A bit of a brouhaha has erupted regarding Sarah Palin and the Jews. It seems that the former governor of Alaska went on television to promote her new book, Going Rogue, and was asked by Barbara Walters what she thought of Israel’s West Bank settlements. “I disagree with the Obama administration on that,” Palin replied. “I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expanded upon, because that population of Israel is, is going to grow. More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead. And I don’t think that the Obama administration has any right to tell Israel that the Jewish settlements cannot expand.”
When I read her reply, I thought that it was wonderful. In the two generations in which I’ve been covering the Middle East debate, it was one of the few times a public figure gave in response to a question about the settlements an answer that I would call ideal. It seemed to me courageous, in that Palin was going against not only the administration but many in her own party and the gods of political correctness. There was no shilly-shallying about the Oslo process and the Quartet and the United Nations. Palin didn’t seem particularly worried one way or another about how she might be perceived. She is just on Israel’s side.
But it turns out that one of the shrewdest reporters on the Middle East beat, Jeffrey Goldberg, finds the governor’s language alarming. He put up a post on his Atlantic blog under the headline, “With Friends Like Sarah Palin…”—a phrase that one expects to be finished with the question, “…who needs enemies?” Goldberg wants to know who, exactly, she reckons is going to be flocking to Israel and whether her view grows from her analysis of Jewish demography. Or whether she anticipates a sudden upsurge in Zionist sentiment among American Jews, who are, he points out, the only sizable Jewish community outside Israel.
“Or,” Goldberg asks, “is this an indication that Palin buys into creepy End Times thinking, in which the ingathering of the Jews, and their mass death, presage the return of Christ?”
That is a vision in which Christians are to be gathered up in something called the Rapture. Goldberg was so determined to get to the bottom of the question that he called the executive director of the Pre-Trib Research Center at Liberty University, Thomas Rice, who heads what Goldberg calls “one of the pre-eminent evangelical institutions in this country arguing for the literal Bible prophecy.” Goldberg asked him whether he thought Palin’s statement on Jewish settlements was informed by the belief about a Jewish ingathering to Israel in advance of Armageddon.
Rice, Goldberg reports, said that he’d heard the governor “has been part of an apparently unique movement” whose pastor “believed based on some personal revelation he claims to have gotten from God” that during the Tribulation “the Jews would move to Alaska.” But Rice also expressed his “understanding” that Palin actually holds what he called “fairly typical Protestant Zionist beliefs, and one of those beliefs is the regathering of the Jews in Israel.” He suggested that Palin “may just have a general geopolitical belief that the world is going to be increasingly anti-Semitic.”
I’ve been reading Goldberg long enough to have developed an abiding regard for his reportorial instincts. It turns out that he’s not the only writer worrying about Palin and the Rapture. Frank Rich echoed Goldberg’s worries over the weekend. And last year Alexander Cockburn’s Counterpunch, which specializes in attacking Israel from the left, ran its own warning about the possibility that Palin believes in the Rapture. Its writer, Raymond J. Lawrence, expressed the fear that a “believer in the Rapture with his or her fingers on the nuclear trigger might even be tempted”—apparently in the hope of advancing the Second Coming—“to bring on the Rapture.”
Lawrence reckoned that while Americans were prepared to accept reassurances from John Kennedy that he wouldn’t be taking orders from Rome, it’s not so easy to get around what he sees as the danger of a president who believes in the Rapture. “The problem is both more simple and more worrisome. The public must presume that Palin believes in the Rapture, since it is one of the central doctrines of her church. Furthermore, the American people should assume that Palin’s personal religious beliefs will have consequences in her decision-making as a President.”
Continues Lawrence: “The press and much of the public seem reluctant to engage Palin on her religious views, considering them to be a personal matter. In certain respects that is admirable restraint. We do not want candidates for office grilled on their private religious views as long as those views do not impinge upon the public welfare…. However, a belief in the Rapture as an historic event toward which history is rapidly moving, is a belief with potentially catastrophic political implications. Do the American people want a believer in such a fantasy to hold in her hands the nuclear power to destroy civilization?”
In other words, what Lawrence has done is set up, even while suggesting he is loath to do so, a classic religious test.
Now I don’t believe for a moment that it is distaste for the Rapture that animates Counterpunch; rather, it’s distaste for Israel and the prospect that Jews might settle in Judea and Samaria. That Palin is prepared to leave to the judgment of Israel and its democratic government is what seems to animate the Counterpunch camp. The thing to remember is that if we start allowing religious tests in politics, such tests will eventually be used, as they so often have, against the Jews.
Goldberg’s blog post sent me to the bookstore, and I spent the weekend reading Going Rogue. It turns out to be a marvelous memoir by a very smart, high-spirited woman, who is handling the messiness of family life and the challenges of a public life in a way that is inspiring millions. She may not be a veteran of, say, the anti-communist battles of the free-trade union movement that made Ronald Reagan a sage on the biggest issue of his time, Soviet communism. But she has the kind of clarity of commitment on key themes that he had and the same kind of wholesome optimism—and she’s still young. I couldn’t find anything in the book that made me worry about the fact that even on the difficult issues she supports Israel.