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Reinhold Niebuhr’s Zionism

The philo-Semitism of an influential American pastor who inspired Martin Luther King Jr., and the role of civil rights in the Jewish cause for nationhood

Shalom Goldman
January 23, 2019
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

In the American Midwest of the early 20th century there were many missionary organizations working to convert Jews to Christianity. In his Detroit congregation, in 1923, Pastor Reinhold Niebuhr preached on the necessity of increasing the numbers of Jews who would join the Christian fold. According to Niebuhr, there were two reasons why Jews did not convert: “The un-Christlike attitude of Christians” and “Jewish bigotry.” Yet Niebuhr would soon reconsider his position, influenced, he wrote, by his experience of the Detroit Jewish community’s commitment to “better the welfare of the poor, the unemployed, and those who suffered from racial discrimination.”

In the 1920s and ’30s, many prominent social activists in Detroit were Jews. When Niebuhr arrived in the city, his mentor, Episcopal Bishop Charles Williams, told him that “in the weightier matter of social justice there were only two Christians in Detroit, and they were both Jews.” By 1926 Niebuhr had rejected completely the idea of a mission to Jews. As his biographer R.W. Fox noted, Niebuhr understood by this time that “Christians needed the leaven of pure Hebraism to counteract the Hellenism to which they were prone.” Niebuhr now argued forcefully that Christians had no business trying to convert Jews.

Niebuhr was aware that by rejecting the idea of converting the Jews he was challenging a sanctioned concept in Christian life. For Niebuhr the removal of Christian animosity toward the Jews would allow genuine dialogue between the two faiths. The philosophical underpinning of his stance was this: As both the Jewish and Christian ideas of covenant base themselves on revelation in history, members of each faith community must admit that no objective view is possible within the context of a faith commitment. For Niebuhr the Gospel’s portrayal of the Jews of Jesus’ time as Pharisees, legalists, and betrayers is the subjective view of one historical Jewish party—a party that later developed into Christianity. By the late 1950s Niebuhr was suggesting that contemporary Christians engaged in dialogue with Jews move away from making claims to absolute truth toward a stance that emphasizes the notion of “a double covenant.”

To make the case against missionizing the Jews, Niebuhr enlisted the authority of his brother H. Richard Niebuhr. Both brothers felt that attempts to Christianize Jews “negated every gesture of our common biblical inheritance.”

There was also a pragmatic point to be made. Both brothers recognized that “the mission to the Jews” was, for the most part, a dismal failure. Yet Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that “when some of us questioned the ecumenical wisdom of those not too successful missions to the Jews, we were met with sympathy, as well as a warning that our concern was ‘heretical.’”

The seeds of Niebuhr’s philo-Semitism were planted in his childhood. The American Protestant encounter with the Hebrew language and the text of the Bible often (but surely not always) created an atmosphere conducive to the acceptance of Jews and Judaism. In the case of the Niebuhr family the encounter began in the small Midwestern town of Wright City, Missouri, in the 1880s. There, Pastor Gustav Niebuhr of the German Evangelical Church began each day with readings in Hebrew and Greek from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

Yet Pastor Niebuhr felt very much alone in rural Missouri. He found no other scholars of the biblical languages with whom he could share his passion for biblical philology; if Niebuhr wanted company in his studies he would have to create and cultivate his own students. And that is exactly what he did—he taught his five children the ancient languages and texts, and he and his wife, Lydia, instilled in their children a love of scholarly inquiry, debate, and theological reflection. Three of their offspring—Hulda, the eldest daughter, and the two youngest sons, Reinhold and H. Richard—became household names in American Protestant circles, dominating the academic and clerical scenes for the first two-thirds of the 20th century.

In 1943, Niebuhr joined the “Committee of One Hundred” prominent Americans who supported the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Niebuhr’s vision of a just society would strongly influence Martin Luther King Jr. Recalling his years as a King aide, Andrew Young told an interviewer that “King always claimed to have been much more influenced by Niebuhr than by Gandhi; he considered his nonviolent technique to be a Niebuhrian strategy of power.”

For Niebuhr, what was missing in contemporary Christian life was a hard-nosed sense of how to be effective in the real worlds of politics, business, and diplomacy. He contrasted the “concrete communal situations in which Jewish norms were established,” with “a Christian universalism that oftentimes tended toward vagueness and irrelevance.” Niebuhr highlighted the Judaic roots of both socialism and early Christianity. “The Hebrews took the correct middle ground between the optimism which conceived the world as possessing unqualified sanctity and goodness and the pessimism which relegated historic existence to a realm of meaningless cycles.”

In the late-1920s, Niebuhr was invited to teach at Union Theological Seminary (UTS) in New York. There he occupied the Chair of Christian Ethics, a position created for him. At UTS, and in the larger New York City scene of the 1930s, Niebuhr came into close contact with the rich cultural lives and difficult economic situations of the city’s ethnic minorities. Living in New York and coming into contact with Jews also made him more aware of the situation of Jews in Europe. According to one of his biographers, “Niebuhr was among the first of leading Protestants to direct attention to the rising wave of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany. Throughout the decade of the 1930s Niebuhr warned of the threat to Jewish survival in Germany.” For Niebuhr the fight against racism in the United States was linked to the struggle against fascism and anti-Semitism in Europe.

