Reinhold Niebuhr, Serenity and the State of Israel

The poem, Serenity,  is attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr … the beginning of which is

G-d, give me grace to accept with serenity  the things that cannot be changed,

Courage to change the things which should be changed,

and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Niebuhr,  has also written about Israel

See here and an excerpt “The history of the new state of Israel is thrilling in many respects. It represents a remarkable co-operation of ‘‘capitalistic’’ Europeans and American Jews with the essentially socialistic Jews of Israel. For the prevailing political ideology of Israel was determined by the Polish Jewish socialists, turned Zionists, so completely typified by the robust Prime-Minister of today, Ben-Gurion. The collective farms or ‘‘kibbutzim’’ are, in fact, based upon rather doctrinaire socialist principles of the 19th Century, and are probably too consistently collectivist in their attitude toward family life to satisfy our robust individualism. A witty Jewish Oxford don, a friend of Chaim Weizmann, has given it as his opinion that Israel is served by the German Jews, who became honest and skillful ‘‘bureaucrats’’ and scientists, and by the Polish Jews who furnish the ideology and the political skill of the new state. Certainly the effective leadership of the state is divided between the German and the Polish Jews.

The co-operation between the religious Jews and the essentially secular idealists in the new state is equally worthy of note. Zionism is a political dream of religious origin, and before the Nazi period it was nourished only among those who were poor and orthodox, rather than among the ‘‘liberal’’ and assimilated and prosperous Jews. Hitler’s persecutions changed all this and made Zionism popular in the congregations of liberal Judaism. From a religious standpoint one might say that it became too popular because the liberal rabbis were as preoccupied with Hitler for two decades as they are now with Nasser, so that even a Christian, with sympathies for Zionism, such as the present writer, can appreciate the protests of the anti-Zionist ‘‘Council for Judaism,’’ which believes that political and nationalistic preoccupations of the rabbis imperil the religious substance of Judaism as a monotheistic faith.”

An article in the Jerusalem Post about him here is titled “When Liberal Protestants were Zionists” and includes the following:

Niebuhr, a professor of Christian ethics at Union Theological Seminary, founding member of the anti- Communist Americans for Democratic Action, and prolific writer, earned renown as a prophetic voice on American foreign policy. His major works, including Moral Man and Immoral Society, The Irony of American History, and The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, are still cited by contemporary theologians, writers and politicians. US President Barack Obama, for one, calls Niebuhr his “favorite philosopher.”

Given the way intellectual fashions have turned against the Jewish state, it is now very difficult to imagine a prominent liberal Christian theologian defending Zionism with anything like Niebuhr’s depth of passion. As Rice notes, Niebuhr supported Israel because he thought it provided a firm basis for Jewish identity, something he felt American Jews had lost while stewing in the melting pot. He lauded Zionism for recognizing that “each race or people has a right or duty to develop” and that “only through such differentiated development will its highest civilization be attained.”

To explain Niebuhr’s Zionist sympathies, we ought first to consider three major themes that he emphasized throughout his work. The first was that policymakers needed to acknowledge the concrete limits they faced in applying moral precepts to the practice of politics. Indeed, since politics involved decisions on behalf of and in reference to collectives, altruism was impossible in the political realm, especially in the international arena. Nations could not empathize with other nations, and thus could not be expected to act in accordance with their perspectives.

Since appeals to other nations’ senses of reason and morality would inevitably fail, nations could not forswear the use of force.

Second, and critically, Niebuhr warned against using force without first engaging in serious moral reflection. He thus eschewed the unthinking use of armed force no less than the moralism that ignored man’s tragic limitations. Finally, Niebuhr believed the United States was responsible for promoting democracy abroad. He thought, however, that the United States should encourage democracy where it had already taken root rather than introducing it into regions that were unprepared for it. It was for this reason that he vigorously criticized the Vietnam War but strongly advocated American aid to West Germany in the early days of the Cold War.

How does all of this relate to Niebuhr’s support for the State of Israel? As noted by Edinburgh University professor Carys Moseley in a 2009 article in Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations (4:4), titled “Reinhold Niebuhr’s Approach to the State of Israel,” Eyal Naveh, a professor of US history at Tel Aviv University, has suggested that Niebuhr admired Zionism not for its lofty “redemptive” vision but for its hard-headed answer to the problem of anti-Semitism. Niebuhr, like many early Zionist thinkers, thought that the Jews would be wise to discard utopian dreams and invest their energies in a properly defended state.

Further articles here and here  where it is stated ” Niebuhr was the archetypal American intellectual of the Cold War era. Starting as a leftist minister in the 1920s, he explored how the sin of pride created evil in the world. He attacked utopianianism as useless for dealing with reality, writing in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944):”Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”    His realism deepened after 1945 and led him to support US efforts to confront Soviet communism around the world. A powerful speaker and lucid author, he was the most influential minister of the 1940s and 1950s in public affairs.   Niebuhr’s perspective had a great impact on many liberals, who came to support a “realist” foreign policy….

Niebuhr did battle with the religious liberals over what he called their naïve views of sin and the optimism of the Social Gospel. He did battle with the religious conservatives over what he viewed as their naïve view of Scripture and their narrow definition of “true religion.” He was a leader of liberal intellectuals and supported many liberal causes, but his ideas were often too orthodox for secular liberals, while his view that the Bible could not be taken literally was too liberal for the Fundamentalists. Thus he was too secular for many of the religious and too religious for the secular, but just right for those who appreciated the irony of history.

Also see the relationship to Christian Zionism

and a video interview with him on a variety of topics , including anti-semitism here

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