Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

How Christians Invented Zionism: An Easter Thought

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


In his recent and excellent book Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, the Shalem Center‘s Michael Oren recounts:

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.
Comments read comments(5)
post a comment
Your Name

posted April 12, 2009 at 7:33 pm

“Relocation” of minorities – whether Jews to Palestine, Blacks to Liberia (see “American Colonization Society “), Native Americans to “Indian Territory” (see “Trail of Tears”) or even the Bataan Death March – has a common factor: Get the “other” out of wherever the sponsors already are. And if there are losses along the way, no problem, as long as the sponsors don’t have to deal with the “others” again.

report abuse

Gil Student

posted April 12, 2009 at 11:22 pm

Historians have recently pointed to a Religious Zionist movement that predated that period — the students of the Vilna Gaon who emigrated to the land of Israel in the early 19th century and believed that the Messiah would come in the year 1840. See the link I included in this comment for more details.

report abuse

David Klinghoffer

posted April 12, 2009 at 11:53 pm

Thank you. I remember reading this excellent post by Rabbi Student from his outstanding and illuminating blog, but I didn’t have the impression that the Vilna Gaon’s students were seeking to conquer or set up a state in the land any more than Rabbi Isaac Luria sought to do earlier with his students in Safed. That would have been quite the quixotic enterprise in any event.

report abuse


posted April 13, 2009 at 12:17 am

It is a very big stretch of the imagination to say the Vilna Gaon’s students were Zionists or in any way comparable to the views of the Zionists.
In any event, many of the great Rabbinical leaders of foregone generations have predicated the short arrival of Messiah.

report abuse

Judd M.

posted April 13, 2009 at 3:26 pm

Actually, George Bush invented Zionism

report abuse

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

Another Blog To Enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting Kingdom of Priests. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here is another blog you may also enjoy: Kabballah Counseling Happy Reading! ...

posted 11:24:22am Aug. 16, 2012 | read full post »

Animal Wisdom: The Voice of the Serpent
Our family watched Jaws together the other evening -- which, in case you're wondering, I regard as responsible parenting since our kids are basically too young to be genuinely scared by the film. The whole rest of the next day, two-year-old Saul ...

posted 3:56:33pm Mar. 16, 2010 | read full post »

Reading Wesley Smith: Why the Darwin Debate Matters
If the intelligent-design side in the evolution debate doesn't receive the support you might expect from people who should be allies, that may be because they haven't grasped why the whole thing matters so urgently. I got an email recently from ...

posted 5:07:12pm Mar. 15, 2010 | read full post »

The Mission of the Jews
Don't miss my essay over at First Things on the mission of the Jews to the world. This, I think, the key idea that the Jewish community needs to absorb at this very unusual cultural moment, for the time is so, so right. Non-Jews are waiting for ...

posted 6:14:16pm Mar. 05, 2010 | read full post »

Darwin at the Mountains of Madness: Evolution & the Occult
Of all the regrettable cultural forces that Darwinism helped unleash, perhaps the most surprising and seemingly unlikely is its role in sparking the creation of modern occultism. Charles Darwin himself could not have been less interested in the ...

posted 2:04:11pm Mar. 04, 2010 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.