Christian-Right Zionism

Dec 16, 2002 11:07 AM EST

The watershed moment came last spring. On May 2, a half-page ad in The New York Times presented a pro-Israel opinion article by Ralph Reed Jr., onetime organizational wizard of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition -- paid for by the Anti-Defamation League. The juxtaposition was breathtaking. Back in 1994, a blistering report by the ADL, a Jewish watchdog group, criticized Reed as the brains behind the Christian Coalition's stealth tactics. Now the ADL logo appeared below Reed's name like the rabbinic seal of approval on kosher food.

Israel has intoxicated Christian fundamentalists since the day it was established. In their eyes, the Jewish state provides real-world proof that their reading of Biblical prophecies is correct -- and that the world is racing toward the Second Coming. Israeli rightists have encouraged conservative evangelicals like Jerry Falwell and Robertson to translate that fascination into active backing for hardline Israeli positions.

But given the Christian Right's domestic agenda, the relationship has made many U.S. Jews uneasy. The 1994 report, ''The Religious Right: The Assault on Tolerance and Pluralism in America,'' excoriated Robertson for treating Jews as ''spiritual pawns'' who would bring on the end and then be converted to Christianity.

This year, for the first time, much of the American Jewish mainstream accepted, even celebrated, the Christian Right's professed love for Israel. In April, evangelicals joined Jews in the rally for Israel in Washington, with the Christian talk-radio host Janet Parshall giving what some say was the most hawkish address of the day. ''We will never give up the Golan,'' she proclaimed. (''We''?) ''We will never divide Jerusalem.'' The next week, the born-again House Republican whip Tom DeLay was the star of the annual meeting of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group, with a speech in which he rejected any U.S. pressure on Israel. Then came the official imprimatur of the ADL ad.

Why the reversal? Two years of Palestinian-Israeli conflict have left many American Jews feeling vicariously isolated, grateful for support from any quarter. Meanwhile, activists like Reed have learned to stress secular reasons (Israel is a democracy, a reliable ally) for their position.

Yet it's still a romance with strange undertones. The Christian Right clergy continues to cite Israel as the clearest proof that the end is nigh -- and continues to express the expectation that Jews will then die or convert. A centerpiece of the Christian Coalition's convention in Washington in October was a rally for Israel, with right-wing Israeli pols as the drawing card. DeLay reportedly told the crowd to support candidates who ''stand unashamedly with Jesus Christ.'' Joe Lieberman, presumably, need not apply.

By Gershom Gorenberg