When Liberal Protestants Were Zionists

By Judah Bellin
Tuesday, March 5, 2013

In his recent book Reinhold Niebuhr and His Circle of Influence, Daniel F. Rice includes a chapter on the eminent Protestant theologian’s relationship with Felix Frankfurter, one of the most prominent American Jews of the 20th century.  One of the foundations of their friendship was their shared belief in the Zionist project.  Indeed, Niebuhr not only helped found the Christian Council on Palestine, an association of pro-Zionist Christian clergy, but wrote impassioned defenses of the Jewish state for important periodicals like the Nation and The New Republic.  Frankfurter so esteemed Niebuhr’s writings on Zionism that he was at a loss to find any written work that, in his words, “faces the Jewish problem more trenchantly and more candidly.”   

Such effusive praise was typical of Niebuhr’s admirers.  Niebuhr, a professor of Christian ethics at Union Theological Seminary, founding member of the anti-Communist Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), and prolific writer, earned renown as a prophetic voice on American foreign policy. His major works, including Moral Man and Immoral Society, The Irony of American History, and The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, are still cited by contemporary theologians, writers, and politicians. President Obama, for one, calls Niebuhr his “favorite philosopher.”

Given the way intellectual fashions have turned against the Jewish state, it is now very difficult to imagine a prominent liberal Christian theologian defending Zionism with anything like Niebuhr’s depth of passion.  As Rice notes, Niebuhr supported Israel because he thought it provided a firm basis for Jewish identity, something he felt American Jews had lost while stewing in the melting pot.  He lauded Zionism for recognizing that “each race or people has a right or duty to develop” and that “only through such differentiated development will its highest civilization be attained.”

In order to explain Niebuhr’s Zionist sympathies, we ought first to consider three major themes that he emphasized throughout his work.  The first was that policymakers needed to acknowledge the concrete limits they faced in applying moral precepts to the practice of politics.  Indeed, since politics involved decisions on behalf of and in reference to collectives, altruism was impossible in the political realm, especially in the international arena. Nations could not empathize with other nations, and thus could not be expected to act in accordance with their perspectives.  Since appeals to other nations’ senses of reason and morality would inevitably fail, nations could not forswear the use of force.  

Second, and critically, Niebuhr warned against using force without first engaging in serious moral reflection.  He thus eschewed the unthinking use of armed force no less than the moralism that ignored man’s tragic limitations. Finally, Niebuhr believed the United States was responsible for promoting democracy abroad.  He thought, however, that the United States should encourage democracy where it had already taken root rather than introducing it into regions that were unprepared for it.  It was for this reason that he vigorously criticized the Vietnam War but strongly advocated American aid to West Germany in the early days of the Cold War.

How does all of this relate to Niebuhr’s support for the State of Israel?  As noted by Edinburgh University professor Carys Moseley in a 2009 article in Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations (4:4), titled "Reinhold Niebuhr's Approach to the State of Israel," Eyal Naveh,  a professor of U.S. history at Tel Aviv University, has suggested that Niebuhr admired Zionism not for its lofty “redemptive” vision but for its hard-headed answer to the problem of anti-Semitism.  Niebuhr, like many early Zionist thinkers, thought that the Jews would be wise to discard utopian dreams and invest their energies in a properly defended state.

Yet Niebuhr did not idealize Zionism’s consequences.  As Moseley further notes, while Niebuhr strongly defended Israel’s right to self-defense and celebrated its victory over the Arabs in 1948, he acknowledged that one “cannot speak of this victory as a morally unambiguous one.  No political victory can be so described.”  Given Niebuhr’s belief in the impossibility of a morally pure politics, he was particularly attuned to the misfortune of the dislocated Arabs; accordingly, he advocated international assistance for them. In Moseley’s view, Niebuhr considered the refugee problem the “tragic outcome of the foundation of Israel.”  Even the soundest causes generated lamentable outcomes.

Niebuhr's reservations concerning Israel’s morally ambiguous actions did not diminish his advocacy of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, however.  He derided America’s hostility towards Israel during the Suez crisis on grounds that Israel represented “only sure strategic anchor of the democratic world” and, as such, served as the sole bulwark against Communist encroachment in the Middle East.  Israel’s pivotal role in the region merited an “unequivocal voice from us that we will not allow the state to be annihilated and that we will not judge its desperate efforts to gain some strategic security . . . as an illegitimate use of force.” Though he acknowledged that supporting Israel uncompromisingly was a “risky” move for American policymakers, he warned that vacillating on Israel’s defense was riskier, even foolhardy.  As the world’s foremost democracy, the United States was obligated to support its only democratic ally in the Middle East without hesitation.

All of this underscores Niebuhr’s deep investment in the Jewish state.  However, one point raised by Moseley requires our attention: Despite Niebuhr’s frequent references to theology throughout his work, he hesitated to discuss Zionism’s religious dimensions. Why was this so?

As Moseley suggests, Niebuhr’s conception of the relationship between politics and religion provides the most likely explanation.  Niebuhr thought that the Christian religion provided a compelling account of man’s fallen nature and his inability to move past self-interest in his relationships with others, including his political relationships.  However, Niebuhr rejected the notion that God chose sides in political matters.  He shared the conviction of Abraham Lincoln, who declared that though “both sides prayed to the same god” during the Civil War, “the prayers of both could not be answered” because “the Almighty has His own purposes.” Humans—imperfect, fallible creatures—could never act in perfect accordance with God’s wishes.

We can therefore conjecture that Niebuhr was uncomfortable with Zionism’s religious aspects because the proponents of religious Zionism saw in their political project a fulfillment of a divine mandate.  Though Niebuhr sympathized with Israel as both a bastion of democracy and a worthy response to the intractable problem of anti-Semitism, his approach made no room for an ideology that claimed both to know and to embody God’s will.  Perhaps he avoided discussion of Israel’s religious significance because he believed no such significance could exist in the political realm.  Though he recognized Israel’s creation as a significant accomplishment, he thought it was first and foremost a political accomplishment.  As such, the explicitly messianic dreams of some of its founders were ill-founded.

Judah Bellin is the assistant editor of Minding the Campus, the Manhattan Institute’s web magazine on higher education.

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