The Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was an American public intellectual and one of the leading thinkers of the 20th century. He was a rare figure whose writings on religion and foreign policy—such as Moral Man and Immoral Society, and The Irony of American History—have stood the test of time and are still being read with great profit today. Amid his intellectual legacy is an astonishing defense of Jews, Zionism and the Jewish state—a defense he saw as stemming from his own worldview and sense of justice.
In the dark days of February 1942, when most Americans were focused on the war effort, Niebuhr called upon the Allied powers to commit to a “genuine homeland for Jews” under their own political sovereignty, as part and parcel of the war effort. Upon liberation, Niebuhr expounded that it would not be good enough for a resurrection of the status quo. While Jews should have a right to remain wherever they were, they also had a right to a homeland which would become a true spiritual home.
Niebuhr led by deed as well as by word. In addition to his writing, he founded the Christian Council on Palestine, an organization of pro-Zionist Christian clergy. His impassioned writing and advocacy prompted his friend and fellow Zionist, Felix Frankfurter, to reflect that he could not find anyone who “faces the Jewish problem more trenchantly and more candidly” than Niebuhr, the Protestant theologian.
While Niebuhr could occasionally quibble with various policies and actions of the Zionist movement or Israel, he never wavered from his belief in the rightness of the cause and the benefits of the Jewish state to the civilized world. In 1957, as the state approached its 10th birthday, Niebuhr wrote in The New Republic that the “birth and growth of the nation is a glorious spiritual and political achievement.” He asserted that the State of Israel was accomplishing something unique. Not only was it providing a political refuge for Jews, but it is also a spiritual home where the Jewish people can fully pursue their way of life and civilization.
Niebuhr’s work on behalf of Zionism and Israel helped mobilize Americans, both Christian and non-Christian, to the cause of the Jewish state. His spiritual leadership stood as a model for thoughtful engagement and a Jewish-Christian dialogue. His strong stance on Israel’s spiritual and political importance continues to inspire leaders and engaged citizens to this day.