Noah Simblist: A Match Made in Heaven

A Match Made in Heaven

By Noah Simblist

Tali Keren: The Great Seal, 2017

In 1630, the Puritan John Winthrop was standing on the deck of the Arbella, a ship that sailed from England to the New World. He preached about the new colony that was about to be created and how it would be “a city upon a hill” – a shining example of community and charity to the world. This ship was carrying a group of refugees who were fleeing the religious persecution of King Charles I. These Puritans identified with the ancient Israelites’ suffering they had read about in the Old Testament and compared their tyrannical king to the Egyptian Pharaoh who pursued Moses in Exodus.1 As every American schoolchild knows, the Puritans who settled Plymouth, Massachusetts, are the protagonists of the origin story of the United States of America. But this identification between Christian Americans and Jews in search of a promised land was much more than a metaphor and has proven to have major geopolitical consequences that continue to this day.

The phrase that Winthrop used quotes the New Testament, where Jesus tells those gathered to listen to his sermon on the mount, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14). It has distinct parallels to the phrase in Deuteronomy 14:2 that is often used to describe the chosenness of the Jewish people: “For you are a holy people to your God, and God has chosen you to be his treasured people from all the nations that are on the face of the earth.”

Considering together the Puritan notion of America as a city on a hill, which later was quoted by Ronald Reagan on the eve of his election, and the Jews as the chosen people, we can see the parallels of exceptionalism that are at the root of both American and Jewish Zionist identity. Furthermore, this exceptionalism is tied to a sense of persecution by forces that may be the bulwark of hegemonic power but lack the transcendental qualities of moral authority.

In 1776, Benjamin Franklin proposed a seal for the United States. It depicts the Israelites being chased through a parted Red Sea by Pharaoh, who threateningly brandishes his sword. Moses, with the Jewish people behind him, stands on the shore and gestures towards the gathering Egyptian hordes so that the sea will overwhelm them. Above this scene is a fiery pillar, signifying the ferocious blessing of God’s power that lights the way for this ragtag group of refugees as they flee Egypt towards the promised land. Surrounding the seal is the phrase: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”

the American phenomenon of Christian Zionism, a strain of Evangelical ideology that believes that the State of Israel is the product of biblical prophecy. Furthermore, many Christian Zionists believe that the Jews’ gathering in the land of Israel is a precondition for Christ’s Second Coming. The Puritans were among the earliest champions of the restoration of Jews in Palestine. In the nineteenth century, as the Ottoman Empire was crumbling and Zionism was emerging as a nationalist movement, the British Empire was the site of the greatest Christian Zionist zeal. After WW I, when Palestine was under the British Mandate, the Balfour Declaration could be seen as a product of centuries of British Protestant support of Jewish control over historic Palestine. But after the end of the British Mandate and the establishment of the State of Israel, the base of Christian Zionist support for Israel shifted from Britain to the United States. This was in keeping with a larger shift in economic and cultural power that included the growing influence of American Jewish Zionists in a post-war reality.

