Happy Easter to my Christian friends! American Jews have lots to be grateful for to you. For one, there’s a historical argument to be made that American Christians invented modern Zionism.
That thesis relates to Passover. Yesterday in synagogues around the world, as part of the intermediate Sabbath of the festival, Jews read the passage from Ezekiel (37:1-14) that describes the vision of the valley of dry bones that miraculously take on flesh and live again.
Traditionally, some Jews understood the prophecy as referring to the resurrection of the dead that will take place at some point following the Messianic redemption. The resurrection will take place at Passover, according to this view, hence the reading from Ezekiel. There are other opinions as well.
As my friend Rabbi Daniel Lapin
reminded us at Shabbat lunch yesterday, an influential forebear of the two Presidents Bush, George Bush, a professor at New York University, also used the image as the title of his bestselling book of 1844, Valley of Vision: The Dry Bones of Israel Revived
Bush called for “elevating” the Jews “to a rank of honorable repute among the nations of the earth by re-creating their state in Palestine. Such restitution would benefit all of mankind, forming a “link of communication” between humanity and God. “It will blaze in notoriety,” Bush foretold. “It will flash a splendid demonstration upon all kindreds and tongues of the truth.”
But by that point American Christian proto-Zionism had been gathering steam for many years. In the colonial period, theologian Cotton Mather and Harvard president Increase Mather “called for the destruction of the Ottoman empire to make way for the Jews’ return.” Writes Oren:
More ardently still, John Adams envisioned “a hundred thousand Israelites…[as] well disciplined as the French army” marching into Palestine and conquering it. “I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation,” the ex-president wrote…in 1819.
What were the Jews themeselvs thinking, meanwhile? The traditional theological view prevailed that the longed for return to Zion should only come as part of the train of events following the appearance of the Messiah. I have some sympathy for this perspective
, well grounded as it is in the classical sources.
In A History of Israel from the Rise of Zionism to Our Time
, Howard M. Sachar traces that “rise” back as early as 1839 and 1843 when two Orthodox rabbis Judah Alkalai and Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, of Belgrade and East Prussia respectively, broached the idea of a pre-Messianic movement of return. Sachar calls them
the “forerunners of Zionism.” He says nothing of the earlier, Christian forerunners.
It’s ironic that in Jewish life today, at least in the United States, a given idea’s popular association with Christians — whatever the idea’s merits, whatever its genuine Jewish bona fides — has the general effect of rendering it treif, non-kosher, or at least highly suspicious in the view of many Jews. One thinks of intelligent design.
Yet the modern Jewish idea par excellence, Zionism, is one that Christians thought of before we did.