative housing solution for the extended Taher family. A Ha’aretz report revealed two weeks ago that since Taher’s death, his family has been ostracized. During the days of mourning, many Jews, but hardly any Arabs made condolence calls on the family. The Acre mosques refused to announce Taher’s death and to read Koran verses in his memory, with the claim, “We are not the army and we do not announce the death of soldiers,” and the imam of the Al-Jezar mosque, Samir Aasi, refused to conduct the religious funeral service. Additionally, when Taher’s coffin was draped with an Israeli flag, many Muslims left the funeral. All of Taher’s brothers serve in the IDF. … Ahmed Taher, Khalil’s brother, said, “Enough is enough. At weddings no one will stand near us, no one came to comfort us, people ignore us in the street. We want to leave.
Whether Rev. Dr. Burge wants to admit it or not, some Israeli-Arabs do represent a threat to the state in which they live. For example, Israeli-Arabs who serve in the Knesset have lent moral support to groups that have perpetrated suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. Others Israeli-Arabs have spied on Israel and provided targeting information to terrorists in Lebanon. But instead of acknowledging this issue and honestly discussing what Israeli-Arabs owe to the state in which they live under the Biblical codes of conduct, Rev. Dr. Burge portrays Israeli-Arabs as innocent victims of Israeli discrimination who would otherwise be loyal citizens to Israel if it weren’t for Jewish intransigence. For Rev. Dr. Burge, citizenship for Arabs in a Jewish state comes only with rights and no responsibilities, a notion that cannot be sustained in either Biblical notions of nationhood or in any modern understanding of the term. Richard Rubenstein addresses this issue specifically in his book After Auschwitz, in which he writes:
Citizenship is more than the abstract right to participate in elections or to claim equality of opportunity. Citizenship rests on the unconditional obligation of the citizen to risk his or her life in the defense of the community. This is especially true of a small state in which a single military defeat could easily spell the end of the community. Palestinians cannot be faulted for their unwillingness to make a commitment to defend the state of Israel, but neither can the state be faulted for viewing every Palestinian as a potential security threat who would destroy the state of he or she could. Nor is their anything the Israelis could do to alter the texture of loyalties rooted in kinship, culture, and religion which bind the Palestinians to their fellow Arabs. (After Auschwitz page 151, emphasis his.)
Instead of addressing the competing claims to the political loyalties of Israeli-Arabs, Rev. Dr. Burge ignores the issue altogether and portrays discrimination against Israeli Arabs as a consequence of racism. For example, on page 137, under the subtitle “An Exclusivist State,” Rev. Dr. Burge writes:
Imagine if Holland declared that it was a country built exclusively for white, Dutch protestant Christians. Others could live there, but they could not form nationwide political parties, travel freely, receive equal wages, cultivate an independent culture, or have access to the systems of justice and politics like white, Dutch Protestants. We would be outraged. As happened in South Africa, the world would be severe in its judgment.
The true outrage in fact, is Rev. Dr. Burge’s implication that Israel is “exclusively” for Jews. There are Arabs in the Knesset, Arabs in the Cabinet, Arab political parties, Arabs travel freely and have access to Israeli courts, they buy land are allowed control over the curriculum in Arab schools. The Basic Law in Israel “Human Dignity and Liberty” refers to a “Jewish and democratic state.” But there is no official religion of Israel and the State of Israel allows freedom of religion for all religious communities, both in law and in practice. Each religious community is free to exercise its faith, to observe its own holy days and weekly day of rest, and to administer its own internal affairs.
To be sure, there is discrimination against Arabs in Israeli society (as Rubenstein acknowledges). This is no different from any other heterogeneous society, but this problem has long openly discussed in Israel. Both Jews and Arabs inside and outside the Israeli government are working to obtain equal rights for Israeli-Arabs, just as activists in the United States fought for the rights of African Americans during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But instead of acknowledging this, Rev. Dr. Burge insists on portraying Israel as an exclusivist state, without acknowledging that most of the Middle East is effectively Judenrein.
