Splitting the Evangelicals from Israel
By Ed Lasky
A new strategy seems to be emerging that seeks to weaken American support for Israel.
While there has been much attention given to challenges Israel faces on college campuses, in the media, and increasingly in the halls of Congress, the historically solid and vitally important support given by Evangelical Christians towards Israel is now being threatened. How is this happening and who are the actors?
Evangelicals support Israel for a variety of reasons, among them a belief that Israel is a fellow democracy with which we share a common Western culture and that we value as a friend. Israel has also been victimized by Islamic terrorism, as have we. Israel is also a strategic ally in the war against Islamic radicalism- a lone Western outpost in a faraway land that gave birth to two major religions: Judaism and Christianity-the foundation of Western civilization.
However, the core reason that Evangelicals have an affection for the Jewish people and a strong desire to protect Israel is found, unsurprisingly, in the Bible.
What may surprise people is that the foundation of this support has nothing to do with end-of-days scenarios or the desire to convert the Jews. Instead, there is a belief that God has a covenant with the Jewish people and with Israel. Christians have a religious mandate to support Israel. Throughout the Bible there is language that calls upon Christians to honor and cherish the Jewish people. A key section is found in the very first book of the Bible: Genesis. The promise of Genesis 12:3 is that
“he who blesses Israel will be blessed, and he who curses Israel will be cursed”.
To people who interpret Israel to mean the Jews – such as evangelical Christians – Genesis becomes an exhortation to both Zionism and philo-Semitism. (see this Q and A with author David Brog for a further explanation of the basis of Christian Zionism). There is also a feeling of sympathy for the Jews-given the tragic history of Christian anti-Semitism in Europe.
Efforts are now underway to erode this base of support. While it is unlikely that there is a concerted effort among the foes of Israel, they do seem to be operating from a common playbook. The tactics seem to rely on a few simple but potentially perilous ideas. One avenue of attack is to question the theology behind the Biblical mandate to “bless the Jews”. Another is to portray Israelis as oppressing Christians in an attempt to evoke imagery from the Bible regarding the trials and tribulations of Jesus. In so doing, they are attempting to weaken the sympathy that is one of the hallmarks of Christian Zionism.
The theological argument that a bond no longer exists between God and the Jews (and by extension Israel) is known as “replacement” theology. The Jerusalem-based Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, an anti-Israel Palestinian Christian group, has been among those groups most actively promoting this spurious doctrine. Adherents believe that Jews fell from divine favor when they refused to accept Christ and that God chose the Church (Christians) to replace them. Therefore Christians have no religious obligation to support the Jewish people. Sabeel has at times gone beyond this doctrine and has gone to the next “step” and cast Israel as the new “Rome” whose government is a “crucifixion system.” The head of Sabeel has called Israelis “Herods” and has linked their behavior to the acts of the Romans that killed Jesus. The Anglican Church in England seems sympathetic to this view. This might be expected since “replacement ” theology has taken hold in Europe while it has been rejected so far by most American churches.
However, there are disconcerting signs that this favorable state of affairs may be changing. The old “mainline” churches such as the Presbyterians have leaders who support the Palestinian narrative. As Hugh Hewitt has noted about his own Presbyterian Church, whose leadership has been very receptive to proposals to disinvest from companies doing business with Israel, the governing body seems to be heavily influenced by key leaders who are either Palestinian Christians or have close ties to Palestinians.
Sabeel periodically gives road shows to propagate this view. The group has had some success: at a recent conference in Chicago, attendees included representatives from a clutch of organizations: Churches for Middle East Peace, American Friends Service Committee (Quakers), the Lutheran Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Wheat Ridge Ministries. Their efforts have begun to transcend trying to spread their “gospel” beyond Church groups to lobbying Congress. An upcoming Sabeel conference will feature Congressman Dennis Kucinich, a former Democrat candidate for President.
Jimmy Carter also wants a role in trying to divide Evangelicals. His recent book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, is replete with factual errors, misrepresentations, plagiarism, and outright fabrication. Perceptive critics have pointed out that Carter seems to have a barely hidden agenda in writing the book: to weaken Christian support for Israel.
