Jewish Political Studies Review 19:1-2 (Spring 2007)
On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend, by Timothy P. Weber, Baker Academic, 2004, 329 pp.
Reviewed by Sarah Schmidt
Timothy P. Weber, president of Memphis Theological Seminary, has written a detailed, extensively researched account of how, in the last part of the twentieth century, dispensationalist evangelicals became Israel’s best friends. Exhaustively covering the evangelical movement in the United States since it migrated from Great Britain in the early nineteenth century, the book provides an analytic and often critical perspective on the beliefs of millions of Americans and their relationship with Israel. Weber’s derivation of his materials from a range of sources and inclusion of a comprehensive bibliography enhance this work’s value as perhaps the definitive survey of the subject.
The book focuses on dispensationalism, one version of Christian eschatology that since World War I has become nearly synonymous with fundamentalism. Throughout history many Christians have concerned themselves with the ultimate destiny of mankind and have developed a range of theories based on biblical passages that indicate how, after the Second Coming of Christ, He will defeat Satan and establish a kingdom on earth and a golden age of peace.
At the center of dispensationalist faith, however, is the conviction that before the prophesied end-time events can occur, Jews will have to reestablish their own state in the Holy Land. Without a restored Jewish state there can be no Satan or Antichrist, no great tribulation, Battle of Armageddon, and Second Coming. In short, according to Weber, “everything [is] riding on the Jews.”
Before the establishment of Israel and its expansion in 1967, dispensationalists were content to teach their doctrine, look for signs of the Second Coming, and predict future events often in great detail. After Israel reclaimed its place in Palestine, however, dispensationalists moved from being observers to participants, helping to turn their theories into self-fulfilling prophecies. They united with American and Israeli Jews and founded dozens of groups to lobby on Israel’s behalf.
Few Jews, however, understood-or cared-that this support came with a price. Dispensationalists believe that, in the end, before Jesus comes, the Antichrist will try to destroy Israel and all Jews will undergo dire suffering. In other words, before the age of peace, most Jews will have to be destroyed-and as a result, surviving Jews will welcome Jesus as their messiah.
A Complicated Relationship
All this, though, would be in the future. Dispensationalists’ relationship to living Jews has been complicated and in many ways paradoxical. No group, even in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was more supportive of Zionist aspirations. At the same time, no other Christian group is more dedicated to targeting Jews for conversion, since dispensationalists believe that evangelizing the Jews is of prophetic importance.
Given their understanding of the Jews’ place in God’s end-time program, dispensationalists feel obliged to convert as many Jews as possible and have founded dozens of missionary organizations. Results, though minimal, seem less important than the symbolic value of spreading the gospel among the Jews. According to one Jewish convert who became a missionary, converted Jews are a “pledge of the final salvation of all Israel.”
The emphasis on conversion is linked to dispensationalists’ belief that, before the return of Jesus, Jews are living under the power of Satan. Weber quotes Yaakov Ariel, an Israeli-trained historian now teaching in the United States: “On the one hand they are God’s chosen people…[but] as they have refused to recognize Jesus as their messiah, their character reflects obnoxiousness and rebellion. Their road to glory is paved with suffering and destruction.”
Beginning in the 1920s, various dispensationalist preachers revived The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and in the 1930s such preachers were vulnerable to Nazi propaganda. Once they placed Hitler and the Holocaust within their well-developed prophetic system, dispensationalists were able to feel even more confident that God’s plans were coming to fruition. Weber wonders why they did not suffer from “a severe case of cognitive dissonance”: at the same time they could be both pro-Zionist and anti-Semitic.
A New Alliance: Organizing to Support Israel
The dispensationalists began building their special relationship with Israel after the Six Day War. Now that Jews had expanded beyond their 1948 borders, dispensationalists became actively committed to keeping them there. After being elected prime minister in 1977, Menachem Begin began urging American evangelicals to come to Israel. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism actively recruited evangelical pastors for free “familiarization” tours.
The strategy-a calculated attempt to win Christian friends for Israel-succeeded, and after 1980 and the founding of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, tourism and political support for Israel against all pressures became linked. The link is especially strong because dispensationalists are convinced that such commitments are rooted in biblical prophecy.
Both sides, however, pay a price for this alliance. Evangelical organizations do not deny that Jews need to be converted; they simply assert that currently their priorities lie elsewhere. Some Jews are critical of the political and religious motives of the Christian Zionists.
Other Jews, however, choose to ignore the “details” and take a pragmatic approach, claiming that Israel needs all the friends it can get. In the words of the Anti-Defamation League’s Nathan Perlmutter: “If the Messiah comes…we’ll consider our options.” Weber points out that, in their desire to keep Israel strong, dispensationalists currently support what most Israelis would consider “the most dangerous elements in Israel”-those who are working toward rebuilding the Third Temple on the Temple Mount, including groups preparing a red heifer for sacrifice and those who have planned to blow up the Dome of the Rock.
Do the dispensationalists make a difference? Certainly their political and financial support, as well as a range of social service projects they sponsor in Israel, have encouraged Christians to learn about Israel and provided a model of interfaith cooperation. Yet what Weber terms “the dark side” matters, too. For those convinced that they are cooperating with God’s purposes in hastening the Second Coming, stopping any peace process that would materialize before that event is an important part of their agenda. In the long run, then, could Israel’s “best friends” also be its worst enemies?
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DR. SARAH SCHMIDT is senior lecturer in modern Jewish history and Zionist history at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she also teaches an honors seminar, “The American Jew and the Israeli Jew: A Comparative Analysis.”