The Theological, Political, and Personal Roots of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Zionism

One of the most influential Protestant thinkers of 20th-century America, Reinhold Niebuhr also helped lay the theoretical foundations for the cold-war liberalism of the postwar decades. He was, moreover, a vocal supporter of Zionism since at least the 1930s, believing that Jews were entitled not just to rights as individuals, but as a nation. Indeed, even before coming to Zionism, Niebuhr had already broken from what was then accepted Christian thinking concerning the Jews. Shalom Goldman writes:

The seeds of Niebuhr’s philo-Semitism were planted in his childhood, . . . in the small midwestern town of Wright City, Missouri. There [his father, the German-born] 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. [Gustav] taught his five children the ancient languages and texts. . . .

In his Detroit congregation, in 1923, Pastor Reinhold Niebuhr preached about the necessity of increasing the numbers of Jews who join the Christian fold. . . . 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.” . . . 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. . . .

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. . . . In some matters Niebuhr [initially] aligned himself with the proposals of Brit Shalom, the group formed by Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and Ernst Simon, [that] called for a binational state [in Palestine]. Yet while Niebuhr was attracted to the idea, he eventually deemed it “unrealistic.”

During the Suez Crisis [in the mid-1950s], 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.”

Read more at Tablet

More about: Christian Zionism, History & Ideas, Jewish-Christian relations, Philo-Semitism, Reinhold Niebuhr, Suez Crisis

The ICJ’s Vice-President Explains What’s Wrong with Its Recent Ruling against Israel

It should be obvious to anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of the Gaza war that Israel is not committing genocide there, or anything even remotely akin to it. In response to such spurious accusations, it’s often best to focus on the mockery they make of international law itself, or on how Israel can most effectively combat them. Still, it is also worth stopping to consider the legal case on its own terms. No one has done this quite so effectively, to my knowledge, as the Ugandan jurist Julia Sebutinde, who is the vice-president of the ICJ and the only one of its judges to rule unequivocally in Israel’s favor both in this case and in the previous one where it found accusations of genocide “plausible.”

Sebutinde begins by questioning the appropriateness of the court ruling on this issue at all:

Once again, South Africa has invited the Court to micromanage the conduct of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. Such hostilities are exclusively governed by the laws of war (international humanitarian law) and international human-rights law, areas where the Court lacks jurisdiction in this case.

The Court should also avoid trying to enforce its own orders. . . . Is the Court going to reaffirm its earlier provisional measures every time a party runs to it with allegations of a breach of its provisional measures? I should think not.

Sebutinde also emphasizes the absurdity of hearing this case after Israel has taken “multiple concrete actions” to alleviate the suffering of Gazan civilians since the ICJ’s last ruling. In fact, she points out, “the evidence actually shows a gradual improvement in the humanitarian situation in Gaza since the Court’s order.” She brings much evidence in support of these points.

She concludes her dissent by highlighting the procedural irregularities of the case, including a complete failure to respect the basic rights of the accused:

I find it necessary to note my serious concerns regarding the manner in which South Africa’s request and incidental oral hearings were managed by the Court, resulting in Israel not having sufficient time to file its written observations on the request. In my view, the Court should have consented to Israel’s request to postpone the oral hearings to the following week to allow for Israel to have sufficient time to fully respond to South Africa’s request and engage counsel. Regrettably, as a result of the exceptionally abbreviated timeframe for the hearings, Israel could not be represented by its chosen counsel, who were unavailable on the dates scheduled by the Court.

It is also regrettable that Israel was required to respond to a question posed by a member of the Court over the Jewish Sabbath. The Court’s decisions in this respect bear upon the procedural equality between the parties and the good administration of justice by the Court.

Read more at International Court of Justice

More about: Gaza War 2023, ICC, International Law