How should we approach Israel’s ongoing conflicts from a historical perspective? Dr. A.J. Nolte, chair of the Government Graduate Program and director of the International Development M.A. Program at Regent University, sat down to discuss this and more on “Washington Watch with Tony Perkins” on October 19.
TONY PERKINS: Many of us know our Old Testament history. God gave the land to Israel, but [we know] less about the 20th century history of Israel and the actions and decisions that brought us to that point. Help us understand the more modern history of Israel, the Palestinian Mandate, and how we arrived [here].
A.J. NOLTE: Okay, very good. And I will try to be as succinct here as possible. There’s a lot of history, and it can get dense, but I do want to start, actually, with a brief dip into the 19th century, because one of the terms that you’ll often hear thrown around in this discussion of modern Israel is “Zionism.” And especially with the U.N. often talking, and some of the Palestinian activists talking, about Zionism as racism. I think we need to quickly define that, because it’s hard to understand the story of Israel without it. So Zionism, at its core, is the idea that the Jewish people ought to have their own nation state. So it is a subspecies of nationalism. That aspect is true, but it’s a nationalism that is, I would say, in many ways kind of civically oriented. And … it is trying to answer the question of “What does it mean to be a Jew in the modern world?” And this question is actually first prompted — not by pogroms and not by the ghetto — but by the fact that Jews in Europe were emancipated, that they’re given their full civil rights in many European countries.
But this then leads to the question for a lot of Jews, “Okay, so we’ve been, a people that were apart in a largely Christian context. But now that we have secularism, now that we have nationalism, what does it mean to be a Jew? Do we assimilate, or do we seek for our own national identity as all these other groups — the Italians, the Germans, the French are seeking for their own self-determination? Is that a path that we should go down?” And so Zionism is the answer that takes that second option. And so, Theodor Herzl, of course, is one of the thinkers who’s the most integral into that. There’s also another thinker, [Leon] Pinsker, and he argues for what he calls auto-emancipation. This is really important in understanding Israel. Pinsker’s idea is, regardless of what anybody else does, no one will free the Jews except for the Jews. We must emancipate ourselves. And so it’s a real sort of self-determination, self-reliance idea. And that is fundamental as well to Zionism. So we ought to have our own nation, our own state, and it’s something that we ought to build ourselves.
PERKINS: Along the way, though, they had the support of Christians in this idea of Zionism, did they not?
NOLTE: Yes, they did. And particularly, I would say, Christians in the Anglo-American world, Anglo-American Christianity — in particular, Protestantism, but the Catholics have kind of come alongside this as well — have always had a very strong emphasis on the Bible. Have always taken the Bible seriously, and have always taken the Old Testament seriously, even going back to the Puritans. And so it’s not surprising that some of the earliest — what we would now call today, sort of anachronistically, but not entirely — “Christian Zionists” come from the Anglo-American tradition.
One book I would recommend to your readers is “Power, Faith, and Fantasy: A History of the U.S. and the Middle East” by Michael Oren. And Oren talks about how some of the first American missionaries, Levi Parsons is one, who are going into the Middle East, are going in with the idea that it is God’s will that there should be a Jewish state restored in what is then Ottoman Palestine. Keep in mind this is the 1820s. So for you theology and history nerds, that is before John Nelson Darby and Premillennial dispensationalism, and that is before the Scofield Study Bible. So this isn’t just an end times thing. This is something that is deeply within the DNA of American Christianity, going back as far as the 1820s.
PERKINS: It’s just in alignment with God’s word. I mean, we see God’s promises for these people, and we come in alignment with God’s promises, is it not?
NOLTE: Yes. And so, that’s the argument from a theological perspective. And one of the people who I’ve heard make this very eloquently is Father Gerald McDermott, who is an Anglican priest. And he says, “Show me in the New Testament where the promise of the land is abrogated” — in other words, where the promise of the land is taken away. And the answer that people have is: you can’t unless you’re going to sort of stretch and twist Scripture outside of its original meaning. And so, that is the theological justification. So both in Britain through the Anglican Church, through the Church Mission to the Jews, or CMJ, through many passionate evangelicals in England and in the United States, there’s a strong reservoir of Christian support for what ends up becoming a Zionist project. In fact, I’ll give you one quick anecdote and then we can move on to the 20th century. But Benjamin Netanyahu, in his memoir, talks about how when Theodor Herzl was dying, at his bedside was an Anglican priest who was committed to this Zionist project. And actually Netanyahu’s book, when he talks about Christians, he really gets this, and he really understands this history in a way that oftentimes people don’t.
PERKINS: Even the Christians today, many in the church today, don’t understand this history and its alignment with Scripture. But they’ve listened too much to the critics on the Left thinking this is just some kind of radical sect within the evangelical movement.
NOLTE: Yes, absolutely. And it’s not.
PERKINS: So bring us up to what we see unfolding today.
NOLTE: So briefly, you start seeing immigration as far back as the 1880s. Of course, there’s always a Jewish population in that area of what is today the modern nation state of Israel — what, at the time, is Ottoman Palestine. But there’s always been a Jewish population there. And you see some Zionist immigration. Then, of course, after World War II, it falls into the British Mandate. And during the British Mandate, there’s the Balfour Declaration, which is a declaration made by Lord Balfour that the Jews ought to have their own state within the land of what is then Ottoman Palestine. Now, one of the problems that you have with the British Mandate is the British somewhat promised the land to different British officials — promised different chunks of the land to different people at the same time. And so I would say the British never really had a coherent policy for what they were going to do with the mandate. But then, of course, you have the second major event that is formative and foundational for modern Jewish identity: the first was the emancipation, which led to Zionism; the second was the Holocaust. And … we all know what the Holocaust did in raw terms, you know, six million Jews exterminated for the crime of their ethnic descent — which is no crime at all. But this is the reason why they’re killed.