While American Christian Zionism had strong Puritan roots that sustained themselves through colonial and even nineteen century America, it wasn’t until post-WW I that American Christian Zionism began to gain momentum along with the growing political power of Evangelical Protestantism. In 1932, the Pro-Palestine Federation of America was founded by Christian leaders in Chicago and the American Palestine Council was also established that year as a joint effort of Jews and Gentiles. Then in 1948, when the State of Israel was established, American Christian Zionists saw it as a sign from God. The power of the Christian Right grew in the wake of WW II, as the Cold War was increasingly seen as a battle between good and evil. Evangelical leaders such as Carl McIntire, creator of the American Council of Christian Churches (ACCC) and Billy Graham emerged during this post-war era. In 1967, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem, they argued that it was not only a further sign from God that the Jewish people were receiving the bounty of a divine promise, but also that the Jewish State should be an ally against Communism.
The gestures of friendship between Evangelicals in the US and Israel went both ways. In the 1950s David Ben-Gurion met with W.A. Criswell, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, who went on to preach in Texas about the importance of the Jewish control of the Holy Land. In 1959, Ben-Gurion received Oral Roberts, one the founders of the American Evangelical movement and in 1961 the Israeli Prime Minister pushed for the World Conference of Pentecostal Churches to be held in Jerusalem. In the 1960s and 1970s, which saw a growth in the power of Christian Zionists in American politics, Israel was shifting from a secular socialist form of Zionism to a more privatized one. In 1977, when Menachem Begin was elected Prime Minister in Israel, it signaled not only a more capitalist set of economic policies but also the rise of the religious right in Israel. In 1979, the year of the Islamic revolution of Iran, Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in the United States. Begin is often credited as the source of the alliance between American Christian Zionists and Israel.
In the 1980s Jerry Falwell played a pivotal role in helping build US support for Israeli policies. When President Clinton summoned Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington DC in 1998, the latter called Falwell who, with Voices United for Israel, arranged for 1500 evangelicals to welcome him at the Mayflower Hotel. Falwell also promised Netanyahu that he would mobilize 200,000 pastors to preach to their congregations against the principle of Israel handing over any portion of the West Bank to the Palestinians.
The attacks of September 11, 2001 marked a huge acceleration of the influence of Christian Zionists on US-Israeli policy. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) in a speech on the Senate floor likened the narratives of the United States and Israel, struggling against the same enemy. This image of Americans and Israelites jointly under threat by a nefarious Middle Eastern tyrant invokes the seal that Keren quotes from. Osama Bin Laden of Al Qaida, Sadam Hussein of Iraq, Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah, or Khaled Mashal of Hamas all became conflated as the dreaded figureheads of Islamic extremism that both the US and Israel must combat in a theological struggle.

Christians United for Israel became a political force in this context. Originally founded in 1992 by David Lewis, it really gained prominence once it came under the leadership of the Reverend John Hagee. Hagee runs the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas. His ministry is telecast on ten television networks to one hundred fifty million households in America. Hagee’s 2005 book Jerusalem Countdown (Grand Rapids, MI: Frontline) predicted that Russia and Islamic nations will invade Israel and be destroyed by God. This will cause the antichrist, who happens to be the head of the European Union according to Hagee, to initiate a confrontation between China and the West. In this Apocalyptic final battle, Israel and Jerusalem are at the center and America’s role is to ally with God. Hagee has turned Christians United for Israel (CUFI) into a powerful political force that claims an army of three million Christians who support Israeli policies. Its 2017 annual Washington summit has included speakers such as Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Joseph Lieberman, Senator John Cornyn, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
CUFI’s Washington Summit functions in many ways like an Evangelical service. There are stirring speeches that often involve call and response. They are Brechtian theater par excellence, eschewing passive spectatorship in favor of active inclusion in the word of God and participation in salvation. These gatherings embrace affect, using feelings of fear and its antidote, the power of the grace of God and divine blessing.

Tali Keren’s interactive installation, which invites participants to inhabit the voices of Christian Zionists, uses karaoke conventions to further the participatory qualities of the CUFI summits. By deconstructing the performative nature of the statements made at these convenings of political theology, she emphasizes the words delivered from a lectern to a rapt audience as speech acts. The words delivered and the words received activate and reify not only individual belief systems but also the ties that bind a set of communities. In Keren’s work the user, who steps up to the microphone, can see video clips that scan across an audience that smiles and cheers back.
Keren asks the viewer/participant to say things like:
The ghosts of tyrants are once again
walking across the stage of human history.
They feel our weakness and are using it against us
Today, you are called to stand up.
Because to see evil and not call it evil is evil.
Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.
Ladies and gentlemen, when you go to Capitol Hill,
I want you to deliver,
One Single powerful message
To our politicians.
Say: Israel has the right to the borders established by God.
Because Messiah is coming
He is coming to Jerusalem
The city of God.