What seems to have escaped these critics’ grasp (they may be less conversant with Christian theology than Carter – after all, didn’t Carter complain about his “Jewish” book critics) is that Carter is primarily speaking to a Christian audience. His narrative may resonate with them in a way that reviewers may not appreciate. For, in attacking Israel the way he chose to do, he is promoting a view that there is no longer a covenant between Jews and God that Christians are bound to honor. His book, in short, is a brief in support of “replacement theology”.
How can this be so? In Carter’s view, Israel has become a secular nation. No longer being a nation of the Jews, carrying Carterisian (ill) logic to its conclusion, it has broken its covenant with God. Therefore, it can no longer be offered either the support or the blessings of Christians.
Rick Richman found Carter using this ploy several times in his relatively small book.
In Carter’s eyes, Israel fails a “religious test”: it is no longer a nation of Jews..
In his book, Carter describes visits to several kibbutzim and found that on the Sabbath only two worshippers appeared at the synagogue. When he asked if this was typical, the “guide gave a wry smile and shrugged his shoulders as if it was not important either way”. When Carter participated in a graduation ceremony at an Israel Defense Forces training camp, Carter presented a Hebrew bible to each graduate, “which was one of the few indications of a religious commitment that I observed during our visit”. At the end of his visit, he meets with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. He told her that he had taught lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures and that a common historical pattern was that Israel was punished whenever the leaders turned away from devout worship of God. I asked if she was concerned about the secular nature of her Labor government”. Not only does Carter seem to castigate Israel for losing its religious bearings but also he seems to call upon the wrath of God to punish her for her transgressions.
Another perceptive reviewer was of the opinion that Carter wasn’t writing for Arabs or Jews, but that
“…he was aiming at American Christians, particularly the evangelicals who are among Israel’s most ardent supporters.”
Michael Jacobs, writing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution echoes Richman is noting that Carter harped upon Israel’s secular nature. Michael Jacobs notes that Carter seems to take the same tack as the Sabeel in trying to depict Israelis as oppressors of Christians. He writes that Carter
“repeatedly refers to Israeli oppression of Christians, destruction of Christian holy sites and the imprisonment of Bethlehem.”
Jeffrey Goldberg reviewed Carter’s book for the Washington Post and wrote,
“A specific agenda appears to be at work here. Carter seems to mean for the book to convince American evangelicals to reconsider their support for Israel. Evangelical Christians have become bedrock supporters of Israel lately, and Carter marshals many arguments, most of them specious, to scare them out of their position”. He notes the aforementioned Golda Meir story and states that is was meant to show that Israel is not the God-fearing nation that religious Christians believe it to be. And then there are the accusations, unsupported by actual evidence, that Israel persecutes Christians.” Carter, for example, had written that ‘it was especially interesting to visit with some of the few surviving Samaritans, who complained to us that their holy sites and culture were not being respected by Israeli authorities-the same complaint heard by Jesus and his disciples almost two thousand years ago”. Goldberg notes the absurdity of this remark-“there are no references to Israeli authorities in the Christian Bible. Only a man who sees Israel as a lineal descendant of the Pharisees could write such a sentence.” That phrase alone should be a tip-off that something murky is at work in Carter: he is attempting to demonize Israelis by evoking the painful experience of Jesus 2000 years ago. He again tries to drill this “point” in to his readers when he writes that the security fence (that has saved so many Israeli lives) itself is a crime against Christianity because it “ravages many places along its devious route that are important to Christians”.
What may be most disconcerting with this type of language is that it conjures up anti-Semitic images and cartoons that are now popular in certain European media outlets and are widespread in the Arab world. Carter rails against Israel by tying its purported mistreatment of Christians (his allegations will be disproved below) to the harrowing experience of Jesus Christ two thousand years ago. This is a hoary anti-Semitic trope. How similar is Carter’s verbal treatment to the visual treatment meted out to Israel by, for example, by the Italian newspaper La Stampa a few years ago. There a front-page cartoon ran that is now widely considered anti-Semitic. This cartoon showed a tank emblazoned with a Star of David pointing its gun at the baby Jesus, who tells the attackers, “Surely they don’t want to kill me again”.