Rev. Dr. Burge’s discussion of the rights of Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is equally dishonest. For example on page 138 he writes:
For many years no nationwide Palestinian political party that includes the Occupied Territories has been permitted into the system, so Arabs hold only a few Knesset seats (merely 7 percent). If I include the populations of the West Bank and [the Gaza Strip] – whose destinies are controlled by decisions made in this government – Palestinians make up 40 percent of Israel/Palestine but barely have a voice in the government. These people in [the Gaza Strip] and the West Bank have never been permitted to vote in Israeli elections.
Dr. Burge is being completely disingenuous when he asserts that Palestinians make up 40 percent of “Israel/Palestine” and then uses this assertion to condemn Israel for not allowing Palestinians to vote in Israeli elections. “Israel/Palestine” is not a country. Non-Israeli Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have no more right to vote in Israeli elections than French citizens have to vote in Italy or Germany or Israelis have to vote in Palestinian elections.
Rev. Dr. Burge also fails to acknowledge that the Palestinians in these territories are not fighting for greater inclusion in Israeli society, but are in fact fighting for the creation of a state of their own – which was offered to them in 2000. Moreover many Palestinian leaders openly call for Israel’s destruction. Instead of addressing this issue in an honest manner, he instead suggests that the Jewish State is obligated to welcome and encourage the political participation of people whose leaders have vowed to destroy it.
To be sure, Palestinian suffering in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is undeniable, but it is largely the consequence of terror attacks by groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Rev. Dr. Burge makes no mention whatsoever of Hamas’s stated goal of destroying Israel, and portrays the founding of the PLO as motivated by a desire to deal with the refugee problem, when in fact, it was founded in 1964 to achieve the destruction of Israel. (For more information about Rev. Dr. Burge’s failure to describe the PLO and Hezbollah accurately, please see CAMERA’s previous analysis of Whose Land? Whose Promise?)
The distortions of reality do not end here. He also mischaracterizes negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians during 2000-2001. On page 53, Rev. Dr. Burge writes:
While the media represented Arafat as walking away from Barak’s generous offers – offers that were never placed in writing – the PLO negotiators found the Israeli proposals impossible to accept. For example, they planned to divide up the Palestinians into four cantons, each separated by Israeli land (the northern West Bank, the Central West Bank, the southern West Bank, and Gaza). The Arabs would not have control over their own water, borders or airspace. Months later, the details of the map used by the Israelis came to light, clearly showing their intentions.
[Ehud] Barak’s government had now formally accepted ideas that would effectively divide east Jerusalem, end the IDF’s presence in the Jordan Valley, and produce a Palestinian State in roughly 97 percent of the West Bank and 100 percent of Gaza. (Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace, page 755).
Rev. Dr. Burge’s claim about “cantons” is also contradicted by Ross, who told Fox News on April 21, 2002 – the calendar year before his book was published – that:
… the Palestinians would have in the West Bank an area that was contiguous. Those who say there were cantons, completely untrue. It was contiguous… And to connect Gaza with the West Bank, there would have been an elevated highway, an elevated railroad, to ensure that there would be not just safe passage for the Palestinians, but free passage. (Fox News, April 21, 2002)
In January 2001, Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan warned Yasir Arafat – who had turned down Barak’s offer at Camp David in 2000 – to embrace the Clinton Parameters, but was unsuccessful: “I hope you remember, sir, what I told you. If we lose this opportunity, it is not going to be a tragedy. This is going to be a crime.” (The New Yorker, March 24, 2003).
Moreover, on page 31, Rev. Dr. Burge offers a fantastic and mythological description of the willingness of the Arab nations in the Middle East to live in peace with Israel. Rev. Dr. Burge writes:
The Arab states surrounding Israel have been consistent in their resistance to Israel’s statehood. They are sympathetic to the Palestinian loss of land and see Israel as one more extension of Western Imperialism in the Middle East. This time, however, French and English Interests are not the problem, but rather Jewish interests backed by American dollars. Therefore while Israel is not a threat, say, to Jordan or Egypt, Israel is viewed as an offense to Arab sensibility and pride. As Israel has conquered and acquired more and more land – creating more and more refugees – Arab states have unified in their opposition.