Niebuhr’s support for a Jewish state, which began well before World War II, was not explicitly theological, either. Unlike Evangelical Christians, Niebuhr did not see the “Restoration of the Jews” as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, or as a precursor of the “End of Days.” Niebuhr based his support for Jewish statehood on clearly pragmatic grounds.

The Zionist thinker who most deeply influenced Niebuhr was Justice Louis Brandeis. According to Niebuhr: “Brandeis understood in 1916 what many a Gentile liberal will never learn. ‘We Jews,’ he said, ‘are a distinct nationality of which every Jew is necessarily a member. Let us insist that the struggle for liberty shall not cease until equal opportunity is accorded to nationalities as to individuals.’”

The variety of opinions within the Zionist world intrigued and amused Niebuhr. Within these contending groups he found pro-Jewish state ideologies that fit with his already-formulated concepts concerning the place of morality in political action. At first, Niebuhr was drawn to a pacifist approach to nationalism, one that could be achieved without the use of coercion. But within a few years he became convinced that peaceful resolution of the emerging conflict between Jews and Palestinian Arabs was unlikely, and he moved to a more activist approach.

In the early 1940s Niebuhr wrote a series of articles titled “Jews After the War.” Richard W. Fox called these articles “an eloquent statement of the Zionist case: The Jews had rights not just as individuals, but as a people, and they deserved not just a homeland, but a homeland in Palestine.” These articles were published in the Nation in February 1942; by the spring of that year Niebuhr had 200 invitations to address Jewish groups throughout the United States. He accepted many of the invitations.

Throughout the war Niebuhr reiterated his call for American support of Zionism. The situation of the Jews of Europe demanded America’s help. “Americans,” he wrote “should support the Zionist program as correct in principle, however much it may have to be qualified in application.” This pragmatic approach to Zionism enabled Niebuhr to articulate a more nuanced approach to the emerging Arab-Jewish conflict in British Mandate Palestine. In a prescient meditation on religion and conflict, Niebuhr asked:

How is the ancient and hereditary title of the Jews to Palestine to be measured against the right of the Arab’s present possession? … The participants cannot find a common ground of rational morality from which to arbitrate the issues because the moral judgments which each brings to them are formed by the historical forces which are in conflict. … The effort to bring such a conflict under the dominion of a spiritual unity may be partly successful, but it always produces a tragic by-product of the spiritual accentuation of natural conflict. The introduction of religious motives into these conflicts is usually no more than the final and most demonic pretension.

In 1941 Niebuhr spoke at the annual convention of the B’nai B’rith organization. There he came out in favor of U.S. support for a Jewish state in Palestine. He repeated this call in a speech the following year to the leadership of the Reform movement, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Toward the end of World War II Niebuhr joined other prominent Christian leaders to found the American Christian Palestine Committee. As its representative he lectured on its behalf in many cities across the nation in 1945 and 1946. The committee printed 10,000 copies of his articles “Jews After the War” for distribution throughout the United States.

While he was deeply concerned about finding a refuge for the Jews who had survived the Nazi terror, Niebuhr also expressed concern for the fate of the Palestinian Arabs. As Niebuhr biographer June Bingham noted, “At no time, however, was Niebuhr an uncritical Zionist.” This nuanced approach was unusual among supporters of the emerging Jewish state. In some matters Niebuhr aligned himself with the proposals of Brit Shalom, the group formed by Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and Ernst Simon. These Jewish intellectuals, resident in Palestine, called for a binational state. Yet while Niebuhr was attracted to the idea, he eventually deemed it “unrealistic.”

In November 1947, on the eve of the United Nations vote on the partition of Palestine, Niebuhr and six other prominent American intellectuals wrote a long letter to The New York Times. The letter examined the ways in which a Jewish state in the Middle East would serve American interests. “Politically, we would like to see the lands of the Middle East practice democracy as we do here. … Thus far there is only one vanguard of progress and modernization in the Middle East, and that is Jewish Palestine.”

For Niebuhr and other liberals the issues were those of justice and pragmatism. In a remarkably accurate reading of Zionism’s roots, one that emphasized the secular nationalistic roots of the movement and not its religious background, Niebuhr noted that “Zionism is the expression of a national will to live that transcends the traditional orthodox religion of the Jews.” A Jewish state was a necessity because “the bigotry of majority groups toward minority groups that affront the majority by diverging from the dominant type is a perennial aspect of man’s collective life. The force of it may be mitigated, but it cannot be wholly eliminated.”

Niebuhr’s early encounters with secular Jews in Detroit shaped his preference for liberal Judaism, and he extended this preference to his hopes for the role of religion in the young State of Israel. In 1957 he warned that the forces of Jewish Orthodoxy would endanger Israeli democracy. He predicted that Orthodox rule in Israel “would fasten upon this essentially secular community political standards directly derived from the Book of Deuteronomy.”