Other harsh anti-Israel critics have followed this line of attack in a somewhat less theological way. For example, Professors Walt and Mearsheimer wrote a “working paper” on the so-called “Israel Lobby” that, similar to Carter’s book, was roundly criticized as being riddled with errors and bias. However, it has enjoyed a great deal of publicity and will soon be followed by a book on the same topic by the authors.
One of the lines of arguments that try to get readers to swallow is that Israel is not deserving of the sympathy that has been a hallmark of Christian support for Israel because of supposed mistreatment of Palestinians (both Christian and Muslim).
Similarly, the well-known anti-Israel columnist Robert Novak has a penchant shared with Carter for demonizing Israel for its supposed maltreatment of Christians. He has written numerous columns claiming that Israel’s security fence has prevented Christians from exercising religious freedom and has caused an exodus from the Holy Land (refuted here). The Council for National Interest (CNI) is a harshly anti-Israel group that lobbies on Capitol Hill and elsewhere against Israel. CNI publishes full-page ads in major American newspapers that are marked by anti-Semitic imagery. These ads have specifically attempted to erode Christian sympathy and support for Israel. On Christmas Eve this group ran an ad headlined “Is Bethlehem Dying” that depicts three Magi riding atop camels blocked from arriving into Bethlehem by a concrete barrier. In the foreground a bird tells the wise men, “It’s gonna be a little harder this time around”. This was far from the only attempt to use the Christmas Story to defame Israel. All of these criticisms of Israel are expressly designed to erode Christian support for Israel. They are also lies.
Christians are fleeing the Holy Land. Palestinian Christians have a higher rate of emigration than Palestinian Muslims and the Palestinian population has plunged from 20% after World War II to less than 1.7% now. Research demonstrates that the precipitous decline of the Christian population is primarily a result of social, economic and religious discrimination within Palestinian society in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This should not be surprising. Under the Palestinian Authority Constitution, Islamic law is given primacy over all other sources of law. The Hamas Charter is even harsher when it comes to respecting the Christian religion.
As one researcher states:
From Christian Arabs under the thumb of the PA, I have heard testimony of forced marriages of Christian women to Muslim men, death threats against Christians for distributing the Bible to willing Muslims, and Christian women intimidated into wearing traditional ultra-modest Islamic clothing. Churches have been firebombed (most recently in Nablus, Tubas, and Gaza when the Pope made his controversial remarks) and/or shot up repeatedly. And this is the tip of the iceberg.
Under the Palestinian Authority, whose constitution gives Islamic law primacy over all other sources of law, Christian Arabs have found their land expropriated by Muslim thieves and thugs with ties to the PA’s land registration office. Christians have been forced to pay bribes to win the freedom of family members jailed on trumped-up charges. And Arabs – Christians and Muslims alike – have been selling or abandoning homes and businesses to escape the chaos of the PA and move to Israel, Europe, South America, North America, or wherever they can get a visa.
See also the book, Human Rights of Christians in Palestinian Society.
Tony Pearce, pastor of the Bridge Christian Fellowship, in contrast notes,
“that the Christian Arab population within the pre-1967 borders of Israel has grown from 34,000 in 1948 to 130,000 in 2005. Ironically this is the only part of the Middle East where the Christian population is growing (Editor’s note: at the end of the 19th century, 13% of the population of the Middle East was Christian. Today it is 2% and headed down)… The main reason for the departure of Christians from PA administered territories is the religious persecution, murder and land grabs which stems from the increased Islamisation of the region. This is the result of the PA adopting Muslim religious law in the territories in contrast to Israel which safeguards the religious freedom on its citizens.”
