James Skillen

Center for Public Justice
Israel, The United States, and Zionism

James W. Skillen serves as president of the Center for Public Justice, an organization he has directed since 1981. A graduate of Wheaton College, Westminster Theological Seminary and Duke University (Ph.D., 1974), he is an experienced teacher, scholar, writer and speaker. His most recent books are With or Against the World? America's Role Among the Nations (2005) and In Pursuit of Justice: Christian-Democratic Explorations (2004), both published by Rowan and Littlefield. He edits the Center's biweekly Capital Commentary and its quarterly (online) Public Justice Report.

Israel, The United States, and Zionism

Earlier this year, University of Chicago professor John J. Mearsheimer and Harvard University Kennedy School professor Stephen M. Walt had the audacity to publish an essay questioning the excessive influence of the Israel Lobby on American foreign policy. The essay, posted in full on the Web site of the Kennedy School of Government and condensed in the London Review of Books (March 23, 2006), is essentially a realist critique of current American policy. The authors contend that America's national interests are disadvantaged and even threatened by the way we have let Israel's interests limit or define our own. The primary reason for this situation, they explain in detail, is the powerful Israel Lobby in the United States.    

Publication of the essay caused a storm of protest from almost every major media source and from many academic quarters. There were attempts to smear the reputations of the two authors and to suggest that they had ulterior motives in writing the essay. But why? What gives the Israel Lobby and its supporting network of scholars and journalists its power in a country where the percentage of Jews is so remarkably small?

The controversy over the Mearsheimer-Walt essay is one of many that could be cited to raise the question about the contemporary relationship of the United States and Israel. While I do not intend to discuss that controversy or to evaluate the influence of the Israel lobby, I want to probe beneath the surface to highlight a dynamic in the U.S.-Israel relationship that is extremely important today, namely, the interdependence of three varieties of Zionism. Three different Zionisms, I will argue, function as religiously deep ideologies or control beliefs constitutive of the identity of the United States and the modern state of Israel. The strength of these religious-political convictions is far greater than that of the typical interest-driven commitments of lobbyists who seek economic, political, or military benefits for their country as a result of their lobbying efforts. And given the current dynamics of world politics, America's relationship to Israel, shaped by these Zionisms, is likely to exercise an exceedingly great constraint on America's role in the world.

Three Zionisms
The first and earliest of the three modern forms of  Zionism is that of America's identification of itself as God's new Israel. American new-Israelitism has its roots in the Puritan settlement of New England and was eventually adopted around the time of the American Revolution as part of the dominant ideology of the young nation as a whole. It is a crucial source of the idea of American exceptionalism--the United States as God's lead nation in history, destined to lead the way to democracy, freedom, and prosperity for the whole world.    

A second form of modern Zionism is the one that arose among European Jews in the nineteenth century, led by Theodor Herzl, a journalist and playwright in Vienna, whose Der Judenstaat ("The Jewish State: An Attempt at a Modern Solution of the Jewish Question") was published in 1896. The journey from Herzl to the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948 and on to the events of today is familiar to many Americans from news reporting, novels, and movies. There is more behind Israeli politics and foreign policy today than Zionism, of course, but the influence of Zionism in defining and directing Israel from its founding through to today is immense.

The third mode of Zionism is Christian Zionism, which is almost exclusively an American phenomenon. It also arose in the nineteenth century and exploded with zeal and expanding influence after the founding of the state of Israel. While different in many respects from Jewish Zionism, it feeds directly into the latter because of the way it interprets the Bible as prophesying a return of Jews to Israel as one of the last developments in history before Christ returns to earth to bring history to its close. Christian Zionism is heavily dependent on American dispensational theology, which induces dispensational Christians to feel a deep sense of political-religious solidarity with Jewish Zionists and the state of Israel. Perhaps most significant for politics and foreign policy is the way Christian Zionists link all three Zionisms in their understanding of the connection between God's mission for America and God's drawing of Jews back to the promised land to form the state of Israel. Christian Zionist, Michael D. Evans, for example, in his The American Prophecies (New York: Warner Faith, 2004), writes of the divinely ordained action of American presidents who prepared the way for the founding of the state of Israel. Once Israel was founded, America's own new-Israelite calling gained a sharpened focus, namely, to be the protector of the new Jewish state above all else. God's admonition to the United States, according to Evans, is this: "If you abandon Israel, God will never forgive you." The United States is thus specially implicated in God's blessing/curse to Abraham: "I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse."

All three Zionisms reach back to the earliest biblical texts that tell of God's election of ancient Israel as his chosen people, giving them the promised land. Then, depending on their interpretations of the Bible, the three Zionisms morph into variant types of new-Israelitism. All three present themselves as broad historical, political-religious metanarratives. And Christian Zionism in particular offers a vision of the eschatological climax of history, prophesied as the outcome, in part, of God's world-historical purposes for the states of Israel and the United States.

Critical Interpretation
The aim of my paper will be not only to describe these three variants of Zionism but to show how potent they are in influencing U.S. foreign policy today. I will also try to show, from a different Christian point of view, how the three Zionisms misinterpret the Bible and lead to the advocacy of foreign and defense policies that can be highly unjust. My point of view is that of a biblical-historical Christianity that identifies God's new Israel as those who live by faith in the God who is fulfilling his covenant promises to Abraham, Israel, and the nations through the messianic work of Jesus Christ. No modern state, from this point of view, may legitimately lay claim to the identity of God's new Israel. And all states are equally obligated to uphold justice for all; none may justifiably claim a right to act unjustly because it is God's chosen nation.

The literature, the history, the religious visions, and the politics encompassed by these three Zionisms are vast, and even a sizable book could not do justice to the topic. My paper, therefore, will aim only to provide an introduction to the political-religious issues at stake. It will try to open the door to an unusual arena in which the intersection of religious conviction, political ideology, and public action is seldom given the critical attention it requires. 

© Copyright 2007. All rights reserved. Center for Christian Studies at Gordon College.


1. Colin Chapman, Whose Promised Land? (Baker Books, 2002)
2. Marc Ellis, Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation, 3rd ed. (Baylor University Press, 2004)
3. Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972)
4. Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism (Inter-Varsity Press, U.K., 2004)
5. James W. Skillen, With or Against the World? America's Role Among the Nations (Rowman and Littlefield, 2005)