Great is the Lord, and most worthy of praise,
in the city of our God, His holy mountain.
Beautiful in its loftiness,
the joy of the whole earth,
like the heights of Zaphon is Mount Zion,
the city of the Great King. (Psalm 48:1-2)
How did the word Zion become so sullied? The Psalms talk of Zion in glorious terms, but today it has some very different connotations. Many people who are angry with the state of Israel insist that they are not anti-Semitic, but that their gripe is with Zionism.
We are warned not to conflate Judaism with Zionism, and are assured that they are completely different. We are told that one can hate Zionism without being in any way anti-Semitic. Some even see Zionism as being on par with Nazi ideology – violent, racist, bent on colonialism and an ever-expanding empire. However, this way of thinking is riddled with mistakes. Here are a few of them.
Judaism is not what you think it is
It is often said that wherever you have two Jewish people, you will have three different opinions. Certainly not all Jewish people adhere to the same “Judaism” as if it were a simple and singular thing. Broadly speaking, to be Jewish is a matter of birth more than belief. There are many atheist Jews, hippy Jews, Buddhist Jews, Messianic Jews who follow Yeshua, Jews who think the Messiah was from Brooklyn and Jews who think there is no Messiah.
There are kibbutznik Jews who prefer to leave God out of the picture, Jews who are into New Age practices and even witchcraft, as well as religious Jews of all kinds and varieties – Orthodox and Reform, Ashkenazi and Sephardic — with beliefs, superstitions and cultures as diverse as the nations among which they were scattered.
Some Jewish people in other countries couldn’t care less about the Promised Land, and may feel distinctly uncomfortable about the Middle East conflict. Some campaign on behalf of Palestinian rights, while others are love-blind in their passion for Israel and see none of its shortcomings at all. Some Orthodox Jews think that the modern state of Israel is an abomination, while others are actively planning how to erect a third temple in the place of the Dome of the Rock the minute it falls. And there are many shades in between all these extremes. So let’s bear that in mind, first and foremost.
People of the Book
However, there are a few things that unite Jewish people. First and foremost is their ancestry, and the God-ordained way that they became a people, starting with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Then there is Jewish tradition that has developed – Jewish wedding traditions, liturgy and prayers said at Jewish feasts, and so on. These are all pretty much across the board. And, of course, there’s the Bible itself, their history book as a people.
We have so much archeological evidence now that points to the veracity of the biblical accounts of Israel’s history that it is becoming harder and harder to dismiss it as a book of fairy tales. There really was a King David – we have found his house with verifying seals. Hebrew script has been found on many ancient items in the land right back to King David’s time, testifying to Jewish presence in Zion, the City of David, and the whole land of Israel. There really was a temple – many of the original stones are still there to be seen today. The Jews really did go to Babylon and come back – the original decree of King Cyrus permitting the Jews to return and rebuild Jerusalem from 539 BC can be viewed in the British Museum in London.
The Bible is full not only of Jewish history, but also of promises, covenants – layer upon layer of them – that the Land of Israel was promised to the Jewish people (though not exclusively – the Bible also promises an inheritance in the land will be allotted to other peoples living among the tribes of Israel in Ezekiel 47:23: “They will be to you like the native-born of sons of Israel”). Yes, there were punishing exiles, but Scripture is quite adamant that an eventual and permanent return of the Jews to the land would happen. Not because of Israel’s faithfulness, but because God is faithful to His promises. It belongs, ultimately, to God.
If Jewish people consider Israel their homeland, it’s not just because of deals made by the world’s most powerful nations in the early twentieth century – it’s a longstanding matter within Judaism and inscribed in the Jewish Scriptures, in covenants made personally with all of their patriarchs; with Abraham, with Isaac, with Jacob.
When Jewish people yearn for the Holy City and wish each year that their next Passover meal will be in Jerusalem, this is Judaism. This love of Zion, and belief that it is the home of the people of Israel, is straight out of the Bible.
Colonial, racist and violent?
Conspiracy theorists concerned about a “Zionist takeover of the Middle East” can relax. There is no mandate in the Bible for a vast Middle Eastern empire, and the modern state of Israel has no desire for land in the surrounding area. Expansionist and world domination enterprises are more the domain of Islam than Judaism. Similarly, Israel is far more tolerant of different religions, backgrounds and lifestyles than most of her neighbors. One in every five Israelis are Arab. It’s true that there is racism, as there is in every country, but minorities in the state of Israel are flourishing in every level of society.
Far from being colonial, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, the reestablishment of Israel was actually anti-colonial, taking land back from the Turks after their 400 year long occupation and giving it to the original inhabitants – the people of Israel who have returned from all over the world. It was because of great persecution in Europe with the Holocaust, Eastern Europe with the pogroms, and expulsions from the Arab world that Jewish people were forced to flee and find refuge in the land of their fathers. There has been much war and violence, but Israel has been forced to fight for its very survival in a rough part of the world that does not want a Jewish state. Contrary to popular assumption, over half of the Jews in Israel have come from Middle Eastern backgrounds rather than Western countries, and they cannot go back.