Lest we forget, it was Muslim terrorists who defiled the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002. While fleeing Israeli Defense Forces, they forced their way into the Church and held clerics hostage. They knew Israel respected religious buildings more than they themselves did, and they were right. Israel eventually agreed to let these terrorists leave the Church and travel to Europe in order to avoid harm to the Church. Regardless of the deal reached with Israelis and church officials, the Church itself had been ransacked and damaged by the terrorists. This history was of course expunged from the Council of National Interest ad that attacked Israel for conditions inside Bethlehem. Oh… and the mayor whose criticism towards Israel was quoted in the ad? CNI neglected to mention that he was elected with the support of Hamas, a terror group that is now the government in the West Bank and Gaza.
I wonder how the Bethlehem mayor would respond to this report by Khaled Abu Toameh, a brave Israeli Arab journalist that ran on January 25th of this year. In “Bethlehem Christians fear neighbors” Toameh describes Bethlehem Christians gripped by fear due to the persecution they are suffering as a minority under Muslim rule. They have finally decided to speak up:
The move comes as a result of increased attacks on Christians by Muslims over the past few months. The families said they wrote letters to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, the Vatican, Church leaders and European governments complaining about the attacks, but their appeals have fallen on deaf ears.
According to the families, many Christians have long been afraid to complain in public about the campaign of “intimidation” for fear of retaliation by their Muslim neighbors and being branded “collaborators” with Israel.
But following an increase in attacks on Christian-owned property in the city over the past few months, some Christians are no longer afraid to talk about the ultra-sensitive issue. And they are talking openly about leaving the city.
“The situation is very dangerous,” said Samir Qumsiyeh, owner of the Beit Sahur-based private Al-Mahd (Nativity) TV station. “I believe that 15 years from now there will be no Christians left in Bethlehem. Then you will need a torch to find a Christian here. This is a very sad situation.”
Qumsiyeh, one of the few Christians willing to speak about the harsh conditions of their community, has been the subject of numerous death threats. His house was recently attacked with firebombs, but no one was hurt.
Qumsiyeh said he has documented more than 160 incidents of attacks on Christians in the area in recent years.
He said a monk was recently roughed up for trying to prevent a group of Muslim men from seizing lands owned by Christians in Beit Sahur. Thieves have targeted the homes of many Christian families and a “land mafia” has succeeded in laying its hands on vast areas of land belonging to Christians, he added.
Fuad and Georgette Lama woke up one morning last September to discover that Muslims from a nearby village had fenced off their family’s six-dunam plot in the Karkafa suburb south of Bethlehem. “A lawyer and an official with the Palestinian Authority just came and took our land,” said 69-year-old Georgette Lama.
The couple was later approached by senior PA security officers who offered to help them kick out the intruders from the land. “We paid them $1,000 so they could help us regain our land,” she said, almost in tears. “Instead of giving us back our land, they simply decided to keep it for themselves. They even destroyed all the olive trees and divided the land into small plots, apparently so that they could offer each for sale.” When her 72-year-old husband, Fuad, went to the land to ask the intruders to leave, he was severely beaten and threatened with guns.
“My husband is after heart surgery and they still beat him,” Georgette Lama said. “These people have no heart. We’re afraid to go to our land because they will shoot at us. Ever since the beating, my husband is in a state of trauma and has difficulties talking.”
The Lamas have since knocked on the doors of scores of PA officials in Bethlehem seeking their intervention, but to no avail. At one stage, they sent a letter to Abbas, who promised to launch an investigation.
There have been many other examples of Muslims attacking Palestinian Christians. See the editorial “Christians attacked” involving an attack on a Christian village in the West Bank, setting buildings on fire and destroying a statue of the Virgin Mary; “Christians threatened,” where Christians in the Gaza Strip had buildings bombed and warned them to close up missionary buildings or face destruction. An interview with Justus Weiner, “Persecuting the holy Land Christians” gives an even fuller picture of the oppression of Christians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, giving lie to the claims that Israel harms Christians.
