Benjamin Netanyahu was given a prize for his “commitment to western alliances” by the neoconservative Hudson Institute last Thursday night. And in that New York crowd, at the Plaza Hotel, there was a lot of talk about God. Enough to make an evangelical Christian swoon. Listen up:
Netanyahu was introduced by Kenneth Weinstein, the CEO of the Hudson Institute and a Harvard-trained political theorist. (Partial transcript here.) But Weinstein described his love of Israel in religious terms:
As a Jew I am always proud to travel to the state of Israel. A strong and flourishing Israel which our ancestors dreamed of for two millennia is the greatest miracle of our lifetime, bar none.
Later, interviewing Netanyahu, the financier Roger Hertog, who chairs a religious organization, said that Israel is a miracle, and posited that God had a hand in its creation:
I have a personal … So for almost 3,000 years, Jews have prayed to God for the reestablishment of Zion and Jerusalem, yet Israel was established largely when men and women who were uncertain about God. What role do you see God playing in the miracle, in the creation of the Jewish state?
Netanyahu played ball, Godwise. He responded not by saying that states are dreamed up by political people and then established by political communities, but that God did have a role.
Well, evidently a very good one because we’ve beaten the odds. Now, if you want me to question God, you know, based on experience I could be stricken down….[He goes on to laud Jewish intellectual achievement as a basis for Israel.] I think it also is grounded in deep faith. So our feet are planted in the soil and we came back to our ancient land, and at the same time, you know, the branches go up and up and up, and I think it’s this unique combination of faith and reason that has made the Jewish people so remarkable and the Jewish state so successful. And God is watching over us as we speak.
Netanyahu goes on to say that his son placed third in an international bible competition. That’s the way Islamists and Christian fundamentalists speak, right?
When people try to explain the Jewish support for Israel on the part of its American political advocates, they tend to do so in materialist terms. Money, power, guns. What they overlook is religious devotion. These Zionists are animated by religious faith to some larger or lesser degree. They may claim to be secularists, but they are not; they have a belief system based on faith, on untouchable evidence, that Israel is a miracle. Hudson Institute has a decidedly secular mission; but when these Jewish neocons get in front of a mike and a big audience, they start talking about miracles!
That faith animates even many liberal Zionists, for whom Israel’s creation was the fulfilment of God’s promise to a chosen people. Like political philosopher Michael Walzer:
[Jewish political tradition’s] point of departure is always the Hebrew bible…. [Its] big issues [are] election or ‘chosenness’, the holiness of the Land of Israel, the experience of exile, and the hope for redemption….That tradition begins with God’s authority, with divine rule and divine revelations. Exactly how much room there is for human authority and decision making is always a question.
This helps explain the power of the Israel lobby: religious fervor. It is why virtually almost every synagogue supports Israel and flies its flag, and why support for Israel is strongest among the most religious. You might say, That’s not Judaism. That these religious people are consecrating an exclusive ethnic community, and that Judaism is a more universalist ethos than that. So yes, all religious traditions need to be reinterpreted (and they are possibly all unfit for modern world); but religions speak to people’s need for meaning, even intolerant people can have religion; and ethnic supremacy is a big part of Israel supporters’ religious understanding.