On the terrible day of October 7, 2023, Hamas terrorists crossed the border from Gaza into Israel, murdering and raping their way through a civilian population caught by surprise, with 1,200 dead and more than 200 hostages kidnapped back to Gaza. One would expect news of the worst indiscriminate slaughter of Jews since the end of the Holocaust to prompt horror and revulsion in any civilized person. Yet the immediate response in the most self-consciously “progressive” circles, particularly on university campuses, was to celebrate an attack of wanton savagery—and this before any military response by Israel could have provided even the fig leaf of an excuse for taking the side of Hamas. The rape of scores of women and the killing of Israelis of every age and condition was, the celebrants happily chanted, an act of justified “resistance” to “settler colonialism” by beleaguered Palestinians. 

This moral inversion was shocking, but on reflection, could we say it was surprising? Was it anything new? Some commentators treated it as though it were, and perhaps the scale of the celebratory response was something new. But when I picked up a book published twenty years ago, Gabriel Schoenfeld’s The Return of Anti-Semitism (2004), I found that it would need relatively little updating to describe the present moment. Writing in the aftermath of 9/11 and the American invasion of Iraq, Schoenfeld opened by observing that “today, the most vicious ideas about Jews are primarily voiced not by downtrodden and disenfranchised fringe elements of society but by its most successful, educated and ‘progressive’ members.” 

Schoenfeld’s book provides a brisk tour through the permutations of contemporary anti-Semitism. In the Islamic world, even countries at peace with Israel such as Egypt steadily churn out fantastic lies about the Jewish people in the guise of educational materials. In Europe, once a “net exporter” of anti-Semitism but now an importer, Muslim immigrant radicals attack their Jewish neighbors, secular neofascists on the Right engage in their own violence, and elites of the left spout accusations of Israeli “genocide” and traffic in modern versions of the ancient blood libel. In the United States, Schoenfeld finds things still “gratifyingly different,” but he observes—in 2004—that matters are getting worse on the Right and much worse on the Left. This appears to be still more true today. 

Anyone wishing to level the charge of anti-Semitism is obliged to say that criticism of the acts undertaken by the state of Israel is not in itself anti-Semitic. But as Schoenfeld says, anti-Semitism “very often travels under an alias,” namely “anti-Zionism.” The putative distinction between the two “antis” collapses when one understands two things. The first is that anti-Zionists who reject the existence of Israel and the presence of Jews there, given the impossibility of a mass evacuation, are expressing a desire to destroy an entire people that has maintained a presence in the land of Israel, large or small, continuously for three thousand years. The second is that when opposition to Israel’s very existence becomes an excuse for attacks on Jews everywhere else, simply for being Jewish, the obvious conclusion may be drawn. 

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

Despite the disturbing resurgence of anti-Semitism even here, the United States remains one of the most philo-Semitic countries in the world, and Israel’s strongest ally for most of that young state’s existence. What accounts for this? Walter Russell Mead gives a long, complex, richly detailed historical answer to that question in his 2022 book The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People. “Israel,” he writes, “occupies a unique place in American foreign policy because it occupies a unique, and uniquely charged, place in the American mind. . . . [T]he idea that the Jews would return to the lands of the Bible and build a state touches on some of the most powerful themes and cherished hopes of American religion and culture.” 

Mead’s history looks back in time to the Reformation and the settling of the American colonies, and abroad to Theodor Herzl’s new form of Zionism in the late nineteenth century. Then he gathers the threads together in the twentieth century to explore the American role in the founding and consolidation of modern Israel, ultimately bringing us right up to the beginning of the Biden administration. At times, the central story recedes from view as Mead discusses domestic political and social developments in the United States that form the backdrop for the relationship between America and Israel; a more ruthless editor might have insisted on trimming much of that material. 

But that central story is very well told, especially in a set of central chapters of about a hundred pages concerning the birth of modern Israel and Harry Truman’s recognition of the new state. A recurring argument of Mead’s history is that very little if anything about American policy toward Israel can be explained by pointing to the machinations of an “Israel lobby” or to rich American Jews pulling the strings of American puppets in public office. Early in Israel’s history, it found stronger allies in France and Britain than in the United States; likewise American liberals were once stronger supporters of Israel than conservatives were. Evolving concatenations of American ideals, sentiments, and strategic interests have been the real drivers of our country’s policies in the Middle East. As divided as American elites may now be over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the roots of pro-Israel sentiment still seem pretty firmly planted in American mass opinion. 

That sentiment may be explained by the greater persistence of Christian faith in America than in the rest of the West—a matter of considerable irony given Christianity’s own complicity in the oppression of the Jewish people. Part of the story Mead tells concerns “Christian Zionism,” a subject considered in tighter focus by Samuel Goldman’s 2018 book God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America. From Increase Mather and John Cotton to Jonathan Edwards, from Elias Boudinot to William E. Blackstone (the American evangelist, not the earlier British legal commentator), from Reinhold Niebuhr to Billy Graham, God’s Country considers the role played by Israel—the people and the land—in American Christian thought. Here we find postmillennialists, premillennial dispensationalists, the question whether the Christian church has superseded Israel in a covenant with God, and much more. 