Even within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, Muslims have been attacking Christians so there can be no claim that Israel’s security fence is the cause of the conflict. In Nazareth, the home of Jesus and the site of many Christian shrines, Muslims have held large militant marches through the main street, shouting, “Islam will dominate the world” and exclaiming, “Allah is great”. Christians report attacks against Christian shops and told stories of violence against women and men perpetrated by Muslim residents. The city that should be a place of celebration and be filled with the spirit of conciliation and peace has become a city of dread.
This pattern of oppression of Christians at the hands of Muslims is part of a widespread Middle Eastern phenomenon and has a long history which people such as Jimmy Carter and Robert Novak ignore. Conversely, Christians have found Israel to be a very comforting and congenial place to live. As former Congressman Jack Kemp wrote in response to a Robert Novak column attempting to criticize Israel for the purported effects of the security fence on Christians,
Contrary to the thrust of the Novak column, Israel’s Christian population has in fact prospered and quadrupled in size over the last half century, in sharp contrast to the dwindling Christian communities in other countries in the Middle East. The continued dwindling of Christian communities in the Palestinian areas can be directly traced to the constant harassment to which they have been subjected by Islamic extremists. As a Christian, I am extremely troubled, as every American should be, by the implications of the Hamas victory in the recent Palestinian elections for the continued thriving of the Christian heritage in the Holy Land.
In contrast, never in history have residents in Jerusalem enjoyed more freedom of access to the holy places as under Israel’s sovereignty. Israel’s founding ethos, anchored in its declaration of independence, guarantees freedom of religion and conscience while safeguarding the holy places of all religions. Such is the case with every church, monastery and holy site in the country, many of which have been rebuilt and refurbished in recent years by the state of Israel.
In planning the route of the barrier, particularly in the vicinity of Jerusalem, where population density, religious and international interests intersect, Israel has demonstrated particular sensitivity to Christian concerns. The route was determined and in several cases altered, after a comprehensive dialogue with representatives of the various Church denominations. The ongoing consultations and effort to accommodate denominational interests put the lie to the notion that Israel supposedly seeks to “destroy” or “shatter” these communities.
Nevertheless, this type of research was of little interest to Jimmy Carter, Sabeel supporters, or their allies in trying to turn Christians against Israel. Nor have they been satisfied with mere written and verbal attacks. A new front has been opened in the battle for the hearts and minds of evangelical Christians with the goal of supplanting the leaders of the evangelical community who have been strongly pro-Israel with leaders and groups who are noticeably less supportive of Israel.
For example, Jim Wallis seems to have enjoyed a blaze of publicity lately as an Evangelical leader that Democrats in particular have tried to enlist as a supporter. Wallis is clearly on the left-wing of the evangelical movement. He also has a clearly anti-Israel history. He blames America’s allegedly unjust support for Israel for our problems with the Arab world. He castigates Israel for an “unjust” level of violence in Lebanon and wrote,
“It’s time to challenge the theology of Christian Zionism advanced by many of the American Religious Right, who are completely uncritical of Israel’s behavior and totally oblivious to the sufferings (or even the existence) of Arab Christians in the Middle East.”
He writes in an article highly critical of Israel’s activity in Lebanon (titled “The Body of Christ in Lebanon” – it is clearly intended to evoke the sufferings of Christ) of Arab Christians who are
“certainly not supportive of the highly disproportionate military response of Israel which now target their own families and fellow Arab Christians.”
Israel “targets” Christians? Not true. Israel takes great pains to avoid harming civilians. Wallis’s silence regarding Hezbollah-Muslim-oppression of these Lebanese Christians is deafening. His magazine, Sojourners, has been a forum for anti-Israel voices: one article was entitled, “Inside Israeli Apartheid”.