However, to stereotype these countries as trying to “push Israel into the sea” would be incorrect. Arab belligerence was a luxury of the cold war era when Russian dollars financed Arab armies. Those days are over, and a new generation of Arab leaders sees Israel as a permanent resident in the neighborhood. (Whose Land? Whose Promise? page 31)
The failure of Rev. Dr. Burge to see the role Arab oil money has played in fueling the Arab-Israeli conflict – effe ctively replacing Soviet funding for the conflict – is at the very least emblematic of a profound ignorance of the realities in the region. Rev. Dr. Burge’s assertion that “a new generation of Arab leaders sees Israel as a permanent resident in the neighborhood” however, bespeaks of a willful ignorance of the overall pattern of Arab rejectionism of Israel’s existence. A quotation from the Daniel Pipes essay which Rev. Dr. Burge, as shown in previous CAMERA research, mischaracterized (“Israel’s Moment of Truth,” Commentary, February 2000, available here) while invoking as a useful source is helpful. While Pipes acknowledges that in some quarters, there is interest in making peace with Israel, he adds this is a minority viewpoint of the Arab population in the region and does not represent a shift in government policy toward Israel.
Twenty years of relations between Egypt and Israel since the treaty of 1979 testify bitterly to the same state of affairs. Formally there is peace, but Cairo permits, even sponsors, a vicious propaganda campaign against Israel that includes the crudest forms of anti-Semitism, and it is rapidly building up offensive military forces that could be deployed against the Jewish state. In effect, Egyptian authorities are telling their people, for all sorts of reasons we have to be in contact with Israelis and sign certain pieces of paper, but we still hate them, and you should, too. In Jordan, where the government does not play this double game, things are in some ways worse: the best efforts of two kings have failed to induce in the Jordanian populace a more peaceable and friendly outlook toward Israel.
Another example of Rev. Dr. Burge’s disingenuous portrayal of the Arab-Israeli conflict is his description of events in Bethlehem in 2002. On page 152 Rev. Dr. Burge writes
Today since the conflicts of the so-called “Second Intifada,” Israel has kept large areas of the West Bank under sustained closure. Recently, (July 2002), Bethlehem’s population was under “house arrest” for four straight weeks. The psychological burden this condition places on families is stupefying.
What Rev. Dr. Burge leaves out, however, is that Israeli soldiers returned to the West Bank (after withdrawing from large portions of the area in the 1990s as a result of the Oslo Accords) in response to a series of lethal suicide attacks that killed hundreds of Israelis – which he describes in benign terms – “the conflicts of the so-called ‘Second Intifada.’” One of the worst attacks, which took place at a hotel on March 27, 2000 (Passover), killed 30 Israelis and wounded 140.
Of course, the psychological burden of closures is terrible; so are the attacks that precipitated them. The closures did not take place in a vacuum, but after a transfer of authority to the Palestinian Authority in much of the West Bank, a peace offer at Camp David, the failure of Yasir Araft to make a counter-offer, the beginning of the Second Intifada in September 2000 and yet another failed attempt at peacemaking in Dec. 2000/Jan. 2001 caused by Arafat’s refusal to accept the Clinton Parameters. Any fair commentary on the Arab-Israeli conflict would require a better description of the history that preceded the closure than what Rev. Dr. Burge provides.
At this point it is important to remember the praise heaped on Whose Land? Whose Promise? after its publication. Emblematic of this praise was the blurb written by David Neff, editor of Christianity Today magazine, which gave the book an “award of merit” in 2004.
Christians must love modern Israel the way Isaiah and Amos loved their people and their land, passionately arguing for national righteousness and weeping over injustice and moral decay. Whose Land? Whose Promise? is an excellent introduction to the complications of geography, history, and geopolitics that have wounded and weakened both Israelis and Palestinians. But above all this book challenges us to love—and to love concretely.
Love? If Whose Land? Whose Promise? is an expression of Christian “love” for modern Israel, one can only fearfully wonder what Christian enmity toward Israel would look like.