In Response to “Christian Support for the Jewish State” by Lael Shields

By Joel Sams, Contributing Writer

Lael Shield’s article, “Christian Support for the Jewish State” (Feb. 13), involves an assumption that may not be as forthright as it sounds—the assumption that Old Testament nation of Israel and the modern state of Israel are the same thing. 

In order to argue that modern Israel inherits the Abrahamic covenant, Shields assumes that its inhabitants are the descendants (and heirs) of Abraham. In reality, however, Israel is not the almost exclusively Jewish nation of the Old Testament. It is a modern, democratic state made up of a diverse array of ethnicities, religions and political allegiances. 

The CIA World Factbook calculates Israel’s ethnic distribution at 75.1 percent Jew and 24.9 percent non-Jew (mostly Arab). Religiously, the nation is 75.1 percent Jewish, with the next-largest religion being Islam, calculated at 17.4 percent. Israel is also politically diverse. Last week’s issue of The Economist (Feb. 7-13) reported that three fringe Arab parties, Raam-Ta’al, Hadash and Balad, have merged in order to maximize their potential in Israel’s March 17 election. As a result, The Economist anticipates that this Arab coalition party, called the Joint List, will wield influence in the Knesset (the Israeli legislature), and that it “could become the fourth-largest party and determine Israel’s next government.” 

The diversity of modern Israel stands in stark relief against the Israel of the Old Testament, which was anything but diverse. While non-Jews like Rahab and Ruth do figure in Old Testament stories, they are exceptions to the rule. In the overwhelming majority of cases, “Israelite” functions as ethnic identifier in the Old Testament. The difference is clear. The “chosenness” of a nation means nothing without the “chosenness” of a people. If Shields means to assert the ethnic chosenness of modern Israel with any kind of seriousness, she has to address the fact that Israelis are 24.9 percent non-Jew. 

This distinction matters to me, not because I have a theological point to prove, but because I’m concerned about its implications for foreign policy and human rights. If Shields’ premise is entertained, Christians are obliged to grant Israel ideological and political support solely on the basis of a supposed covenantal relationship. I’m not a foreign policy expert, but this logic defies everything history should have taught us about the native corruption of politics and power. It assumes that Israel is somehow immune to human error. The history of the last century alone should have taught us that no political body is immune to corruption, scandal or outright evil, and, consequently, that no political body deserves unqualified support. 

This objection has nothing to do with the validity of Israel as a democracy, or the degree to which it deserves the political support of the United States. Again, that’s not my concern. I’m more interested in challenging Shields’ assumptions. Are modern Israel and Old Testament Israel really the same thing? No matter how we answer that question, we should pause before mixing speculative theology with politics.