However, the sudden prominence of Wallis is just one indication that forces are at work to shift the allegiance of Evangelicals. Recently, Jimmy Carter (along with Bill Clinton) has announced a new effort to bring together moderate Baptists in a “robust coalition” that would serve as a counterweight to the conservative Southern Baptist Convention (the SBC). This is Carter’s brainchild and had its springboard launch at the Carter Center in Atlanta. (The Carter Center is heavily-funded by Arab Muslims: will Arab oil wealth be used to influence evangelicals against Israel?) The invited churches have a combined membership of more than 20 million, outnumbering the Southern Baptist Convention. Clearly, Carter has an agenda in forming such a coalition. Dr. Richard Land, head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, probably spotted the goal. In noting that there would be areas of disagreement with the group being assembled by Carter and the Southern Baptist Convention, he highlighted one in particular when he stated in a Washington Post article,
“…one of the areas where there would be significant disagreement would be our view towards Israel, as highlighted by President Carter’s new book”. That certainly is a prophetic comment.
Is it a coincidence, given the deliberately provocative use of the word “Apartheid” in the title of his book, that many of the church groups behind his coalition are historically black churches (among the fastest-growing evangelical populations in America and the world)? Did Carter hope by charging Israel with “apartheid” to turn African-Americans against Israel? Will he attempt to lobby against Israel among the evangelicals in his new coalition? Why not? He has everywhere else.
Clearly, Israel enjoys strong support within the evangelical movement. Groups such as the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (founded by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein) have pioneered the way in fostering close ties between the Jewish community, Israel and the evangelicals. Former Presidential candidate Gary Bauer has also been a leader in trying to mobilize evangelicals to support Israel. More recently, Pastor John Hagee, who has been in the forefront among evangelicals in supporting Israel, formed Christians United for Israel to serve as a lobbying group for Israel and has already achieved great success. The superb recent book by Michael Oren, Power, Faith and Fantasy; America in the Middle east 1776 to the Present, illuminates the fact that affection for the Jewish people has a long history in America: it is part of the DNA of America’s religious and civic culture, and predates the rise of evangelicals as a powerful voice within America.
However, history has taught the Jewish people that complacency is perilous. The belief that there is a covenant between God and the Jews that must be honored by Christians has only recently (when considering the grand scope of Christian history) enjoyed the prominence that it so does now. Efforts to convince Christians that this covenant has been broken will erode Christian support for Jews and for Israel, as will spurious accusations that Israel harms Christians in the Middle East.
What can we do to help ensure that the evangelical and Jewish communities remain friends during this time of worldwide anti-Semitism and existential threats to Israel?
Friendships need to be appreciated and nurtured. Yet there are still many Jews who are wary of this embrace by Christians. The reasons commonly given for this reluctance are: fear of Christian anti-Semitism, a misunderstanding regarding the motives for Christian support, and differing domestic agendas.
In fact, Christian anti-Semitism has been a primarily European phenomenon. Evangelical Christians are probably the most philo-Semitic group in the world today. Evangelicals do not support Israel for end-of-days or for conversionary motives (the aforementioned David Brog book would enlighten many people on this issue).
Lastly the differing domestic agendas should not unduly bother American Jews. We are both heirs to a grand Western Judeo-Christian heritage and share many common values. We are both groups under attack from the forces of Islamic extremism. In the words of Pastor Hagee,
“…what we have in common is far greater than the differences we have allowed to divide us.”
Evangelicals have not asked Jews to promote their policies; there is no quid pro quo (or political trading of favors) involved in their support for Israel which, for them, is a biblical mandate that predates the concept of democracy. Perhaps the best prescription to reduce anxiety might be to remember this phrase: be not afraid.
Zev Chafets (a Jewish American who made aliyah to Israel years ago) has written a new book on the relationship between American Evangelicals, Jews and Israel, A Match Made in Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists and One Man’s Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Evangelical Alliance, reviewed here (see also interviews with the author here and here). Chafets explores the ties between the communities. He also is mindful of their different domestic agendas.
His response? So what? In a time of turmoil when Israel faces peril as never before, the affection and support that evangelicals extend to Jews and to Israel should be cherished and appreciated for what it is: a gift from God.
Will Jimmy Carter and his allies rend asunder what God hath joined together? Only time will tell.
Ed Lasky is news editor of American Thinker.