Glenn Beck presents himself to Israel as a dedicated and whole-hearted friend. In the context of the last decade’s dramatic developments (2000-2010), that puts Beck in a special category. Because lately, very few people are as nice to Israel as he is.
When the second (phase of the) Intifada exploded with particular violence in October 2000, the “left” – progressives who want peace in the world – split into two opposing currents. On the one hand, some Israeli observers in particular, argued that the enemy they wanted to make peace with had no desire for peace, that the Palestinian leadership – Fatah or Hamas – viewed Israeli concessions as a sign of weakness, and responded with violence. On the other hand, other observers blamed Israel for the failure, and called for her to make still more concessions. In a highly vocal and most extreme form, this “peace-camp” assault on Israel involves disturbingly vindictive rhetoric (Israel is the new Nazi).
In Israel where the confrontation with Jihad was deadly daily, the majority turned to the first school (electoral drop for “left”; widespread support for the separation barrier). In the diaspora, defenders of Israel found themselves increasingly beleaguered, silent, embarrassed in the public sphere, while radical prophets of “self-criticism” – most of them identifying “as a Jew” – relentlessly assailed Israel.
One can understand the solitary dilemmas of a liberal Jew in Israel when faced with this inexplicable assault. We know that Israel sets exceptionally high standards for itself, and in failing to meet them, still perform at the highest standards (C- to A- absolute; A+ on a curve). We understand, alas, that our enemy openly embraces those very desires we deny ourselves (massive revenge, genocidal hatreds, religious violence). So why on earth would the progressive left, the peace camp, turn against us, and not against the Palestinians?
Under these circumstances, it’s understandable that Zionists would listen gladly to a voice that said: “We’re with you, guy. We understand what a terrible enemy you have. We identify with you because you uphold the same values that we do: freedom, independence, the sacredness of human life. You are not alone. We recognize your efforts to adhere to civilized values, and admire you for your courage and your successes against all odds… “remain faithful to your ideals, and strong in your struggle.” This expresses a Philo-Judaic Christian Zionism that many fundamentalists enthusiastically voice.
It’s tempting then to respond favorably when someone like Glenn Beck, an emotional, charismatic, articulate man, who openly expresses his love for Israel, comes with his arms open in embrace. Apparently some Israelis open up their arms in response. MKs Danny Danon (Likud) and Nissim Ze’ev (Shas), recently hosted him in the Knesset. Beck is especially music to the ears of those who believe with him that “Jews have a right to live in all parts of the Land of Israel, and that while Arabs have a right to live here, the do not have a right to sovereignty.”
The problem, of course, is: what strain of Philo-Judaic Christian Zionism does Glenn Beck represent? At one end of the spectrum that goes from Dual Covenant to Supersessionism, we have simple-hearted love: “I admire you; I want your friendship; I extend my hand in an act of mutual respect.” Those who feel this way are, I suspect, many; and their feelings are both good and true. They embrace “those who bless you will be blessed” without envy. They engage Jews without wanting to convert them.
But there is another end of this spectrum of Philo-Judaism, one significantly less open and simple. On the contrary, this form of Christian Zionism views the Jews as their Messiah’s donkey, as the vehicle for bringing about a triumphalist Christian apocalypse in which all the evil – including those Jews who refuse to convert to Christianity – will be exterminated by the armies of the Lord. According to this apocalyptic scenario, the Battle of Armageddon and the return of Christ (the Parousia) would not happen until the Jews had reassembled in the land. Hence, their ardent Zionism has a significant ulterior motive linked to both conversion and war. For the latest block-buster rendering of this scenario, see Jerusalem Countdown coming to a theater near you this Fall.
There are two points to be made in “defense” of this apocalyptic scenario. 1) It is resolutely passive: the apocalyptic drama may be horrible, but the tribulation is a divine punishment, not a human one. And 2) compared with earlier Christian apocalyptic scenarios, it is the only one that even provisionally favors Jewish redemptive movements (like Zionism). All earlier and much subsequent Christian apocalyptic belief illustrated the law of apocalyptic dynamics: one person’s Messiah is another’s Antichrist. For them – and for current Muslim – apocalyptic thinkers, any messianic stirring among Jews triggered paranoid visions of Antichrist/Dajjal, and in its worst forms, triggered slaughters of Jews. So, as bad as the news is on the apocalyptic front – “Rapture” Christians are the least hostile – it could be worse.
Philo-Judaic Christians constantly struggle between these two currents, and combine them in various ways, at once to preserve their good conscience in befriending the Jews, and to maintain links with particularly charismatic circles within their faith community. And at moments of real crisis, however, they may have to choose between the two. After the millennial Nazis took power, Buber and Rosenzweig were astounded to find their Protestant theological dialogue partners would not defend or protect them: “What did you expect?” they replied, “You didn’t convert.” Hopefully, this time, Protestants faced with choosing between their commitment to positive-sum relations with Jews – mutual respect, mutual benefit – and their attraction to a zero-sum, cataclysmic apocalyptic scenario – Christians triumph, Jews disappear – will choose the former path. Everyone’s fortune depends on it.
