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 a 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 on a 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, and others 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 whole 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 resurrect a third temple in the place of the Dome of the Rock mosque 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 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 them. 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.
If Jewish people consider Israel their homeland, it’s not just because of deals made by the powers that be 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; 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 land beyond the borders of Israel, and no evidence that the modern state of Israel has any 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. It’s true that there is racism, as there is in every country, but minorities in the state of Israel are flourishing none the less.
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. 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, Jewish people have been saying these prayers, morning noon and night. The longing to return to Israel and restore Jerusalem 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 those promises 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, and I even met religious Jewish men agreeing that the Bible was their least favourite book, and indicating that they were not alone in this. But even on an atheist kibbutz the Passover Haggadah (order of service) contains many Bible passages about leaving Egypt and coming to Israel. There is 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. It’s the story of the journey to the Promised Land, the story of the pain of exile, their stories, and their promises.
You cannot ban Jewish people from considering Israel their homeland, and Jerusalem as the center of Judaism. In the Jewish holidays and rituals these concepts appear again and again, in the 18 blessings that religious Jews pray three times a day, and also in every Jewish wedding is the promise never to forget Jerusalem, and to consider it their highest joy, from 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 one we know of 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 must be 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 centre 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 centre 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 that 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)
This article originally appeared on One for Israel and is reposted with permission.