Since the best-selling Left Behind series, the religious right in the US has been obsessed with Israel. Their support is not because they revere the Jewish traditions; in this Christian Zionist Armageddon belief, Israel is simply the setting for the longed-for Rapture – an evacuation plan that saves only Christians. All other religions are left to endure the Tribulations.
For decades this belief has dominated our international foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. Even today it is the subtext for much of the pro-Israel “blind support” as Rabbi Michael Lerner writes about in his recent letter: “There are an estimated 30 million Christian Zionists, and they play an important role in shaping the dynamics of the Republican Party and the Christian Right.”
Here’s an excerpt from the recent memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, by author Brenda Peterson, which describes the darkly comic, but deeply troubling world view that comes from this Rapture-bound belief still shaping our Middle East policies.
NEW YORK CITY LIFE seemed to take place against a brazenly artificial movie set, not on an actual island anchored between real rivers. I was mugged three times the first few weeks I was in Manhattan, until a friend kindly advised me, “Keep your eyes straight ahead and walk with purpose – as if you are late for everything.” I had landed a job like assignment writing in the editorial department of The New Yorker magazine but had no place to live. So my friend’s father – who was president of a Jewish philanthropic organization – found a dorm room for me in the Ninety-second Street Y. But I had to pass a rigorous interview.
“You can teach those Israelis a thing or two about scripture,” Mrs. Simha told me after grilling me for what seemed hours on my religious background. Raised by fervent Southern Baptists, I’d long ago left the fold to search for my own spiritual path.
“You’ll be the only shiksa here,” she said. “Watch out that the more militant Israelis don’t tear the mezuzah off your door in protest.” Life as the only Gentile in the Ninety-second Street Jewish Y dormitory was yet another immersion in a new language and culture. When I told my mother where I was living and that on my salary even the Y was a stretch, she responded, “You’re living in the Old Testament! I hope you can save a few of your friends, dear. You know, they’re still waiting for the Messiah!”
“Aren’t you too?” I asked.
“Well,” Mother paused, and then added fiercely, “at least we Christians know He came down here in the first place!” She paused, and then took a milder tact. “But it’s good you have Jewish friends, honey. You know what an important role they are playing in bringing about . . . ,” she hesitated, as if struggling with herself, then insisted, “well, what some of us still believe is God’s plan.”
“Do we have to talk about the end of the world again now, Mother?” I sighed.
I glanced down the hallway of the top-floor dormitory. No other girls were waiting yet to use the hall pay phone. We both had time on our hands, and Mother was paying for the call. So we were off again in our endless End Times wrangling. Mother had recently sent me an audiotape on “the Great White Throne of Judgment” and another one of her hand-me-down thrillers. She had always been downright evangelical about her spy novels – or, as I’d heard one of the magazine critics disdainfully call it, “spy-fi.”
Mother had not warned me about the book’s gleeful Armageddon violence, but she had advised, “Just skip the sex scenes.” Propped now against the dormitory wall and tethered to the pay phone, I chided myself for falling into another family philosophical slugfest – what I’d come to think of as similar to Jacob’s wrestling with angels. The story of Jacob was one of my own and my mother’s Bible story favorites: Jacob, who had already tricked his brother Esau out of a patriarchal blessing, finds himself wrestling all night with an angel. Jacob will not let the muscular angel go “except thou bless me.” The blessing comes with a wound to Jacob’s thigh and an annunciation. Jacob’s name will be changed to “Yisrael” because “as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.”
In the long weeknight Bible studies of my childhood, I had listened to many interpretations of this story. Most of the Southern Baptist truisms centered on how Christians struggle with God and survive the mortal combat of seeing Him face-to-face. The emphasis was on survival rather than the dark night of the soul, the inner struggle. But living in the Y as the lone shiksa and listening to theological of research paper for sale debates from another perspective had given me a vivid new interpretation of this Torah story. The focus here was on God’s changing Jacob’s name to Yisrael, or “one who wrestles with God.” Several of my Y friends believed that it was actually our spiritual responsibility to argue with God.
“For Jews, God is not some dictator who always has to win every argument and battle,” my roommate Rachel explained to me as we sat in the dormitory kitchen talking late into the night – Jacob-like.
In the communal refrigerator, we kept our food in locked metal compartments, like little safe deposit boxes. Rachel, a struggling actor and an extraordinary cook on a low budget, shared her stash with me. I had been living on tuna and bagels. And on paydays I always blew half my food allowance on challah, cheese, and deli food at Zabar’s, where I had once fainted from the crush of the crowd.