Yet neither Niebuhr’s concern for the fate of the Arab refugees nor his fear of Orthodox encroachment on the lives of citizens in a secular state weakened his vocal political support for Israel. The Suez Crisis of 1956, in which Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt after the Egyptian nationalization of the Suez Canal, elicited strong American condemnation of the invading powers. President Eisenhower led the demand to reverse the results of the conflict, a demand that led to a U.N. resolution calling for Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula.

During the Suez Crisis, Niebuhr’s was one of the few influential American Christian voices calling for unqualified support of Israel. As the Soviet Union supported Egypt with arms, Niebuhr felt that the United States should support Israel, for “the very life of the new nation of Israel is at stake.”

In the 1950s and ’60s Niebuhr articulated a worldview that criticized the excesses of capitalism and supported civil rights. He was fiercely critical of communist governments. As a founder of Americans for Democratic Action he influenced intellectuals such as George Kennan and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and was a pioneer in Jewish-Christian relations. In all of his work, Niebuhr saw himself as influenced by “the Jewish passion for justice.” And though Niebuhr’s commitment to Zionism was somewhat qualified by his concern for the rights of the Palestinians, his political support for the Jewish state never wavered.

In the 1950s, Niebuhr often invoked the metaphor of David and Goliath to describe Israel and the Arab states. In a 1956 essay in Christianity and Crisis Niebuhr proclaimed that “the state of Israel is, whatever its limitations, a heartening adventure in nationhood. … Whatever our political or religious positions may be, it is not possible to withhold admiration, sympathy and respect for such an achievement.” This statement and others like it both reflected and helped shape American liberal opinion in 1950s America. By the time the 1967 Middle East war broke out, most Americans had no doubt as to who was David and who was Goliath in the unfolding conflict.

In The Question of Palestine (1979), Edward Said questioned the sincerity of Niebuhr’s expressions of concern for the Palestinians. Though Niebuhr’s support for the Jewish state was often qualified by expressions of concern for the fate of the Palestinians, Said sees these expressions as mere rhetorical flourishes. According to Said, Niebuhr, in joining the Zionist cause, and in tying Zionist aspirations to American interests, was promoting a worldview that “Zionism on its own merits is a marvelous, admirable thing which is accountable to no one and nothing, mainly because it corresponds so completely with Western ideas about society and man.”

“Niebuhr’s intellectual authority has been very great in American cultural life,” Said adds. “What he says, therefore, has the force of that authority.” To demonstrate this authority, Said points to the 1947 group letter to The New York Times, where Niebuhr and his colleagues had identified “Jewish Palestine as the vanguard of progress and modernization in the Middle East.” Said reads this passage from the letter as “the appropriation of quasi-Marxist language to promote a fundamentally colonialist scheme.”

For Said, what Niebuhr, et al. had called “these two islands of western civilization”—Jewish Palestine and Christian Lebanon—are in fact “Western colonies.” In praising the governments and peoples of these two “islands,” “Niebuhr doesn’t feel it necessary to say what should be evident to any civilized Western. Islam is the enemy of Judaism and Christianity and therefore ‘our’ policy ought to be the support of Jewish Palestine and Christian Lebanon.”

In the early to middle 1960s Niebuhr was a strong vocal supporter of Martin Luther King Jr., especially as King was being challenged daily by advocates of Black Power to take a stand which would have condoned violence against whites, which he refused to do. In 1966 Niebuhr said of Martin Luther King Jr., “He was still the most creative Protestant white or black.” Niebuhr, allied with both King and A.J. Heschel on civil rights, also opposed the war in Vietnam, and actively supported a new organization, Clergyman Concerned about Vietnam.

In 1967 the Hebrew University of Jerusalem awarded Niebuhr an honorary doctorate. His health prevented him from accepting the award in person. The award was in recognition of Niebuhr’s intellectual achievements as well as his lasting contribution to promoting Israel’s cause in the United States.

Niebuhr, in his mid-70s, made detailed plans for his death and funeral. A bout of pneumonia in early 1971 weakened him considerably. With his wife, Ursula, he decided to ask Rabbi Heschel to speak at the funeral. When they learned that Heschel, too, was quite ill (having suffered a heart attack a few months earlier) they were deeply upset. In a conversation with Heschel’s colleague and student, Rabbi Seymour Siegel, Niebuhr broke down in tears and told Siegel of the great influence Heschel had on him; Niebuhr spoke of “how through their association he had come to understand Jewish spirituality and the meaning of Jewish law; how he had deepened his appreciation of prophetic religion.”

On June 1, 1971, Niebuhr died at the age of 78. Abraham Joshua Heschel was well enough to deliver the eulogy at a memorial service in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He opened in this dramatic manner: “This is a critical moment in the lives of many of us, in the history of religion in America: to say farewell to the physical existence of the master and to pray. Abide, continue to dwell in our midst, spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr.”

Heschel closed his lament for Reinhold Niebuhr with readings from Job and from the Psalms. But before he turned to the Bible for consolation and praise, Heschel masterfully summed up Niebuhr’s accomplishment and influence: “He appeared among us like a sublime figure out of the Hebrew Bible. Intent on intensifying responsibility, he was impatient of excuse, contemptuous of pretense and self-pity.”

Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel.

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