Is Israel Special?

There is an interesting motivation in some Christians' support for Israel, namely that the land (or some apparently arbitrary part of the land) it covers belongs to the Jews by divine covenant. Unfortunately, this view is untenable. For after the Incarnation there is absolutely no difference in the status of the Jews and Gentiles in the eyes of God. With respect to personal salvation, there was never a difference; all men have been judged by the same standards since the dawn of human history, e.g.,
All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) (Rom 2:12-16).
It should be obvious that the main purpose of God's choosing Israel was to prepare the ground for the coming of Christ and for the emergence of the Christian church. Now that Israel and the Jews have served their purpose, they are no longer any different from any other country or ethnic group. They are not more favored by God, nor higher in status, nor specially protected. The old covenant with them, including God's promise that "I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse." (Gen 12:3), is null and void; or, to be more precise, it was both qualitatively "upgraded" and extended to the entire (Christian) world. Their special service is finished, has been finished for 2,000 years; my advice: relax, guys.

Then there is the idea, deduced from certain Biblical passages, that the state of Israel must play a role in the Second Coming. While this doctrine has been criticized often enough, the notion of Second Coming is highly problematic in itself. The questions abound. Christ will come again to this earth and rule for a thousand years? Will this be a temporal kingdom? What kind of government will we have? What sort of system of production will Christ institute? And what will happen after the thousand years have passed? Why must the last generation be arbitrarily privileged to see Christ and to enjoy "good government," when every other generation died naturally? How would living on earth then be better than being in heaven? And whatever happened to "My kingdom is not of this world" (Jn 18:36)?

Even more exasperating is the interpretation of this event as a Judgment Day. Will the entire world with stars and planets and trees and tables and chairs suddenly disappear? Will every human being alive at that moment in time, including unborn children still in their mothers' wombs, die suddenly of a heart attack? According to the Catechism, "Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven through a purification or immediately, or immediate and everlasting damnation." There is a tension here between this teaching and the idea of the Last Judgment. Unless we admit reincarnation, such that there are immediate judgments after each death and the last comprehensive judgment at the end of the world, what will there be left to judge?

And don't even mention the ridiculous "rapture" theory of the Left Behind books and movies. These people are so afraid of death that they think that they will be assumed into heaven before they die. To imagine themselves exempt from the fate that has descended upon every creature on the face of the earth that ever lived who do these people think they are? And to spend one's life watching for signs and portents of the Apocalypse what a dreary existence that must be! But enough of this nonsense; I won't spend a second more on it. Even if the doctrine is correct, it is clear that the particulars of the Second Coming, as they have been imagined so far, are hard to take seriously. Consequently, absent some very clever theological speculation about this matter (an unrewarding task, to be sure), trying to "help God" to bring about the end of the world seems extremely imprudent.

Then there is the strange view that the Israeli citizens are morally superior to the people who make up the nations around it and allegedly "threaten" it. Yes, Jews have a higher than average IQ; everyone knows that. And, apparently, Israel is some kind of a democracy, whereas its neighbors are "brutal dictatorships." Both parts of this statement are exaggerations. But by themselves, higher intelligence and a procedure for slightly changing the make-up of the class of social managers every so often cannot be grounds for attributing moral, of all things, greatness to anyone. And the political limitations on the power of the government of themselves say nothing about how good the people are (though I do not deny that there is a connection). In addition, I highly suspect that a major cause of Israel's unpopularity in the region is due to the perceived tight link between it and the US which is even less popular for obvious reasons. I think that the greatest favor the US Christian supporters of Israel can do for that country is to leave it alone and to get the government to leave it alone. Just let Israel fend for itself and solve its own problems. Enough with the welfare already.

Connected with this is the idea that Jews have singularly suffered during World War II and therefore possess some kind of moral authority, have deep insight into life, or have a holy mission to secure themselves from danger. Of course, this is nonsense. Death in a gas chamber is unpleasant, but so is death from cancer. As John Stuart Mill writes, for example, "Nature impales men, breaks them as if on the wheel, casts them to be devoured by wild beasts, burns them to death, crushes them with stones like the first christian martyr, starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold, poisons them by the quick or slow venom of her exhalations, and has hundreds of other hideous deaths in reserve, such as the ingenious cruelty of a Nabis or a Domitian never surpassed." Thus, first, all people in this life suffer and die, including through unjust acts perpetrated by others. No one is excepted. Second, the 20th century was cruel to all mankind, not just the Jews (note also the millions of deaths from the socialist famines, though the death toll as such does not even begin to exhaust the worldwide misery created by bad ideologies). Third, they were hardly the only ethnic group singled out for persecution. Fourth, suffering does not automatically result in spiritual growth; it is one's response to suffering and the overcoming of it, that defines and determines the worth of a person. And finally, the Jews alive today have not been mistreated, which means, once more, that they are just another nation.

Finally, some are emotionally attached to Israel because they imagine it as a second America, perhaps its 51st state. Given the ongoing globalization and integration of the world into a single market, though still hampered considerably by states, such favoritism and the nationalism that feeds it seem like a relic from the nightmare of the previous century. Maybe, like the ancient Israelites, we need to endure 40 years of blind blundering before the new and less corrupt generation takes over.

I fully agree, however, that one of the few things that unite American Jews is their sense of victimhood. Even my own grandmother, who is a saint, as far as I am concerned, cannot help talking about "us" and "them." But, in fact, Jews in the US are in no danger whatsoever. If they stopped complaining, Gentile Americans, if not perpetually accused of harboring ill-feelings towards the Jews, might come to like and admire them even more than they do now. The most absurd consequence of the present fervor over Israel, indeed, is that an accusation of "anti-Semitism" can and does ruin people's careers. I don't understand why Jews would want to be used in this wicked game. To put it plainly, then, this group, like any other ethnicity, religion, business, or association, everywhere must neither be hampered by the state nor privileged by it in any legal sense whatsoever. They (again, like everyone else) should have, as Murray Rothbard put it, "universal rights, locally enforced" as neither masters nor slaves but as free men and women.

In sum, Israel is just another small country of whose doings, I say, it is undignified even to be aware. And the best policy toward it is expressed in one of Thomas Jefferson's teachings: "Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations entangling alliances with none."

September 29, 2006

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