“God is a good rabbi who enjoys a feisty . . . do you know the word midrash?” Rachel continued.
I did not. But I was picking up some handy Yiddish and had delighted in confiding to my brother that our family was meshuga.
“Midrash,” Rachel said, “means, you know, a real back-and- forth commentary on what we believe. There are no easy moral answers. That’s why Jacob has to wrestle with God.”
Since as a youngster I’d been banished from Vacation Bible School for disagreeing that God would get personally involved in finding Mrs. Eula’s contact lens, I had come to believe that doubt and questioning were as important as belief. Jacob’s struggling with his angel, whether it was the Creator or his own demons, was still one of my favorite stories because of its ambiguity, its haunting equipoise between divine and human.
“You mean,” I had to laugh, “God is not the heavyweight champion of the world?”
“God is a mystery – equal to our own,” Rachel said quietly and presented me with her homemade rhubarb tarts.
I was so struck by her dessert and her words that I wrote them down. Our late-night discussions were one of the reasons I was so content living in the Y and would have happily stayed on for years if there hadn’t been a waiting list for my room.
Now standing in the hallway of the Jewish Y, I tried to wind up the conversation with my mother on the communal phone – several other girls were now impatiently waiting, rolling their eyes. They understood mothers.
“Mother, I gotta go now, but thanks so much for your scrumptious Christmas care package.”
“Maybe I should visit and cook you some real food,” she held on. “Are you sure you’re really getting enough to eat up there?”
“Mother, I’m in Manhattan!” I said and suddenly heard in my voice a new tone. It was only the slightest shading – supercilious, annoyed, and righteous, but it so startled me that I fell silent.
Mother continued in a softer voice. “Oh, I worry about you in that godless city.”
My mother’s tenderness always surprised and touched me. “Don’t worry, Mother.” I tried to ease her concerns. “There are preachers here on every street corner. And I’m having long dialogues about Old Testament stories here in the Jewish Y.”
“Well, honey,” she said, “if you wanted to live with Jewish people in some sort of commune, why couldn’t you go to Israel and work on a kibbutz or something?” Mother then admitted excitedly, “I’ve always wanted to visit the Holy Land.”
My mother was not alone among evangelicals in her longing to visit Israel. Ever since the 1967 Six-Day or Arab-Israeli War – when Israel gained control of much larger territories from the Sinai Peninsula to the Gaza Strip to eastern Jerusalem – many conservative evangelical Christians had flooded to the Holy Land. They were tourists with a mission – forging a surprisingly strong, if uneasy, alliance between evangelicals who believed that Jews were God’s people, chosen to bring about the fulfillment of the pre-millennialist prophecies of End Times. One of Israel’s most passionate supporters of Grademiners.com was the late fundamentalist icon Jerry Falwell. The Moral Majority’s Reverend Tim LaHaye, author of the “Left Behind” series, was a frequent and very welcome guest in Israel, meeting with governmental officials. This new and odd alliance of evangelical Americans and Zionists was not greeted by my Jewish friends in New York as fortuitous.
After a close reading of my mother’s The Late Great Planet Earth, Rachel had commented dryly, “Okay, so evangelicals still believe that Jews are the chosen people. But unless we convert at the end of all the holy wars to their Messiah, we’re still damned – disposable. Jews are just, well, stepping-stones on the evangelicals’ way up their heavenly staircase.”
“That’s about it,” I had said. As if in apology, I offered my roommate some homemade cherry fudge and black-walnut divinitythat my mother had sent with a note: “You are too thin. Eat more desserts! And let me know a good time to come visit. I’ll come by train, of course.”
When my mother – an e-Wabash Cannonball railroader during WWII – did visit New York, I was no longer living in the Jewish Y. But Rachel and I still met often to debate scripture and exchange recipes.
Arriving in Penn Station, Mother exclaimed giddily, “This is hell . . . a real Sodom and Gomorrah!” Thrilled, she locked arms with me and off we went into to happily tour this godless city.
Brenda Peterson is the author of 18 books, including I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, which was named among “Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Books” by Christian Science Monitor and chosen as an Indie Next “Great Read” by independent booksellers. Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir, co-authored with Sarah Jane Freymann, was just featured on Oprah.com. www.BrendaPetersonBooks.com