And so the Holocaust does a couple of really important things. One, it creates as a moral imperative [for] the idea that the Jewish state must be created now on the international sphere. Harry Truman, of course, a devout Baptist, the American president at the time [and] a Democrat, I would note as well … is very passionate about this idea and supports it as one of the first world leaders. Second, for Jews and for Israel themselves, Zionism becomes not just a like, “How do we deal with the challenges of modernity?” It becomes an existential necessity. The impact of the Holocaust and Zionism [says], we must have a place where this can never happen to us again, where we will be protected from the possibility that anyone will ever try to exterminate us as a people. And so that is what Israel becomes. It becomes, in essence, a lifeboat, a place where any Jew, no matter how bad their circumstances in the other countries of the world that they’re living in, has a place where they can go. And so, that idea is fundamental to Israel. Whenever Israel is talking about security, there’s a possibility that we flip a switch and it becomes an existential issue where it becomes an existential threat. And … you’ve got a nation that, at their foundation, there is the Holocaust and the trauma that’s associated with that. And so that creates a resolve that anything that becomes an existential threat, Israel cannot rest and must be united in removing that threat.
PERKINS: And so, with the British or the Palestine Mandate, the British having control, they were reluctant to actually pull the trigger on anything. And so we come back to 1948, and it was that auto-emancipation that really triggers in because Israel took the initiative.
NOLTE: Absolutely. So you have the U.N. resolution that creates two states. Israel accepts it. And I forget which Israeli founder, but one of them said, “You know, I would accept an Israel the size of a tablecloth.” And so, they accept the mandate, even though it’s not advantageous to them. The Arab states reject it, and they reject it because they’ve … got their own nationalist idea. And this is the idea of Arab nationalism. Very briefly, Arab nationalism is the idea that all the Arabs of the Middle East ought to be united into one nation. But what is different about Arab nationalism is that there’s kind of an ethno-supremacism that is, I would argue, kind of intrinsic in Arab nationalism. In other words, it’s not just Jewish identity that they’re objecting to. It’s Kurdish identity. It’s the identity of other ethnic and religious minorities that is being squashed by Arab nationalism, because they can only support this one ethnic identity. And so, the Arabs automatically, you know, for nationalist reasons, in many ways reject the creation of the Jewish state. And so the message that all of the Arab states decide [is], “Okay, we’re going to all work together and try to wipe out this new Jewish state.” And what they tell a lot of the Arabs in the territory is, “We’re going to go in, and we’re going to crush this, and we’re going to put an end to this Jewish state. So we want you to leave. And then once we’re done crushing Israel, then you can come back.” And then, of course, they lose the war.
And just to give your listeners an understanding here what I mean by when they lose the war, the Arab armies were better trained. They were better armed. They were often Western trained. They were often advised by Western officers, many of them German. Their equipment was often British. You have a very ragtag group of folks that are unevenly armed defending Israel, many of whom are armed with surplus AK-47s that they bought third hand from the Czechs at the time. And they won. And it is, historically — let’s just put it this way, as somebody who studies military strategy in politics — it is historically unlikely, improbable (as a Christian, I might say miraculous) that this is in fact the outcome. But keep in mind that the promise that was made to the Arab population that, “We’re going to go in, we’re going to wipe out the Jewish state, and then you can move back” is made by the Arab countries. And I will argue — and this is a controversial opinion — but I will argue that the reason that there is a Palestinian refugee crisis today is because of the Arab countries. And if you want, I can unpack that a little bit more.
PERKINS: I mean, I think that when you look back to the United Nations creating what we’ve talked about here on this program, UNRWA which is a funding for Palestinian refugees, and we see even today where these other Arab countries are refusing to take the individuals from Gaza, because that would be an admission of defeat in terms of what they promised to do. Would it not?
NOLTE: One thing that not a lot of people remember is that the immigrants that came to Israel weren’t just coming from Europe. There are also Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews. These are Jews of Middle Eastern origin, many of whom — 700,000 of whom, if I’m remembering the number correctly — but hundreds of thousands of whom are expelled from the other Arab countries. There are large Jewish communities in Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Morocco. All of these Jewish communities are expelled, and the Jews take them in. These are people that would ethnically you would say, are pretty much Middle Eastern. The Jews take them in when the Arabs were expelled — oftentimes, not exclusively, but mostly because the Arab states said, “Hey, leave your homes, and eventually we’ll give them back to you.” For ideological reasons, the Arab nationalist states did the opposite, because they’re saying, “We have to keep these people as sort of a nation. … Basically, we’ll keep them as refugees, because if we integrate them, then we are acknowledging that we’re never going to be able to take Israel back, and we’re never going to be able to take them out.” They try twice more in 1967 and 1973, [but] they fail. And it’s really in the process of that, that this goes from an Arab nationalist thing where the idea is we’re going to have one unified Arab nation of which this is going to be a province, and then you start to see the birth of a separate, distinct Palestinian nationalism. But I would argue, that kind of happens as Arab nationalism, as an ideology, just fails.
PERKINS: So that brings us up to today. And unfortunately, Dr. Nolte, we’re out of time. We’re going to have part two of this conversation and how we look at this going forward next week.
RELATED PODCAST: Outstanding – Ep. 40: Unpacking the Hamas/Israel War
EDITORS NOTE: This Washington Stand column is republished with permission. All rights reserved. ©2023 Family Research Council.
The Washington Stand is Family Research Council’s outlet for news and commentary from a biblical worldview. The Washington Stand is based in Washington, D.C. and is published by FRC, whose mission is to advance faith, family, and freedom in public policy and the culture from a biblical worldview. We invite you to stand with us by partnering with FRC.