Evangelical Christians and the Politics of the Golan Heights

The United States recently recognized Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights. As part of its coverage of the event, a Christian broadcaster interviewed Secretary of State Pompeo, asking him, among other questions, whether the U.S. president had “been raised [by God] for such a time as this,” and if he could be likened to Queen Esther—a character in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible—who was instrumental in saving the Jews from genocide under King Xerxes. The Secretary affirmed the possibility, and unsurprisingly, the segment raised many eyebrows, including mine. My concern, however, was not the Secretary’s response; it was the question. The invocation of God in the contentious matter and the obvious presumption that the situation was somehow his doing, seemed to close (or at least attempt to) an important debate that Christians, particularly U.S.-based evangelical Protestants, should be having about how they influence Israel’s domestic politics.

Many Christians feel a strong connection to ancient and modern Israel because of their significance in Christianity’s history, theology and, for some, its future. Although hardly unified across denominations, Israel, both as a concept and a nation, remains an important component of Christianity’s self-understanding. And, although that connection is not problematic in and of itself, it becomes so when it hinders Christians from honestly and seriously considering inconvenient facts about modern Israel. Those politico-legal facts and the tensions they present, however, must be resolved, not uncritically dismissed through questionable references to “God plan.”

In this case, Christians must seriously consider the following: First, Golan Heights is Syrian territory. Second, Israel assumed control of the area by military force in 1967 and, for all practical purposes, annexed it on December 14, 1981 at the adoption of the Golan Heights Law. Third, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 497  (just three days later), declaring Israel’s decision to impose its jurisdiction on the Golan “null and void and without international legal effect” and reaffirming the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force under the U.N. Charter. The UN, of which Israel is a member, has never recognized Israel’s control of the Golan, and continues to consider it an occupation. Fourth, the United States (alone and as a permanent member of the UN Security Council), aware of Israel’s singular and very real security challenges and the Golan’s strategic value to that security, has not until now endorsed Israel’s control of the area. In its yearly human rights reports, the U.S. Department of State has consistently referred to the Golan Heights as “Israeli-occupied,” until 2017 (compare reports found here).

Moreover, despite the fanfare surrounding the signing of the proclamation, it appears to make no practical difference—the United Nations will not change its position; Syria and other Arab states will not accept it, it simply aggravates them as widely reported; Israel will continue to control the area and build settlements there as it has for the last several decades; and the usual flares of violence that have characterized the Golan for years will likely continue. Needless to say, the idea of one foreign country giving (or attempting to give) another foreign country the territory of yet another is highly improper in modern international relations (not “miraculous”).

Given these facts, the administration’s decision is puzzling. Statements that formal recognition enhances Israel’s security are unpersuasive.  So, like everyone else, Christians ought to be asking why the US has decided to do this now or at all.

One plausible and persuasive explanation for this puzzle, as many have observed, is the upcoming elections—the first in about two weeks in Israel, and the second in 2020 in the United States. The proclamation gives the impression of a significant foreign policy achievement and apparently pleases the “religious” or “far right” segments of the relevant electorates. If the interview is indicative, many are pleased indeed.

There are two important lessons for Christians in this episode. First, Christians may have the liberty to support whatever political action they choose, but they must be careful about using God’s name to legitimate their preferences. Second, Christians should examine all behaviors and motives because not doing so is to choose gullibility (not faith) and to become perpetually ripe for political manipulation.

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