The poster for “With God on Our Side,” a documentary about Christian Zionism screened at the Divinity School last week, depicts the barrier separating Israel from most of the West Bank towering over two women, one of whom wears a hijab. “I grew up in a house that had very specific [religious and political] views toward Israel,” the film’s producer/director Porter Speakman, Jr. told the audience, referring to his upbringing as an Evangelical Christian Zionist. After spending five years living beyond that West Bank barrier, however, Speakman realized that there was a side of the story that he wasn’t being told in church.
The film, he explained, is not meant to be a “historical film,” nor a film that aims to depict “the whole story” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It aims instead to weave the history into a critique of modern-day Evangelical Christian Zionist politics and theology. The film argues quite convincingly that this denomination’s religious belief should not necessitate the support of every single Israeli policy, especially if doing so would override Christian values like justice and compassion. However, while the film successfully makes space for religious criticism of Israel, its rhetorical slant undermines its own call for an honest assessment of religious support for the Jewish state.
Theologically, the film’s argument is quite compelling. The forms of Christian Zionism it discusses—the kind espoused by televangelists like Pat Robertson and John Hagee—interpret the founding of the state of Israel as a fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies that an ingathering of the exiles will precede the coming of the Messiah. In addition, Christian Zionists like Hagee read God’s promise in Genesis 12:3—that God will curse any nation that curses Israel—quite literally, and they therefore proclaim that America must unconditionally back Israel regardless of its policies.
The film effectively deconstructs this theology by noting that it conflates the modern state of Israel with the Jewish people as a whole. Anti-Semites may be divinely damned according to Genesis 12, but protesting the decisions of a particular Israeli Prime Minister is far from anti-Semitic. Indeed, if a person believes that the Israeli government is violating his own moral principles, either religious or secular, it is his duty to stand up and make his grievances known.
As long, of course, as his criticism is constructive, thoughtful, and holds to those same moral principles. But this is where Speakman’s film fails miserably.
Consistently, the film either dismisses Israel’s position outright or neglects it entirely, thereby committing the same offense as the evangelical community it decries, except in reverse. The film implies that Israel could end the entire conflict solely by returning the land it occupied in 1967 and blames Israel for the continuing state of hostilities. So what about the peace plans proposed by Israeli and American leaders as recently as 2007 that would have had Israel give up 94 percent of the West Bank, and trade six percent of Israel proper for the population centers that the country would keep? One of the film’s talking heads asserts that the Palestinians were completely justified in refusing these offers because Israel does not “have a right to one percent of the West Bank.” However, had Abu Mazen decided to even discuss Ehud Olmert’s 2007 outline for peace rather than ignoring it, the Israeli public might have felt less compelled to elect the hard-line rightist government that is currently frustrating both the Palestinian Authority and the Obama administration.
Simply put, rather than aiming to understand the rationale for Israel’s decisions as it does for those of the Palestinians, the film accepts a narrative as rigid and inflexible as that of the Christian Zionists it derides. Speakman has simply switched sides, trading one fundamentalism for another.
Consider the example of the Israeli separation barrier, which even the film admits has drastically decreased terrorist attacks within Israel. Because the wall juts out over the internationally recognized 1949 Armistice Line and snakes through the West Bank, the film considers it a “land-grab,” an attempt by the Israeli government to widen Israel’s borders and dehumanize the Palestinians. It utterly fails to mention that the barrier only moves beyond the Armistice Line to protect Israeli settlements in the West Bank and that a recent removal of a roadblock near Nablus, for example, led to a drive-by shooting only days later.
Like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a whole, the wall surely carries deep moral quandaries, such as, for example, the issue of whether a country can expropriate foreign land and hinder access to health care for another people in order to protect itself. A Christian (or Jew) should not be so dogmatic in his eschatology that he refrains from criticizing Israel if its policies violate his moral conscience. True support of Israel absolutely necessitates such criticism. But by neglecting nuance and context, the film erects even more barriers between Israelis, Palestinians, and their supporters. Unfortunately, when one sidesteps vital ethical questions and constructive discussion for simplistic excoriation of one side, one merely poisons the discourse further, becoming nothing more than just another brick in the wall.
Avishai D. Don ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.