Under normal circumstances, it is difficult to tell a genuinely philo-Judaic Christian from an apocalyptic one, because they both express an enthusiastic love for Jews and Israel. The presence of strong “evangelical” desire to convert Jews is one fairly strong (but hardly infallible), normal-time, indicator of zero-sum apocalyptic tendencies. But the surest give-away comes when an apocalyptic Zionist begins to believe that the final moment is in motion. At this point, they become more open about their apocalyptic scenario, more open about their specifically Christian agenda, more impatient with frustration.
Alas, Glenn Beck looks very much like this latter kind of believer. His enthusiasm for Israel is great; his commitment to a triumphalist Christianity increasingly assertive, his interest in all matters apocalyptic acute, his plans for a series of gatherings in Jerusalem, grandiose. Indeed, in his discussion with Chuck Hagee, Beck looks determined to see Ahmadinejad or some other Muslim apocalyptic pretender as the Antichrist, thus illustrating the first zero-sum law of apocalyptic dynamics: one person’s messiah is another’s anti-Christ.
Beck’s ambitions to play a leading role in a national and international drama were on full display at his August 28, 2010 “Restore Honor” Rally on the Washington Esplanade before the Monument. Language like “it will be a historic moment… provide a shock-wave to this nation, a defibrillator to the heart of America, something miraculous…” suggests that Beck sees himself and his charismatic media presence as a history-changing phenomenon. While far from the full-grown messianic pretensions of Ahmadinejad, these are signs that a Glenn Beck, buoyed by his successes in the media, has shifted towards an evangelical style – much to some evangelicals discomfort – that increasingly mobilizes mass emotions. His speech to the Knesset replayed these themes, his “Abrahamic moment” in which God chose him to play a key role, his reference to himself as a new Esther, who alone was in a position to play the key role in the redemption of the Jews (for Esther it was being queen; for Beck, apparently, it is his voice in the media).
The repeated expressions of support for him, including among the most thoughtful of Zionist commentators, suggests that many would prefer to see a friend. Often the argument is about the past: there is no evidence in earlier Beck pronouncements on Jews and the Arab-Israeli conflict to suggest that he’s an advocate of replacement theology. The problem is not the past. Apocalyptic beliefs arise sometimes seemingly out of nowhere, out of some millennial stew that marries the narcissistic dream (shared by many, both Christians and Muslims) that all the world will become like them with a sense of crisis that suggests that now is the time, and we (I, Glenn Beck) are called upon to act.
It is at times like this that a passive scenario can gain significant elements of active human participation. And one of the common moves from passive to active among those with a cataclysmic apocalyptic scenario (like pre-millennialists), is to trigger the battle that will force God’s hand to intervene. There’s a community of fundamentalists in Amarillo Texas who arm US military nuclear weapons (not an easy thing to get Americans to do), because they believe that an atomic war is what God wants.
Beck is not that kind of an arsonist. On the contrary, I’m not sure he’s sure about his role in all this. My sense is that he’s feeling his way into a apocalyptic role, and following the path of most drama – from electrifying events in DC to cosmic ones in Jerusalem.
A large assembly of charismatic and enthused Christians just below al Aqsa mosque is a bold move, and participants like Joe Lieberman and Sarah Palin raise the electoral stakes in the USA. Some, aware of how short a fuse governs Muslim behavior about anything to do with the Temple Mount – i.e., Haram al Sharif – might even think it provocative. And I think that Glenn Beck honestly does not want to trigger a violent conflagration. He is sincere in his love of Israel and his desire to do good. But the apocalyptic scenario with which he flirts, and which promises the Endtime victory for Christianity, involves a war; and if that’s what God wants from this earthly vessel, then Beck will fulfill his assigned role, filled with love for the nation upon whose head he brings down Armageddon.
In many ways, Beck’s challenge to Israel embodies so many of the tragic contradictions that play out in the public sphere these days. Here the committed apocalyptic believer can recognize and will talk about Muslim apocalyptic ambitions, while the allegedly more sober seculars are inexcusably silent. (The Post-911 site at NYU which has a whole section on ChristianMedia, says nothing about the far more dangerous Muslim apocalyptic currents which caused 9-11.) Beck’s comments on the reluctance of people to hear or speak about Israel’s foes, his advice to Israel not to try and win over the media but speak directly to the American people, and the value of cyberspace in this effort, are all, in my opinion, quite sound.
Here Israel, abandoned by the progressive camp, finds itself forced to/wanting to embrace a friend with such outrageous and disturbing hopes, while the allegedly sober seculars, who refuse to note the apocalyptic shrieks from Muslim anti-Semites, detect the anti-Semitic “dogwhistles” coming from Beck. Here Israel must navigate between the Scylla of apocalyptic Christian love/hate and the Charybdis of genocidal apocalyptic Muslim hatred. And her natural allies, the alleged “peace camp,” where they are not hypocritical and counterproductive, have, wittingly or unwittingly, joined with her worst enemies. Glenn Beck may or may not be crazy, but his story illustrates the pervasive folly of our times. And it seems to me that those most ready to call him mad and anti-Semitic, are themselves deeply committed to a similar, in some ways far more disturbing madness.
UPDATE: Glenn Beck announces he’s moving his rally for security reasons.
“We have been asked if we would move the site. I concur, because courage must be coupled with wisdom, and the last thing we want to happen is for anyone to be injured in any way, or there to be any kind of conflict.”
Good evidence my concerns were misplaced. These are the words of a reasonable man with a healthy concern for human life, not a megalomaniac.