In this statement, the viewer/participant is asked to be a leader and a spokesperson for a community. They are asked to be John Winthrop or John Hagee, and not only narrate a vision of history but also participate in the activation of a community to protest tyranny. This community is told that they, the believing Christians and Jews, are weak in the face of secular anti-Zionist forces. But they are also told that to overcome this tyranny, they must form a collective of bodies and voices. This narrative echoes Jewish forms of Zionism developed in the wake of the Holocaust. Jews were perceived at the time as weakened by the tyranny of fascism, and were advised to turn to collectivism, in the form of kibbutzim, in order to form a strong community that would transform them into new Jews, tough Jews, who would never make the same mistakes as before and be lead like lambs to slaughter.
By inviting viewers/participants to perform speeches, Keren highlights an important aspect of political ideology. That is, the ways in which speeches to large crowds aggregate power by stirring up belief and provoking the masses towards action. This was the power of Winthrop’s speech to his Puritan pilgrims and Reagan’s citation of Winthrop’s metaphor of the “city on a hill,” when he instrumentalized it towards his redefinition of tyranny, in his case – communism. These speeches occur in the context of a communal assembly, bodies in space that perform political power. Externally they convey a unified front that demonstrates their collective support of Israel. They are “united for Israel.” Therein lies their power to lobby US politicians. But they also perform a communal act of self-identification for the crowd, a reification of the subjectivity of each individual in relation to Christian Zionist ideology. When tied with speech acts, these assemblies can be very powerful in generating an affective relationship to ideology. In the video footage that Keren displays on teleprompters that function like karaoke monitors, we can see this on the beaming faces of the crowd as they shout, weep with joy, and wave their arms in unison. And by inviting the viewers/participants to perform these speeches, she asks them to see what it feels like to elicit such feelings from a crowd, to see that words can have this power, and that communal assembly is a crucial context. Furthermore, Keren asks the viewer/participant to be complicit in these speech acts.
Keren’s work demonstrates the overlapping sensibilities of Christian and Jewish Zionism at the service of two nation states, America and Israel. Both include a belief in self-determination and divine right. But the mythology of these nations as an oppressed group of righteous insurgents against tyranny is a bizarre inversion of the real power structures at play. Evangelical Christians, who believe that American society has left behind family values, ignore the enormous power and influence of Christianity in the political sphere. As for Israel, the fallacy of the Israeli Jewish Zionist as an underdog fighting against the tyranny of the surrounding Arab and Muslim states is no more evident than in Eyal Weizman’s narrative of the development of settlements in the West Bank. Weizman tells us that often a settlement begins with one, two or three families who set up a cluster of caravans on the top of a hill in an act of civil disobedience. This community then grows in numbers as they attract more and more people to join them. They then lobby the government to connect this provisional community to public utilities like electrical power, water, and sewage. Soon this small community develops into a city on a hill, both a beacon of Zionist power in what they call Judea and Samaria, and also an instrument of civilian occupation, which collaborates with military occupation through surveillance.
Both American and Israeli history share the narrative of the pilgrim and the pioneer, but also, the less often acknowledged history of colonialism, settlement, and domination over an indigenous population. What Keren’s work reminds us of is that Christian Zionism is more than just a metaphor concerning two nations. From the perspective of John Hagee and others like him, it is the story of a match made in heaven, two nations that not only share similar histories, values, and strategic goals but also have been chosen by God to work together against the forces of tyranny. Perhaps by inviting us to speak their words and imagine ourselves in the spaces where these politics are performed, Keren will provoke us not only to feel the power of their community but also seriously question the legitimacy of their zealotry.

1 Victoria Clark, Allies For Armageddon: The Rise of Christian Zionism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), p. 39.
2 Donald Lewis, The Origins of Christian Zionism: Lord Shaftsbury and Evangelical Support for a Jewish Homeland (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
3 Clifford A Kiracofe, Dark Crusade: Christian Zionism and US Foreign Policy (London and New York: IB Tauris, 2009) pp. 100-122.
4 Stephen Spector, Evangelicals and Israel: The Story of American Christian Zionism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) p. 144.
5 The Israeli pavilion at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennial presented a study of this shift, looking at the growing influence of the US in Israel in the 1970s, which was tied to a process of Israeli privatization. The title of the exhibition, Aircraft Carrier, alluded to US Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s humorous observation that Israel since the 1970s was “the largest American aircraft carrier in the world,” implying that the shifts in economic policy and diplomatic alliances were tied to US cold war strategy. See Milana Gitzin-Adiram, Erez Ella, Dan Handel (eds.), Aircraft Carrier: American Ideas and Israeli Architectures after 1973 (Hatje Cantz, 2012).
6 Spector, p. 148.
7 Robert O. Smith, More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) p. 7.
8 This book was made into a kitschy film in 2011 starring Lee Majors, who is famous for starring in the 1970s TV show “The Six Million Dollar Man,” and Stacy Keach.
9 J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Harvard, 1975).
10 Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (London: Verso, 2007).

Tali_New_Proof_V1_spreads (1).pdf