Yet one gets the uncomfortable feeling, from Goldman’s history as well as Mead’s, that for much of our history there was little friction in American life between anti-Semitism as a social prejudice and Zionism as an element of Christian theology. Dispensationalists and supersessionists could hold that the Jews had been abandoned to the vicissitudes of history by God for their rejection of Christ, but would be gathered into the Holy Land in the end times, to experience conversion and reconciliation before the last judgment. Thus the movement of Jews back to their ancient homeland could be greeted jubilantly by Christians, without any serious disturbance of their bigotry toward their own Jewish neighbors. Jews, in short, were the extras in a Christian movie about prophecies in the Book of Revelation—not A-list actors in their own drama. And we know how extras are treated on movie sets. 

This began to change, I think, with the Holocaust, the founding of modern Israel, and the Arab–Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, a series of tragedies and triumphs that struck a sympathetic chord in American Gentiles. And with increased Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land and better interfaith relations (including the promulgation of Nostra Aetate by the Second Vatican Council in 1965), a new perspective began to take shape. The late Father Richard John Neuhaus’s final book, American Babylon, included an important chapter, “Salvation Is from the Jews,” in which he wrote that “there is no plural for the people of God.” The covenant of the Lord with the Jewish people is unbroken and permanent; while honest Jewish–Christian dialogue cannot avoid the question of salvation, Neuhaus said, we Christians “live in the house of the one people of God only as we live with the Jews, and Jesus was—and eternally is—a Jew.” 

But if “salvation is from the Jews,” as Jesus says in the fourth chapter of John’s gospel, is it also for the Jews? In Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (2013), historian David Nirenberg considers that gospel, and the letters of Paul, to bear most naturally a supersessionist reading, in which the church is the new or true Israel, supplanting the place of the Jews in covenant with God. Indeed, “the Jew as enemy” is Nirenberg’s reading of pivotal passages of the New Testament. Sometimes he sees more ambivalence than this, however, writing that perhaps “the historical Paul” can be seen as “affirmative and conciliatory toward Judaism,” while Paul’s readers in years to come would take him as “critical and condemnatory.”  

The latter point is doubtless true. Hence it is significant that some Christian theologians today are reading scripture afresh, affirming the undying permanence of God’s covenant with the Jewish people and of their claim to the land he promised them. A leading figure in this movement is Gerald R. McDermott, whose 2017 book Israel Matters is a concise primer on this new reading of ancient sources. His subtitle captures his project: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land. Here, and in a volume of essays he edited, The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land (2016), McDermott begins with a disarming observation: that nowhere in the New Testament are the followers of Jesus who formed the early church described as the “new Israel” or the “true Israel.” The disciples of Christ were at first, of course, all Jews, already in the Lord’s covenant, and the evangelization of the Gentiles should be seen as inclusive of new peoples who themselves can speak also (as Romans 4 puts it) of “our father Abraham.” 

It is significant that some Christian theologians today are reading scripture afresh, affirming the undying permanence of God’s covenant with the Jewish people and of their claim to the land he promised them.


McDermott does not shy from taking on fathers of the faith who “steered the Church astray on Israel,” such as Justin Martyr, Ireneaus, and John Chrysostom—great figures all, but wrong on this matter, he stoutly contends. He rejects any form of supersessionism or premillennial dispensationalism, and he stresses that “we cannot know the unfolding of the end times with any precision.” Here’s what we can know, McDermott argues: that the land of Israel is the patrimony of the Jewish people; that their return to the land and the founding of their modern state are properly to be celebrated by Christians as well as Jews; that our fate and theirs are somehow bound together in God’s providence. 

Yet what of the Palestinian Arabs, chiefly Muslim, displaced by the wars Israel has fought since the state’s birth, residing for generations in the West Bank and Gaza? Are they not the victims of “settler colonialism,” whose cause and resistance are just? Here it must be said that, as intractable as the Israeli–Palestinian conflict seems now, the roots of the problem can be found in the behavior of Arab leaders in 1947–48, in both Palestine and neighboring states. This is amply shown in Efraim Karsh’s Palestine Betrayed (2010), a granular history of the period of Israel’s founding. Karsh writes: “Had these leaders [of the Palestinians], and their counterparts in the neighboring Arab states, accepted the [1947 UN partition] resolution, there would have been no war and no dislocation in the first place, for the simple reason that the Zionist movement was amenable both to the existence of a substantial non-Jewish minority in the prospective Jewish state on an equal footing, and to the two-state solution.” And it has served the interests of Israel’s regional enemies, and their enablers in the United Nations, to keep the Palestinians in “refugee” status for three-quarters of a century, and to foster hatred and terrorism directed at the “Zionist entity.” 

The plight of the Palestinians is indeed a tragic one. Peace with their stronger neighbor will not come easily to them. Only a cessation of terrorism, of attacks on civilians, and of demonization of the Jewish people will enable them to make any substantial progress. Sad to say, the first steps may have to be taken by the Western elites who have learned to make anti-Semitism fashionable again, and have a great deal of unlearning to do. 

Image by Ryan and licensed via Adobe Stock.