The people of Israel are bound up with the land of Israel
The Jewish religion has a standard set of prayers (to replace the morning, noon and evening sacrifices prescribed in the Torah) which they have been praying morning, noon and night for two thousand years. They are called the “18 Blessings” or the “Amida”, which means standing, because the prayers must be said standing — standing and facing Jerusalem.
Blessing number 10 reads:
“Sound the great shofar for our freedom and raise a banner to gather our exiles and unite us together from the four corners of the earth. Blessed are You, LORD, who regathers the scattered of His people Israel.”
Blessing 14 says,
“Return in compassion to Your city, Jerusalem, and rest within it as You have said. Rebuild it speedily, and in our days, a structure forever. And may You establish the throne of David within Jerusalem speedily. Blessed are You, Lord, the Builder of Jerusalem.”
Since the time of the destruction of the second temple in 70 AD, Jewish people have been saying these prayers three times a day, every day. The longing to return to Israel and restore Jerusalem is not new, and it is inextricable from Judaism. You could abandon it, of course, but you would also need to throw out the Bible, the backbone of Judaism itself. Even if you don’t believe that the promises to the Jewish people still count for today, you can see that the Bible, along with its connection between the people of Israel and the land of Israel, is pretty foundational to the Jewish religion.
However, it is also a reality that many Jewish people would love to throw out the Bible – some religious Jews consider it too complex to study and so stick with the trusty Talmud and rabbinic writings to interpret it for them instead. Others find it distasteful and barbaric. I even met religious Jewish men who told me the Bible was their least favorite book and indicated that they were not alone in this opinion.
But even on an atheist kibbutz the Passover Haggadah (order of service) contains many Bible passages about leaving Egypt and coming to Israel. Israel has a national Bible quiz, and the Prime Minister leads Bible studies for those in government who are interested to attend. It might not be an easy relationship, but the Bible cannot be extracted from Judaism any more than baseball from American culture, or tea from the Brits. Maybe not everyone is a die hard fan, but it’s just integral.
There’s no getting away from it. The Bible is focused throughout upon the people of Israel and the land of Israel. From Israel’s creation as a people, to their journey to the Promised Land, to their painful exile, to the coming of their Redeemer King, and to their final regathering to the land of Israel before their King returns, the Bible is full of their stories and their promises.
You simply cannot ban Jewish people from considering Israel their homeland, and Jerusalem as the center of Judaism.
The connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel is expressed again and again in Jewish holidays and rituals. It is proclaimed in the 18 blessings that religious Jews pray three times a day. And in every Jewish wedding, the couple and their guests are reminded to never forget Jerusalem and to consider it their highest joy according to the words of Psalm 137. All sounds a bit Zionist to me.
Time to be honest
Each religion, if we’re honest, has intentions that sound a bit alarming to others.
Disciples of Jesus would love to see the entire world following the Messiah. They (we) are determined to get the message absolutely everywhere, to everything that breathes, and are quite systematic about making sure that this is done. Not by compulsion, but by giving everyone the option to receive the forgiveness and new life that the Messiah bought for them. It is a command from the One we follow. This doesn’t greatly please people who don’t know and love Yeshua – it sounds very colonial and pushy. But we rejoice with heaven with each and every person we know who turns their life over to Yeshua and decides to follow Him.
Similarly, Muslims would (or should, if they follow Islam) want to see the whole world under Sharia Law, following the teachings of Muhammad. Muslims seek to see every country that had once been under Islam reclaimed as soon as possible (including Israel, Spain, and other countries that are no longer Muslim) as part of the Caliphate with Jerusalem as its capital. That’s the plan. And just as Christians take the Great Commission seriously, so there are practical plans in place to accomplish this goal.
And Jewish people would (or should) want to see the people of Israel back in the land of Israel, with a center of worship in Jerusalem as promised in the Bible, following the God of Israel. Obviously, not everyone is going to get everything they want here, but wanting Jewish people to stop caring about Zion is basically asking Jewish people to let go of Judaism.
Failing to see God’s passionate heart for Zion, His choice of that city in particular, and His plans for the future is letting go of trust in the Word of God. It is the center of much pain and controversy in our days, but we have not yet reached the end of God’s glorious story, or His dealings with His chosen people. There’s nothing wrong with criticising Israel’s government, and sometimes it is the right thing to do, but bear in mind we haven’t finished the story yet. Redemption will come to Zion, and God’s glory will flow from the City of the Great King. It is not a mistake that the Jewish people are back in the land of Israel. It’s all part of God’s plan in progress to bless not just Israel, but the whole world.
“Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When God restores his people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!” (Psalm 53:6)