Does the Bible justify the military conquest of Palestine by Jews and the imposition
of the Zionist political agenda as expressed in the contemporary State of Israel?
This is the fundamental question Michael Prior raises in this important and
scholarly, yet very readable, moral critique of Zionism.
Prior explores the sharp ethical issues arising from the abuse of the Bible by Christians, as much as by Jews, to justify the occupation and settlement of Palestine, with its catastrophic consequences in the forced expulsion and subjugation of the indigenous Palestinian people. Neither the awfulness of the holocaust nor the fear of being branded anti-Semitic has intimidated him from exposing the inherent racist and apartheid nature of Zionism. In the words of David McDowell, writing in Middle East International, it is "the best demolition job on the moral legitimation of Israel that I have seen."1
The book has five parts covering the achievements and development of Zionism, its biblical and mythical justification as well as a Jewish critique of Zionism. In the first part Prior traces five historical phases of Zionism from its secular origins in the pages of Herzl's diary in the 1890's to the signing of the Peace Accords between Arafat and Netanyahu. This provides the context for the second part of the book which traces the journey from a secular to a sacred Zionism and from an ideological dream to a nationalist imperative. Julius Purcell, writing in The Tablet, acknowledges how Prior shows, "Irony of Ironies, what began as a leftist anti-religious movement is now being heartily upheld by the Jewish and Christian religious right wing..."2
The chapters on Zionism and the Churches and Christian theology usefully trace how the Zionist agenda has been variously interpreted by Roman Catholics, liberal Protestants and evangelicals, both before and after 1948 and 1967.
The heart of the book deals with the biblical and mythical justification for Zionism. Prior takes a liberal approach to biblical scholarship arguing that, "the biblical claim to the divine promise of land is integrally linked with the claim of divine approval for the extermination of the indigenous people." He therefore dismisses passages deemed "ethnocentric, xenophobic and militaristic"3
Prior laments the failure of biblical scholarship to address, full square, the moral questions inherent in the biblical texts. "Biblically and theologically based discussion is singularly deficient in its interest in those issues with which human rights and humanitarian bodies concern themselves."4 This is an issue Prior addresses further in his earlier work, The Bible and Colonialism where the parallels between the self perception of Zionists are shown to be remarkably similar to those of other colonialists in both South America and South Africa.5 It behoves those who take a more conservative approach to biblical scholarship and historiography to offer an equally robust refutation of the Zionist reading. However they are more likely than Prior to be able to engage in debate biblical literalists who defend a Zionist reading.
The most provocative section of the book deals with the foundational myths of the State of Israel. These include the claim that there were 'no expulsions' and that the occupation of land was in 'self defence' or that because of anti-Semitism, Jews must have the 'right of return'. Prior shows convincingly how the Shoah has been used to legitimise state repression by Israel and attempt to silence criticism. In the words of W. H. Auden, '...Those to whom evil is done, Do evil in return.'
The final chapter counters the stereotype which regards all Jews as Zionists, providing an astute Jewish critique of Zionism. Prior traces the development of the humanist as well as religious opposition to Zionism within Judaism, as well as the rise of Israeli Peace Movement since 1967. Quoting from Jewish authors such as Chomsky, Davis, Shahak, Ellis, Finkelstein and Hurwitz, Prior shows convincingly that there is a healthy critique of the Zionist agenda within Israeli Jewish society. He acknowledges however, that this 'soul-searching', especially over the Palestinian issue, is being countered and undermined by a 'rejuvenated religiosity'6 within more right wing religious Judaism which is, for example, driving the expansion of the settlement programme.
Michael Prior's book reflects his deep longing for a just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The product of 20 years contact with the Christians of the Holy Land, it is to be commended for showing that it is possible to be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic. It is an important contribution to the changing shape of Arab-Israeli, as much as Jewish-Christian dialogue and self understanding. The book deserves the wider readership it will receive when made available in paperback format.
Michael Prior is Principal Lecturer in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, St Mary's College, of the University of Surrey. His previous books include Jesus the Liberator: Nazareth Liberation Theology, 7 The Bible and Colonialism. A Moral Critique,8 and Western Scholarship and the History of Palestine.9 He has also contributed to numerous journals and books on Palestine and edited several works on Christian Experiences of the Holy Land and dialogue with Palestinian Liberation Theology.10
10 June 2000
2 Julius Purcell, The Tablet, Cited in Living Stones Magazine, 17 Spring (2000), p. 3.
3 Michael Prior, Zionism and the State of Israel: A Moral Inquiry (London, Routledge, 1999), pp. 180-181.
4 ibid., 183.
5 Michael Prior, The Bible and Colonialism. A Moral Critique (Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), pp. 175-184.
6 Op. cit., p. 251.
7 Michael Prior, Jesus the Liberator: Nazareth Liberation Theology (Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press, 1995)
8 Michael Prior, The Bible and Colonialism. A Moral Critique (Sheffield, Sheffield Academic Press, 1997)
9 Michael Prior, Western Scholarship and the History of Palestine (London, Melisende, 1998).
10 Michael Prior, ed. They Came and They Saw, Western Christian Experiences of the Holy Land (London, Melisende, 2000); Michael Prior and Naim Ateek eds. Holy Land, Hollow Jubilee. God, Justice and the Palestinians (London, Melisende, 1999).